To what extent didKonstantin Pobedonostsev influence policy in late Imperial Russia? Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev was a Russian statesmanand adviser during the reigns of the last Tsars, and was a prominent figure in thetwilight years of the Russian Empire. Pobedonostsev reached the pinnacle of hisinfluence as the Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod, essentially a ministersupervising the Russian Orthodox Church and its relationship with the Emperor. Pobedonostsevwas an archconservative who strongly believed in the uniqueness of Russia andthe necessity of autocratic rule therein; he tirelessly wrote against what heperceived as the chaos of the liberal democracies of Western Europe and eschewedany ideas of reform.
With Pobedonostsev having been an adviser under Emperor AlexanderII, as well as being appointed as a tutor to the later Emperors Alexander IIIand Nicholas II, this essay will seek to analyse to what extent this individualand his ideas influenced policy in late Imperial Russia. Pobedonostsev was born in Moscow in 1827 as the youngest sonof a Professor of literature at Moscow State University. In 1841, Pobedonostsevjoined the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, a prestigious school for boys inSt. Petersburg which was to set him on the path towards a life in the Empire’scivil service. Pobedonostsev studied there during the reactionary rule ofNicholas I, who had severely limited the number of university studentspermitted in the Russian Empire and under whose reign censorship and repressionwas ubiquitous. Having grown up in and studied in the Slavophile atmosphere ofNicholas I’s reign, Pobedonostsev was extremely well educated with a breadth ofknowledge in all matters pertaining to both the Empire’s and the West’s legalsystems, as well as their respective literatures. In addition to this,Pobedonostsev inherited from his pious father a deeply rooted religiosity and arespect for the Russian Orthodox Church, its traditions and its role within thestate. Graduating in 1846, Pobedonostsev was appointed to the civilservice working in the Moscow Senate resolving civil cases from neighbouringguberniyas.
Rising rapidly through the administration, by 1853 he had becomehead of his own department of the Senate and later in 1859 became a lecturer incivil law at Moscow University. Pobedonostsev gained fame in his capacity as ahistorian of Russian civil law and by 1861 was appointed to instruct the eldestson of Alexander II in the theory of law and administration during theirperiodical stays in Moscow. In 1865 this son died, passing the mantle on to hisyounger brother who would become Emperor Alexander III.
Pobedonostsev soon becamehis fulltime tutor and moved to St. Petersburg in 1866 in order to better fulfilhis role, and it was through this relationship as the future Emperor’s educatorthat Pobedonostsev’s philosophy was to reach the greatest extent of its influence.The appointment of the notoriously reactionary Pobedonostsevas 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 freedthe serfs and determinedly pursued a modernising course. Pobedonostsev’s skillsas 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 of1864 and was in fact a great contributor to them. Prior to becoming a member ofthe St.
Petersburg Senate in 1868, Pobedonostsev even published a criticalarticle of the Minister of Justice in the foreign press in support of reformiststudents.1Pobedonostsev’s previously reformist zeal was soon curbedwith his relocation to the Imperial capital, an appointment which according tohis only English language biographer, Robert Byrnes, this “removed himfrom the library, the study, and the classroom and placed him in a position inwhich he was to develop a most inflexible political and social philosophy,”.2It was not until 1872 that Pobedonostsev began to play a trulyprominent role in the policymaking of late Imperial Russia; it was in this yearthat 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 andwas the closest thing that the country had to a cabinet government at thispoint. Alexander III’s strive to modernise Russia had by this timedisillusioned Pobedonostsev further and further; he perceived that the reformshe himself had helped to implement had created confusion throughout the countryand had brought alien ideals to Russia, chiefly in the form of the weakening ofautocratic government. The years in the aftermath of the Emancipation of the Serfsand the continuing change in Russian society and philosophy alarmedPobedonostsev, who in his capacity as the tutor of the future Emperor passed onthese concerns to his pupil. While Alexander II had been carrying out his reforms, theRussian Empire’s intelligentsia had become a hotbed of political radicalism.
The emergence of opposition to autocratic rule stems from the Empire’s victoryin the Napoleonic Wars, where officers returning from Western Europe had been exposedto the ideas of representative democracy and had witnessed life in countrieswithout serfdom on a large scale for the first time. Upon the accession ofNicholas I of Russia, these disillusioned officers attempt to install aconstitutional monarchy during the Decembrist Revolt. This attempt at a coup d’étatwas a failure, resulting in severe repression and the stagnation of reform in theEmpire for a generation as Nicholas sought to regain control. The failure ofthis revolt set the stage for intellectual discourse in Russia for the nextcentury and is perhaps best described by Ivan Turgenev in his 1862 novel, Fathers and Sons, as a conflict betweenan older generation (the fathers) and a new breed of intellectuals (the sons).3The Decembrist generation of the fathers are seen by the sons as apathetic andresigned to their fate of political insignificance in the face of Tsarist repression.This new generation however responds to the censorship of Imperial Russia bybecoming increasingly radicalised, eventually becoming nihilists who do notbelieve that Russia can be reformed while still ruled under an autocraticEmperor; rather, the entire system must be destroyed, and its adherents annihilatedin order to rebuild society from its very base.
