Reforming Tsars, Good Tsars, and Tsars in General

Cynthia H. Whittaker talked about how a “good tsar” often gets confused with a “reforming tsar,” and how it may be best to think of someone like Peter the Great as a “reforming tsar.” She seems to re-message and re-package how we think of tsars in a way that we should think of good ones not as “good” but as “reformers.”

Peter the Great Pic

Peter the Great, who is defined by some as an example of a “good” or “reforming” tsar. Image courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica.

But the confusing thing about this reading was that, while the author critiqued Mikhail Gorbachev’s definition of a “good tsar”[1] she presented all sorts of different definitions of a “good tsar” that have been mentioned over the centuries. In one part, she seemed to define a “good tsar” as someone who “had represented stability and a kingly duty to preserve the status quo.”[2] She also admits that the definition of a “good” or “true” tsar was different yet at some other points of Russian history: a “good tsar” was supposed to be, “a wise patriarch, an impartial and merciful judge, a protector of the downtrodden, open to petitioners and humble enough to seek good advice and avoid flatterers.[3] Then there was the notion of doing something for the “common good”–this was something brought up multiple times over the course of the article.

So while I see what Cynthia H. Whittaker was trying to do in talking about what a “good tsar” was compared to a “reforming tsar,” her exact view on what it meant to be a “good tsar” was either confusing to me, or I missed the point. Or maybe what it means to be a
“good” or “reforming” tsar is too subjective for me to ever get a full grasp of.

What do you think a “good” or “reforming” tsar looks like, and how have any of the rulers we’ve studied embody what it means to be a “good” or “reforming” tsar?


[1] Cynthia Whitaker, “The Reforming Tsar: The Redefinition of Autocratic Duty in Eighteenth-Century Russia.” Slavic Review 51 (1992): 77.

[2] Ibid, 78.

[3] Ibid, 81.


Whittaker, Cynthia. “The Reforming Tsar: The Redefinition of Autocratic Duty in Eighteenth-Century Russia.” Slavic Review 51 (1992): 77-98.

Gorbachev: What were his Aims?

Gorbachev was a reformer without question, but to what end? What were the aims of his reform attempting to achieve?  Gorbachev was not a Stalinist era child, he was a Khrushchev child.  Khrushchev was the first General Secretary to introduce new reforms to the Soviet Union since the reign of Stalin.  All of his policies were centered around forgetting Stalin and his dark era.  Gorbachev saw this as a child and learned that Khrushchev would be remembered as the “Great Reformer” by many.  Others would see him in another way as simply a bad Communist and a weak leader.  When it was Gorbachev’s turn to take the office of General Secretary, he would attempt to re-emulate his policies in his “Glasnost”, “Perestroika”, and other general policy shifts.  The time for the Soviet Union to reach modernity was now in the mindset of Gorbachev, he felt that in order to achieve this his country must have a sense of free speech and purpose.  Less spending on the military as well as withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and more open trade in the international market meant more profit and capital for the people of the USSR.  These were a few of Gorbachev’s aims  and goals during his office as a social reformer.

Gorbachev’s Naiveté?

Was Gorbachev either incredibly trusting or naive? Even though both Kohl and Baker verbally and somewhat transparently agreed that NATO would not extend its border east if the Germanies rejoined, it seems unreasonable to believe that these two things could happen simultaneously. How could one-half of a country belong to NATO and the other half not? Comparatively this is like saying that any state west of the Mississippi River is not to belong to NATO. A situation of further divide is unlikely terms for any forming nation. It poses too many challenges and restricts the ability to protect half of their citizens if an uprising should happen. Before further negotiations, Gorbachev should have demanded that written correspondence record this understanding.

Saying all of this, I empathize will Gorbachev for the substantial and pressing issues that his country was enduring. The Berlin Wall falling was a surprise to everyone. While President Reagan had made speeches stating that the wall must fall, it was a general assumption that it would not happen. I was 10 years old, when it was broadcast on the nightly news. My father called me into the living room demanding me to watch the TV. He fully acknowledged that I would not understand what was happening, but that in time I would. It was important to watch this historic event transpire. Many around the world watched their televisions, watching in amazement as this remarkable event transpired.

Relations with the US and Russia had made tremendous progress during Reagan’s presidency. Unfortunately, the termination of this relationship spawned from shifting and unwritten communications.


In the book, 1989, Mary Elise Sarotte used her book to look at the final days of the Soviet Union and the events that helped cause the collapse of the Soviet Union.  She argued that the events in China did not “transfer to Europe”, the easing of tensions by the Americans first and then the Soviets, the East Germans demanding a change in “the status quo”, “self confidence increase”, and “television transforms reality at a crucial moment.” ((Mary Elise Sarotte. 1989: The Struggle To Create Post-Cold War Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. 16.))

