Author Topic: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy  (Read 50503 times)

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Offline Tsarfan

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Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« on: November 08, 2006, 10:56:30 AM »
The Fundamental Law of Russia contains the following provision in Chapter 1:  On the Essence of the Supreme Autocratic Power:

4.  Supreme Autocratic power belongs to the Emperor of All the Russias.  Obedience to His power, not only out of fear but also for the sake of conscience, is ordained by God Himself.

I would like to explore the origin of this concept of supreme autocratic power.  For starters, how did God communicate his will on this matter and to whom?





Offline Louis_Charles

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #1 on: November 08, 2006, 12:59:17 PM »
Russian Orthodoxy and the Russian concept of imperial power are outgrowths of the Byzantine Empire. Unlike the West, in which the struggle for supremacy between Church and State lead to a functional division (or as in the case of Henry VIII, the state swallowed the Church, so to speak), the Tsar was literally seen as the representative of God on earth.

As the division between the Eastern Roman Empire and the West grew wider during the post-Justinian era, so too did the division about the nature of autocracy. Very few European kings could be described as autocratic in the way in which they functioned as governors of the state. The concept of the Roman emperor as the living embodiment of a divine power (essentially, the state as a god, which is what emperor-worship meant --- the Romans didn't regard the actual men as divine, as witness the sheer number of them that they popped off) died off as meaningful with the reign of Julian the Apostate and the nascent Papacy.

The Greek and Asian tradition regarding absolutism was more fluid, and the Byzantine emperor/state was so closely tied to Christianity that it could successfully promote itself as the fount of authority in both areas. Moreover, Russia never experienced anything like the Protestant Reformation or the French Revolution, which ended the idea of theological supremacy in the political arena for the West.

That being said, I think the idea that Nicholas was an effective autocrat simply because Russia had been an autocracy for so long misses how that autocracy functioned after Peter the Great had crushed the power of the Russian nobility. There were palace revolutions, in which members of the Imperial Family struggled against each other for the throne, as opposed to successful mass movements directed against the Tsar. Let's face it, even Lenin was surprised at how everything worked out. He was hampered by his personality (not terribly forceful or bright)--- which is how autocrats rule if you take God out of the equation.

God communicated directly to Nicholas through revelation. This might be granted through personal prayer, or by a consideration of an event in light of the teachings of Orthodoxy or the traditions of how it had been done in an Orthodox state. Unlike Wilhelm II and Franz Josef, who also believed that they ruled through the election of God, Nicholas was not accountable to parliamentary bodies until 1905. The Tsar was frequently perceived as being stubborn (where someone with his father's personality would be perceived as FORCEFUL), but in Nicholas' own mind he was being faithful to God by being faithful to his role as he received it.



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Offline Tania+

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #2 on: November 08, 2006, 01:37:47 PM »
Very well stated Louis_Charles ! Question, you say that the Greek and Asian tradition absolutism was more fluid. I am wondering as a side question on this, did India have this same affinity of placing God communicating to any of their leaderships in history, or say to Ghandhi ? Thanks for any information you can offer on this.

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Offline Tsarfan

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #3 on: November 08, 2006, 01:56:48 PM »

Unlike Wilhelm II and Franz Josef, who also believed that they ruled through the election of God, Nicholas was not accountable to parliamentary bodies until 1905.


What I find so extraodinary about this Clause I(4) of the Fundamental Law is that it was promulgated in 1906, after a revolution had imposed a Duma on Nicholas.

Before 1905, there was at least a logical coherence to the claim to be God's agent for wielding absolute power on earth.  After 1905, that coherence snapped.  In attempting to maintain his prerogatives, Nicholas was forced to live with two inherently incompatible views:  that God intended his power to be absolute, and that God ordained or at least allowed a revolution that curbed that power.

Offline Louis_Charles

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #4 on: November 08, 2006, 02:31:17 PM »
The inherent problem with the Divine Right of Kings is that its underpinnings rest upon faith, and traditionally faith can only be transmitted through revelation, and not reason alone. Even if Nicholas had been, um, smarter than he was (to say nothing of his wife), he could not back down from the autocratic principle without abandoning his understanding of God. I often think that Nicholas viewed the tribulations of the Russian Revolution, World War I and perhaps even Alexei's affliction as God's punishment.I just think that criticism of Nicholas as irrational in his world view is like criticizing fish for not having legs.
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Offline Tsarfan

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #5 on: November 08, 2006, 02:45:09 PM »

I often think that Nicholas viewed the tribulations of the Russian Revolution, World War I and perhaps even Alexei's affliction as God's punishment.  I just think that criticism of Nicholas as irrational in his world view is like criticizing fish for not having legs.


I take your point.

But there is something that seems disjointed to me in Nicholas' and Alexandra's views of religion.  There was the fact that Alexandra attributed the birth of a boy in 1904 to having bathed nine months earlier in a pool blessed by Serafim.  But my favorite is the magic comb Alexandra sent to Nicholas at Stavka.  It supposedly was a vehicle for the power and blessing of Rasputin, and Nicholas actually combed his hair with it before meetings with his advisors.

The Orthodox hierarchy resented Rasputin and viewed him as a fraud.  Yet Nicholas, as the personification of Orthodox authority in Russia, was putting his faith in magic combs.  There seems to me a distinct "new age and harmonic crystals" strain in both Nicholas' and Alexandra's view of religion.

