The Enigmatic Tsar and His Empire
Russia under Alexander I. 1801–1825
- About the editors
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Alexandrine Russia as Laboratory (Alexander Kaplunovsky / Jan Kusber)
- Alexander I, the Russian Empire, and the “Sattelzeit” 1790–1830 (Jan Kusber)
- Russia’s movement toward the “Political Nations”: alliances, finances, and circulation of knowledge
- Foreign Policy and Diplomacy of Alexander I, as from His Family Letters (Franziska Schedewie)
- “… en Europe il fallait compter trois puissances: l’Angleterre, la Russie et Mme de Staël …”: Salon Culture and the Formation of Networks during the Struggle against Napoleon (Maike Sach)
- “Un bon systême de finances doit être regardé comme l’ame qui vivifie l’État.” European Experts and Russia’s State Finances under Paul I and Alexander I (Benjamin Conrad)
- The Influence of British Jurists, Political Economists, and Educators on the Ideas of Russia Modernization during the Reign of Alexander I (1801–1825) (Aleksandr Orlov)
- Inventory and perceptions of Imperial Frames: the diversity of actors and political imaginations
- The Concepts of Constitution and Fundamental Laws in Russian Political Discourse at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century (Sergei Polskoy)
- The Alexandrine Commission for the Compilation of Laws: In Search for Codifying Models for the Russian Empire (Alexander Kaplunovsky)
- The Time of State-Building Discoveries: Governing Techniques in Health Care and Education (Elena Vishlenkova)
- Republican Types in Russian Political Culture, 1815–1825 (Vadim Parsamov)
- Russia a Republic? Some Remarks on the National Consciousness of the Decembrists (Lorenz Erren)
- Redistribution of power in Imperial Space and Politics
- Russian Governors during the Reign of Alexander I: Mechanisms of Appointment and Dismissal in the Context of Administrative Reform (Alsu Biktasheva)
- Alexander I’s Governor-General Experiment in the Volga Region: A.N. Bakhmetev’s Experience (Elizaveta Sysoeva)
- Construction of Center and Periphery in the Reign of Alexander I. The Case of Bessarabia, 1812–1828 (Victor Taki)
- “The Volhynian Revolution”: An Episode from the History of Relations between the Polish Nobility and the Imperial Government in the Age of Alexander I (Constantin Troianowski)
- Serie Index
Alexander Kaplunovsky, Jan Kusber,
Benjamin Conrad (eds.)
The Enigmatic Tsar
and His Empire
Russia under Alexander I. 1801–1825
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Cover Illustration: Illumination in the Cathedral Square in Honor of
Alexander I’s Coronation, by Fedor Alekseev (1802).
Source: The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Photograph
© The State Hermitage Museum, Photo by Vladimir Terebenin
Style Editing and Proofreading – Jessica Hinds-Bond
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Alexander Kaplunovsky is Research Associate at the Department for Eastern European History, Johannes-Gutenberg-University at Mainz, Germany.
Jan Kusber is Professor and Chair of the Department for Eastern European History, Johannes-Gutenberg-University at Mainz, Germany.
Benjamin Conrad is Teaching Coordinator at the Department of History, Humboldt-University, Berlin, Germany.
About the book
In many ways Russia under Alexander I was an epoch of exploration and revision of empire and state-building. The authors of this volume explore the Alexandrine-era Russia not from the traditional vantage point of the emperor and his inner circle but from the point of view of experts and elites. These “men on the spot” drafted “maps” of the empire and its collective subjects and constructed social, political, and economic imaginaries of the empire. All these revisions and projects did not necessarily lead to an immediate and consistent (re)organization of the political, social, and cultural structures of imperial space. The Alexandrine Russia may be interpreted much more as a “laboratory” in which different potential scenarios for modernization were designed, discussed, and tested—but also rejected and forgotten.
This eBook can be cited
This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.
