Michael Speransky, Statesman of Imperial Russia, 1772-1839: Statesman of Imperial Russia, 1772-1839


"An autocracy tempered by assassination", clever foreigners used to say about the Russian empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. With this bon mot the average curiosity about the Tsars' government was satisfied and there seemed to be no need to look further into the matter. There was, on the surface of things, some justification for such a definition: many rulers had suffered violent death and little did the autocracy abate between 1725 and 1905. The impression created by travelers, by historians and journalists, as well as by Russia's own discontented intelligentsia was that nothing really ever changed in Russia, that the autocracy was the same in 1905 as it had been at the death of Peter the Great in 1725. Not that the outside world had remained ignorant of the efforts at reform, the changes, and the modernization wrought in Russia since the day Peter I had "cut a window into Europe." But the prevailing opinion was that such changes as occurred were merely external and did not affect the fundamental structure of the government or of society.

Yet, inspite of its apparent immobility, Russia did change: literature and social thought developed and burst forth in an extraordinary flowering by the middle of the 19th century; society underwent a radical transformation following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861; economic developments in the late 19th century put Russia on the way of becoming an important industrial power; new administrative and judiciary institutions were gradually transforming the pattern of local life. Did none of these transformations bring some changes to the structure of the imperial government itself? And, in the absence of an overt revolution, were these changes themselves not the result of the actions of an allegedly static and inflexible autocracy? An answer to these questions is not readily available because, absorbed by the dramatic story of revolutionary and intellectual movements, historians have failed to study closely the institutional and political developments which took place in the administration in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Peter the Great had provided the Russian administration with a . . .

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • Westport, CT
Publication year:
  • 1957


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