Reforming Tsars in 18th Century Russia

In Cynthia Whittaker’s The Reforming Tsar: the Redefinition of Autocratic Duty in Eighteenth-Century Russia, she discusses the idea of the reforming tsar. She specifically explores how this idea shaped the Romanov dynasty, the Russian people, and the emerging country of Russia during the Eighteenth Century. Peter the Great created the idea of the reforming tsar through his reshaping of Russia into an innovative country with a strong European influence. After his death later Tsars began to take on the idea of the reforming Tsar because the people of Russia saw Peter’s reign as successful. The introduction of new ideas and laws became instrumental during each new Tsars reign. Russia wanted to feel like they were leading the change in the world. One of the main points in Whittaker’s article is that the Russian people’s belief in the Reforming Tsar is what kept the Romanov line in power for so long. The line was eventually destroyed because the ideas of the Russian people surpassed the laws of the country.

Some of the main ideas that Peter introduced never came in to fruition but as later Tsars followed his lead a huge change happened in Russia. First Secularization began with Peter taking power away from the church and lessening the amount of people, such as monks and nuns, working in the church. Peter saw the importance of respecting laws and working for the state over the unquestioning faith in God that previously permeated Russia. He certainly did not mean to eradicate the Russian Orthodox Church all together but to lesson its control. His second main idea was expand education throughout Russia. This did not happen until years after his death but many of the Tsars, such as Elizabeth, that follow him showed their position as a Reforming tsar through the expanding of education and the creation or reinstating of colleges. The third was the specification of the Law. Catherine the Great played a huge part in this clarification of how the legal system should run.

The people of Russia were looking for a Monarch who could fulfill the role that Peter the Great created. The folklore about his extraordinary reign spread throughout Russia and made the idea of the Reforming Tsar a requirement. What needs to be acknowledged is that because of the illiteracy of a huge part of Russia the passing down of knowledge through folklore was common. With this comes the problem of changing information and this caused much of the ideals regarding Peter the Great to be exaggerated. Many of his reforms did not actually last but the idea of his power did and it shaped the Romanovs and all of Russia.




Whittaker, Cynthia H. “The Reforming Tsar: The Redefinition of Autocratic Duty in Eighteenth- Century Russia.” Slavic Review 51.1 (1992): 77. Web.

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.

Peter the Great’s top-down reforms

Peter the Great sought to create a nuanced hierarchy of the Russian population. This goal is evident in his system of ranks and orders, which outlines military grades and created a new basis for determining social status. The system represents Peter’s efforts for top-down modernization of his population: he believed that by catering to the needs of the elite classes and bringing them up to pace with Western Europe, he would create a class of leaders that would then bring change to the common and peasant classes. To borrow a term from the Reagan administration, Peter executed his reforms with the belief that an organized court, military, and bureaucracy would create a “trickle-down” effect of lawfulness and order among his whole population.

This “trickle down” system of modernization meant that Peter had to identify and differentiate between the members of the upper, middle, and lower classes of the population. In order to mobilize his administration, he also had to create a hierarchy of command and different grades of civil servants. The Table of Ranks explain the duties of each rank and create a pecking order within the army, navy, and civil sectors. Such a system ensures that each member of the state and political structures know their place within a larger system of governance, eliminating any reasonable grounds for challenging the authority of those with higher power.




Food for thought….Were Peter’s reforms more successful than Reaganomics?

Peter The Great

Peter the Great was a formidable leader, creating an era of heavy changes in Russia as it began to Westernize through his multiple reforms. However, the majority of his reforms tend to focus on social hierarchy and importance of having or obtaining a title for oneself. For example, the Table of Ranks “expressed new definitions of nobility and opened up new avenues of achieving it” ((Kaiser and Marker 228)) in order to suppress the boyars and other nobility from the previous years. Peter the Great desire to create different ways to either obtain nobility or move up the social ladder can be understood as a way to get rid of the old system set in place or as a way to implement western culture in Russian life through the notion of the class system.


Through the enforcement of the Table of Ranks, the chin system was set in place, a “system of rank ordering and niche assignment” ((Kaiser and Marker 232)) . This rank-ordering system created a competition within the people of Russia to try and be the closest to the tsar; the Table of Ranks made it clear how all offices were to interact with each other. Even more importantly, the Table of Ranks “indicated [the officer’s] proximity to the Emperor” (Kaiser and Marker 233). Peter the Great also created ways to give certain people positions higher up in the office, through “birth, time spent in office, or because of skills or actions valued by the Emperor” (Kaiser and Marker 234). Peter the Great’s reforms focused heavily on establishing a social hierarchy in order to continue Westernizing Russia.

Dead or Alive, You’re Coming with Me

As Peter the Great tries to westernize Russia, he enacts many reforms that follow a similar pattern.  One pattern that I was able to discern from the readings was that each reform had a part in limiting the power of the church or Boyars.  The church is seen to be limited with the role of priests.  To become a priest you must be taught by a bishop and formally trained.  A person cannot just decide to be a priest because he wants to reap the benefits of the position.  Priests are not able to make any commercial gains from baptisms or any sort of service.  They are to must represent a good lifestyle and not set a bad example for those around them (RS, 334-36).   Education begins to become a requirement for admission into the elite class as well and you would not be considered for the position of a noble without being educated.  This forced elites to receive an education outside of traditional religious instruction, perhaps undermining the church (RS, 246-49). Peter seems to be at least trying to enact requirements for positions, instead of letting the less qualified gain these positions.

