Academic journal article Kritika

Proof of Sincere Love for the Tsar: Popular Monarchism in the Age of Peter the Great

Academic journal article Kritika

Proof of Sincere Love for the Tsar: Popular Monarchism in the Age of Peter the Great

Article excerpt

It is a commonplace among historians that subjects in tsarist Russia held a high regard for the power of the tsar. (1) This phenomenon, frequently referred to as "naive monarchism," (2) contends that commoners (i.e., peasants, lower- class townspeople, Cossacks) revered the ruler in their own distinct way, contrasting the image of the "good" tsar with that of his "wicked" boyars and counselors, or, in extreme cases, the image of a "good" tsar with his opposite, a false or "bad" tsar. (3)

Indeed, many declarations to this effect from loyal subjects of the tsar have survived to this day. However, from time to time, scholars have voiced doubts about the sincerity of these pronouncements. For instance, the Soviet historian Pavel Ryndzuskii argues that assertions of peasant monarchism "were, as a rule, based on a most literal reading of the regular forms of address used by 'subjects' in their petitions to the authorities, including petitions brought 'to the tsar' [na vysochaishee imia], formulaic expressions of supplication employed to increase the effectiveness of one's petition or prescribed by official regulations on presenting petitions." (4)

Noted insults and defamations of members of the ruling dynasty constitute another argument put forth by certain researchers against the traditional view of the population's utmost respect for the monarchy. From these statements they conclude that the Romanov dynasty, which ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917, did not enjoy widespread authority among the people. The Russian historian Evgenii Anisimov has expressed this argument clearly. He proposes that in the 18th century the authority of the ruling family, and the institution of the tsar's power more broadly, suffered in the eyes of the people when "the behavior of the tsars and tsarinas ... constantly reaffirmed the 'illegitimacy' of the members of the Romanov dynasty." He bases this conclusion on sources drawn from political investigations, which yielded numerous invectives against the bearers of supreme power. According to Anisimov, the evidence of these investigations makes clear that "for the people, not a single monarch appeared decent, kind, wise, or just. In the popular mind, the moral character of nearly every ruler had a tainted reputation." (5)

Sometimes even historians who hold a different view of the relationship between authorities and subjects raise questions about "naive monarchism." For example, in her article on the attitudes held by participants in the 1648 uprising against Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, Valerie Kivelson argues that the middle of the 17th century marked a break in traditional political culture. It was precisely Aleksei Mikhailovich's deviation from the archetype of the benevolent tsar, the defender of his subjects, that constituted a violation of the underlying principle of this political culture and precipitated a conflict between the Muscovites and the monarch, whom they were prepared to consider a traitor. (6) In Kivelson's words, "to use force against the tsar himself and to view him as a traitor undermine[s] the 'naive monarchist' characterization of the Russian people as unquestioningly and unwaveringly loyal to their tsar." (7)

The abundant irreverent statements about Russian rulers as well as the doubts of numerous historians regarding the sincerity of popular monarchist sentiment suggest that the question of monarchical devotion requires a more serious consideration than it has received thus far. Those who hold the traditional point of view for the most part continue to write about the high degree of authority that the tsar commanded in the consciousness of the people as if it were a self-evident truth requiring no proof. Even when evidence of this attitude is provided (more on this below), it is hardly enough to fully allay the doubts of those who are skeptical of the sincerity of popular monarchism. In this article I attempt, at least partially, to fill this gap. …

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