European History Pt. 32 — Enlightened Despotism in Russia

Last time I looked at how the 1700s went under the rule of enlightened despots in Prussia and Austria. Now I want to turn to Russia, and maybe a little bit of England.


After Peter the Great died in 1725, the Russian empire was thrown into turmoil, partially because Peter the Great had been so great, and partially because he had killed his own son, preventing an obvious succession.

Things kicked along, in complete chaos, until the throne was seized by an ambitious young German woman named Catherine (in 1762). She was named Catherine “the great” by posterity, but the book makes clear that there was very little reason to bestow that name on her. I mean, yea, she was ruthless as heck, but that doesn’t usually qualify someone as a “great” in history.

At first, she may have flirted with idea of ratcheting down the intensity of serfdom, but any desire on that front soon faded when in 1773, Pugachev’s rebellion took place. A Don Cossack Emelian Pugachev, rebelled in a particularly theatrical way, when he declared himself head of Russia and created a fake court to follow him around. The serfs, laboring under brutal conditions, LOVED HIM. This sympathy necessitated extreme repression. P’s rebellion was “the most violent peasant uprising in the history of Russia.” Repression came in the form of an even more concrete bargain between the monarchy and nobles. The nobles got free reign over their serfs, but the government got taxes and soldiers in return (and some random other stuff).

Catherine also had a blatantly expansionist and cynical foreign policy. In a word, her policy was to take anything and everything. She participated in the first partition of Poland and went to war with the Turks, which was largely successful. Then she went back and got Austria involved too, but this second movement against the Turks was interrupted by the French Revolution, at which point, everyone decided to adopt an attitude of “wait and see,” with their territorial ambitions.

The book closes this section with some pretty interesting points about despotism generally (which I’ve looked at here). The book makes the point that enlightened despotism was the culmination of monarchy, which had been a historically (so the book says) progressive force in European politics. At this time though, the monarchies again banded with the church (uniting “altar and throne”) as well as overrode the Society of Jesus, abolished the Parlement of Paris, and wrote Poland off the map (partially). The king wanted a unified, equal people, However, monarchy could go no further. It had appeased the powerful classes over and over. Joseph’s attempt at revolution got his rulings overturned, and Russia, as we just saw, went the way of landlordism as did Prussia. After the French Revolution, Kings and monarchies would become decidedly out of fashion, retrograde, and decrepit.


The book makes the point that the end of the 18th century ushered in a wave of popular unrest as the people, for the first time ever, organized into a political unit (remember, this is not the proletariat or anything like it. This is the people as middle class, Burghers or Bourgeois). This wave of democratic sentiment would not crest until after 1848. This period is sometimes called the “Atlantic Revolution”

The revolutionary rumblings of this time were not always anti-monarchical. Indeed, one of the first revolutions took place in 1768 in Geneva, where the target was an elite and decayed aristocracy.

Also, the goals of these revolutions were not a welfare state or even the end of property, or even a widespread kind of suffrage.

Instead, these revolutions were a demand for liberty and equality where this meant that “the people” a classless term for a legal group of heterogeneous class. The people meant to be equal in the sense that there were no longer privileges for different strata of society. The people were sovereign in that there was no higher power of government than the people taken together.


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