The Representation of Dynasty and "Fundamental Laws" in the Evolution of Russian Monarchy

By Wortman, Richard | Kritika, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Representation of Dynasty and "Fundamental Laws" in the Evolution of Russian Monarchy


Wortman, Richard, Kritika


[Alexander] was never without an ideology, whether real or pretended. This merely reflected his education and the influence of his mentor [La Harpe]. No one would believe, [Alexander] told me, what I had to debate with him. Alexander held that heredity was an abuse of sovereignty, and I had to spend more than an hour and use all of my eloquence and logic to convince him that it was heredity that comprised the tranquillity and happiness of peoples.

--Napoleon Bonaparte, recalling his conversation with Alexander I at Tilsit during an interview on St. Helena, 1816 (1)

In this country, the memory of a deceased emperor is little honored, but in the present instance, inclination accords with a policy that would have the preceding reign forgotten.

--The Marquis de Custine, La Russie en 1839 (2)

In contrast with the evolution of the absolute monarchies of Europe, the history of Russian monarchy is notable for the weakness of a concept or tradition of legal dynastic succession. The explanations for this situation may take into consideration the weakness of the early Russian state's grounding in feudal and Roman law, compounded by the traumatic upheavals of the 17th century that left Russian monarchy without a generally accepted procedure for succession when Peter the Great adopted the principle of designation in 1722. Peter's law left succession in doubt, leading to the frequent court coups in the succeeding decades. But even after Emperor Paul I promulgated a law of hereditary succession in 1796, inherited right remained an insufficient justification for a new monarch's claim to absolute authority. In the 19th century, succession followed the hereditary line without serious challenge, but hereditary right was never deemed sufficient to justify the rulers' claims to the throne.

These claims rather took the form of narratives of conquest and triumph introduced by Peter, a "representative culture" incorporating the imagery and ceremonies of the Baroque and 18th-century conceptions of the role of the enlightened monarch. (3) The rulers of Russia continued to dramatize their assumption of power, presenting themselves as Peter's successors, mythical heroes, breaking with the previous reign, transcending human limits, and bringing enlightenment and order to the Russian state--emphasizing renewal and change rather than dynastic continuity. The public presentation of the mythical image of the monarch and the exercise of absolute power were reciprocal processes: absolute rule sustained an image of transcendent monarch, which in turn warranted the exercise of his unlimited power. This article discusses not the accession of one or another ruler but the effects of the preponderance of a representative rather than a legal tradition of dynastic succession on the mentality and workings of the monarchy, and particularly on the role of law in the Russian state.

The legalization of dynasty proceeded within the framework of the imperial myth, which in the 19th century presented the advancement of Russian law as an attribute of the supreme image of ruler. It was embodied in the Fundamental Laws of the Russian Empire decreed by Paul I and Nicholas I, which provided laws of state that could regulate and legitimize the growing Russian administration but ensured that legal restraints would remain subordinate to the will of the sovereign. In this way legality issued from the will of a transcendent ruler and evolved at his discretion and his mercy.

Dynastic Succession in Europe and Russia

The connection between traditions of dynastic succession and the evolution of the law has been a theme in the literature of the past few decades on the consolidation of state power in the West. The early 18th century witnessed the culmination of a long development of European dynastic traditions. Enshrined in law, such traditions provided a core of state power and made possible a continuity of rule that sustained the state during periods of crisis. …

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