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In order to bring out more clearly the difference between Russian and European absolutism, it is helpful to introduce a distinction between absolute and arbitrary government. In reality the fundamentals of the Russian monarchy had more in common with the principles of arbitrary autocracy than those of eighteenth century absolutism.  Under arbitrary governments all subjects are serfs or slaves of the supreme power, for everything in reality belongs to the ruler. The ruler has unlimited powers over not  only the property, but also the lives of his subjects. The only law is the arbitrary will of the monarch. 

Beneath the veneer of Catherines enlightened absolutism was the bedrock of arbitrary autocracy.  To quote the Russian historian Michael Bogoslovsky: [T]he whole social structure of the State, from top to bottom, was marked by the brand of bondage.  All social classes were enslaved.  The Russian imperial court modeled upon Western lines, dazzling foreigners by its splendor and brilliance, the principal medium for the introduction of European society - was in actual fact nothing but a vast serf-holding estate.

However, some very important modifications to the age-old set-up of Russian society had developed by the end of the eighteenth century. The traditional organization of the Russian service state, in which the land, the peasants and the government service of the gentry had represented interconnected elements of an integrated system, was destabilized. The  original consensus of the service state was being eroded by the growth of social polarization and by the deepening of divisions between the main social groups. Some of the main elements of the old system were changed. Particularly significant was the evolution of the ruling gentry class which, in a comparatively short period of time, had obtained a new legal status. Having achieved its own emancipation from the obligation of government service, the gentry were strongly against liberating their serfs.             

On the whole,  this second attempt since Peter the Great to mobilize the remaining resources of the autocratic-serfdom system  was barely sufficient to enable Russia to make her entry into the nineteenth century.  The potential of the traditional system had been exhausted. Serfdom was now clearly the chief obstacle to the process of modernization of the country. Its perpetuation led to the ever widening gap in levels of development between Russia and the leading countries of Western Europe. With every new generation the possibility of a crisis loomed larger and larger.  

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Catherine the Great

 

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