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Absolutism in Russia

Absolutism in Russia

Want to keep your beard? Pay a tax! The 18th-century Russian leader Peter the Great ordered all men who lived in cities to shave off their beards—or pay a tax. He also entirely banned traditional Russian clothing in urban centers in favor of its European counterpart.

Peter the Great enjoyed substantial power and is considered one of Russia's foremost absolutist leaders. In Europe, the age of absolutism was between the 17th and late 18th centuries. In Russia, however, absolute monarchy is associated with the 18th and 19th centuries. Ultimately, absolutism ended by limiting a ruler’s power through a constitution, parliament, or revolution.

Absolutism in Russia, The Barber, 18th century Russian woodcut StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Barber, 18th-century Russian woodcut. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Absolutism (absolute monarchy) is a government in which a single ruler controls the entire state. Usually, the monarch held political power over the nobles and could carry out his decisions using a vast bureaucracy and the military.

Absolutism in Russia: Summary

Muscovite Russia began its rise in the 15th century after overthrowing Mongol rule in 1480, following more than two centuries of vassalage. Tsar Ivan III (1440-1505) began consolidating power and territories around Moscow.

Did you know?

The Russian word "tsar" ("czar") comes from the Latin word "caesar," meaning "emperor." Ivan III was the first Russian ruler to use the term "tsar." Previous leaders used the term "prince" (kniaz) or "grand prince."

In the 17th century, the Romanov dynasty arose after decades of Russian political weakness with Tsar Michael I (1596-1645). Eventually, the Romanov dynasty produced strong leaders such as Peter I the Great and Catherine II the Great in the 18th century. Both rulers consolidated the power of the Russian state, expanded its bureaucracy, carried out reforms, subordinated the nobles, and grew Russia's military might and territorial possessions. These two rulers are usually associated with absolutism in Russia, also called autocracy.

Absolutism continued into the next century with tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I. However, Alexander II undertook significant reforms by the middle of the 19th century, including freeing the serfs in 1861. The changes were gradual, and Russia experienced growing social unrest. In 1906, Tsar Nicholas II attempted to modernize the Russian political system by allowing for a constitution and a Parliament. However, these changes were insufficient. The First World War exacerbated the situation, and Russia ultimately experienced a Revolution in 1917.

Serfs were unfree peasants (farmers) linked to feudal estates owned by the nobility in an agricultural society.

Absolutism in Russia: 17th Century

The early 17th century in Russia is known as the Time of Troubles (1598-1613). The monarchy was weak, and the population declined due to a major famine. There were also questions of royal succession after Fyodor I, one of the last Rurikid rulers, died.

The Rurikid dynasty ruled Russia since the 9th century.

Absolutism in Russia, Painting of Michael I Romanov of Russia, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Michael I Romanov of Russia, Johann Heinrich Wedekind, 1728 (a copy of a 1636) painting. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth invaded and occupied Russia in an attempt to install its rulers in Moscow. In 1612, the Russians successfully expelled the Poles. The following year gave birth to the last Russian dynasty, the Romanovs, who ruled Russia until the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Their first tsar was Michael I (1596-1645). Michael I, was elected by the Zemsky Sobor, a kind of parliament of the nobility. At this time, the Russian rulers were not absolutists.

For example, the country had powerful noble (boyar) factions.

However, the Tsar was able to strengthen the Russian state after the Time of Troubles. He also encouraged eastward expansion through Siberia and toward the Pacific Ocean.

Absolutism in Russia

Russia's late 17th to late 19th centuries is a period of autocracy (absolutism). Russian autocrats had a substantial degree of political power.

Enlightened Absolutism

Enlightened absolutism was the time in European and Russian history when the rulers used the ideas of the Enlightenment to amass more power.

The Enlightenment was a period in European history that focused on rational thinking, scientific development, and individualism.

In Russia, empress Catherine the Great corresponded with the French Enlightenment intellectuals such as Voltaire for about 15 years.

One example of an Enlightened absolutist ruler in Europe is Louis XIV.

Absolutism in Russia: Leaders

Russia had several lifelong monarchs in the time of absolutism, including:

  • Peter the Great
  • Catherine the Great
  • Alexander I
  • Nicholas I

Peter the Great

Peter I the Great (1672-1725) is one of the most important Russian leaders. Inspired by countries like the Netherlands, his reforms sought to make Russia more socially and culturally aligned with Europe.

For example, in 1703, he founded Saint Petersburg, Russia's new northern capital. Modeled and built from scratch in a barren, marshy area, Saint Petersburg's historic buildings reflect Peter's preference for European architecture.

