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Ultimately, it was the power of autocracy that bound different social strata and various ethnic groups of a gigantic empire together. The word ‘autocracy’ refers to a regime which concentrates power in the hands of an absolute ruler (‘autocrat’).  Russian autocracy rested on the concept of the traditional ‘God-given’ power of the Russian tsar. Its sanctity and legitimacy were further enhanced by the idea that Moscow was the ‘third Rome’. It allowed the ideologists of autocracy to present the Russian state as the heir to the might of Byzantium (the ‘second Rome’) and, indeed, of Rome itself. Russian tsars could thus claim for themselves the supreme status enjoyed by Byzantine and Roman emperors.

The highly personalized system of rule in Russia had, however, deep, native roots of its own. The concept of the state in Russia was originally derived from the role of the head of the extended family in the early peasant society. The father was sovereign of the household, an autocrat in the broadest sense of the word. He literally owned all the property of the clan, and all its members bowed obediently to his will. Like the father of an extended family, the Russian prince emerged as the owner of his subjects and all the territory in his principality. After the Russian lands had been gathered into one centralized state, the tsars continued to treat its land and people as their property. No Western monarch could apply to himself with greater justification Louis XIV’s famous dictum: ‘L’etat c’est moi!’ than the Russian tsars.

Ivan the Terrible. Painting by Vasnetsov

Even in the age of absolutism, Western monarchs could not disregard certain unwritten rules of society. They had to reckon with the interests of powerful social groups like the nobility and the bourgeoisie, and they often faced opposition in the form of a parliament, or municipal councils, or self-governing religious bodies. In contrast, the absolute rule of the tsars met with no opposition from society. The Russian autocrat was a towering figure at the pinnacle of the pyramid of state, exercising total power in the country. There were no recognized formal limits on his political authority and no rule of law to curb his arbitrary will. The entire business of government was under his command, including the appoint-ment of senior officials, the imposition of taxes, the issuing of legislation, questions of war and peace and government expenditure. As for the individual liberties of his subjects, they existed only inasmuch as they were granted by the tsar.

The state like the Russian autocracy, which completely dominates society and treats its subjects as its property, is sometimes referred to as a patrimonial state. It stifles the freedom of private and public life, inhibits the development of mature civic consciousness in its subjects and prevents the emergence of organized associations and self-governing bodies that would represent interests of different sections of society. In short, it suppresses all those things which characterize modern forms of political life of the state. While modern pre-democratic structures began to evolve in Western Europe in the eighteenth century, and by the middle of the nineteenth century parliamentary democracies and constitutional monarchies had been established throughout almost all of Europe, Russia, practically right to the very end of tsarism in 1917, remained firmly in the grip of autocracy.

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Pre-Petrine Russia

Origins of Kievan Rus
Emergence of Muscovy
Imperial Expansion
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"Service State"
Consolidation of Serfdom
Vast Powers of the State
Traditional Society
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Tsarist Russia

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Peter the Great
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