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Messages - Tsarfan

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1846
Hi, Elisabeth.  Your Catherine the Great question has occupied me for some time.  There are, of course, far too many variables involved to predict historical outcomes under different conditions.  But, so what?  It's too much fun not to try.

First, I don't think even Catherine could have made autocracy work in the 20th century.  Governing in modern conditions is simply too complex a task for the level of centralization that autocracy implies, and the range of competing interests in complex societies can only be brokered successfully with pluralistic institutions.

The point to me, though, is that Catherine would not have tried to make it work.  She was ultimately a pragmatist who both set her strategy and adjusted her tactics to the conditions that confronted her.  For instance, I do not believe Catherine went to Russia with any aspiration one day to rule in her own right.  I think she found herself saddled with a spouse of subnormal intelligence whose sadistic tendencies erupted to the surface once he found himself unconstrained.  She was confronted with only two choices -- rule or be obliterated.

While Catherine wrapped herself in a mantle of divine right for public consumption and security's sake, she was too bright a woman to have taken it seriously personally, given the manner in which she came to the throne.  Catherine survived because she set the course and adopted the tactics it took to survive in the conditions before her.

I think that, standing on the threshold of the 20th century, Catherine would have adapted her view of monarchy to one that could make government effective in changing conditions -- and that she was perfectly capable of going as far as a constitutional monarchy to do so.

This might sound silly, but I worked at General Electric during the Jack Welch era and had some dealings with him at close quarters.  (For those of you oustide the U.S., he's generally regarded as one of the two most successful business leaders of the 20th century.)  Jack was famous for breaking out of historical molds and refocusing the world's largest corporation to exploit changing conditions in the marketplace and to keep GE growing while other conglomerates were failing.

I used to get a lot of memos with Jack's notes scratched in the margins.  When I read extensive samples of the notes Catherine wrote in her diplomatic dispatches, chills literally ran up my spine.  Her tone, her matter-of-factness, her grasp of both detail and grand scheme, her irreverence for conventional wisdom, her candor were his.  It was a powerful reinforcement to me of just what makes great people great.  It's their ability to adapt adroitly to their times.

That trait is what made Catherine great in the 18th century, and it's the only trait that could have saved Holy Mother Russia in the 20th.  I think she could have pulled it off.

1847
Rulers Prior to Nicholas II / Re: Emperor Pavel - life and tragic end
« on: March 30, 2005, 04:18:11 PM »
That's very interesting.  I had always heard that rank had to do with the extent of relationship to an emperor (as with grand ducal titles being conferred only on the children and grandchildren of an emperor).  For instance, a dowager empress took precedence because she was both the wife and the mother of an emperor, whereas a reigning empress was only the wife of an emperor.  By this rule, Nicholas I's sister-in-law would also have taken precedence over his wife, because she was both a wife and a sister-in-law to an emperor.

I must admit that the rule you cited seems more straightforward.

1848
Thanks for the comments, RichC.  I did not mean to imply that Nicholas was devoid of intellect.  He did, for instance, master three languages and acquire use of two others.

However, intellect has several dimensions, and I do feel that Nicholas' intellect did not manifest as intellectual curiosity or a propensity to extract larger meaning from patterns that are often buried in details.

I have read much of his diaries, and he invariably reports on the day's mundanities (the weather, his recreational activites, his meals, etc.) in far greater detail than his governmental activities.  In fact, if one did not know the author was a monarch, one could hardly deduce it from the events that occupied his recorded thoughts.  More tellingly, if you contrast the notes he wrote in the margins of official reports with those that Catherine the Great wrote, the contrast is unsettling.  Having no information other than their two sets of notes, you would easily be able to identify which one built an empire and which one destroyed one.

1849
There are really two tiers to the question of Nicholas' role in bringing on the revolution.  The first is his competence as a tsar.  The second is whether autocracy as a form of government could have handled the issues the 20th century was going to pose to all western nations.

By almost any measure, Nicholas was not competent to head a government.    I could come up with a very long list of failings, but two key ones probably ordained the ultimate outcomes.  First was his lack of intellectual curiosity and critical thinking.  He fell easily into stereotyping of people, events, and nations.  The more complex the problem, the more likely he was to leave it in the hands of God.  (I think his famous fatalism was really severe intellectual limitation posing as religious conviction.)  This trait showed itself most disastrously in 1914 when the intricate web of international alliances from Bismarck's time drew one government after another to the brink of a war that no one (except perhaps Kaiser Wilhelm) wanted.  Nicholas was in the best position to cut the gordian knot, but he missed the opportunity by confusing the letter of treaties with their intent.  Instead, he fell back on the pan-slavic bluster he learned at his father's knee and marched headlong into a conflict he had the last opportunity to avoid -- and for which Russia was utterly unprepared.

Second was the absence of any sense of accountability to his people.  After Russia's disastrous defeat by Japan and the Bloody Sunday massacre,  Nicholas' response was to remove himself and his family permanently from his capital.  In a governmental system that was built around the personality and presence of the monarch, Nicholas opened up a huge vacuum by his withdrawal.  The history of monarchy has been that it does not need the support of all classes in society to survive.  But it must have the support of at least one major class.  (Louis XIV, for instance, after surviving a childhood rebellion of the nobility, consciously threw his lot in with the emerging commercial classes at the expense of the nobility and probably brought the Bourbons two more generations of power as a result.)  By absenting himself from the society and bureaucracy of St. Petersburg while at the same time failing to give Stolypin and Witte the support they needed in their agrarian and industrial reforms, Nicholas effectively disenfranchised every class of Russian society from any role in government and any stake in the game.

So much for Nicholas as tsar.  What about autocracy as a form of government?  I believe its days were numbered.  In fact, although Nicholas steadfastly refused to accept it, true autocracy ended in 1905.  The only long-term hope for tsarism was to put it on the path to constitutional monarchy.  The 20th century was bringing changes that were to take society to increasing levels of complexity and scale -- the mobility of whole populations through powered transport; telecommunications; technological warfare; international commerce and industry.  No nation of the 20th century proved able to exploit these changes and then weather the social dislocations they unleashed without opening up to some form of participation in government by the governed.  Autocracy would likely have been no exception, no matter how competent the autocrat.

The great irony in this is that Nicholas was more tempermentally suited to be a constitutional monarch than he realized.  He was at ease with the ceremonial of government.  It was the substance that confounded him.  He preferred the life of a country gentleman, the pretense of the parade ground, and the warmth of a family idyll to the council chamber and the corridors of power.  As a constitutional monarch, he could have had all that -- and, most wonderfully of all, preserved the palaces and imperial splendor that we who frequent these message boards so desperately crave to see resurrected from their ashes.


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