Father of the Fatherland: A Modern Tsar

The concept of a “reforming tsar” as a secular and progressive position is interesting, given the long history Russian rulership has with the Orthodox Church.  Indeed, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century the tsar was a far cry from the parallel monarchs of Western Europe. He was assumed to be a protector of the lower “castes,” and, bound in such a role, was unable to provide the domineering influence necessary of a true autocratic ruler to provide guidance.

Peter the Great did away with the notion of the tsar as a servant of God, replacing it with the concept of subservience to the state as a whole.  Such an ideological shift provided the motivational impetus necessary to seize the power and “modernize” Russia, as it were.  Peter set into place a concept that would become the crux of tsarship until the destruction of the position in 1917. With Peter’s fascination with Western Europe, and the modernizing reforms that followed, came the idea among the Russian people that it was appropriate, if not necessary, for the tsar to take it onto himself to be a vessel for change.

Cynthia Whittaker posits that is was the concept of the “reforming tsar” that allowed the autocracy to survive so long, and abandoning the idea was what brought the position to an end.  To be accepted as a worthy ruler of the people, the tsar had to be responsible for bringing innovation.  In fact, many subsequent tsars claimed a connection between their own reforms and Peter’s, to feed off of the legitimacy of his innovation.

At the dawn of the 19th century, however, reform was no longer tied to Peter, but viewed as an intrinsic duty of the office of tsar.  The concept of a single authority as the only political entity capable of fomenting change is reminiscent of the early Roman emperors, dictators to free the state from the floundering of a bloated and fractured ruling body.  The title “Most Pious Tsar” was shed in favor of “Father of the Fatherland,” a decisive move to represent the primacy of a tsar’s mortal responsibilities over his religious ones.

An interesting thought is the parallel between the concept of the tsar’s duties as “Father” and the duties of a father in a traditional Russian household demonstrated to us in earlier sources.  Both represent harsh realities of leadership and made use of a strong hand to instill discipline as the father saw fit.



Peter the Great, First Father of the Fatherland (1672-1725)

Whittaker, Cynthia. “The Reforming Tsar: The Redefinition of Autocratic Duty in Eighteenth-Century Russia.” Slavic Review no. 51 (1992): 77

The Era of Conservative Reform

Peter the Great’s hectic reign was characterized by a flurry of reforms dragging Russia into the modern era. In Cynthia Whittaker’s “The Reforming Tsar: the Redefinition of Autocratic Duty in Eighteenth-Century Russia” she discusses the emergence of enlightened absolutism initiated by Peter. Before Peter, a “good Tsar” was a man whose first obligation was to preserving the Orthodox faith; Peter redefined what it meant to be sovereign of Russia by establishing the superiority of the state over the church. He commanded that people not kneel in front of him in order to ensure the clear differentiation between God and the Tsar. The goal of enlightened absolutism was a “trickle down” effect of enlightenment and knowledge. Peter considered himself an example for his people who would hopefully learn to be as industrious and curious as he was, thus creating a generally more intelligent and efficient populace. Peter’s legacy was more influential than his own reforms as he became the model for Tsars for nearly two centuries after his death.

“Peter praise” as Whittaker called it, was the likening of a sovereign’s intentions to those of Peter’s, and it became a necessary component of a Tsar’s perceived legitimacy among the people. Every new autocrat following Peter’s death claimed he or she would continue Peter’s works and it gave him or her legitimacy. Even the most weak and ineffectual of rulers, such as Peter’s niece Anna Ivanovna, maintained a level of support as long as they continued to issue some type of reform. When Catherine II (The Great) ascended to the throne in 1762 she legitimized herself by reforming the senate, the armed forces, and secularizing church lands. She was granted the title “The Great” by the senate after she had issued the progressive Nakaz which gave principles for how high government officials and the Tsar should act. In the 1770s, scholarly opinion of Catherine began to turn as many began to be concerned with unlimited monarchs inevitably becoming tyrants. This trend continued and many Russians started to believe that the only way a Tsar would ever forsake absolute power in favor of a constitutional monarchy would be if a successful revolution occurred. This revolution would not occur until 1917, but the autocracy held power for the century leading up to it partially thanks to the myth of the “reforming Tsar.” It was assumed by some that if each new sovereign continued to issue progressive reforms, the development of some form of constitutional monarchy was inevitable, but the reforms served only to delay the collapse of enlightened absolutism.







