Enlightened Despots in Russia: Reforms & Goals

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  • 0:06 Enlightened Despotism…
  • 0:42 Definition
  • 1:21 Peter the Great
  • 4:35 Catherine the Great
  • 6:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the term enlightened despotism and the two rulers that most closely resemble enlightened despots in eighteenth-century Russia, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

Enlightened Despotism in Russia

The odds are often stacked against change. The powers that be usually don't have a vested interest in changing a system from which they profit, and people in general have trouble adjusting to things that upset their daily lives. Therefore, great changes throughout history often occur at the junction where important movements and great personalities meet. In eighteenth-century Russia, two great rulers, the Czar Peter the Great and the Empress Catherine the Great, embraced the learning and methodology of Western Europe to bring Russia into the Early Modern period. This began the era of European-style enlightened despotism.

Definition: Enlightened Despotism

Enlightened despotism and its equal, enlightened absolutism, are terms historians use to describe the policies of several eighteenth-century European monarchs. They're despots, or absolutists, because they continuously worked to centralize all the power within their nation in the monarchy at the expense of provincial nobles and national or provincial assemblies. It may seem like kind of a paradox, but a lot of these despots also embraced the Enlightenment, an eighteenth-century intellectual trend which espoused rational thought, empiricism, and individual rights and liberties. These monarchs attempted to improve their states by implementing Enlightenment ideals, while maintaining and enhancing royal control over state affairs.

Peter the Great

Born the fourteenth child of the Czar Aleksey I in 1672, Peter's path to greatness was not initially clear. After his father's death in 1682, Peter had to do one of the hardest things any young boy has to do: he had to learn to share. Peter was named joint-Czar with his older half-brother, Ivan. Ivan was clearly favored by the Moscow elite and Peter was forced to live outside Moscow with his mother in partial political exile.

Peter's exile turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He was allowed to learn and mature outside of court life, gaining passions for sailing, military games, and math. Later, Ivan's sister was displaced from the regency, causing Peter to gain considerable power at the Russian court. When Ivan died in 1696, Peter ascended to the throne as Czar Peter I.

Soon after taking the throne, Peter centralized power in the monarchy by ruthlessly breaking the power of the Boyars, the traditional nobles in Moscow. He continued to marginalize the Boyars throughout his reign, often by elevating accomplished advisors and generals of lower social rank to important positions normally reserved for the Boyars. With his place on the throne secured, Peter set off on a grand European tour. Sometimes he traveled in disguise, visiting schools, factories, and museums, learning about European practices. He also tried to garner allies for Russia in its fight against the Ottoman Turks on its southwestern border.

Peter returned to Russia and began immediately implementing reforms and practices he had learned in his time abroad. Prior to Peter's rule, Russia had been a mostly landlocked country with little need for a navy. Peter realized the importance of a port with easy access to Europe, so Peter began building a navy and reforming the land forces. To gain his port, Peter waged a twenty one-year war against the Swedish Empire, and gained his Baltic port by 1721. In celebration he declared Russia an Empire, and himself the first Russian Emperor.

Peter was not solely content with increasing trade relations with the eighteenth-century European powers, and he implemented hard-line social and cultural reforms to Europeanize Russia. For example, the Russian nobility were forced to cut their long beards and wear European-style dress. You might not think Peter could've possibly enforced this, but supposedly he cut off the beards of several of his courtiers in a fit of rage when they complained.

Peter's absolutism was not felt only by the nobility; the Russian Church also had its power wrested from it and placed in Peter's Russian state. Peter also sidelined the Church by opening up some of Russia's first secular schools. With Peter's modernizations and Europeanization of Russia in full swing, he began to build Russia an entirely new capital on the Gulf of Finland in 1703. Naming it St. Petersburg after his namesake, he moved the Russian capital there in 1712.

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