Most of the tsars of the
Romanov dynasty were personally well-educated and
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.
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
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
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
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).