The Beginnings

  • Marc Raeff


As so often happens with illustrious men who have risen from the lower classes, we know but little of the early years of the life of Michael Speransky. Even his contemporaries were unable to gather much information: the family records and papers perished in a fire in 1834, and Speransky himself was not very communicative. Whatever information we possess has been collected by Speransky’s first biographer, the industrious baron Modest A. Korf. To fill the gap in the written documentation, Korf endeavored to interview, personally or by means of written questionnaires, all those who had had any contacts with Speransky. But memories about a remote period — Korf was inquiring about events that had taken place fifty years earlier — are likely to be quite dim and strongly influenced by the knowledge of subsequent happenings. Unfortunately too, Baron Korf was not always sufficiently critical of his sources, and we must be careful in using the evidence he has assembled. We must, perforce, be content with a few details and a bare outline of Speransky’s formative years.


Student Body Fellow Student Theological Seminary Seminary Student Procurator General 
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  1. 1.
    For a long time the date of his birth was in doubt, and only the patient investigations of Baron Korf have definitely established it. Records were not kept too carefully in those times, even by the clergy, and Speransky himself was not too sure whether he has been born in 1771 or 1772.Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    See Letter of Prince A. Kurakin to Prince F. N. Golitsyn (August 1798), Russkii Arkhiv, 1863, p. 810 in which the former requests Golitsyn to assist in the admission of Koz’ma Speransky (brother of Michael) to the University of Moscow. In a letter to his brother-in-law, M. F. Tretiakov, dated 13 June 1827, Speransky wrote that although a university education was expensive, he was willing to pay for it in the case of his nephew(?) Petrusha, after the latter had graduated from the seminary, V Pamiat’ grafa M. M. Speranskogo (ed. by A. F. Bychkov), St. Pbg. 1872, p. 443 — this important collection of Speransky’s papers and correspondence will be referred to hereafter as Pamiati.Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    On the other hand — and probably as a reaction to the subordinate role of the official Church — the second half of the 18th century witnessed a remarkable revival of religious life and thought, both monastic and secular. See: G. Florovski, Puti russkogo bogosloviia; V. V. Zen’kovskii, Istorila russkoi filosofii, vol. I, (Parizh 1948), part I, ch. 2; G. P. Fedotov (ed.), A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, N. Y., 1948, chapters on St. Tychon and St. Seraphim (pp. 182-279).Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    Titlinov, Dukhovnye shkoly v XIX st., p. 14–15.Google Scholar
  5. 1.
    Speransky’s early interest in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake rather than for an ecclesiastical career appears clearly from a letter to A. Samborskii, dated 16 June 1788 from Vladimir, in Russkii Arkhiv, 1871, p. 1944. In the letter Speransky asks for Samborskii’s help to go to the University of Moscow to study mathematics and French.Google Scholar
  6. 1.
    Martynov, “Zapiski,” Pamiatniki Novoi Russkoi Istorii, II, 1872, p. 80.Google Scholar
  7. 1.
    Martynov, “Zapiski,” p. 86.Google Scholar
  8. 2.
    The following is a fellow student’s description of Speransky’s academic achievements at the Alexandro-Nevskii Seminary. We must make allowance for the excessive sentimentality as well as for the distorting effect of time, as these reminiscences go back 40 years; but the basic impression Speransky made on his fellow students is probably reported accurately: “Speransky surpassed all his comrades by his successes in pure mathematics, physics, and philosophy. He distinguished himself by the piety of his thoughts, words, and feeling. His heart even then, one may say, was fragrant with fresh, clean air. In 1792, as a student, Speransky delivered a sermon on the Last Judgment… with such enthusiasm, that the signs of conviction visibly spread on the faces of his listeners… Metropolitan Gabriel, who was present in the Church, asked the Rector to convince the young preacher to take monastic vows; and in this expectation, upon the completion of Speransky’sGoogle Scholar
  9. 1.
    A. Fateev, “M. M. Speranskii — vliianie sredy na sostavitelia Svoda Zakonov v I-i period ego zhizni,” Iuridicheskii Vestnik, X (1915), No. 11 p. 140.Google Scholar
  10. 2.
