To its relationship with the Emperor. Pobedonostsev was an

To what extent did
Konstantin Pobedonostsev influence policy in late Imperial Russia?

 

Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev was a Russian statesman
and adviser during the reigns of the last Tsars, and was a prominent figure in the
twilight years of the Russian Empire. Pobedonostsev reached the pinnacle of his
influence as the Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod, essentially a minister
supervising the Russian Orthodox Church and its relationship with the Emperor. Pobedonostsev
was an archconservative who strongly believed in the uniqueness of Russia and
the necessity of autocratic rule therein; he tirelessly wrote against what he
perceived as the chaos of the liberal democracies of Western Europe and eschewed
any ideas of reform. With Pobedonostsev having been an adviser under Emperor Alexander
II, as well as being appointed as a tutor to the later Emperors Alexander III
and Nicholas II, this essay will seek to analyse to what extent this individual
and his ideas influenced policy in late Imperial Russia.

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Pobedonostsev was born in Moscow in 1827 as the youngest son
of a Professor of literature at Moscow State University. In 1841, Pobedonostsev
joined the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, a prestigious school for boys in
St. Petersburg which was to set him on the path towards a life in the Empire’s
civil service. Pobedonostsev studied there during the reactionary rule of
Nicholas I, who had severely limited the number of university students
permitted in the Russian Empire and under whose reign censorship and repression
was ubiquitous. Having grown up in and studied in the Slavophile atmosphere of
Nicholas I’s reign, Pobedonostsev was extremely well educated with a breadth of
knowledge in all matters pertaining to both the Empire’s and the West’s legal
systems, as well as their respective literatures. In addition to this,
Pobedonostsev inherited from his pious father a deeply rooted religiosity and a
respect for the Russian Orthodox Church, its traditions and its role within the
state.

Graduating in 1846, Pobedonostsev was appointed to the civil
service working in the Moscow Senate resolving civil cases from neighbouring
guberniyas. Rising rapidly through the administration, by 1853 he had become
head of his own department of the Senate and later in 1859 became a lecturer in
civil law at Moscow University. Pobedonostsev gained fame in his capacity as a
historian of Russian civil law and by 1861 was appointed to instruct the eldest
son of Alexander II in the theory of law and administration during their
periodical stays in Moscow. In 1865 this son died, passing the mantle on to his
younger brother who would become Emperor Alexander III. Pobedonostsev soon became
his fulltime tutor and moved to St. Petersburg in 1866 in order to better fulfil
his role, and it was through this relationship as the future Emperor’s educator
that Pobedonostsev’s philosophy was to reach the greatest extent of its influence.

The appointment of the notoriously reactionary Pobedonostsev
as a tutor for the heirs to the Russian throne can perhaps be a strange one;
Alexander II after all is known in Russia as Alexander the Liberator who freed
the serfs and determinedly pursued a modernising course. Pobedonostsev’s skills
as a lecturer are not entirely the foundation of his appointment to this role;
he was initially a reformer who advocated Alexander II’s judicial reforms of
1864 and was in fact a great contributor to them. Prior to becoming a member of
the St. Petersburg Senate in 1868, Pobedonostsev even published a critical
article of the Minister of Justice in the foreign press in support of reformist
students.1

Pobedonostsev’s previously reformist zeal was soon curbed
with his relocation to the Imperial capital, an appointment which according to
his only English language biographer, Robert Byrnes, this “removed him
from the library, the study, and the classroom and placed him in a position in
which he was to develop a most inflexible political and social philosophy,”.2

It was not until 1872 that Pobedonostsev began to play a truly
prominent role in the policymaking of late Imperial Russia; it was in this year
that he was appointed by the Emperor to the State Council of the Russian Empire.
The State Council itself was the supreme advisory body of the Russian Empire and
was the closest thing that the country had to a cabinet government at this
point. Alexander III’s strive to modernise Russia had by this time
disillusioned Pobedonostsev further and further; he perceived that the reforms
he himself had helped to implement had created confusion throughout the country
and had brought alien ideals to Russia, chiefly in the form of the weakening of
autocratic government. The years in the aftermath of the Emancipation of the Serfs
and the continuing change in Russian society and philosophy alarmed
Pobedonostsev, who in his capacity as the tutor of the future Emperor passed on
these concerns to his pupil.

