Novosiltsev, Nikolai Nikolayevich

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(17611836), friend and adviser to Emperor Alexander I.

Nikolai Nikolayevich Novosiltsev was the illegitimate son of a woman whose brother, Alexander Sergeyevich Stroganov, was an important government official. Stroganov took the boy in and raised him in a household known for its hospitality and refinement, although, according to a contemporary, he was "brought up by his generous uncle like a poor relation" (Saunders, p. 5).

Novosiltsev served in the army from 1783 to 1795, and during this time apparently made the acquaintance of the future emperor Alexander I. In 1796, when Alexander's father, Paul I, ascended to the throne, Alexander asked Novosiltsev to draw up a "programmatic introduction" to the constitutional reforms Alexander was then considering. The document has been lost, but it appears to have focused on the education of those who would someday represent the empire's vast population. In 1798 Novosiltsev helped Alexander found the St. Petersburg Journal and became a frequent contributor. Paul, meanwhile, was becoming suspicious of Novosiltsev's liberalism and his influence on Alexander, so in 1797 the young man left Russia for Britain. He spent four years there attending university lectures and meeting such notables as Jeremy Bentham.

In 1801, when Paul was murdered and Alexander became emperor, Novosiltsev returned to Russia, where he became a member of Alexander's Unofficial or Secret Committee, which regularly met with the emperor over the next two years to discuss plans for reform. Novosiltsev persuaded the committee to review the domestic situation and various departmental reforms and then draft a constitution. Within a matter of weeks Alexander began to voice doubts about the project. In an August 1801 memorandum to Alexander, Novosiltsev revealed the limits to his proposed reform program, stating that the Senate, an appointed body established by Peter the Great to govern the empire while the tsar was away, would be unable to implement and manage reform. Only the ruler could bring about the "Natural Rights, the Lawful Freedom and the security of each member of society." In a similar vein Novosiltsev urged Alexander to reject a proposal to introduce the right of habeas corpus, arguing that since a future situation may require it to be suspended, it would be best to not enact it at all.

In 1801 Novosiltsev was appointed chairman of a new commission on laws, and from 1802 to 1808, as assistant to the minister of justice, he helped draw up the Statute on Free Cultivators, a singularly ineffective effort to emancipate some of the serfs. From 1803 to 1810 he was president of the Imperial Academy of Sciences. In 1804 he undertook a diplomatic mission to Britain to obtain an alliance against Napoleon. The British were offended by his vanity and arrogance and viewed with bewilderment or hostility his proposals dealing with the Ottoman Empire and a German Confederation. The talks failed to produce a treaty until Napoleon's annexation of Genoa in 1805 forced Russia and Britain into an alliance.

After the defeat of Napoleon, Novosiltsev served as Russia's imperial-royal commissioner for Poland, which was then a constitutional monarchy under Alexander. In 1820, at the emperor's request, Novosiltsev prepared a constitutional charter for Russia. Its key feature was decentralization and a genuinely federal structure. The empire was to be divided into twelve "vice-regencies" with elected assemblies at the local and national levels. The document, which also emphasized personal and civil liberties, was never implemented, and its effect on Alexander, if any, is unclear. His successor, Nicholas I, found the charter "most objectionable" and ordered all copies destroyed.

Novosiltsev has been described as an aggressively ambitious but poorly educated man. He was covetous of a place in Russian society, but he felt excluded from it. He was without doubt a talented and intelligent person, but he was unable to bridle his arrogance and cynicism, especially as administrator of Poland and as a diplomat.

See also: alexander i; napoleon i; paul i; poland


Grimstead, Patricia Kennedy. (1969). The Foreign Ministers of Alexander I. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hartley, Janet M. (1994). Alexander I. New York: Longman.

Saunders, David. (1992). Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform, 18011881. London: Longman.

Hugh Phillips