It seems that Peter’s intent for the Table of Ranks was to undermine the power of the Boyars.  The Table of Ranks introduces how rank is attained and clearly displays which classes have more power compared to the others.  One sentence from the eighth statute is striking as it states, “… We shall proffer no rank to those who have rendered no service to Us and the fatherland….”.  This really drives the point that your rank is decided by how useful you are to the state, not entirely by lineage.  If a noble does not follow this rank and acts higher than their rank, they would be fined.  This could’ve been put in place to deter any Boyars trying to act out of place (RS, 228-29).  The factor of lineage is not completely taken out of determining class, but what you are able to do for the state seems to become a more vital part of the process.  

Kneller, Godfrey. 1698. N.p.

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?

Cynthia Whittaker’s “The Reforming Tsar”

Cynthia Whittaker explores how the autocracy changed their own definition of a traditional ruling body into that of one that changes and reforms Russia.  Whittaker claims that the fact that the Russian Autocracy was one of reformist ideals was one of the major reasons why autocracy was allowed to be the predominant governing body for over a century.

Whittaker begins her argument stating that the reforms that the autocracy put in place were “dynamic and progressive” in nature.  Peter was able to intertwine the  the crown and the new reforms that he was putting into place and that this tradition would continue with each new generation.  The Tsar would see to the needs of the people and reform the laws as he/she saw fit.  This way of thinking paved the way to the idea of an enlightened absolutist that would be emulated across Europe.

Whittaker also points out that while other ruler such as Louis XIV named ‘Divine Right’ and Reason d’ etat as the reason why he was allowed to rule, Peter cast away the divine right aspect of his right to rule, instead replacing it with “divine duty”, giving him a more secular and enlightened approach to absolutism.  Peters impressive work ethic also made him stand out among other despots.

Whittaker continues, stating that with this removal of the autocracy and religion, Peter changed the idea of the Tsar of being a paternal ruler, to that of one that is a servant to the state.  With this in mind, the populace now was not solely serving Peter, but they were serving the state that “he was entrusted with”.  He even forced his subjects to swear an oath to the ruler, as well as one to the state.  Additionally, Peter decided that he must determine who is to be the next Tsar and that it may not necessarily be his son.  This supported the idea that Peter was doing everything in his power to strengthen the state, even if it meant he must sacrifice some himself.

What other comparisons and contrasts can be drawn to other European Rulers at the time?

Do you agree with Whittaker?  Was the idea of reformation of law the predominant reason why Tsar’s were able to rule for about a century after Peter’s death?

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.

Peter the Great

Peter the Great strived to shape Russia into a systematic state focused on gaining nationalism through order. Inn 1722 after the Table of Ranks was established to clearly define roles in society however, Peter’s intentions never really formed. Russia’s theme of orderliness is exemplified here. Whether it be house-hold as seen in Domonstroi or general customary law such as the Pravda Russkaia; Russia has always been concerned with the well being of citizens and this was reinforced by the idea of orderliness. The Table of Ranks divided the upper/middle class into categories based on merit. An Admiral, or a chancellor would be a 1 while a artillery man or a college registrar would be a 13 and 14. Ranks were passed down from family and one would marry into a their future husbands rank. Russia has been constantly occupied with turmoil concerning ranks, for instance The Time of Troubles occurred because there was no one in the system to take the throne. Peter the Great intended to leave behind a system in which ranks would be the ultimate decider for claims and fill-ins. One of Peters largest goals was to make Russia more united, thus trying to put in this nationalistic system. He wanted to make Russians, excluded the peasantry, accountable for their state so they took pride in performing their civil duties.

1.) In what ways was “The Table of Ranks” a good idea? bad idea? over ambitious idea?

2.) How did Peter fulfill his goal of making Russia a prouder country?

Peter the Reformer

In general, Peter’s desire to modernize and Europeanize Russia led him to enact changes too quickly without enough thought of the effects on the peasantry. By focusing only on the upper classes of society, Peter created an even sharper division between the elites and the general population. While the elites were forced to embrace modern practices and assimilate these into everyday life, the general population had no understanding of why changes were being enacted, and found the changes to be irrelevant to them. The modernization of Russia was confined to a small group of people in a small area, leaving the rest of the population separate and uninvolved. Peter’s modernization was unnatural in that he did not make plans for it to occur gradually and widespread, but instead imposed many changes extremely quickly, focusing on only a small fraction of the Russian population.

By establishing the Table of Ranks, Peter intended to tie personal interests more closely to the interests of the state. By giving high rank and status to those he deemed to be most useful to society, Peter exercised authority not only over state matters but also over the definition of personal self worth. People were working for the approval of the tsar.