Alexander I and His Plans for Reform
(from Robinson and Beard)

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Alexander I and His Plans for Reform

Source: Readings in Modern European History, edited by James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1909), vol. 2, pp. 338-42, citing Memoirs of Prince Adam Czartoryski (London, 1888), vol. 1, p. 124, 291-306.

Prince Adam Czartoryski (1770-1861) was one of the close friends of Alexander I in the first half of the reign, being an important part of the tsar's "Unofficial Committee."

As soon as I came in the Grand Duke Alexander took me by the hand and proposed that we should go into the garden. We walked about in every direction for three hours, keeping up an animated conversation all the time. He declared that he did not in any way share the ideas and doctrines of the cabinet and the court; and that he was far from approving the policy and conduct of his grandmother, whose principles he condemned. He had wished for the success of Poland in her glorious struggle and had deplored her fall. Kosciuszko, he said, was, in his eyes, a man who was great by his virtues as well as owing to the cause which he had defended, ‑ the cause of humanity and of justice. He added that he detested despotism everywhere, no matter in what way it was exercised ; that he loved liberty, to which all men had a right; that he had taken the strongest interest in the French Revolution, and that while condemning its terrible excesses, he wished the French Republic success and rejoiced at its establishment.

I was deeply moved, and could hardly believe my ears. That a Russian prince, Catherine II's successor, her grandson and her favorite child, whom she would have wished to see reigning after her instead of her son, and of whom it was said that he would continue her reign, should disavow and detest his grandmother's principles, should repel the odious policy of Russia, should be a passionate lover of justice and liberty, should pity Poland and wish to see her happy, ‑ all this seemed incredible. And that such noble ideas and great virtues should be able to grow and flourish in such an atmosphere and with such surroundings was surely little less than a miracle.

It should be remembered that at that time so‑called liberal opinions were much less prevalent than they are now, and had not yet penetrated into all the classes of society or even into the cabinets of sovereigns. On the contrary, everything that had the appearance of liberalism was anathematized in the courts and salons of most of the European capitals, and especially in Russia and at St. Petersburg, where all the convictions of the old French regime were grafted in an exaggerated form on Russian despotism and servility.

Alexander's opinions were indeed those of one brought up in the ideas of 1789, who wishes to see republics everywhere, and looks upon that form of government as the only one in conformity with the wishes and the rights of humanity. He held, among other things, that hereditary monarchy was an unjust and absurd institution, and that the supreme authority should be granted not through the accident of birth but by the votes of the nation, which would best know who is most capable of governing it. I represented to him the arguments against this view, the difficulty and the risks of an election, what Poland had suffered from such an institution, and how little Russia was adapted to or prepared for it. I added that now, at any rate, Russia would not gain anything by the change, as she would lose the man who, by his benevolent and pure intentions, was most worthy of succeeding to the throne.

During the year 1796 an event occurred which had vast consequences for Europe and terrible ones for Poland. The Grand Duchess Maria gave birth to a son. The baptismal ceremony took place in the chapel of Tsarskoe‑Selo ; the whole court attended in full dress in the spacious hall which leads to the chapel. The ceremony, as was to be expected, was a most sumptuous one. The ambassadors were present, and some of them held the child at the baptismal font as the representatives of their respective sovereigns. He was named Nicholas ! Looking at him then in his swaddling clothes as he moved about impatiently while the long baptismal ceremony of the Russian Church was being performed, I little thought that this weak and pretty child would one day become the scourge of my country....

As years went on, Emperor Alexander's vague and floating ideas were consolidated into a practical shape. All the eccentric views which were mere fireworks were abandoned, and he had to restrict his wishes to the realities and possibilities of the moment. He consoled himself by indulging in his hours of leisure, which were daily becoming more rare, in hopes of progress, which permitted him to retain some, at least, of the dreams of his youth. These seemed to me like a tree transplanted into a dry and arid soil and deprived of its exuberant vegetation, whose despoiled trunk puts forth a few weak branches and then perishes.

The emperor's first step was to issue an ukase or manifesto to restore the authority and dignity of the Senate. Although every order of the emperor, whether written or spoken, had the force of law, such orders had all to be addressed to the Senate, which was intrusted with the task of publishing them and seeing to their due execution. It was at the same time laid down that all the ministers should make detailed reports of their acts, which the emperor would send to the Senate for its opinion. This, it was hoped, would be a first step in the direction of national and representative government.

After laying the first stone of the edifice of a regulated legislative power, and devising a limit to the autocratic power, the emperor turned his attention to the organization of his government, so as to make its action more enlightened, more just, and more methodical. The government machine was irregular and intermittent in its action, and the administration was a chaos in which nothing was regulated or clearly defined.

The object of the reform was to establish a system somewhat similar to those adopted in most other European States, by separating the governmental departments, defining their limits, assigning to each all the business of a particular kind, centralizing their management, and thereby augmenting the responsibility of the principal functionaries of State. It was hoped, among other things, that this would be an efficacious means of checking the numberless abuses and frauds which are the curse of Russia. The emperor accordingly created for the first time ministries of the Interior and of Police, of Finance, of Justice, of Public Instruction, of Commerce, of Foreign Affairs, of War, and of the Navy.

These changes, which anywhere else would seem the very A B C of politics, seemed at that time to the Russians novel and immense. The manifesto made much noise in the whole empire, and especially in the salons of St. Petersburg and Moscow; each man had his own opinion of it, and the majority judged it not by its intrinsic merits or the benefits it might confer on the State, but by the effect it would be likely to have on his own particular advancement. Those who obtained places approved it, while those who were left out in the cold criticised the juvenile infatuation that wished to change the old and venerable institutions under which Russia had become great. The personages high in office who had not been consulted, vented their disappointment by smiling with pity at the young men who were trying to reform the empire, and at the foolishness of some older men who consented to be the instruments of a servile and awkward imitation of foreign institutions.

Alexander also reconstituted the commission for the revision of the law. This had been formed by the Empress Catherine, who thereby gained the flattering appreciation of Voltaire and the Diderots ; but the only result was the publication of the philanthropic and philosophical instructions addressed by Catherine to the commission. It was dissolved soon after, and its proceedings were never made public. The new commission was organized with the assistance of a German jurist, Baron Rosenkampf, on a vast and well‑conceived plan. It was directed to codify all the existing Russian laws, which were very numerous and often contradicted each other, classifying them according to subjects, omitting such as were obsolete and adding new ones when necessary, but taking care to retain in the new codes all that had for many years entered into the life of the Russian people.

The creation of a Ministry of Public Instruction was a remarkable innovation in Russia which was fruitful of great and salutary results, and posterity will owe gratitude both to Alexander and to the young men, then so much criticised, who supported him in his plans. Nothing could be more wretched or insufficient than public instruction in Russia up to the reign of Alexander. There was an academy of sciences at St. Petersburg, which owed its only celebrity to the presence of some learned men whom the government had brought to the Russian capital from abroad. The transactions of this academy were for the most part written in the French and German languages; it had no relations whatever with the country, and exercised no influence on its progress. At Moscow there was a university which was equally isolated. The only other educational establishments in Russia proper were the so‑called "national schools." The teaching in these was bad and extremely meager; the teachers were poor wretches whom idleness and ennui had rendered drunkards, and no respectable person sent his children to them.

The establishment of the Ministry of Public Instruction completely changed all this. The existing universities of Moscow, Wilna, and Dorpat were better endowed, and three new ones were created--those of St. Petersburg, Kharkoff, and Kazan--each forming an educational center for a definite region in which it directed all educational matters.