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Arbitrary Autocracy?

The Revolutionary Masses

Catherine’s efforts were lauded and acclaimed by contemporary European powers which warmly welcomed Russia into the charmed circle of the enlightened monarchies.  But in reality Russian absolute monarchy (in the European sense) still retained many characteristics of a feudal society. In the eighteenth century there was no longer any Western monarch who possessed the degree of power wielded by the Russian tsar.  Western monarchs could not disregard the unwritten rules of society, which since ancient times had come to be expressed in the formula describing the monarch as ‘first among equals’. 

 
Catherine the Great

Western ‘absolutism’, even at its height, was never truly absolute.  The monarch’s authority was limited by the power of the church, by strongly established privileged classes, by provincial autonomies and local charters, by powerful economic interests, by accepted traditional customs and rights such as those of petition or of non-political association.  The rights of the individual may have been an unrecognized abstraction, but the rights and the effective powers of the various social groups constituted a formidable force that put limits on the power of the monarch. Not even after the granting of the Charter of  the Nobility did anything faintly resembling such a system make its appearance in Russia.

The nobility could be deprived of their new-found privileges at the stroke of a pen - as Paul I, Catherine’s son and successor, was to show. Their privileges, their possessions and even their continuing existence as a class became in the long run more dependent on the State than ever before. The gentry continued to live, as before, in the conviction that the government would provide them with an appointment and guarantee their livelihood. The Russian autocrat remained a towering figure at the pinnacle of the pyramid of state, exercising total power in the country.  The absolute rule of the tsar met with no opposition from society.  True, there were spontaneous popular revolts like that led by Pugachev, but their leaders themselves often harbored autocratic aspirations and would have assumed the throne if the opportunity arose. (Pugachev, for one, claimed to be Peter III deposed and murdered by Catherine in 1762 with the help of the guards officers loyal to her.)        

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Catherine the Great

 

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