On March 27, 1818, on the instructions of Tsar Alexander I, work began on the draft State Charter, which was to become the Constitution of the Russian Empire. However, after the text of the charter was ready, the emperor did not put it into force. According to one of the main versions, he considered the reform of public administration untimely against the background of revolutionary unrest that swept several European countries at once.

"In the Spirit of the Times"

Alexander I was one of the most liberal Russian monarchs. According to historians, he thought several times about a radical reform of the state administration system in the empire.

"Even before the charter, Alexander I raised the issue of the actual introduction of the Constitution in Russia at least twice. We are talking about the draft of the Most Merciful Charter, which was discussed in 1801, and the Introduction to the Regulation of State Laws, which was developed by Mikhail Speransky in 1809. However, the reforms were recognized both times by the tsar himself as untimely, "said Vitaly Zakharov, a professor at the Moscow State Pedagogical University, in an interview with RT.

According to him, Alexander I believed that against the background of the defeat of Napoleon in the territories liberated from the French emperor, it was necessary to grant the peoples moderate constitutional liberties.

"The Russian Emperor believed that this was an important step in the spirit of the times. In his opinion, in those countries where constitutions were introduced, revolutions should no longer have taken place. Alexander insisted that the constitutional charter be adopted in post-Napoleonic France, and he himself introduced a similar document into legal force in the Kingdom of Poland, which came under his control, "Zakharov emphasized.

However, the emperor had other, personal motives.

  • Portrait of Alexander I by George Dow
  • © Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

"Even the assassination of Paul I made Alexander think that the upper strata of the Russian bureaucracy, which had enormous real power, could pose a danger to the autocracy. It was necessary to streamline the management of the country in such a way that some unshakable procedures arose. This became the basis for the emergence of the emperor's constitutional aspirations, "explained Professor Vladimir Tomsinov, head of the Department of State History and Law of the Law Faculty of Lomonosov Moscow State University, in a conversation with RT.

According to Vitaly Zakharov, the Polish constitutional charter of 1815 was for Alexander I a kind of experiment that made him believe in the prospects of constitutional reforms.

"The first years of the Polish Constitution showed that the country seemed to have entered a peaceful course and that its population reacted positively to the introduction of the charter. This made Alexander believe in the prospects of a similar reform on the territory of Russia itself," Zakharov said.

«Optimization of management»

On March 27, 1818, Alexander I made a speech at the opening of the Polish Sejm and on the same day ordered the development of the State Charter, which was to become the Constitution of the Russian Empire. Responsible for the work on the text of the document, the tsar appointed one of his associates - Prince Nikolai Novosiltsev, who officially held the post of plenipotentiary delegate of the emperor to the Kingdom of Poland at that time.

The draft text of the State Charter was prepared in 1820. It was written in French, and translated into Russian by Prince Peter Vyazemsky.

The text of the charter provided for the creation in the Russian Empire of a nationwide bicameral parliament - the State Sejm, which included the Senate and the embassy chamber. Similar in structure parliaments were planned to be created at the local level in 12 viceroyalties, into which it was proposed to divide the territory of the empire.

"According to the project, something like a federal structure arose in Russia. The empire was divided into viceroyalties, and those, in turn, into provinces. And this was, in principle, logical from the point of view of optimizing the management of the vast territory of the country, "said Igor Kurukin, a professor at the RSUH, in an interview with RT.

The draft assumed that the members of the upper houses of the Sejms would be appointed by the emperor, and the lower ones would be elected. The state charter was supposed to ensure the separation of powers, freedom of speech, press and religion (although the existence of full equal rights was assumed only for Christians). In addition, the draft guaranteed the inviolability of the person. Serfdom and serfs were not mentioned in the charter.

Voting rights were provided for nobles and members of "city societies" who owned real estate (scientists, artists, bankers, shipowners, merchants of the first two guilds and guild masters) at the age of at least 25 years. The Jews did not participate in the elections. Persons not younger than 30 years of age who had civil rights and met a certain property qualification could nominate their candidacies.

  • Nikolay Novosiltsev
  • © Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The project described the mechanisms for the implementation of imperial powers, as well as the activities of the state council and ministries, regional authorities and courts.

The emperor was vested with full executive power and legislative initiative. The Sejm could not initiate the adoption of laws itself, but could reject those offered to it by the king.

In 1820, the drafting of the State Charter was completed. Work was underway on a manifesto to bring it into force. However, Alexander I changed his mind about introducing the Constitution in the empire.

  • Map of the Russian Empire in 1817
  • Gettyimages.ru
  • © Buyenlarge

Historians today have different views on the reasons why the emperor refused constitutional reform, as well as on how real the entry into force of the State Charter was in principle.

"All such projects in the conditions of noble Russia were doomed to failure. To implement this kind of reform, it was necessary to liquidate the estate nobility as a class. Alexander, when he ordered the development of the draft charter, tried to blindly copy someone else's experience and saw everything exclusively in abstract theory. The idea was illusory and initially unrealizable, "said German Artamonov, a professor at MPGU, in an interview with RT.

In turn, Vladimir Tomsinov believes that Alexander I may not have completely abandoned the idea of reform, but postponed it for a while.

"When it came to the official commissioning of the project, Alexander realized that this was a serious limitation of imperial power, and in addition, the question arose how objectively such a parliament would represent Russian society. Therefore, the king could take time to think, as he had repeatedly done with other projects. But in 1825, Alexander died, then there was an uprising of the Decembrists, and Nicholas I decided that any attempts to give the people freedom led to anti-state actions. After that, the autocratic order was preserved in the country," the expert said.

At the same time, according to Vitaly Zakharov, Russia was close to the transition to parliamentarism and the refusal to introduce the Constitution was to a certain extent accidental.

"The empire was closer than ever to introducing a constitutional order, but in the 1820s a new wave of revolutionary actions swept through Europe - in particular, in Italy, Spain and Greece. Against this background, Alexander I decided that the entry into force of the Constitution would be untimely. In addition, in view of the constitutional experience of some revolutionary countries, he apparently concluded that the State Charter would not become a guarantee against anti-government protests, and was somewhat disappointed in the idea itself, "Zakharov summed up.