    Speransky’s classmate, Slovtsov reminisced many years later: “In 1794, I recall, I found Speransky reading Newton, in 1795 he was appointed instructor of philosophy and in addition to his teaching obligations, he engaged for two years in a critical study of philosophical systems, beginning with Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, etc. down to Condillac, very renowned at the time. Occasionally Mikhail Mikhailovich would read to me his critical observations.” Quoted in Kalashnikov, “Zapiski irkutskogo zhitelia,” loc. cit., p. 399. For further details on Speransky’s scientific interests and readings, see my article, “The Philosophical Views of Count M. M. Speransky,” Slavonic and East European Review, XXXI, No. 77 (June 1953), pp. 439-440.Google Scholar
  11. 1.
    The fact of Speransky’s scientific education also favorably impressed his later adviser and assistant on the Commission for Codification, professor L. H. Jacob who noted: “Dabei war Speranski einer von den wenigen Reussen, welche eine wissenschaftliche Bildung erhalten haben.” L. H. Jacob, Denkwürdigkeiten aus meinem Leben für meine Familie und für vertraute Freunde aus den Jahren 1802 bis 1820 (Manuscript copy, Library of Halle), p. 276. Hereafter, these memoirs will be referred to as Denkwürdigkeiten. I wish to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to professor D. I. Čiževsky for having called my attention to the existence of this manuscript in Germany. The Halle Library kindly provided me with a microfilm copy of the sections relating to Jacob’s stay in Russia.Google Scholar
  12. 2.
    See: “Fizika vybrannaia iz luchshikh avtorov, raspolozhennaia i dopolnennaia Nevskoi Seminarii filosofii i fiziki uchitelem M. M. Speranskim 1797-go g. v Sankt Peterburge,” in Chteniia, 1871, bk. 3, section 2, pp. 1-56 and 1872, bk. 1, section 2, pp. 57-248 passim (cf. in particular pp. 3, 76 ff, 83 ff, 168, 196, 209 ff). Martynov in his memoirs says that several of the seminary students used to attend lectures on biology and other natural sciences given at the Medical Institute of the capital. He does not say whether Speransky was among these auditors. “Zapiski” loc. cit., p. 79.Google Scholar
  13. 1.
    The thesis that Speransky’s administrative originality and creativity lay more in his style than in his thoughts has been developed at length, and, in this writer’s judgment, overstated by A. Nol’de in an unpublished biography of Speransky. A. Nol’de, Biografila Speranskogo (Manuscript, at present deposited at the Archive of Russian and East European History and Culture, Columbia University). I wish to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Emmanuel Nol’de of Paris who has kindly put the manuscript at my disposal. May I also express my gratitude to Professor M. Karpovich who called my attention to the existence of this biography.Google Scholar
  14. 2.
    In this connection, the following words of Professor Jacob bear quotation, as they show the favorable impression Speransky’s approach made — at the height of his career — on an intelligent foreign scholar: “Er fasste das, was man ihm sagte sehr leicht auf, und studierte sich schnell in des anderen Ideengang; er hörte sehr auf die Gründe anderer und gab seine Meinung auf, sobald sie gründlich widergelegt wurde. Er hatte seine Laufbahn als Lehrer begonnen und dabei gelernt seine Gedanken andern deutlich und ordentlich mitzuteilen … Alles was er schrieb war logisch gerundet, bestimmt und deutlich gefasst und mit einer ungemeinen Eleganz ausgedrückt. Es konnte nicht fehlen, dass ein Mann von solchen Talenten und in solchen Posten sehr bald dem Kaiser bekannt wurde.” Jacob, Denkwürdigkeiten, pp. 276-277.Google Scholar
  15. 1.
    N. S. Il’inskii, “Vospominaniia” Russkii Arkhiv, 1879, No. 12, p. 391.Google Scholar
  16. 1.
    A. Fateev, “Kistorii i teorii kodifikatsii,” p. 5 and Grech, Zapiski o moei zhizni, pp. 64-65.Google Scholar
  17. 1.
    The hypothesis has been expressed — but no decisive evidence found — that Speransky was the author of a poem, signed “3”, which was published in I. Martynov’s Muza 1796-1797. If this were true, it would indicate Speransky’s early and deep interest in belles-lettres as well as science, philosophy, religion, and politics. See on this: D. F. Kobeko, “Neskol’ko psevdonimov v russkoi literature XVIII v.,” Bibliograficheskie Zapiski, 1861, No. 4, p. 115 (cited by M. Korf, Zhizn’ grafa Speranskogo, I, p. 34, note). The poem in question, “I moe schastie” is reprinted by Kolbasin, “I. I. Martynov,” Sovremennik, March 1856, p. 24.Google Scholar
  18. 1.
    For example, the English Literary Journal of Moscow was printed in English with a French translation on opposite pages.Google Scholar
  19. 1.
    Cf. letter to Karazin after the death of his wife, quoted in Longinov, “Graf Speranskii,” Russkii Vestnik, XXIII, Oct. 1859, pp. 353–354.Google Scholar
  20. 1.
