Speransky, Mikhail Mikhailovich

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(17721839), Russian statesman, one-time adviser to Tsar Alexander I.

Mikhail Speransky attempted during the years 18071811 to influence the Russian monarch in the direction of instituting major political reform in Russia's government. Only a few of his carefully drafted plans ever saw the light of day.

Born into a family of a poor Russian Orthodox clergyman, Speransky, called by one Russian historian a "self-made man," won the attention of the tsar and rose to become a count. He was considered brilliant and well-read in the study of European governmental structures, becoming in effect Alexander's unofficial prime minister. Working in secret (on the tsar's orders), he drew up a number of reforms. His idea, which the tsar evidently did not wholly endorse, was to retain a strong monarchy but reform it so that it would be based strictly on law and legal procedures of the type found in some European monarchies of the time.

Speransky's reform plans did not closely resemble, say, the English or French governmental systems. Yet while Speransky could probably not be considered a liberal reformer on West European terms, by Russian standards his reformism bordered on the radical. This made Speransky extremely unpopular with the tsar's court, causing the tsar to keep such plans under wraps lest they unduly alienate his court.

In 1809 and 1812, Speransky drew up the draft of a Russian constitution that bore some resemblance to those of West European monarchies. In one of his projects Speransky even proposed separation of the powers of legislature (in the Duma), judiciary, and the governmental administration. Yet all three were to branch out from the crown. Suffrage would be based on property, at least in the beginning. Election of the Duma would be indirect and necessitate a cautious, four-stage electoral process. Speransky also supported a program for future abolition of serfdom in Russia, reform that he viewed as crucial for any serious top-to-bottom governmental change.

Historians note that certain measures enacted in 18101811 brought "fundamental change to the executive departments of government." Personal responsibility, it is noted, was to be imposed on ministers, while the functions of executive departments were precisely delimited. Unwarranted interference with legislative and judicial functions would be eliminated. Comprehensive rules were actually enacted for the administration of the ministries.

Although Speransky's efforts to reform the antiquated Russian court system failed, his administrative reforms overall modernized the whole bureaucratic machine. These structures remained in effect until the Bolshevik coup d'état, or October Revolution, of late 1917.

After serving as the tsar's close adviser for some five years, Speransky left St. Petersburg as the appointed Governor-General of the Siberian region. In that post he continued to author reform plans. Some of these were adopted and changed the governmental structure of that large administrative area. But it was in the period of his service as the tsar's adviser that Speransky made his name in the annals of Russian history, especially as recounted by the famous early nineteenth-century Russian historian, Nikolai M. Karamzin.

In 1821 Speransky returned to the Russian capital to become a founder of the Siberian Committee for Russian Affairs Beyond the Urals.

See also: alexander i; westernizers


Raeff, Marc. (1956). Siberia and the Reform of 1822. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Raeff, Marc. (1957). Michael Speransky, Statesman of Imperial Russia, 17721839. The Hague: M. Nijhoff.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. (1963). A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press.

Albert L. Weeks