One of the more crucial points and one of the more striking things to me, that Mary Sarotte made was the impact the media, particularly television, had on the end of the Soviet Union.  During this section, using the example of the Berlin Wall, she wrote how the media scrambled to get to the wall to capture images of East and West Berliners tearing down the wall.   She discussed how the media not only observed the events but they had also publicized and personalized the events going on.  In particular, she noted two people in East Berlin, “reporter Georg Mascolo and his cameraman Rainer Marz of Spiegel-Tv” who not only took pictures but also filmed the events going on in the East. ((Mary Elise Sarotte. 1989: The Struggle To Create Post-Cold War Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. 43.)) During and after the events of the Berlin Wall, photos and footage of the events showed up in Western Media as well as in Eastern German media.  This was significant to the downfall of the Soviet Union because it not only showed the west how ugly events were getting, but it also spurred on more Eastern Germans to take part in separating themselves from the Soviet Union.

Sarotte on the Factors of the Soviet Union’s Collapse

In “1989”, Mary Elise Sarotte questions the factors at play in the fall of the Soviet Union. In her first chapter, she discusses the changes that occurred in 1989 and argues that the Soviet Union’s collapse was propelled as a result of changes within the Soviet Union’s internal status quo, unstable relations with between Americans and Soviet politicians, and changing international relations in Europe. She also points to the looming fear of nuclear warfare that characterized the Cold War and defined the era in general. She argues that “technology of both weapons and surveillance [as a result of constant threat of nuclear war]…created a unique era” (Sarotte 13). This fear led to both the United States and the Soviet Union to negotiate arms treaties and nuclear disarmament programs. These discussions were led by Reagan and Gorbachev in the 1980s and was considered internationally to be a step towards better cooperation between the two superpowers. However, despite these advances in foreign policy and relations, “the [American] public wanted more” (Sarotte 15). Sarotte argues that this step towards nuclear disarmament was perceived by subsequent president Bush as a policy in the United States’ foreign policy towards the Soviet Union, thus leading bush to refocus his political aggression back on the Soviet Union. However, Sarotte goes on to show that a European stance towards non-violence had cultivated by 1989, and thus the fear of nuclear warfare was dissipated.

In her analysis of the factors that contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union, Sarotte paints Gorbachev as a progressive leader trying to “producing a better socialism, not an imitation of social democracy” (Sarotte 14) whose reforms were stalled by Bush’s shift in his policy towards the USSR. She also claimed that Gorbachev’s new thinking policy, well-intentioned as it was, was not able to withstand the demands that it set upon itself. She claims that this policy “raised expectations among the broader population that he could not fulfill” (Sarotte 15). Openness, the opportunity to voice concerns and the doors to opposition were opened. This led to a rise of opposition parties throughout Eastern Europe, and this newly harnessed freedom gave rise to a national self-confidence (in East Germany and Eastern Europe) that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Is Sarotte implying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable? How instrumental was Gorbachev in this collapse and how much of it was due to the underlying problems that had been stacked on top of each other for the preceding 60 years?

Whittaker- The Dual Autocratic Identity

Whittaker’s thesis and stance on the reforming of Russia encompasses the two mentalities of Russia: the conservative history under autocracies and the desire for progress. She mentions that because Russians had only ever truly been governed under a strong, authoritarian leadership that there was an expectation of that way of societal structure (as nothing else had ever been implemented) where the state always came before the individual. However, she importantly notes the contrast that was brought about by reforming tsars. Once reforms were initiated into society, people began to demand more and more of their government and continuously wanted more and more reforms for a better way of life (as seen, and referenced in this article, to Mikhail Gorbachev with glasnost and perestroika). Thus, as western ideas flooded into Russia, the Russians constantly asked for more- but still under the mixed ideology of being under an authoritarian government. This left the tsars in a place where they had to continue to modernize Russia culturally yet maintain much of the control that had been taught to them as the way to govern Russian society.

Thatcher and Gorbachev

3 Points:

1. Thatcher realizes that Gorbachev and her have different prerogatives but shows a willingness to cooperate as long as each side gets what they want.

2. The most important detail regarding each country’s foreign policy is to make sure there is no chance at a presumed “World War III”. Each side realizes that would be disastrous to their own country’s interests and domestic policy, so they will go to great lengths to avoid such an event.

3. Each country realizes that they are one of the main powers in the world at this point in time; therefore, it is very important that they stay on good terms with each other. Thatcher wants to have as much interaction as possible with the Soviets so that they may build up their relationship with one another – if this is done it could be wildly beneficial to both parties.