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Works Cited

Whittaker, Cynthia. “The Reforming Tsar: The Redefinition of Autocratic Duty in Eighteenth-Century Russia.” Slavic Review no. 51 (1992): 77.




The French Political and Cultural Revolutions

****Response to Friday’s prompt that I was having issues posting
The transition from absolutism to enlightenment brought a new set of societal ideals that impacted both the political and social structure of France. By turning the hierarchical political system on its head, a significant cultural revolution was bound to accompany it.
Kant, in his analysis of enlightenment described it as man’s ability “to make use of understanding without direction from another” (Kant 1). This new emphasis on reason and self-reliance very directly confronts the old absolutist hierarchy, where everyone is reliant upon those higher in the social/political estate system. Similarly, Turgot also reflected on these changing principles by underlining the self-sufficient providers and farmers of the third estate as the most important part of society. This in hand with economic hardship and ideological influences from the American Revolution encouraged the third estate to fracture from the old absolutist system in favor of one where each individual voice had the opportunity to express his opinions.
France’s cultural revolution tailed on the heels of the countries crumbling political structure. As the estate system turned upside down, individuals began searching for their voice in the new system. During the absolutist regime the church was a huge part of the broken political system, so symbols of this past regime were abolished as quickly as possible. A new calendar was erected, churches were renamed, and names of former Kings and Queens were banned. This vast cultural upheaval was a direct reflection of the political upheaval that had just taken place. People simply wanted out with the old and in with the new. In this case, the old was marked by the church and monarchs and the new was marked by reason.
Another huge cultural phenomenon that was intertwined with the political revolution was a newly born French nationalism. In La Marseilles, a new French identity is expressed in lyrics such as “sacred love of the fatherland, guide and support our vengeful arms” (Modern History Source Book 1). People who had fought together suddenly identified with their fellow countrymen, and culture began taking on a French identity instead of a regional one. This would again connect with the political phenomenon of the former third estate having a say in political affairs; people had a reason to unite culturally after having united politically. Having a new voice in the system, those in the far corners of France suddenly felt more connected to the capitol.

Moving away from Absolutism

France endured centuries of Absolute Monarchs that spent much of their kingdom’s wealth on lavish buildings, monuments, and other signs of status, while the common people, known as the third estate, remained poor, hungry and devoid of power.  Though the third estate lacked power through the traditional estate system, as the clergy and nobility could overrule their political ambitions, it consisted of 96% of the French population.  Because it held the overwhelming majority of the population, members of the third estate believed that they should hold more power over France’s decisions.  Thus power was subsequently moved away from absolute rulers, nobility, and clergy and towards the third estate.

One of the most profound demonstrations of this shift was the change from the state following Catholicism to supporting more general Deist practices.  Revolutionaries saw the clergy as a corrupt entity created to justify a Monarch as well as being a way to neutralize the common man’s power in the estate system.  Therefore, revolutionaries aimed to reduce its power by shifting France’s religion to Deism.  This meant that the clergy and nobility would have less power over the third estate.  Likewise, it meant that the third estate now had control over their own religious preferences and would not have to pay to the church.

Another shift away from the past Absolutist ways of France was the general condemnation of royalty.  Children were prohibited from receiving names of past kings such as Louis, Francis, or Henry.  Kings and queens where removed from games such as chess and cards.  The general attitude of disapproval of royalty was promoted by members of the third estate as they realized their power as their society’s majority.

France underwent a shift away from absolutism towards democracy.  Much of the government supported by the revolutionaries had roots to the Greek concepts of equality and free thought.  These ideas mixed with the third estate’s desire to have political input and led France in its modernization and ultimately its rejection of Absolutist practices.