While Alexander II had been carrying out his reforms, the
Russian Empire’s intelligentsia had become a hotbed of political radicalism.
The emergence of opposition to autocratic rule stems from the Empire’s victory
in the Napoleonic Wars, where officers returning from Western Europe had been exposed
to the ideas of representative democracy and had witnessed life in countries
without serfdom on a large scale for the first time. Upon the accession of
Nicholas I of Russia, these disillusioned officers attempt to install a
constitutional monarchy during the Decembrist Revolt. This attempt at a coup d’état
was a failure, resulting in severe repression and the stagnation of reform in the
Empire for a generation as Nicholas sought to regain control. The failure of
this revolt set the stage for intellectual discourse in Russia for the next
century and is perhaps best described by Ivan Turgenev in his 1862 novel, Fathers and Sons, as a conflict between
an older generation (the fathers) and a new breed of intellectuals (the sons).3
The Decembrist generation of the fathers are seen by the sons as apathetic and
resigned to their fate of political insignificance in the face of Tsarist repression.
This new generation however responds to the censorship of Imperial Russia by
becoming increasingly radicalised, eventually becoming nihilists who do not
believe that Russia can be reformed while still ruled under an autocratic
Emperor; rather, the entire system must be destroyed, and its adherents annihilated
in order to rebuild society from its very base.4
Turgenev himself was an advocate of social reform and the work helped popularise
the term ‘nihilist’ in intellectual circles, but the work was not taken seriously
by contemporary radicals and he fled into exile upon its harsh reception in his
native country.

Despite the negative reaction to Turgenev’s work in the
early 1860s and the relatively small effect contemporary nihilists had on any
reform in the Russian Empire, as the century progressed Russian intellectual
movements continued to splinter and radicalise into vastly different groups
across the political spectrum. The 1870s in particular saw a massive surge in
radical thought in Russia, helped in part by the publication of Karl Marx’s Das
Kapital in the Russian language for the first time in 1872.

One of the many radical schools of thought emerging during
the reign of Alexander II was that of the populists or narodniks. Populism in the Russian Empire during this period centred
around a small but growing class of intellectual nobles who essentially felt
guilt about Russia’s history of serfdom. They believed in educating and
liberating the peasant classes of the Empire and sought an alliance between the
people and the intelligentsia to recreate the country. In their view, the peasants
and their communities were pure and how Russian society should be and function.
Furthermore, the populists believed that Russia was capable of producing its
own indigenous form of socialism, centred around the belief that the mir was already socialism in action and that
this example could be used. The populists did however adopt Ideas coming from
the West; for example, they encouraged the introduction of constituent
assemblies and democratic measures. The populists claimed to praise the people
and admire them, but they were a small and increasingly radical group owing to the
rejection of their ideas by the Russian people themselves. The populist
movement was an extraordinarily broad umbrella term for a number of different
reformist movements in Russia at this time, as in 1876 the movement splits between
a more militant branch and those who seek to bring about change through education.

 

On the back of this increasingly tense political situation,
the 1880s would bring the zenith of Pobedonostsev’s reactionary influence. In
1880, he was appointed as Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod, essentially
making him the head of the Russian Orthodox Church on behalf of the Emperor. Rather
than being able to exert influence from this post alone, it would take one of
the most significant events and greatest ironies in the history of late
Imperial Russia to propel Pobedonostsev and his philosophy to true prominence;
the assassination of Alexander II on March 13th, 1881. The Emperor’s
assasination was a watershed moment for Pobedonostsev, his Imperial pupil and
the Russian reform movement. Despite Alexander II being one of the Russian
Empire’s most liberal and forward-thinking rulers, the near abandonment and slow
pace of reform after the Polish Uprisings of the 1860s had further alienated
the populist movement. A radical and militant branch of the populists, a group
called Narodnaya Volya, was successful
in bombing the Tsar’s carriage as he travelled through St. Petersburg.

Hours before the death of ‘Alexander the Liberator’, he had
granted approval to the constitutional reforms of his reform-minded Minister of
the Interior, Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov. While not the far-reaching or democratic
reforms that many Russian intellectuals would have hoped for, the proposals
contained at least a tentative foundation for representational government by
allowing deputies of the Russian peasantry and urban classes to be allowed some
role in the legislative bodies of the Empire in an advisory role. Pobedonostsev’s
later collection of essays on governance lambasts democracy, and representative
democracy in particular, unapologetically and denounces them as a farce where ambitious
and vain individuals are able to take advantage of ‘the masses’, who are simple
and require guidance by an aristocracy.5
These ever so slight shifts away from complete autocracy would have appalled
Pobedonostsev, as indeed they did. Pobedonostsev would later write to the Tsar
that “Blood runs cold in a Russian human only by a sole thought what could have
happened if Loris-Melikov’s project — or the one suggested by his friends — had
been implemented,”.6
The complete halt of Alexander II’s reforms would therefore be the first trial
of Pobedonostsev’s influence on late Imperial policy.

The clearest display of Pobedonostsev’s influence come in
the immediate actions of Alexander III in the year or so following his father’s
assassination, although Pobedonostsev’s influence over the young Tsar stems
from his years as his tutor during which he would not cease to try and
influence the future Emperor. An example of this is when Pobedonostsev writes
to Alexander III in December 1879, two years prior to the assassination, openly
criticising the incumbent government of Alexander II and declaring that “nobody
expects anything from it,”.7
The brazen attack upon the government of Alexander II clearly demonstrates that
Pobedonostsev had no qualms whatsoever with displaying his ideology, even if it
was contrary to that of the Tsar. Instead, Pobedonostsev continues to write
that any hope for Russia now lays on the shoulders of the future Alexander III.
While it was impossible for Pobedonostsev to have known that the reign of
Alexander II would end so soon and so abruptly, the period leading up to 1881
had seen an increase in repression as the Tsarist authorities sought to stamp
out radicalism in the aftermath of the revolts in Poland. Pobedonostsev himself
however is more likely to be referring to the reforms being proposed to the
Imperial government and the weakening of autocracy. Pobedonostsev was a man
highly respected by Alexander III, one of the few individuals who could be seen
as a master to his pupil, the future Tsar. This unique relationship would
therefore have had a profound affect on Alexander’s outlook; Pobedonostsev had
after all been appointed by his father for this purpose.

