Dimitri Von Mohrenschildt, Toward a United States of Russia: Plans and Projects of Federal Reconstruction of Russia in the Nineteenth Century, 1981.

Plans for Decentralization of the Empire under Alexander I

Catherine II believed that only an autocratic and centralized government was suited to rule such a vast empire as Russia. In this she followed Montesquieu's idea that decentralization was good only for small and compact states, but was not suitable for large multinational states. In 1899, three years after the empress's death, Prince A. Bezborodko in a memorandum to the emperor thus expressed his ideas on the needs of the empire:

Russia is an autocratic state. Its size, the variety of its inhabitants and customs, and many other considerations make it the only natural form of government for Russia. All arguments to the contrary are futile, and the least weakening of the autocratic power would result in the loss of many provinces, the weakening of the state, and countless misfortunes for the people.1

Such a conception of the state was further strengthened by Karamzin in his Note on Ancient and Modern Russia and became thereafter the basis for the policies of the imperial government to the end of the century.

During the early years of the reign of Alexander I, his famous "Unofficial Committee," composed of the most enlightened men of the time, often discussed problems of administration of the empire. Later in the reign, especially after [14] the granting of liberal constitutions to the Grand Duchy of Finland and the Kingdom of Poland, excessive centralization became the increasing concern of Alexander's government. A number of statesmen, notably Count M. S. Vorontsov, N. S. Mordvinov, M. Speransky and N. N. Novosiltsev, recognized the inadequacy of the channels of communication between the central government and the remote areas of the empire. Some of them thought that laws must reflect the local conditions and needs of the different regions of the empire. A number of projects were proposed to that end.

The best known was Speransky's constitutional project which reorganized Russia on four levels, each with a legislative assembly culminating with a State Duma. This project aimed not so much at decentralization as at strict legality. Speransky's fourfold system of local self-government bears resemblance to the zemstvos instituted forty-four years later. It is interesting to note, however, that Speransky, before and after his reorganization of the Siberian government, favored more decentralization and more local self-government for Russia's borderlands.2 A recent Soviet historian, A. V. Predtechensky, explains this as an attempt "to overcome the process of decomposition of the feudal-serf monarchy."3

A project geared more specifically to decentralization of administration was that of A. D. Balashev (1818). This plan combined five provinces -- Riazan, Tula, Orlov, Voronezh, and Tambov -- into a single governor-generalship under a viceroy with a wide scope of responsibility who acted as a personal representative of the emperor. The viceroy was to be assisted by a council made up of local officials from different departments of the province and district.4

General A. D. Balashev was appointed governor-general of the five provinces in 1819. His instructions were vague and he was not quite sure as to what he was supposed to do. It was clear that he was to reorganize the local administration and to organize the provincial and district advisory councils. After the death of Alexander I the question of reorganization of local administrations was discussed at a special committee appointed by Nicholas I. On April 23, 1827, Balashev drew a very negative picture of the new system of decentralized [15] control and recommended going back to the old system. This proposal was approved by Nicholas L5

Although the system of local councils was abolished and the whole Balashev project sank into oblivion, it is interesting to note that several members of the committee composed of the highest officials of the empire were far from favoring complete administrative uniformity. At the next session of the committee (May 4, 1827) the opinion was expressed that "there are remote provinces which require special laws for their administration . . . such are the following regions: Siberian provinces, the Orenburg province, the Caucasus, Novorussia, the Baltic provinces. All of these must not be subject to the same administration as the Central European provinces."6

More far-reaching in conception and in influence was Novosiltsev's Constitutional Charter of the Russian Empire,7 drafted between 1818 and 1820. Unlike Speransky's centralist project for a constitution (1809), Novosiltsev's was strongly "federal" in character. According to this scheme, the Russian empire was to be divided into twelve large vice-regencies (or groups of provinces). Each was to have some autonomy. The vice-regencies were in fact to be practically self-governing regions. Finland and Poland were to be part of this arrangement. General laws, according to the charter, were to be promulgated by the monarch with the assistance of a Seim, or State Duma, composed of two chambers. Each vice-regency was also to have a two-chamber diet, to be called ever three years, while the general State Duma was to be called every five years. The lower chamber, or "the chamber of ambassadors," was to be composed of elected deputies. The charter gave full expression to the principle of separation of powers. The fundamental laws gave equal protection to all citizens and promised freedom of the press and civil and political rights to all Christian denominations.

Professor Raeff, a recent investigator of Novosiltsev's project, thus characterized it:

It is one of the few instances in Russian administrative history of a proposal along genuinely federal lines. In fact, by giving every [16] vice-regency virtual autonomy in all matters of local concern and significance, it came close to conceiving the Russian state as the sum total of these vice-regencies, rather than as an entity in itself.8

G. Vernadsky considered Novosiltsev's charter an original attempt at applying the principles of federal organization to the Russian Empire.9 He further stated: "If Novosiltsev's project had been realised, the juridical aspects of the Russian Empire and of its state organization would have been completely different."10 As we shall see, Novosiltsev's project has had an influence on Nikita Muraviev's constitution."11

Novosiltsev's charter has never been implemented for a variety of reasons, but for the most part because of the general indecisiveness of Alexander I. It was published for the first time by the Polish rebel government in 1831. When Warsaw was taken by Russian troops, all copies of the charter were ordered destroyed.12 This was the last major project of a "federal" nature emanating from the government of Alexander I (except for the Balashev project, which continued, as we have seen, till 1827). Attempts in this direction have shifted now to "society," and are first of all represented by the Decembrists. [17]


I . Prince A. Bezborodko's Memorandum, quoted in Marc Raeff, Plans for Political Reform in Imperial Russia (Englewood, N.J., 1966), p. 70.

2. Plan gosudarstvennogo preobrazovaniia grafa M. M. Speranskogo, 1905, p. 72; see also A. V. Predtechensky, "O plane gosudarstvennogo preobrzovaniia M. M. Speranskogo," Ocherki obshchestvenno-politicheskoi istorii Rossii v pervoi chetverti XIX veka (Moscow, 1957), pp. 245-60.

3. Predtechensky, p. 317.

4. A. Gradovsky, "Istoricheskii ocherk ucherzhdeniia general-guvernatorstv v Rossii," Russkii vestnik, November 1869, p. 24. (The Balashev project is treated in the November 1869 issue, pp. 1-31, and in December 1869, pp. 396-413.)

5. Predtechensky, p. 405; for the Balashev project, see pp. 394-405.

6. Ibid., p. 405.

7. "Gosudarstvennaia ustavnaia gramota Rossiiskoi Imperii," Russkii arkhiv (1905), book 3, pp. 102-28. This is translated and commented upon by M. Raeff in his Plans for Political Reform of Imperial Russia, 1966, chapter 7, "N. N. [17] Novosiltsev. Constitutional Charter of the Russian Empire (1818-1820)," pp. 110-20.

8. ibid., pp. 110-11.

9. G. Vernadsky, Ocherk istorii prava russkogo gosudarstva XVII-XIX vv. (Prague, 1924), p. 154.

10. ibid., p. 155.

11. ibid.

12. Russkii arkhiv, 1905, book 3, p. 102.