Secret Committees

Secret Committees

 

temporary higher consultative bodies in Russia in the early 19th century. They were organized by Emperor Nicholas I to discuss plans for various reforms that the government found necessary in view of the Decembrist uprising in 1825 and the peasant disturbances of the 1820’s and 1830’s. The committees dealt mainly with the peasant question. They intended to strengthen the autocratic serf-holding regime through partial reforms and avert the impending crisis of the entire serf-holding system.

The first secret committee was the Committee of December 6, 1826, which was active until 1832. V. P. Kochubei served as chairman and M. M. Speranskii also played a leading role. As the first committee attempted to work out a general plan of state reforms, it influenced all succeeding secret committees. It considered such proposals as the emancipation of the peasants and a ban on setting peasants free without land. Work by this committee led to the recognition of certain ranks of the dvorianstvo (1831) and the honorary rank of pochotnoe grazhdanstvo (1832).

The second secret committee, organized in March 1835, worked out a plan for the gradual abolition of serfdom that would have completely deprived the peasantry of land; this plan was not realized. The second committee also prepared the way for the administrative reform of state peasants. From 1839 to 1842 a third committee held discussions on a proposal by P. D. Kiselev for the introduction of inventory regulations. This committee helped effect the 1842 law on obiazannye krest’iane (obligated peasants). As a result of discussions held in 1840 and 1844, a ukase was issued in 1844 permitting landlords to free dvorovye krest’iane (unlanded peasants) without first granting them land. Particular questions concerning the situation of the peasants were discussed in 1846, 1847, and 1848.

Specialized secret committees were organized periodically. From 1840 to 1843, for example, there were six financial secret committees in operation. In 1848 two secret committees on censorship were organized: the Menshikov Committee and the Committee of April 2, 1848, which was active until 1855. There also were punitive secret committees, which operated jointly with the Synod; these were the Secret Committee on Schismatics and Apostates, active from 1825 to 1859, and the Secret Committee of Higher Church Censorship, active from 1851 to 1860.

The secret committees prepared for the abolition of serfdom in a manner typical of Russian autocracy. The last secret committee, organized on Jan. 3, 1857, under the chairmanship of Emperor Alexander II, undertook to work out measures for the abolition of serfdom. The government was forced to accelerate its work in the face of the approaching revolutionary situation of 1859–61, and in late 1857, Alexander II issued special rescripts permitting the dvorianstvo of a number of provinces to prepare plans for abolishing serfdom. (The plans were prepared under the title “On Arrangements for and Improvement of the Life of Peasants of Landlords.”) After the publication of these rescripts, the preparation of peasant reforms was publicized. In early 1858 the last secret committee became the Central Committee for Peasant Affairs.

REFERENCES

Semevskii, V. I. Krest’ianskii vopros v Rossii v XVIII i pervoi polovine XIX vv, vol. 2. St. Petersburg, 1888.
Alekseev, V.P. “Sekretnye komitety pri Nikolae I.” In Velikaia reforma, vol. 2. Moscow, 1911.
Zaionchkovskii, P. A. Otmena krepostnogo prava v Rossii, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1968. Pages 55–59,68–94.

A. G. TARTAKOVSKII

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