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Tsarist autocracy

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Tsarist autocracy

The tsarist autocracy[a] (Russian: царское самодержавие, transcr. tsarskoye samoderzhaviye) refers to a form of autocracy (later, absolute monarchy) specific to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy (which later became Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire).[b] In a tsarist autocracy, all power and wealth is controlled (and distributed) by the tsar.

Alternative names

This system has also been described by the following terms: imperial autocracy,[c] Russian autocracy,[d] Muscovite autocracy,[e] tsarist absolutism,[f] imperial absolutism,[g] Russian absolutism,[h] Muscovite absolutism,[i] Muscovite despotism,[j][k] Russian despotism,[l] tsarist despotism[m] or imperial despotism.[n]


For the history of the term as applied to rulers in the Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire, see Tsar (Russia).

The Tatar Yoke and the Mongol ideas and administrative system are credited with bringing the culture exhibiting some characteristics of an oriental despotism to Russia.[1][b] Absolutism in Russia gradually developed during the 17th century and 18th centuries, replacing the despotism of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Ivan III built upon Byzantine traditions and laid foundations for the tsarist autocracy, a system that with some variations would govern Russia for centuries.[2][3]

After a period of disorder known as a Time of Troubles, the first monarch of the Romanov dynasty, Michael of Russia was elected to the throne by a Zemsky Sobor ( or "assembly of the land"). During Michael's reign, when the Romanov dynasty was still weak, such assemblies were summoned annually. However, the Romanov dynasty consolidated absolute power on Russia during the reign of Peter the Great, who reduced the power of the nobility and strengthened the central power of the tsar, establishing a bureaucratic civil service based on the Table of Ranks but theoretically open to all classes of the society, in place of the nobility-only mestnichestvo which Feodor III had abolished in 1682.[4][5][6] Peter I also strengthened the state's control over the church (the Orthodox Church).[4] Peter's reform caused a series of palace coups seeking to restore the power of the nobility.[7] To end them, Catherine the Great, whose reign is often regarded as the high point of absolutism in Russia, in 1785 issued the Charter to the Nobility, legally affirming the rights and privileges they had acquired in preceding years, and the Charter of the Towns, establishing municipal self-government. This placated the gentry; however, in fact, the real power rested with the state's bureaucracy.[7] This was built on by later Tsars. Alexander I established the State council as advisory legislative body. Although Alexander II established a system of elected local self-government (Zemstvo) and an independent judicial system, Russia did not have a national-level representative assembly (Duma) or a constitution until the 1905 Revolution.[8] The system was abolished after the Russian Revolution of 1917.


The person of the tsar himself, a sovereign with absolute authority, stood at the center of the tsarist autocracy.[9] The rights of state power in their entire extent belonged to the tsar. The autocrat further entrusted power to persons and institutions, acting in his name, by his orders, and within the limits laid down for them by law. The purpose of the system was to supposedly benefit the entire country of Russia.[9] A metaphor existed likening the tsar to a father, and all of the subjects of the Empire, to his children; this metaphor even appeared in Orthodox primers.[10] This metaphor is present in the common Russian expression "царь-батюшка", literally "tsar-dear father" or "tsar, little father".

Furthermore, unlike in western monarchies subject (in religious matters) to the Pope, the Russian Empire combined monarchy with the supreme authority on religious issues (see Church reform of Peter I and caesaropapism for details).

Another key feature related to patrimonialism. In Russia the tsar owned a much higher proportion of the state (lands, enterprises, etc.) than did Western monarchs.[11][12][13][14][15][16]

The tsarist autocracy had many supporters within Russia. Major Russian advocates and theorists of the autocracy included the world-famous writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky,[3][17] Mikhail N. Katkov,[18] Konstantin S. Aksakov,[19] Nikolay Karamzin,[17] Konstantin Pobedonostsev[3][9] and Pyotr Semyonov. They all argued that a strong and prosperous Russia needed a strong tsar, and that philosophies of republicanism and liberal democracy did not fit Russia.[3] The common people saw the tsar as responsible for all good in their lives, while all disasters came from meddling bureaucrats, functionaries, and nobles.

In Poland, Stanisław Mackiewicz (1896-1966) provided a critical analysis of tsarist autocracy.


Some historians see the traditions of tsarist autocracy as partially responsible for laying groundworks for the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union.[2][3][20][21] They see the traditions of autocracy and patrimonialism as dominating Russia's political culture for centuries; for example, Stephen White wrote that Russian political culture is "rooted in the historical experience of centuries of absolutism."[22] All of those views had been challenged by other historians (for example, Nicolai N. Petro and Martin Malia (as cited by Hoffmann)).[20]

Some historians have pointed to a Tatar influences during its history, and biographies of Russian leaders often stressed their possible Asiatic ancestries. They maintained that Asiatic influences rendered the Russians, along with the Chinese, untrustworthy.[23][24]

See also


a ^ As used in those publications

b ^ The existing literature pairs the words Russian, tsarist, Muscovite and imperial with despotism, absolutism and autocracy in all possible combinations, rarely giving clear definitions. Tsarist can be indeed applicable to the entire period (see also historical usage of the term "tsar"), but Muscovite is applicable only to the period of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which was replaced by tsardom of Russia, a period for which the words imperial and Russian are applicable. Further, we can look at Muscovite despotism as a precursor for the tsarist absolutism, however, the very use of the word despotism has problems (see following note). Finally, care should be taken with the term autocracy: today, autocrat is usually seen as synonymous with despot, tyrant and/or dictator, though each of these terms originally had a separate and distinct meaning. Overall, out of the available terms, "tsarist autocracy" is the one which seems most correct for the entire period discussed, but it is worth keeping in mind that there are no ideal types, and that the Russian political system evolved through time.