Our volume on the epoch of Alexander I, the “enigmatic tsar,” is a collaborative undertaking in many ways. The idea started with the international conference “The Russian Empire 1790–1830: In Search for Narratives for the Alexandrine Age” held on March 23–25, 2017, at the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz. We are very grateful to Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft for financing the conference. The lively discussions on the conceptualization of the Alexandrine epoch at the conference were intellectually fun for the organizers. We are thankful to all who contributed and worked with us in the editing process with patience. We would like to express our gratitude to Semen Kaul for his careful support in preparing this volume. We are especially grateful to Jessica Hinds-Bond, who did a marvelous job in copyediting and proofreading. We also owe special thanks to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and to Château de Versailles and Réunion des Musées nationaux in France for kindly supplying pictorial material. Last but not least we thank the publishing house Peter Lang for professional cooperation.
Mainz, March 2019
Authors←8 | 9→
Much international research has been done on different aspects of the reign of Alexander I. Yet, the general character of the Alexandrine Age remains undetermined, and its main political trends are not identified. While the epoch of Catherine the Great is customarily connected to “Europeanization,” “Enlightenment,” and “Enlightened Absolutism,” the history of the nineteenth century, of course deeply simplified, usually evokes such tropes as the “Gendarme of Europe” or “Tsar-Liberator.” In contrast, the period of Alexander I’s rule is often seen as separate from this history. It was a bright and heroic time, and the monarch’s personality was ambivalent, “mysterious,” and “indecisive,” but the epoch in general lacks a clear political character. So far, historiography has only agreed to distinguish between a “liberal” first and a “conservative-mythical” second part of Alexander I’s reign, with the 1812 Napoleonic invasion serving as the point of rupture. The Patriotic War of 1812 presents its own field of study, but at the same time it is also the takeoff time of secret societies and the Decembrist movement, another grand narrative of Russian history. Sometimes one gets the impression that these major topics are somehow subjects of research apart from Alexander’s rule in general.
Existing studies focus on collective or individual biographies of the historical actors1 or on the development of institutions and specific (including reformist) policies—be they social, religious, or economic. While impressive and profound in their own right, these case studies remain ultimately uncontextualized vis-à-vis each other. At the same time, historiographers of the Alexandrine era tend to focus on two main themes: administrative indecision and the unsystematic or unsuccessful realization of ambitious reform plans.←9 | 10→
Recent studies of religious politics and thought, political language and imaginaries, education, and the history of medicine2 (including a special case of imperial politics in former territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or Bessarabia3), source editions (new collections of historical material),4 and the ongoing research projects of this volume’s editors on legal reforms or the financial system, present a more coherent picture. They demonstrate that Alexandrine Russia may be interpreted as a “laboratory” in which different potential scenarios for modernization were designed, discussed, and tested—but also rejected and forgotten.
To be quite candid as to the initial idea of this volume, our very first aim was to find a coherent and more valid heuristic frame for the Alexandrine era. An international conference, “The Russian Empire 1790–1830: In Search of Narratives for the Alexandrine Age,” was held on March 23–25, 2017, in Mainz, organized by chair of eastern European history of Mainz University. Generous financial support from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft made it possible to invite a few well-known experts in various fields of Russian and Eastern European studies, whose current research projects are explicitly focused on the Alexandrine epoch. Colleagues from Russia, Germany, and Canada submitted their papers to be read in advance of the conference. This procedure ensured intensive, fruitful work and discussions during the whole time of the conference.
Thus, the aim of the planned conference was to establish general narratives for the Alexandrine age, not so much from the traditional vantage point of the emperor and his inner circle but from the point of view of experts and elites who perceived the empire as a laboratory. These “men on the spot,” whether officially sanctioned by the state or independently of it, drafted “maps” of the empire and its collective subjects and constructed social, political, and economic imaginaries of the empire. These actors, who envisioned the functions of the state and imagined its future, did so also in comparison and in entanglement with other states in Europe. Therefore, individual experts like local doctors, legal scholars,←10 | 11→ practical jurists, and amateur scientists must be considered alongside collective actors such as the Decembrists and the members of the so-called conservative elite and other networks.
