Cynthia Whittaker and the Reforming Tsar

In her article “The Reforming Tsar: The Redefinition of Autocratic Duty in Eighteenth Century Russia” published in Slavic Review in 1992, Cynthia Whittaker claims that the reign of Peter the Great and his reforms led to an era of new rulers with a new mentality and aim of becoming a “reforming tsar” instead a “good tsar.”

Overall, this is a reflection of how Peter’s reign changed rule in Russia.  Firstly, the transition from “good tsar” to “reforming tsar” marks how Peter transitioned Russia from a medieval era to a modern one.  The connotation behind a “good tsar” is one that’s tied more to passivity as well as a strong upholding of the Russian Orthodox faith. The connotations change when addressing the notion of a duty to the people as well as the state, ensuring reform happened for “the common good.”

Whittaker goes on to summarize how Peter’s reign was succeeded by a string of incompetent heirs until Catherine the Great came to rule after a coup d’etat.  In this time (especially during the reign of Anna) Russians looked back to the time of Peter with great nostalgia.  There was a theme to this nostalgia by evidence Whittaker presents of how tales of Peters came into popular culture through traditional legends, such as when “he [brought] two lovers together, save[d] a child from a burning hut, execute[d] a foreman for mistreating his coal miners” (pg. 89).  This entails that Peter the Great was a hero of the common-folk.  His deeds set expectations for his successors from all levels of society.

Because Peter the Great set these expectations of new monarchs, being a “reforming tsar” was a new role they had to fulfill, and each one, especially Catherine II, took the notion of a “reforming tsar” to fit the need and time period of their reign.  For example, when she ascended to the throne, she stated ” . . . state your grievances, say where the shoe pinches you.  We will try to reform it.  I have no particular system.  All I want is the common good” (pg. 92).  Her reforms included reorganization of the Senate, secularization of church land, improvements in town planning and in medicine, as well as new commercial policy, among other things (pg. 92).  Like Peter, her reforms brought enlightenment to Russia and she was able to be a contemporary “tsar of reform” for her time.

Question for class:

Whittaker mentions it is astounding the autocracy could survive until 1917, which is partially due to how the notion of a “reforming tsar” became myth.  What else could have led to the tsar system’s survival for so long?

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