c ^ As used in those publications

d ^ As used in those publications

e ^ As used in those publications

f ^ As used in those publications

g ^ As used in those publications

h ^ As used in those publications

i ^ As used in those publications

j ^ As used in those publications

k ^ It should be noted, however, that terms oriental despotism and its development, the Muscovite or Russian despotism, have been criticized as misleading, since Muscovy, and Russia, never had characteristics of pure despotism, such as the ruler being identified with a god).[3][25][26]

l ^ As used in those publications

m ^ As used in those publications

j ^ As used in those publications


  1. ^ Donald Ostrowski, The Mongols and Rus': Eight Paradigms, in Abbott Gleason, A Companion to Russian History, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, ISBN 1-4051-3560-3, Google Print, p.78
  2. ^ a b Peter Truscott, Russia First: Breaking with the West, I.B.Tauris, 1997 ISBN 1-86064-199-7, Google Print, p.17
  3. ^ a b c d e f Peter Viereck, Conservative Thinkers: From John Adams to Winston Churchill, Transaction Publishers, 2005 ISBN 1-4128-0526-0, Google Print, pp. 84–86
  4. ^ a b Nicolai N. Petro, The Rebirth of Russian Democracy: An Interpretation of Political Culture, Harvard University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-674-75001-2, Google Print, p.34-36
  5. ^ David R. Stone, A Military History of Russia: From Ivan the Terrible to the War in Chechnya, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006, ISBN 0-275-98502-4, Google Print, p.59
  6. ^ Paul Bushkovitch, Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671–1725, Cambridge University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-521-80585-6, Google Print, p.118
  7. ^ a b Nicolai N. Petro, The Rebirth of Russian Democracy: An Interpretation of Political Culture, Harvard University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-674-75001-2, Google Print, p.36-39
  8. ^ Nicolai N. Petro, The Rebirth of Russian Democracy: An Interpretation of Political Culture, Harvard University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-674-75001-2, Google Print, p.48
  9. ^ a b c Stephen J. Lee Russia and the USSR, 1855–1991: Autocracy and Dictatorship, Routledge, 2006 ISBN 0-415-33577-9, Google Print, p.1-3
  10. ^ Robert D. Crews, For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia, Harvard University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-674-02164-9, Google Print, p.77
  11. ^ Deborah Goodwin, Matthew Midlane, Negotiation in International Conflict: Understanding Persuasion, Taylor & Francis, 2002, ISBN 0-7146-8193-8, Google Print, p.158
  12. ^ Nicolas Spulber, Russia's Economic Transitions: From Late Tsarism to the New Millennium, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-81699-8, Google Print, p.27-28
  13. ^ Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait, University of California Press, 1977, ISBN 0-520-03194-6, Google Print, p.356-358
  14. ^ Richard Pipes, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture, Yale University Press, 2007, ISBN 0-300-12269-1, Google Print, p.181
  15. ^ Catherine J. Danks, Russian Politics and Society: An Introduction, Pearson Education, 2001, ISBN 0-582-47300-4, Google Print, p.21
  16. ^ Stefan Hedlund, Russian Path Dependence: A People with a Troubled History, Routledge, 2005, ISBN 0-415-35400-5, Google Print, p.161
  17. ^ a b James Patrick Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker: A Philosophical Study, Cornell University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-8014-3994-9, Google Print, p.171-172
  18. ^ Richard Pipes, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture, Yale University Press, 2007, ISBN 0-300-12269-1, Google Print, p.124
  19. ^ Nicolai N. Petro, The Rebirth of Russian Democracy: An Interpretation of Political Culture, Harvard University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-674-75001-2, Google Print, p.90
  20. ^ a b David Lloyd Hoffmann, Stalinism: The Essential Readings, Blackwell Publishing, 2003, ISBN 0-631-22891-8, Google Print, p.67-68
  21. ^ Dennis J. Dunn, The Catholic Church and Russia: Popes, Patriarchs, Tsars, and Commissars, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2004, ISBN 0-7546-3610-0, Google Print, p.72
  22. ^ Nicolai N. Petro, The Rebirth of Russian Democracy: An Interpretation of Political Culture, Harvard University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-674-75001-2, Google Print, p.15
  23. ^ Michael Adas (2006). Dominance by design: technological imperatives and America's civilizing mission.  
  24. ^ David C. Engerman (2003). Modernization from the other shore.  
  25. ^ Donald Ostrowski, Muscovy and the Mongols: Cross-Cultural Influences on the Steppe Frontier, 1304–1589, Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-521-89410-7, Google Print, p.85
  26. ^ Tartar Yoke Professor Gerhard Rempel, Western New England College

Further reading

  • Paul Dukes, The Making of Russian Absolutism, 1613–1801, Longman, 1986
  • Marshall T. Poe, "Russian despotism" : the origins and dissemination of an early modern commonplace. Thesis (Ph. D. in History). University of California, Berkeley, 1993.
  • Hugh Ragsdale, The Russian Tragedy: The Burden of History, M.E. Sharpe, 1996, ISBN 1-56324-755-0
  • Richard Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime, (Penguin 1995), ISBN 0-12-024768-8

External links

  • Excerpts from Statesman's Handbook for Russia. By the Chancery of the Committee of Ministers, St. Petersburg. 1896.
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