Victoria Frede. Friendship, Secrecy and Dissent in Alexander I's Unofficial Committee

As a young man, Grand Duke Alexander was continually instructed by his Swiss tutor, Frédéric César de Laharpe, to fear the deleterious moral effects of power. The court, Laharpe said, was a place of danger, where physically and ethically corrupt courtiers would paralyze even the best-intentioned ruler. The ideology of Sentimentalism prescribed one recourse: friendship. When Alexander ascended to power, he immediately sought counsel among the men he had befriended in the 1790s: Pavel Stroganov, Viktor Kochubei, Adam Czartoryski, and Nikolai Novosil’tsev. These became the UnofficialCommittee. This lecture is to show how the vocabulary of Sentimentalism, including its emphasis on intimacy, friendship, and virtue, influenced the workings of the Unofficial Committee and helped dictate the terms on which the friends interacted with the young monarch, including the manner in which they sought to demarcate friendship from favoritism. It also investigates how and when the expression of dissent was possible, both during the years of the Unofficial Committee’s existence (1801–03) and afterwards. Such dissent was secret, in the sense of taking place behind closed doors, and it could not be otherwise: as Habermas has shown, the very category of public criticism was still in the process of being sanctioned in European political life at this time.Secrecy had an additional set of meanings for the group, however: it served a legitimating function. Simmel’s theories can be applied here to show why, from the point of view of the participants, secrecy symbolically underscored the committee’s elect status and guaranteed its moral purity.