4Turgenev himself was an advocate of social reform and the work helped popularisethe term ‘nihilist’ in intellectual circles, but the work was not taken seriouslyby contemporary radicals and he fled into exile upon its harsh reception in hisnative country.Despite the negative reaction to Turgenev’s work in theearly 1860s and the relatively small effect contemporary nihilists had on anyreform in the Russian Empire, as the century progressed Russian intellectualmovements continued to splinter and radicalise into vastly different groupsacross the political spectrum. The 1870s in particular saw a massive surge inradical thought in Russia, helped in part by the publication of Karl Marx’s DasKapital in the Russian language for the first time in 1872. One of the many radical schools of thought emerging duringthe reign of Alexander II was that of the populists or narodniks. Populism in the Russian Empire during this period centredaround a small but growing class of intellectual nobles who essentially feltguilt about Russia’s history of serfdom. They believed in educating andliberating the peasant classes of the Empire and sought an alliance between thepeople and the intelligentsia to recreate the country.
In their view, the peasantsand their communities were pure and how Russian society should be and function.Furthermore, the populists believed that Russia was capable of producing itsown indigenous form of socialism, centred around the belief that the mir was already socialism in action and thatthis example could be used. The populists did however adopt Ideas coming fromthe West; for example, they encouraged the introduction of constituentassemblies and democratic measures. The populists claimed to praise the peopleand admire them, but they were a small and increasingly radical group owing to therejection of their ideas by the Russian people themselves. The populistmovement was an extraordinarily broad umbrella term for a number of differentreformist movements in Russia at this time, as in 1876 the movement splits betweena 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. In1880, he was appointed as Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod, essentiallymaking him the head of the Russian Orthodox Church on behalf of the Emperor. Ratherthan being able to exert influence from this post alone, it would take one ofthe most significant events and greatest ironies in the history of lateImperial Russia to propel Pobedonostsev and his philosophy to true prominence;the assassination of Alexander II on March 13th, 1881. The Emperor’sassasination was a watershed moment for Pobedonostsev, his Imperial pupil andthe Russian reform movement. Despite Alexander II being one of the RussianEmpire’s most liberal and forward-thinking rulers, the near abandonment and slowpace of reform after the Polish Uprisings of the 1860s had further alienatedthe populist movement. A radical and militant branch of the populists, a groupcalled Narodnaya Volya, was successfulin bombing the Tsar’s carriage as he travelled through St. Petersburg. Hours before the death of ‘Alexander the Liberator’, he hadgranted approval to the constitutional reforms of his reform-minded Minister ofthe Interior, Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov.
While not the far-reaching or democraticreforms that many Russian intellectuals would have hoped for, the proposalscontained at least a tentative foundation for representational government byallowing deputies of the Russian peasantry and urban classes to be allowed somerole in the legislative bodies of the Empire in an advisory role. Pobedonostsev’slater collection of essays on governance lambasts democracy, and representativedemocracy in particular, unapologetically and denounces them as a farce where ambitiousand vain individuals are able to take advantage of ‘the masses’, who are simpleand require guidance by an aristocracy.5These ever so slight shifts away from complete autocracy would have appalledPobedonostsev, as indeed they did. Pobedonostsev would later write to the Tsarthat “Blood runs cold in a Russian human only by a sole thought what could havehappened if Loris-Melikov’s project — or the one suggested by his friends — hadbeen implemented,”.6The complete halt of Alexander II’s reforms would therefore be the first trialof Pobedonostsev’s influence on late Imperial policy. The clearest display of Pobedonostsev’s influence come inthe immediate actions of Alexander III in the year or so following his father’sassassination, although Pobedonostsev’s influence over the young Tsar stemsfrom his years as his tutor during which he would not cease to try andinfluence the future Emperor. An example of this is when Pobedonostsev writesto Alexander III in December 1879, two years prior to the assassination, openlycriticising the incumbent government of Alexander II and declaring that “nobodyexpects anything from it,”.7The brazen attack upon the government of Alexander II clearly demonstrates thatPobedonostsev had no qualms whatsoever with displaying his ideology, even if itwas contrary to that of the Tsar.