Pobedonostsev’s true ascension however was in the days
following the assassination of Alexander III. Once again in a personal letter,
Pobedonostsev pleaded with the new Emperor, imploring him to reverse his father’s
reforms and save Russia.8
The letter, dated March 1881, is written just five days after the assassination
at a time of raw emotion for Alexander III. Having watched his father, mangled
by a bomb, die in agony just a few days before at the hands of revolutionaries,
the new Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias would have felt extreme anger
both at the perpetrators and his own father; for his father was the one who had
opened up Russia to political discourse like never before and opened something
of a Pandora’s Box. Being a personal letter in the aforementioned master-tutor
relationship, the letter’s purpose would have been Pobedonostsev’s attempt to
influence Alexander III onto a more reactionary course and to reaffirm all that
Pobedonostsev had taught him in the preceding years. The content of the letter
is essentially Pobedonostsev encouraging Alexander III to fire some of his most
prominent ministers, including Loris-Melikov who he denounces as non-Russian and
accuses those in charge of being traitors for having failed to prevent the
assassination attempt. Using emotive language and describing himself as “tortured
with anxiety”9
for the fate of the Russian people, Pobedonostsev was successful in arranging the
reversal of Alexander II’s reforms.10

Further evidence that Pobedonostsev was able to successfully
use his influence on Alexander III and Imperial affairs is found in an extract
of the diary of Egor Peretts, who was Chief Secretary of the State Council in
the immediate aftermath of the Emperor’s assassination. The extract itself details
the minutes of the first meeting of the Council of Ministers and other officials
since the event.11 Pobedonostsev
goes on at length launching attacks at the reforms of Alexander II; while
careful not to attack the Tsar’s late father himself, attacks are directed
towards those in the council who would have had Loris-Melikov’s reforms implemented,
and accuses them of doubting Russia and the new Emperor. Some of Pobedonostsev’s
primary arguments against the introduction of democracy to Russia is repeated
again here; that in his view, it has not worked in the West to quell the
dissent caused by socialist agitation and that democracy is completely alien to
Russia, where it will never be able to take root.12
This extract of Peretts’ diary ends with his statement that “The Tsar decided
to postpone the matter for further study.”.13
Having been able to completely steer the debate on the reforms Alexander II had
approved of hours before his death, Pobedonostsev exercised his influence over
Alexander III masterfully. With the Tsar’s decision to delay any reforms before
they could be considered any further, Pobedonostsev had gained a great victory
in halting any progress in the Emprie, or as he saw it, halting a decline in
autocratic power. The Emperor’s refusal to press on with Loris-Melikov’s
reforms and Pobedonostsev’s advice for the Tsar to have him removed ensured Loris-Melikov’s
resignation as Minister of the Interior that same year. In fact, it was clear
that the Emperor was totally persuaded by Pobedonostsev’s arguments. In the
aftermath of the meeting, he wrote to Pobedonostsev “Yes… Today’s meeting
saddened me. Loris and the others were still arguing for the same policies.
Decidedly, they would like to see representative government introduced in
Russia. But don’t worry – I shall not allow it! The very idea of electoral
government is something I can never accept!”14

 

 

1 Robert
Francis Byrnes, Pobedonostsev: His Life
and Thought (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), p. 44-60.

2 Ibid,
pp. 35

3 Basil
Dmytryshyn, Imperial Russia: A Sourcebook,
1700-1917 (1974), (extract from Fathers
and Sons, 1862)     p. 298-302.

4 The
Chatechism of a Revolutionary, Dmytryshyn, pp. 303-308

5 Konstantin
Pobedonostsev, Reflections of a Russian
Statesman, trans. by Robert Edward Cozier Long (London: Grant Richards,
1898), p. 32-59.

6 Hans
Heilbronner, ‘Alexander III and the Reform Plan of Loris-Melikov’, The
Journal of Modern History, 33.4, (1961), 384-397. 

7 George
Vernadsky, A Source Book for Russian History from Early Times to 1917,
volume 3: Alexander ll to the February Revolution(1972), p. 672.

8
Ibid, p. 672-673.

9
Ibid.

10
Heilbronner, p.390-396.

11 Vernadsky
p. 677-9.

12
Pobedonostsev p. 90-134

13
Vernadsky, 679

14 Martin
Sixsmith, Russia: A 1,000-year Chronicle
of the Wild East (New York: Random House, 2011), p. 149.

x

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