He did not at once dismiss Panin or Pahlen, who had arranged the death of his father; he feared their power, and was not sure of his own innocence; he needed Pahlen and his police to keep Moscow quiet, and Panin to deal with England, whose fleet, after destroying the Danish Navy, was threatening to do the same to the Russian. Britain was appeased; the Second League of Armed Neutrality collapsed. Pahlen was dismissed in June, Panin resigned in September, 1801.
On the first day of his reign Alexander ordered the release of thousands of political prisoners. He soon dismissed the men who had served Paul as counselors, or as agents in his terroristic measures. On March 30 he brought together “twelve high officials least mistrusted,”17 and formed them into a “Permanent Council” to advise him in legislation and administration. He called to his side, some from banishment, the most liberal of the nobles: Count Viktor Kochubey as minister of the interior, Nikolai Novosiltsov as secretary of state, Count Pavel Stroganov as minister of public instruction, and, as minister of foreign affairs, Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, a Polish patriot reconciled to Russian sovereignty. These and other departmental heads, together, constituted a Committee of Ministers, serving as another advisory council. As still another adviser Alexander recalled La Harpe from Switzerland (November, 1801) to help him formulate and coordinate his policies. Under this executive structure was a senate of nobles with legislative and judicial powers, whose ukases or decrees (corresponding to the senatus consulta under Napoleon) had the force of law unless vetoed by the czar. Provincial administration continued to be by appointees of the central government.
All this resembles the imperial constitution under Napoleon, except for the lack of a popularly elected lower chamber, and the continuance of a serfdom quite devoid of political rights. Alexander’s advisers, in his first years of rule, were liberal and well-educated men, but (in Napoleon’s phrase) they were “subject to the nature of things.” In that context “rights” seemed to be fanciful abstractions in the face of necessities—for economic and political order, for production and distribution, defense and survival—in a nation ninety percent composed of strong, unlettered peasants who could not be expected to think beyond their village. Alexander was subject to a powerful nobility almost self-sustained by their organization and local rule of agriculture, the judiciary, the police, and rural industry. Serfdom was so deeply rooted in time and status that the Czar did not dare attack it for fear of disrupting social order and losing his throne. Alexander received complaints sent up from the peasants, and in “many cases he inflicted severe punishments on the guilty owners,”18 but he could not build upon such cases a program of liberation. Sixty years would pass before Alexander II (two years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation) succeeded in freeing the serfs of Russia. Napoleon, returning defeated from Russia in 1812, found no fault with his victorious foe in this matter. “Alexander,” he told Caulaincourt, “is too liberal in his vision and too democratic for his Russians;… that nation needs a strong hand. He would be more suited to the Parisians…. Gallant to women, flattering with men… His fine bearing and extreme courtesy are very pleasing.”19*
Within the imposed limits Alexander made some progress. He managed to free 47,153 peasants. He ordered the laws to be reduced to system, consistency, and clarity. “Basing the people’s welfare on the uniformity of our laws,” said his explanatory rescript, “and believing that various measures may bring the land happy times, but that only the law may affirm them forever, I have endeavored, from the very first day of my reign, to investigate the conditions of this department of the state.”20 Accusation, trial, and punishment were to follow a definite and prescribed procedure. Political offenses were to be tried before ordinary courts, not before secret tribunals. New regulations abolished the secret police, forbade torture (Paul had forbidden it, but it had continued throughout his reign), allowed free Russians to move about and go abroad, and allowed foreigners to enter Russia more freely. Twelve thousand exiles were invited to return. Censorship of the press remained, but it was placed under the Ministry of Education, with a polite request that it be lenient with authors.21 The embargo on the import of foreign books was ended, but foreign magazines remained under the ban.
A statute of 1804 established academic freedom under university councils.
Alexander realized that no reform could prosper unless supported and understood by a wide proportion of the people. In 1802 he gave to the Ministry of Education, aided by Novosiltsov, Czartoryski, and Mikhail Muraviov, the task of organizing a new system of public education. A statute of January 26, 1803, divided Russia into six regions, and called for at least one university in each region, at least one secondary school in each guberniya, or province, at least one county school in each county seat, and at least one primary school for every two parishes. To the existing universities at Moscow, Vilna, and Dorpat were added universities at St. Petersburg, Kharkov, and Kazan. Meanwhile the nobles maintained tutors and private schools for their children, and orthodox rabbis bade Jewish parents boycott state schools as devious devices for undermining the Jewish faith.22