Instead, Pobedonostsev continues to writethat 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 ofAlexander II would end so soon and so abruptly, the period leading up to 1881had seen an increase in repression as the Tsarist authorities sought to stampout radicalism in the aftermath of the revolts in Poland. Pobedonostsev himselfhowever is more likely to be referring to the reforms being proposed to theImperial government and the weakening of autocracy. Pobedonostsev was a manhighly respected by Alexander III, one of the few individuals who could be seenas a master to his pupil, the future Tsar. This unique relationship wouldtherefore have had a profound affect on Alexander’s outlook; Pobedonostsev hadafter all been appointed by his father for this purpose.
Pobedonostsev’s true ascension however was in the daysfollowing the assassination of Alexander III. Once again in a personal letter,Pobedonostsev pleaded with the new Emperor, imploring him to reverse his father’sreforms and save Russia.8The letter, dated March 1881, is written just five days after the assassinationat a time of raw emotion for Alexander III. Having watched his father, mangledby 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 angerboth at the perpetrators and his own father; for his father was the one who hadopened up Russia to political discourse like never before and opened somethingof a Pandora’s Box. Being a personal letter in the aforementioned master-tutorrelationship, the letter’s purpose would have been Pobedonostsev’s attempt toinfluence Alexander III onto a more reactionary course and to reaffirm all thatPobedonostsev had taught him in the preceding years. The content of the letteris essentially Pobedonostsev encouraging Alexander III to fire some of his mostprominent ministers, including Loris-Melikov who he denounces as non-Russian andaccuses those in charge of being traitors for having failed to prevent theassassination attempt. Using emotive language and describing himself as “torturedwith anxiety”9for the fate of the Russian people, Pobedonostsev was successful in arranging thereversal of Alexander II’s reforms.
10Further evidence that Pobedonostsev was able to successfullyuse his influence on Alexander III and Imperial affairs is found in an extractof the diary of Egor Peretts, who was Chief Secretary of the State Council inthe immediate aftermath of the Emperor’s assassination. The extract itself detailsthe minutes of the first meeting of the Council of Ministers and other officialssince the event.11 Pobedonostsevgoes on at length launching attacks at the reforms of Alexander II; whilecareful not to attack the Tsar’s late father himself, attacks are directedtowards 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’sprimary arguments against the introduction of democracy to Russia is repeatedagain here; that in his view, it has not worked in the West to quell thedissent caused by socialist agitation and that democracy is completely alien toRussia, where it will never be able to take root.12This extract of Peretts’ diary ends with his statement that “The Tsar decidedto postpone the matter for further study.”.
13Having been able to completely steer the debate on the reforms Alexander II hadapproved of hours before his death, Pobedonostsev exercised his influence overAlexander III masterfully. With the Tsar’s decision to delay any reforms beforethey could be considered any further, Pobedonostsev had gained a great victoryin halting any progress in the Emprie, or as he saw it, halting a decline inautocratic power. The Emperor’s refusal to press on with Loris-Melikov’sreforms and Pobedonostsev’s advice for the Tsar to have him removed ensured Loris-Melikov’sresignation as Minister of the Interior that same year. In fact, it was clearthat the Emperor was totally persuaded by Pobedonostsev’s arguments. In theaftermath of the meeting, he wrote to Pobedonostsev “Yes… Today’s meetingsaddened me. Loris and the others were still arguing for the same policies.
Decidedly, they would like to see representative government introduced inRussia. But don’t worry – I shall not allow it! The very idea of electoralgovernment is something I can never accept!”14 1 RobertFrancis Byrnes, Pobedonostsev: His Lifeand Thought (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), p. 44-60.2 Ibid,pp. 353 BasilDmytryshyn, Imperial Russia: A Sourcebook,1700-1917 (1974), (extract from Fathersand Sons, 1862) p. 298-302.4 TheChatechism of a Revolutionary, Dmytryshyn, pp. 303-3085 KonstantinPobedonostsev, Reflections of a RussianStatesman, trans.
by Robert Edward Cozier Long (London: Grant Richards,1898), p. 32-59.6 HansHeilbronner, ‘Alexander III and the Reform Plan of Loris-Melikov’, TheJournal of Modern History, 33.4, (1961), 384-397.
7 GeorgeVernadsky, A Source Book for Russian History from Early Times to 1917,volume 3: Alexander ll to the February Revolution(1972), p. 672.8Ibid, p. 672-673.9Ibid.10Heilbronner, p.390-396.
11 Vernadskyp. 677-9.12Pobedonostsev p. 90-13413Vernadsky, 67914 MartinSixsmith, Russia: A 1,000-year Chronicleof the Wild East (New York: Random House, 2011), p. 149.