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.

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.×300.jpg


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.

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?