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Catherine the Great and Absolute Power

Catherine the Great was the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796. During her reign she exercised nearly complete control over all aspects of Russian government. She epitomized absolute power in a way that many other monarchs of the period could only dream of. There was no legislature to check her will. She was the final arbiter of appointments and advancements within the government and military. She worked tirelessly to direct both domestic and foreign policy involving herself in many levels of decision making. Furthermore, she was nearly immune to revolts, attempted coups, and uprisings within her borders. Given the level of power and control she exercised, the question arises as to why she was so successful.

I believe her success was due to her recognition that she ruled alongside the people rather than against them. Even though her power was absolute, it was never independent of the people. This is clearly shown in her attempt to bring about “enlightenment” reforms early in her reign. In her youth, she was enthralled by the ideas of equality and liberty that were popular in Europe at the time. She wanted to reform the unjust treatment of the serfs in Russia. She wanted to create a new, modern code of laws that was more coherent and just. However, when she assembled an enormous commission made up of representatives from all the parts of the Russian social order, no consensus could be adopted. The various social groups were unwilling to compromise or give up what they had. At that juncture, Catherine could have tried to force implementation of the reforms that she thought would be “good” for her country. Instead, she decided that she must give up on many of her goals and ideals and rule in accordance with what is possible, rather than what is ideal.

Not every Russian monarch was as wise. Her immediate predecessor was her husband Peter III, and her immediate successor was her son Paul I. Both of these men attempted to institute drastic changes in many areas of the political and social order. Peter III was deposed after six months, and Paul I was assassinated after five years.

Catherine’s decision to rule alongside the wishes of her advisors and people was carried on throughout her reign. It is perhaps best shown in a quote from the biography Catherine the Great by R. Massie. After her death, one of her former administrators was explaining this to her grandson, Emperor Alexander I.

The subject was the unlimited power with which the great Catherine ruled her empire. … I spoke of the surprise I felt at the blind obedience with which her will was fulfilled everywhere, of the eagerness and zeal with which all tried to please her.

“It is not as easy as you think,” she replied. “In the first place, my orders would not be carried out unless they were the kind of orders which could be carried out. You know with what prudence and circumspection I act in the promulgation of my laws. I examine the circumstances, I take advice, I consult the enlightened part of the people, and in this way I find out what sort of effect my laws will have. And when I am already convinced in advance of good approval, then I issue my orders, and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience. That is the foundation of unlimited power. But, believe me, they will not obey blindly when orders are not adapted to the opinion of the people.”

Catherine’s understanding and use of power is illustrative of all governmental power. There is a relationship between the people and the government, no matter what type of government exists. We may think that a monarchy is not subject to the will of the people in the way that a democracy is. This is partially true, but not completely. No ruler or party or aristocracy can rule contrary to the people’s will for long. Even brutal despots cannot maintain power without some level of acquiescence.

In our day, we may lament that our own government goes against the will of the people. Perhaps there is some truth to that. But I think it is more to the point that our government reflects only too accurately exactly what the people really want.

 

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