The tsarist autocracy[a] (Russian: , transcr. tsarskoye samoderzhaviye) refers to a form of autocracy (later, absolute monarchy) specific to the Grand Duchy of Muscovy (which later became Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire).[b] In a tsarist autocracy, all power and wealth is controlled (and distributed) by the tsar. They have more power than constitutional monarchs, who are usually restricted by law and counterbalanced by a legislative authority.
This system has also been described by the following terms: imperial autocracy,[c] Russian autocracy,[d] Muscovite autocracy,[e] tsarist absolutism,[f] imperial absolutism,[g] Russian absolutism,[h] Muscovite absolutism,[i] Muscovite despotism,[j][k] Russian despotism,[l] tsarist despotism[m] or imperial despotism.[n]
For the history of the term as applied to rulers in the Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire, see Tsar (Russia).
The Tatar Yoke and the Mongol ideas and administrative system are credited with bringing the culture exhibiting some characteristics of an oriental despotism to Russia.[b] Absolutism in Russia gradually developed during the 17th century and 18th centuries, replacing the despotism of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. Ivan III built upon Byzantine traditions and laid foundations for the tsarist autocracy, a system that with some variations would govern Russia for centuries.
After a period of disorder known as a Time of Troubles, the first monarch of the Romanov dynasty, Michael of Russia was elected to the throne by a Zemsky Sobor ( or "assembly of the land"). During Michael's reign, when the Romanov dynasty was still weak, such assemblies were summoned annually. However, the Romanov dynasty consolidated absolute power on Russia during the reign of Peter the Great, who reduced the power of the nobility and strengthened the central power of the tsar, establishing a bureaucratic civil service based on the Table of Ranks but theoretically open to all classes of the society, in place of the nobility-only mestnichestvo which Feodor III had abolished in 1682. Peter I also strengthened the state's control over the church (the Orthodox Church). Peter's reform caused a series of palace coups seeking to restore the power of the nobility. To end them, Catherine the Great, whose reign is often regarded as the high point of absolutism in Russia, in 1785 issued the Charter to the Nobility, legally affirming the rights and privileges they had acquired in preceding years, and the Charter of the Towns. establishing municipal self-government. This placated the gentry; however, in fact, the real power rested with the state's bureaucracy. This was built on by later Tsars. Alexander I established the State council as advisory legislative body. Although Alexander II established a system of elected local self-government (Zemstvo) and an independent judicial system, Russia did not have a national-level representative assembly (Duma) or a constitution until the 1905 Revolution. The system was abolished after the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The center of the tsarist autocracy was the person of the tsar himself, a sovereign with absolute authority. The rights of state power in their entire extent belonged to the tsar. Power was further entrusted by him to persons and institutions, acting in his name, by his orders, and within the limits laid down for them by law. The purpose of the system was to supposedly benefit the entire country of Russia. A metaphor existed likening tsar to the father, and all of the subjects of the Empire, to his children; it was even used in Orthodox primers. This metaphor is present in the common Russian expression "царь-батюшка", literally "tsar-dear father".
Furthermore, unlike western monarchies who were subjugated (in religious matters) to the Pope, the Tsar of the Russian Empire was the supreme authority on religious issues (see Church reform of Peter I and caesaropapism for details).
Another key feature was related to patrimonialism. In Russia the tsar owned a much higher proportion of the state (lands, enterprises, etc.) than did Western monarchs.
The tsarist autocracy had many supporters within Russia. Major Russian advocates and theorists of the autocracy included the world famous writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail N. Katkov, Konstantin S. Aksakov, Nikolay Karamzin, Konstantin Pobedonostsev and Pyotr Semyonov. They all argued that a strong and prosperous Russia needs a strong tsar, and philosophies of republicanism and liberal democracy are not fit for Russia. To the common people, the tsar was seen as responsible for all good in their lives, while all disasters came from meddling bureaucrats, functionaries, and nobles.
In Poland, tsarist autocracy has been analyzed more critically by Stanisław Mackiewicz.
Some historians see the traditions of tsarist autocracy as partially responsible for laying groundworks for the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. They see the traditions of autocracy and patrimonialism as dominating Russia's political culture for centuries; for example, Stephen White wrote that Russian political culture is "rooted in the historical experience of centuries of absolutism." All of those views had been challenged by other historians (for example, Nicolai N. Petro and Martin Malia (as cited by Hoffmann)).
Some historians have pointed to a racial element in the concept. Cold War analysts, including George Kennan, linked the Soviet government's autocratic rule to Tatar influences during its history, and biographies of Russian leaders often stressed their possible Asiatic ancestries. They maintained that Asiatic influences rendered the Russians, along with the Chinese, untrustworthy.
a As used in those publications
b The existing literature pairs the words Russian, tsarist, Muscovite and imperial with despotism, absolutism and autocracy in all possible combinations, rarely giving clear definitions. Tsarist can be indeed applicable to the entire period (see also historical usage of the term "tsar"), but Muscovite is applicable only to the period of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which was replaced by tsardom of Russia, a period for which the words imperial and Russian are applicable. Further, we can look at Muscovite despotism as a precursor for the tsarist absolutism, however, the very use of the word despotism has problems (see following note). Finally, care should be taken with the term autocracy: today, autocrat is usually seen as synonymous with despot, tyrant and/or dictator, though each of these terms originally had a separate and distinct meaning. Overall, out of the available terms, "tsarist autocracy" is the one which seems most correct for the entire period discussed, but it is worth keeping in mind that there are no ideal types, and that the Russian political system evolved through time.
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k It should be noted, however, that terms oriental despotism and its development, the Muscovite or Russian despotism, have been criticized as misleading, since Muscovy, and Russia, never had characteristics of pure despotism, such as the ruler being identified with a god).
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