2 Questions:

1. What is the single most important action that these countries could take in order to build a stronger relationship? I believe that if they get a strong trade agreement (or trade in general) that the countries would benefit enough economically that they wouldn’t go to war with one another. Strong economic ties usually equals a friendly relationship between two countries.

2. Which of the two leaders do you believe Thatcher would want to lead Russia into the future: Gorbachev or Chernenko? Why?

Interesting Observation:

I know it is probably because she is giving the interview, but I just feel like Thatcher is the one taking the initiative between her and Gorbachev. She seems to have a solid plan in place for what she wants out of the “relationship” and is leading the deliberations between the two leaders.


Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin

Substantive Points

  1. United States President Ronald Reagan gave this speech on June 12, 1987 in West Berlin. The speech was televised globally (including East Berlin) with the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin wall as a key backdrop. President Reagan announced to the German people that he joined them as their fellow countrymen and firmly believed that there is only one Berlin. He stated, “as long as this gate is closed, as long as this scare of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind.” The President saw the Berlin wall essential to the future of not only Berlin, but also Europe as a whole.
  2. President Reagan denounced the communist world for its failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, and starvation. He then compared the failures of communism to the successes of the Western world. Reagan concluded, “freedom leads to prosperity,” and that the West welcomes change and openness of the East to progress toward world peace.
  3. Reagan acknowledged the rapid economic growth and progress happening in Europe. He saw the Soviet Union needed to decide whether to join in on the prosperity or remain isolated and become obsolete. President Reagan ultimately demanded General Secretary Gorbachev of the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin wall and join the West in their hopes of advancement of world freedom and peace.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How is President Reagan approaching Gorbachev and the Soviet Union in this speech?
  2. What do you think would have happened if the wall did not come down? How would this have affected the outcomes of the Cold War?


  1. It is interesting to note that while Reagan proposed trust between the Soviet Union and the United States, we seem to be at a crossroads on this issue today.

CIA Intelligence Assessment: Rising Political Instability Under Gorbachev

3 Points:
  1. December 1988, Gorbachev delivered a “watershed” speech at the United Nations that demonstrated his growing liberalization efforts. All of these efforts would create a less intrusive force in the eastern bloc, as shown be attempts to decrease the military forces prevalent there and the amounts of armaments used.
  2. President Bush saw these as empty promises; pointing out how despite the perception that Gorbachev was creating opportunity for the people in the Soviet Union, their standards of living remain very low- similar to as they were under Stalin. He says that economic issues (he frequently describes it with the word “stagnate”) and political differences from what the people enjoyed under Brezhnev, has caused unrest within the people.
  3. Bush predicts that this unrest from the populous will cause a threat to Gorbachev’s control, and that “the next several years promise to be turbulent” because of the idea that there will be a split in leadership under Gorbachev between those that want to continue these reforms and those that do not.
2 Questions:
  1. Why did the Bush administration think that accepting Soviet reforms would “divide the US from its NATO allies” if they should also want a less aggressive military presence from the USSR?
  2. What was the Soviet response to this criticism of their leader and his liberalization efforts?
1 Observation:
  1. Even when presented with liberalization from the USSR, the United States and its NATO allies still appear to distrust the sincerity of it. The description notes that the Bush administration was divided on whether to accept these as genuine efforts or to question if this was simply a ploy to make the US more accepting of Soviet actions. After creating a “strategic review” of the foreign policy on this issue, it is evident that the US determined a cautious stance towards these actions, overall questioning the efforts of the USSR to alter its stances from the past.
Link to the specific section:

Perestroika and 100 wilted flowers

Perestroika and glasnost  were terms Gorbachev used to embody his cultural reforms and openness to Western influence. The Chinese, too, had a period of openness. In 1956 Mao said that,  “The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science.” This “100 Flowers Movement” was ended in 1957 with political persecutions. Both Communist powers handled political dissonance in the second half of the 20th century differently, with the USSR embracing and the Chinese silencing controversy.  Though, to look at it all now, the USSR has been disbanded and China is still heavily controlled by a limited ruling class.

In 2009, Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov with a button that said “Peregruzka — Reset.” The word peregruzka, presented in the Latin and not the Cyrillic alphabet, would translate as “overload” instead of “reset”. Lavrov noticed the error immediately. Given this anecdote, should the United States continue to remain closed to foreign influences and cultures? Russia had a period of openness and voluntary consumption of foreign goods, whereas China had tried to limit all culture through administrative measures. Can the United States thrive on their genetically modified single-crop harvests, or will they eventually need to open themselves up to the world’s hundred flowers?