A congruent theme and aim of the conference was to enhance the focus on the imperial interior by looking also at influential factors such war and international alliances. We structured our discussions around three topics: Russia’s movement toward “political nations,” alliances, wars, and integration processes; patterns of modernization and the diversity of actors; and finally, redistribution of power and the imperial administration designs in domestic politics. Despite extensive discussions across the whole conference, we did not come to (or rather, we wittingly rejected) the development of a consistent grand narrative as a common framework for the Russian empire under the “enigmatic” tsar. More workable and flexible seemed to be the alternative heuristic paradigm of “empire as a laboratory.”
Now, what was and is the matter of this Alexandrine “laboratory” in a historical and analytical perspective? What is the utility in discovering Russian history of the early nineteenth century and describing its specific nature at the turn from premodern to modern times? To answer these questions, the specific characteristics of this imperial Sattelzeit—to use a term from Reinhart Koselleck and Jan Kusber5—must be defined and our analytical capabilities explained. We deliver not a theory or an abstraction but a descriptive paradigm.
In many ways, it can be suggested that the Alexandrine era was a time of exploration and revision of empire and state-building6 as well as of the search for suitable models of modernization and stabilization.
The discovery of imperial spaces, cultures, and peoples was undertaken in Russia in the eighteenth century and beyond not only by—mostly foreign—scientists, adventurers, and clerics but also by the monarchs themselves. From these times comes Catherine II’s famous statement concerning the prospective tasks of empire-(re)building, in which she reflected on the process and its challenges and projected further changes. The empress addressed this statement on May 29, 1767, from Kazan, to her correspondent and kindred spirit at that time, the French philosopher Voltaire:
The laws about which so much has been said are after all not yet completed. And who can say if they are good. It is posterity and not us in truth who will be able to judge their goodness. Consider, I beg you, that they must serve both Asia and Europe. And what←11 | 12→ difference in climates, in people, in habits, and even in ideas. Here I am in Asia, I wanted to see this with my own eyes. There are in this city twenty different peoples who do not at all resemble each other. Yet a garment must be made that will fit them all. They may well find themselves general principles, but what of the details? And such details! I would say that there is almost a world to create, to unite, to preserve. I wouldn’t even finish and still there are too many details of all kinds.7
Thus far it was a program and a view from above, concisely formulated, but, as mentioned by the empress, only partially implemented.8 A remarkable part of this ambitious undertaking was the creation and establishment of “lawful monarchy” in Russia. It could be seen, in common with Russian political discourse at the turn of the nineteenth century, as a rhetorical as well as a substantive bridge to the Alexandrine epoch and to the commonplace “Europe” in this time. Taking the throne, Alexander I promised to establish a lawful monarchy “according to the laws and wish” of his “beldame” Catherine the Great.9 However, the state- and administration-building as well as the judicial and educational systems that had been introduced under Catherine II were compromised or functioned insufficiently. The era was once again marked by a fundamental reorganization of the whole empire on every stage and territory. Even this language of politics, which Sergei Polskoy brilliantly analyzes in this volume through a focus on the historical semantics and Begriffsgeschichte of the essential political terms “fundamental laws” and “constitution,” does more than simply show a drastic transformation of the political vocabulary during the Alexandrine period.10 It also highlights the emergence among Russian social elites of a new “moving power,” which was related to the general transformation of the social order and its imaginaries at that time.