Absolutism in Russia, Portrait of Peter I of Russia, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Portrait of Peter I of Russia, Maria Giovanna Clementi, 18th century. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

In 1721, Peter I began to call himself an emperor and Russia—an empire. He made this decision after a series of significant military victories:

  • Acquisition of Azov (present-day Rostov oblast, Russia) from the Ottomans in the late 1600s;
  • Victory in the Great Northern War (1700-1721) against Sweden.

The latter resulted in Russian expansion into the Baltic and becoming a great power.

Peter facilitated exchanges between Russia and Europe with European specialists working in Russia and Russians studying abroad. Shipbuilding was one key area of growth, along with science and business. He also introduced many reforms through his orders (ukaz) that went beyond Europeanizing the Russian ways.

Catherine the Great

Catherine II the Great (1729-1796) was another influential leader in this period and the longest-ruling woman in Russia. Catherine was of German descent, and her real name was Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She continued many of Peter's initiatives to make Russia an even greater power.

Absolutism in Russia, Painting of Catherine the Great Visiting the Russian Scientist Mikhail Lomonosov, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Catherine the Great Visits the Russian Scientist Mikhail Lomonosov, Ivan Fedorov, 1884. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

Catherine was considered an Enlightened ruler. She communicated with European intellectuals like Voltaire and Diderot and implemented Enlightenment ideas in her initiatives. Catherine promoted arts and sciences and introduced a higher-learning school to educate noble women, the Institute for Noble Maidens. Like Peter, Catherine expanded Russia by acquiring new territories such as Crimea—a strategically important place on the Black Sea.

Social Unrest

Periodically, Russia experienced social unrest and even rebellions. The specific causes varied, but they all presented a challenge to the ruling order.

The Pugachev Rebellion

The Pugachev Rebellion (the Peasants' War), of 1773–1775 was an insurrection by Cossacks and peasants. There were many reasons for this revolt, including serfdom in Russia. Catherine confirmed the nobles' rule over the serfs, who lived in unfair conditions, to consolidate power.

Cossacks were self-governing military people who lived in present-day southern Russia and Ukraine. They often served alongside the Russian Imperial Army.

The rebellion's leader, Yemelian Pugachev, attempted to create an alternative government. At first, his campaign was successful, and Pugachev even captured the city of Kazan. Ultimately, the monarch saw the seriousness of the situation, crushed the rebellion, and publicly executed Pugachev in 1775.

Absolutism in Russia, Yemelyan Pugachev. Execution in Moscow 1775, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Yemelian Pugachev. Execution in Moscow (1775), a pretender to the throne in the reign of Catherine II, A. Rudnev, 1865. Source: Library of Congress, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

The Decembrist Revolt

Another important revolt took place in 1825 between the death of Alexander I and the beginning of the rule of Nicholas I. The uprising took place in December, hence the name of the group. The Decembrists were primarily of noble descent and sought significant liberal reforms that challenged the monarchy. Ultimately, the insurrectionists failed, and the punishment for the majority of those involved was exile in Siberia.

Late 19th-Century Revolutionaries

The second half of the 19th century was a time of intellectual development in Russia, especially in student circles which included radical left-wing, revolutionary ideas. Many revolutionary groups operated in Russia at this time:

  • People's Will (Narodnaia Volia);
  • Land and Freedom (or Land and Will, Zemlia I Volia),
  • the nihilists,

Some members of these organizations were peaceful. Others engaged in terrorism.

The most notable case was the assassination of Tsar Alexader II in 1881 by the People's Will. Paradoxically, Alexander II carried out several liberalizing reforms, most notably, the emancipation reform freeing the serfs in 1861—the same year the United States abolished slavery. However, the radicals thought that these reforms did not go far enough.

Absolutism in Russia, Drawing of The Assassination of Tsar Alexander II, StudySmarterFig. 6 - The Assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the 1880s. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

Absolutism in Russia: Revolution

In the early 1900s, the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, attempted to reform the state and limit his power.

For example, he allowed for a constitution and a Parliament (State Duma) in 1906.

The tsar undertook these reforms after the unsuccessful Revolution of 1905. This event had many causes, including general social unrest and the loss of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. However, these changes were insufficient, and the start of the First World War in 1914 exacerbated the social conditions in Russia.

Ultimately, Tsar Nicholas gave up his throne in March 1917. Interim leaders, called the Provisional Government led by the lawyer Alexander Kerensky, took over in the summer of that year. However, a small radical group of revolutionaries known as the Bolsheviks overthrew this government in November 1917. This time was the end of the Romanov autocratic rule.

