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Most of the tsars of the Romanov dynasty were personally well-educated and civilised men and women. Many of them came close to the realization of the need to transform Russia into a constitutional monarchy and recognized the historical inevitability of political change. Thus, Catherine the Great regarded highly Montesquieu’s political ideas, including his concept of the separation of powers, and strove to transform Russia’s tyrannical government into an enlightened one.  

Her grandson, Alexander I, entrusted his liberal-minded minister Speransky to draw up plans of a complete reform of the Russian political system, which envisaged separation of powers, local self-government, civil rights for all sections of the population, and a national legislative assembly. His nephew, Alexander II, even seriously considered the introduction of a constitution (Loris-Melikov’s plan), when his life was tragically cut short by the terrorist bomb.

The great social upheaval of the Revolution of 1905-1907 finally compelled his grandson, Nicholas II, to institutionalize the principle of the separation of powers (and even then in a very truncated form) and to introduce basic civil freedoms. However, this change was too little and too irresolute to bring Russia’s political system up to the standards of the European civilization of the twentieth century. Despite the Petrine Europeanization, Catherine’s ‘enlightened absolutism’, Alexander I’s liberal aspirations, the liberal reforms under Alexander II and the constitutional experiment under Nicholas II, the basic, essential features of Russia’s political system were still practically unchanged in the early twentieth century from what they had been in the seventeenth century.

In spite of their worthy upbringing and European education (and, one may also add, sometimes non-Russian lineage), the Romanovs remained essentially a very Russian dynasty, whose mentality was deeply rooted in the conditions of life in Russia and whose ability to effect change was severely constricted by Russian realities, such as the special status of nobility, the country’s industrial backwardness and the conservatism of many sections of the population. Russian absolutism has been often portrayed as the unchallenged authority of the supreme ruler resting on the support of the ruling class of the nobility, or on the balance of power between groups of the nobility and the bourgeoisie, or even on the popular support of the peasantry. However, such characterizations of the three hundred year rule of the Romanovs often loose sight of the very significant personal aspect. 

Each of the Romanovs, despite the seemingly unlimited nature of his or her power, was not absolutely free to do what he or she liked and was often vulnerable and insecure both as a ruler and as a human being. Few of the Romanovs lived to die peacefully. Some of them were murdered as a result of a coup d’état or an assassination (Peter III, Paul I, Alexander II), others were deposed and imprisoned and later killed, like Nicholas II. Others still passed away in rather mysterious circumstances (Peter I, Alexander I, Nicholas I). Only the earliest tsars of the dynasty and also Catherine the Great and Alexander III did not meet their end in some tragic way. Yet even Catherine had to risk her life in the struggle for the throne, while Alexander III, after the murder of his father, made himself a voluntary prisoner at his suburban palace of Gatchina in fear of the regicidally-inclined revolutionaries.

Even more insecure and dependent on the fortunes and will of the ruler was the position of the tsars’ ministers and favorites, such as Speransky, Witte, or Stolypin. These able statesmen had to use all their political skills to preserve the balance between  the interests of the ruling elite and the country’s national interests, for these often were not the same. Reform-minded officials usually had to elaborate their reform plans in the deep secrecy of government privy committees and were always in danger of incurring disfavor of their royal patron (Witte), or falling into disgrace and being sent into exile (Speransky) or assassinated (Stolypin).

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The End of an Empire

 

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