    Cf. the remarks of Alexander at a session of the Unofficial Committee (11 April 1802): “S. M. dit qu’on trouvait peu de séminaristes qui voulussent devenir prêtres. Sur quoi M. Novossiltsoff répondit que cela n’était pas étonnant, puisque depuis quelque temps beaucoup d’entre eux avaient pris Ia carrière civile où ils avaient fait de rapides progrès, ce qui engageait les autres à tâcher de sortir de Ia carrière ecclésiastique pour entrer dans Ia carrière civile…” Grand Duc Nicolas Mikhailovitch, Le Comte Paul Stroganov II (Paris 1905), p. 127.Google Scholar
  21. 1.
    In his first plan for administrative reforms, Speransky recommended Radishchev as best qualified to write “a history of Russian law — a necessary work, and his (Radishchev’s) talents and knowledge will shed much light on this unknown field.” V. I. Semevskii, “Pervyi politicheskii traktat Speranskogo,” Russkoe Bogatstvo, 1907, No. 1, p. 57.Google Scholar
  22. 2.
    In 1801, upon the accession of Alexander I, Count A. Vorontsov submitted the proposal for a “Charter to the Russian people” by which the Emperor would guarantee certain basic rights to his subjects and set forth the guiding principles of. his reign. The draft for this Charter was prepared by A. Radishchev, the final text is in Speransky’s hand. On the evidence of this latter fact it was thought that Speransky was one of the authors of this Charter. Recent investigations, however, show that Speransky opposed the idea of the Charter and that, in any case, he did not participate in the drafting of the document. From all evidence, Speransky’s participation was very small, limited to some stylistic improvements added after the Charter had been the subject of discussions in the Unofficial Committee. However, the fact remains that Speransky was familiar with the ideas contained in the Charter (the Charter itself was never promulgated). See: V. P. Semennikov, Radishchev-ocherki i issledovaniia, Moscow-Petrograd 1923, pp. 177, 430, 431, 433; Georg Sacke, Graf A. Voroncov, A. N. Radiščev und der “Gnadenbrief für das russische Volk.” Emsdetten 1939 (?). On Radishchev’s connections with young government officials see VI. Orlov, Russkie prosvetiteli 1790-1800kh gg., Moscow 1950 (in particular the Introduction and Chs. 1-3).Google Scholar
  23. 1.
    On Karazin see: Shil’der, Imperator Aleksandr Pervyi — ego zhizn’ i tsarstvovanie, vol. II (St. Pbg. 1904), pp. 33 ff, 327; V. Semevskii, Krest’ianskii vopros v Rossii v XVIII i pervoi polovine XIX vekov, I (St. Pbg. 1888), pp. 370-371.Google Scholar
  24. 1.
    This appears quite clearly from Speransky’s letters to Masal’skii, Druzheskie pis’ma M. M. Speranskogo k G. P. Masal’skomu 1798-1819 St. Pbg. 1862, passim.Google Scholar
  25. 2.
    This is the impression Professor Jacob had after his first interview with Speransky: “Er nahm mich höflich auf, aber sein Âusseres behielt ein kaltes und zurückhaltendes Wesen,” Jacob, Denkwürdigkeiten, p. 272.Google Scholar
  26. 3.
    Perhaps this idea of Speransky’s loyalty to his friends should be qualified in the light of his response to the appeals of his classmate, Slovtsov. Slovtsov, suspected of harboring subversive ideas and sentiments, was exiled to his native Siberia. He asked Speransky to intervene for him, but the latter — instead of helping him — wrote him sanctimonious letters counselling submission and resignation. In extenuation it would be fair to add that Slovtsov was a stubborn and cantankerous individual, who seemed to take pleasure in provoking the authorities and worsening his position (until age and the hardships of Siberian isolation changed his personality). Cf. Ltrs of Speransky to Slovtsov, dated 22. VII. 1808, 15. I. 1809, 5. II. 1809 in Pamiati pp. 409-410; also Kalashnikov, “Zapiski irkutskogo zhitelia,” loc. cit., passim.Google Scholar
  27. 1.
    Unlike a later reformer and statesman, Nicholas Miliutin, who also tended to withdraw from society to pursue his work, Speransky had no one to tell him the dangers such a course presented for his own aims. Grand Duchess Helen used to warn and remind Miliutin that an administrator and reformer had to live at peace with the society he belonged to: “Ce qu’elle lui reprochait depuis longtemps, c’était de trop s’absorber dans son service, de s’isoler, et, dans un pays où les relations personnelles sont toutes puissantes, de se tenir trop à l’écart de Ia société, du monde, de Ia cour. Le meilleur moyen, disait elle, de lutter contre les détracteurs, c’était de se faire voir, de montrer ‘que le diable n’était pas aussi noir que sa réputation’.” A. Leroy-Beaulieu, Un homme d’état russe (Nicolas Milutine) d’après sa correspondance inédite — Etude sur Ia Russie et Ia Pologne pendant le règne d’Alexandre II (1855-1872) Paris 1884, pp. 29-30.Google Scholar

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© Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands 1957

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  • Marc Raeff

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