Absolutism in Russia - Key Takeaways

  • Absolutism was a form of government in Europe and Russia in which a single person exercised considerable power over the subjects, the legal system, the military, the bureaucracy, and the nobility.
  • Key Russian autocrats (absolute rulers) were Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander I, and Nicholas I.
  • Absolutism declined in Russia from the middle of the 19th century due to reforms, including the emancipation of the serfs (1861) and the introduction of a constitution and a parliament( 1906), and social unrest.
  • The 1917 Revolution ended monarchic rule.

Frequently Asked Questions about Absolutism in Russia

Absolutism developed gradually in Russia. After Russia won its freedom from the Mongol rule of the Golden Horde (1480), its rulers began to consolidate their power and expand their territories. Ivan III (1462–1505) was the first ruler to call himself a Tsar, whereas Peter the Great (1672-1725) began to refer to himself as Emperor. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (1729-1796) are some of the Russian rulers associated with European absolutism. 

In the 18th-19th century, Russian rulers had a significant degree of power. For example, Catherine the Great (1729-1796) was considered an Enlightened absolute monarch. The nobles were subordinate to her and worked with her politically in exchange for keeping their power over the serfs. She was also able to use an extensive bureaucracy to her advantage and the military to expand the borders of Russia.

Absolutism failed in Russia in the early 20th century. There were attempts to give some of the control of the country to the elected Russian parliament (Duma) in 1906 instead of the Tsar. Ultimately, Russia stopped being a monarchy after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Absolutism developed gradually in Russia. From the 16th century, Russian rulers began to consolidate power. Typically, 18th-century monarchs Peter the Great and Catherine the Great are considered examples of absolutism in Russia because they had a significant degree of power over Russia.

Absolutism failed because of the growing dissatisfaction of the people with the Russian monarchy. In the mid-19th century, the Russian tsar undertook liberalization reforms, such as freeing the serfs. However, the problems of the ordinary people compounded in the early 1900s. The tsar attempted to resolve these issues through the Parliament (Duma) (1906). However, the start of WWI (1914) exacerbated the social conditions, and Russia had a Revolution in 1917 that effectively ended the tsar's rule.

Final Absolutism in Russia Quiz

Question

How did Peter the Great obtain his epithet "the great"?

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Answer

He gave it to himself when he declared himself emperor of Russia. 

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Question

Why was Peter the Great's ascension to power so difficult? 

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Answer

People were unsure whether the inheritance should go to Peter, a healthy young boy, or Ivan V, a sickly and mentally-deficient man. Political turmoil ensued. 

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Question

What best describes Peter the Great's Grand Embassy? 

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Answer

An informal trip across Europe under a false identity, meant to obtain alliances and learn from western cultures. 

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Question

What was NOT a reform by Peter the Great? 

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Answer

A formal mandate that all courtly men must wear beards, embracing Russian heritage. 

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Question

How did Peter the Great enforce his reforms? 

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Answer

Through intimidation and force.

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Question

What was the general reaction to Peter the Great's reforms? 

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Answer

General dissatisfaction, then acceptance based on Russian successes in foreign wars.

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Question

What was significant about the year 1721?

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Answer

Peter the Great declared Russia an empire with himself as emperor.

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Question

What was significant about the land in the Baltic that Peter the Great captured through war? 

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Answer

It opened Russia's rising navy up to vast possibilities of new sea trade. 

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What was significant about Peter the Great's death? 

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Answer

He left no clear and long-lasting heir to his throne. 

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Question

How did Peter the Great reform political verticality (the ability to raise your social status) in Russia?

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Answer

He established a civilian and military rank system that determined a person's status based on merit (and not heredity). 

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Question

Who was the first Russian ruler to use the term "emperor"?

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Answer

Peter the Great

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Question

Russia considered itself a successor of which empire?

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Answer

Byzantine Empire

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Question

Which is NOT an aspect of absolutism?

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Answer

A constitution

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Question

Who rebelled against the Russian monarchy in 1825?

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Answer

Decembrists

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Question

When did tsarist rule end in Russia?

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Answer

1917

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Question

When did the Tsar allow for a constitution and a parliament?

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Answer

1906

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Question

What is another term for Russian absolutism?

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Answer

Autocracy

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When did Alexander II emancipate the serfs?

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Answer

1861

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Question

Which Russian ruler wanted to Europeanize Russia?

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Answer

Peter the Great

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Question

Which strategic territory did Catherine the Great acquire on the Black Sea?

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Answer

Crimea

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