Serfdom and Autocracy in the Eighteenth Century Essay

Serfdom and Autocracy in the Eighteenth Century Essay

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Czarist Russia
Gennady Shkliarevsky
Spring 2010

In the eighteenth century, Muscovy was transformed into a partially westernized and secularized Russian state as a result of the rapid and aggressively implemented reforms of Peter the Great (1694-1725). Yet Peter I’s aspirations to bring Europe into Russia became problematic at the end of his reign, when his efforts eventually culminated in an absolutist autocracy and an entrenchment of serfdom into Russian life. Paradoxically, it was precisely these two institutions that were beginning to be criticized and indeed threatened by developments in Europe towards the outset of the eighteenth century. As the eighteenth century progressed, however, we see that the institution of autocracy began to falter while the institution of serfdom among the peasantry was amplified. This can be attributed to the fact that both Peter I and Catherine II implemented changes that were narrowly focused on elite groups and therefore did not penetrate the full spectrum of social strata. In consequence, by the end of the eighteenth century, social structures were noticeably unbalanced: the state had less control on the gentry, who in turn secured a tighter yoke on the peasantry. In light of these long-term historical developments, then, this paper attempts to examine three questions. First, did the institution of autocracy become strengthened or compromised throughout eighteenth-century Russia? Similarly, in what direction was the institution of serfdom headed? Finally, what relationship did the two institutions have on each other?
The Petrine reforms set about reinventing and restructuring Russia in a European image. To achieve this, it was necessary for Peter the Great to be sole arbitrator. The go...

... middle of paper ...

... as to denounce the idea of serfdom, but in the result of her advisors’ criticisms, she omits the section in her final draft. Ultimately, Catherine was not able to carry out all of the promises in the Nakaz due to the growing circumscription of her power by Court and political elites.

The two paramount institutions of Russia’s eighteenth century, autocracy and serfdom, had profound influence each other despite the fact that more often than not, the impact that they had on one and the other was indirect. To complicate matters, the historical evolution of each of the two institutions proceeded on their own paths. The institution of serfdom was already entrenched in Russian life before Peter the Great’s accession and continued after Catherine the Great’s death. The absoluteness and strength of autocracy, however, vacillated through the course of the century.

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