Another bridge to the previous “glorious century of nobility” as well as to the subsequent nineteenth century of ambivalent shaping and balancing of imperial diversity can be seen in the Alexandrine era’s division of empire into viceroyalties. As Victor Taki explains in this volume, “the creation of ministries and of the State Council in 1802–11 can be considered a step toward greater centralization and bureaucratization, [but] the division of empire into viceroyalties can be seen as a←12 | 13→ return to the ‘empire of the nobles’ (dvorianskaia imperia) […] as it created the preconditions for the strengthening of the regional elites.”11 By the same token, Alsu Biktasheva shows how local nobles, liberated and invigorated in terms of their rights and privileges, became important players in the administration and control of the empire.12
A new phenomenon under Alexander I was the realization that theoretical and practical work could not be done by high-profile and enlightened statesmen, “top minds,” or laymen and unprepared representatives of the estates of the empire (such as deputies in Catherine’s Legislative Commission). The new actors were (pre)modern experts who had both professional training and experience—bankers and financiers, economists, physicians, lawyers, scholars, and professors (whether from newly founded or modernized universities), as well as ministers, governor-generals, and local officials.13 The articles in this volume by Benjamin Conrad,14 Elena Vishlenkova,15 Alexander Kaplunovsky,16 Alsu Biktasheva,17 and Elizaveta Sysoeva18—each derived from an innovative and ongoing research project—show that these new actors did not function only as discoverers or contractors working on behalf and under the strict control of monarchic power. Rather, they created “maps” of and drafts for the empire quite often on their own initiative. As Vishlenkova aptly demonstrates in her research on physicians in the first half of the←13 | 14→ nineteenth century, the Alexandrine period was a large-scale pivot point between the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries, in which medical professionals were (self)established as an expert community and a powerful player in state politics and society—that is, by forging state, empire, and nation-building processes.19
This shift led the elites away from the imported ideal of a “well-ordered police state” (Marc Raeff20) and the rational spirit of the Enlightenment, which was disavowed after 1789. Cameralism and its ideals were paramount in the cosmopolitan “enlightened absolutism”21 of the eighteenth century but were steadily replaced by the study and cataloguing of the social, national, religious, economic, and cultural heterogeneity of the Russian empire.
The French Revolution and the related rise of both romantic and official nationalism also impacted these processes. Russia proceeded not only toward European “political nations” but toward a “national path” of modernization, as it tried to create its own solutions for the challenges of the new epoch in Europe. These solutions were based on different imaginings among Russians of “historical past” and “traditions”—imaginings that drew variously on Russian and European antecedents. Speaking metaphorically, it was a movement into a commonplace “Europe” and simultaneously a return to its own “roots,” which had been postulated and constructed by intellectuals22 and political elites. Thus, the case of British philosopher and jurisprudent Jeremy Bentham, as is shown by Aleksandr Orlov in his article,23 could provide a better understanding of this contrarily proceeding dynamic. Bentham’s fresh ideas on codification attracted much attention from Alexander I and the members of the Unofficial Committee in 1803. Just a year later, however, the admiration that both the monarch and the members of the Unofficial Committee had for the British legal scholar, and for his original theo←14 | 15→ries and recommendations on setting up ideal criminal and civil codes, waned. These recommendations proved impossible to implement within the attempted codification project. By then, the goals, objectives, and means to bring it about had already been changed and fixed. The mass of “autochthonous” Russian legislation should had been collected, systematized, refurbished, and presented as unique (samobytnyi).
The radical political imaginings of Decembrists and members of the so-called secret societies concerning the republican types of political order in Russia could, as Vadim Parsamov24 and Lorenz Erren25 argue, be described and understood from the same vantage point—that is, as a mindset and radical politicking situated between the two poles. As Parsamov points out, republicanism as a theory had been seen by Decembrists as rather older than monarchism; put in historical perspective, a republic was not a new stage in history but rather the revival of an old tradition. The way to the future was thus a movement back to imagined “traditions.” Parsamov declares: “Pestel’s republic was not a republic in general sense, but a Russian republic rooted in national history, thus all its citizens could only be Russians.”26 Of course, there was on this road a barrier that should has been rejected—namely, autocratic power. Otherwise, both the debates about the disposal of the “usurper” and the December 1825 uprising itself were acts of a laboratorial nature.
All these revisions and projects did not necessarily lead to an immediate and consistent (re)organization of the political, social, and cultural structures of imperial space. The actors who provided competitive expertise and imaginings and nurtured their exclusive ambitions not only identified issues but also caused new problems. To give only a couple of prominent examples in this regard: Rosenkampff’s model of compiling Russian law versus Speransky’s attempt to design a completely new legal code;27 Speransky’s “Introduction to the Code of State Laws” versus Novosil’cev’s “Constitutional Charter of the Russian Empire.” Both of these debates dealt with finding a new political framework for the Russian empire and for state institutions, either on the basis of conventional cameralistic ideas of state-building excepting evident specifics of the imperial body or even recognizing, including, and improving them.28←15 | 16→
In that time, the expansion of the Russian Empire in every cardinal direction, amid international conflict and a state of war, was coupled with internal challenges to domestic stability in the face of near bankruptcy.29 An unstable period of large-scale wars lasted until 1815, when the European international order was been established. However, the same wars brought new subjects under the Russian imperial umbrella, and their economic, cultural, and legal differences had to be negotiated and administered. This ambiguity of imperial expansion is the main topic of two contributions in this volume. Victor Taki30 and Constantin Troianowski31 focus their chapters on territories and political upheavals in Bessarabia and Volhynia from the perspective of processes of incorporating, establishing, and redistributing political power.
