, Research Paper
How absolute were the 18th Century Tsars?
When asking how absolute a monarch is, we need to pay attention to the groups of people that surround that monarch. The aristocracy, the church and the army all played an important part in the running of an 18th century state, and without the support of these powerful elites, it is arguable whether or not the monarch in question would have had the opportunity to be absolute at all.
At the beginning of the 18th Century Tsar Peter the Great was in power and consolidating his reputation. Whilst growing up Peter had been greatly influenced by Western ideas and believed that success for Russia lay in opening up to the West. Peter was the first Tsar to venture into the west and was thus convinced of Russia s backwardness. His strengths lay in foreign policy, and the expansion Russia experienced due to this. Peter introduced a number of reforms to Russia that were aimed at changing every aspect of life.The role of the nobility in Russia under Peter was enlarged and modernised, he stressed the importance of noble status wresting on indivual merit rather than hereditary nobility. Although a table of stamps was introduced older nobles whose families had been so for more than 100 years remained their hereditary titles. It must be remembered that Peter was reliant upon the nobility for their state service in administration and bureaucracy, and to provide military recruits. Under Peter, serfs were treated badly and were used as a fixed source of taxes for the state. Serfs also were recruited into the state army to keep up the supply of men. It was Peters decision to tie the peasants to the noble rather than the land, and this decision was made as a compensation for the nobles service to the state. This meant that the burden of taxation almost wholly fell upon the peasantry as nobility were exempt from paying taxes. By the end of Peters reign it could be considered that Russia was more absolutist than it was before he came to power as his policies were seen as transformations rather than reforms.
The Tsars that succeeded Peter were more often than not the result of court factions. The Imperial guard, which Peter had created to protect himself, turned out to be a manipulating force when it came to the succession. The throne was still not considered hereditary at this point. A succession of short lived reigns followed and the Tsars such as Catherine I or Empress Anna were merely puppets. It wasn t until the successful coup that brought Elizabeth to power that Russia regained a powerful Tsarina. Elizabeth reigned for twenty years, but she was not real absolute monarch as she left decisions and policy making to a small advisory council.
The last main reign of the 18th century was that of Catherine the Great. She too ascended to the throne successfully after a coup. Under Catherine Russia experienced good relations with other European powers, although at time these were strained by her expansionist policies. Catherine liked to present herself as an enlightened despot, but again, she was another Tsar who heavily relied on the support form those around her.
Catherine was well read in the works of enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, and especially Voltaire, this shaped her influence towards humanitarian policies. However, despite the influence of such writers, Catherine s main aim was to maintain power at any cost. Her position was in constant danger by other people who had more legitimate claims to the throne, her husband before his death, the imprisoned Ivan VI, and even her own son Paul were all eager to get the throne. Alarmed by the French revolution and the Pugavhov rebellion, Catherine began to institutional reform in the 1770 s. These reforms were conservative and careful not to cause too much upheaval for any groups that had political power.
In my opinion, it is a romantic view to consider the Tsars of the 18th century absolute . There were other factions that they relied heavily upon for their personal power, and these factions could not be ignored or trampled upon.