Speransky, Mikhail

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SPERANSKY, MIKHAIL (1772–1839), Russian politician.

Mikhail Speransky was one of the most important Russian statesmen of the nineteenth century. Born on 12 January (1 January, old style) 1772 in Chertkutino, Vladimir Province, the son of a village priest, Speransky attended the Vladimir ecclesiastical seminary. In 1790 he was one of the first chosen to study at the new Alexander Nevsky Seminary in St. Petersburg. A brilliant student, he taught at the academy for a time after graduation until becoming secretary to Prince Alexei Kurakin in 1796, beginning a meteoric rise within the Russian bureaucracy. In 1798 he married Elizabeth Stephens, an English woman, with whom he had a daughter. After his wife's death in 1799, Speransky focused almost entirely on his work, leading an isolated life both socially and politically.

In 1801 Alexander I became emperor. Between 1801 and 1812, during the early—and generally considered to be liberal—years of Alexander's reign, Speransky's outstanding talents as a clear and compelling writer were increasingly in demand. In 1802 Speransky became the secretary of the minister of the interior, Prince Kochubei; in 1807 Alexander I made Speransky his personal assistant. In 1802 Speransky wrote his first important political work, "On the Fundamental Laws of the State," in which he argued that the powers of the monarchy needed to be limited by society, or, more specifically, by a self-aware and powerful nobility. In what is generally considered to be his most important reform program, the Plan of 1809, Speransky wrote that the spirit of the times called for a constitutional monarchy kept in check by public opinion. A legislative body, the State Duma, would assist in this process. These views made Speransky many high-placed enemies, and combined with his social isolation and somewhat difficult personality led to his exile in March 1812.

In exile first in Nizhny Novgorod, then in the more remote town of Perm, Speransky worked for his rehabilitation. His appointment as governor of Penza Province in 1816 began his second career. Reorganizing the Penza bureaucracy prepared Speransky for the task of reforming the Siberian administration, which he undertook after being appointed governor-general of Siberia in 1819. Speransky's Siberian reforms, enacted in 1822, integrated the region into the Russian Empire and rationalized the administration. In 1821 he was allowed to return to St. Petersburg, where he oversaw the Siberian reforms and made plans for reorganizing local administration that, while not enacted, influenced later projects.

After Alexander I's death, in December 1825, a group of high-ranking officers staged a revolt against the new emperor, Nicholas I. During the inquiry following the failure of the coup, several of the "Decembrist" officers stated that Speransky had influenced them. Speransky was one of the participants in and organizers of the trial against the Decembrists, and called for harsh penalties.

After this show of loyalty to Nicholas, Speransky headed the effort to codify Russian laws. During his exile, Speransky had been influenced by the historical school of law. This school originated in Germany and argued that each nation developed according to its own essence, which was embodied in historical legal institutions and practices. The historical approach provided a foundation for Speransky's codification of Russian law, based on organizing and publishing the laws and edicts issued since the prior codification of 1649. Forty-five volumes of the Complete Collection of the Laws of the Russian Empire were issued in 1830; the fifteen-volume Digest of the Laws, which contained laws currently in effect, was published between 1832 and 1839. While the Complete Collection of Laws gave the texts of nearly all laws and edicts issued between 1649 and 1825, the Digest organized laws currently in effect by topic. Speransky incorporated a significant number of the concepts he put forth in the Plan of 1809 into the Digest. The codification was one of the main accomplishments of Nicholas's reign. After the codification was complete, Speransky traveled abroad, acted as a member of the State Council, and lectured to the tsarevitch, the future Alexander II, on law. He was made a count of the Russian Empire in January 1839 and died in St. Petersburg on 23 February (11 February, old style) 1839.

See alsoAlexander I; Law, Theories of; Nicholas I; Siberia.


Raeff, Marc. Michael Speransky: Statesman of Imperial Russia. 2nd ed. The Hague, Netherlands, 1969.

Whisenhunt, William Benton. In Search of Legality: Mikhail M. Speranskii and the Codification of Russian Law. Boulder, Colo., 2001.

Wortman, Richard S. The Development of a Russian Legal Consciousness. Chicago, 1976.

Susan Smith-Peter