Even if we know how the story goes—with its unsystematic and indecisive reforms and various borrowings—Alexandrine-era Russia may be seen as a network of interconnected experiments and labors. These experiments were not exempt of tensions and failures, as could be well shown in the case of some radical and highly complex but also unfinished or abandoned reforms. This proactive way of contribution and participation was made possible by both the liberal spirit of the epoch, especially in the first decade of Alexandrine reign, and the monarch himself. Nethertheless Alexander’s liberal attitude was often drowned out by his indifference, undecidedness, shifting opinions, and lack of will to provide clear opportunities for political participation or even to prohibit any initiatives “from below.” These faults made coherent implementation of ideas and reform projects so difficult and, considered in perspective, increasingly became a serious obstacle in a growing modern state that remained under strictly autocratic rule.
Last but not least, the person of monarch himself remains an important player and factor in this Russia as “laboratory” at the turn to the nineteenth century. Jan Kusber gives in his contribution32 a short overview of the epoch. He discusses Alexander’s self-fashioning as a ruler by giving a short biographical sketch, followed by an analysis of the achievements of Alexander’s rule and his politics on various←16 | 17→ fields. Following this chapter is a contribution from Franziska Schedewie that offers new approaches and insights for biographical explorations into Alexander I.33 Summarizing her just-finished research project on unofficial diplomacy within the imperial family, Schedewie uses epistolary interactions between Alexander I and his younger sister Maria Pavlovna, an informal tsarist diplomat, to study the politicization of cultural concepts and terms such as kinship, friendship, and loyalty. Finally Maike Sach shows in her article how Alexander I not only depended on state experts but also on people with whom he was personally fascinated, such as Madame de Staël, whose anti-Napoleonic vision of Europe guided Alexander. Beyond this (inter)personal dimension, Sach shows that European international politics in that time were settled not only at congresses, in cabinets, or even with weapons, but also in intellectual salons such as that of Mme de Staël.
Summing up, we hope to uphold a promise made at the beginning of this introduction—namely, to reduce accumulated frustrations among historiographers by repositioning the puzzles of established works and current research projects dedicated to the Alexandrine epoch. It is now up to the readers of this volume to share and build on this view of early nineteenth-century Russian empire as laboratory—or to disagree.
List of references
Almedingen, Edith. The Emperor Alexander I. London, 1964
Biktasheva, Alsu. Kazanskoe gubernatorstvo pervoi poloviny XIX veka. Bremia vlasti. Мoscow, 2014
Ganzenmüller, Jörg. Russische Staatsgewalt und polnischer Adel: Elitenintegration und Staatsausbau im Westen des Zarenreiches (1772–1850). Köln, 2013
Ganzenmüller, Jörg / Tönsmeyer, Tatjana. Vom Vorrücken des Staates in die Fläche Ein europäisches Phänomen des langen 19. Jahrhunderts. In: Ganzenmüller, Jörg / Tönsmeyer, Tatjana (Eds.). Vom Vorrücken des Staates in die Fläche Ein europäisches Phänomen des langen 19. Jahrhunderts. 2016. Pp. 7–32
Gerasimov, Ilia / Mogilner, Marina / Glebov, Sergei. Novaia imperskaia istoriia Severnoi Evrazii. Vol. 2. Kazan, 2017.
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- 2019 (Juni)
- Russian empire Napoleonic wars fundamental laws constitution codification Bessarabia Volhynia medic jurists reforms economy government
- Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2019. 378 pp., 9 b/w img., 1 b/w tab.