Offline Louis_Charles

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #6 on: November 09, 2006, 11:51:54 AM »
Orthodoxy is a far more emotional experience of the Christian idea; the music and the pageantry of the ceremonies themselves are designed to induce a certain amount of religious ecstasy on the part of the believer. I am a Catholic, and when my Orthodox friends have accompanied me to Mass, they have usually been disappointed by its' low-key ritual (this may not have always been the truth prior to Vatican II, but it certainly is now). It also recognizes a wider variety of God's Fools than western Christianity, i.e it makes provision for a much wider range of mystical experience as part of the everyday life of the Church. The world-view that it creates is encompassing, so while it is odd to read that people believe in the miraculous, it is not out of line with the beliefs of the church. In that sense, Nicholas' use of the comb may strike us as silly --- but it would have been integrated into his psyche without too much difficulty.

Surely if the theological underpinnings of the autocracy itself were persuasive to the Tsar, one holy comb more or less wasn't going to be much of a strain. Alexandra had what might be called a convert's mentality -- so did Ella --- in that they became more Orthodox than the Orthodox, if you see what I mean. That, combined with her natural guilt over Alexei's condition --- well, I think she grasped at everything that was available, including magic combs.
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Offline Tsarfan

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #7 on: November 09, 2006, 12:37:59 PM »
I wonder how many Russian Orthodox put in bids on e-Bay for that cheese sandwich bearing the image of Christ.  It was, however, mostly Catholics who lined up last year to revere the Holy Virgin when she appeared as a water stain on a Chicago underpass.  And recently during some construction in a Catholic church in Alabama, something heavy fell into the back of an open sheetrock wall.  It extruded onto the other side what was claimed to be an image of the Virgin.  The press was called, parishioners flocked to the church, and a shrine was set up around the bump.  So I'm not sure I can quite buy the view that the Orthodox trump the Catholics when it comes to mystical attribution.  (And, having been raised as a southern Methodist, I could say the same for the protestant evangelical certainty that God chose George W. Bush as his mouthpiece but failed to insist that he pronounce things correctly.)

Somewhere along the spectrum from the altar of a church to a cheese sandwich on e-Bay, the line into absurdity gets crossed.  On which side of the line does a magic comb lay?  And does it make a difference whether the comb is being used by an illiterate peasant or by the ruler of the Russian empire?

Offline Louis_Charles

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #8 on: November 09, 2006, 02:01:59 PM »
I wonder how many Russian Orthodox put in bids on e-Bay for that cheese sandwich bearing the image of Christ.  It was, however, mostly Catholics who lined up last year to revere the Holy Virgin when she appeared as a water stain on a Chicago underpass.  And recently during some construction in a Catholic church in Alabama, something heavy fell into the back of an open sheetrock wall.  It extruded onto the other side what was claimed to be an image of the Virgin.  The press was called, parishioners flocked to the church, and a shrine was set up around the bump.  So I'm not sure I can quite buy the view that the Orthodox trump the Catholics when it comes to mystical attribution.  (And, having been raised as a southern Methodist, I could say the same for the protestant evangelical certainty that God chose George W. Bush as his mouthpiece but failed to insist that he pronounce things correctly.)

Somewhere along the spectrum from the altar of a church to a cheese sandwich on e-Bay, the line into absurdity gets crossed.  On which side of the line does a magic comb lay?  And does it make a difference whether the comb is being used by an illiterate peasant or by the ruler of the Russian empire?


I didn't say that Orthodox are more credulous than Catholics. I said that Orthodox Christianity is a more emotionally oriented path than Catholcism --- partly because it is a smaller, and more unified denomination (Russian Orthodoxy). No one would mistake Hispanic Catholic piety for Irish Catholic piety, for example. And a fundamental component of Catholic theology is the scholastic approach, which can cast a cool eye on what would be considered pious excesses in Catholicism (cheese doodles with the face of Christ are never endorsed by the Church). The Roman Church has historically been skeptical of mystics. Most of them took decades or even centuries, to influence mainstream theology.

Think of Hopkins' poem that begins "The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . ."; to a mystic, God is omnipresent in Nature, and if you can accept the idea of holiness intervening that directly in the world -- say, to appoint you personally to rule over several million people --- why would you think a believer such as the Tsar would carp at the idea that holiness can be present in a comb? And to be fair, I don't think that this is the kind of thing that Nicholas' own church was happy about --- they weren't all that thrilled with Rasputin, let alone his hair products.

But that is an essential problem of theological underpinnings to autocracy . . . where do you draw the line, once you admit the premise that God has chosen this particular man? It is an essential tension in any worldview that bases itself upon religious belief --- at one point do you interact with the larger society and allow your beliefs to dictate your "policy".  Well, I suppose nobody cares if Joe Fundamentalist refuses to take a drink because it is against God's Law. But what happens when he imposes that belief upon others? Look at the same-sex marriage debate. The implicit and explicit opposition to it is largely based upon a religious world view.

If you have an autocrat who believes he holds the position because it is God's will, his adherence to policies that are based upon religion will have serious consequences.
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Offline Elisabeth

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #9 on: November 09, 2006, 03:33:28 PM »
Orthodoxy is a far more emotional experience of the Christian idea; the music and the pageantry of the ceremonies themselves are designed to induce a certain amount of religious ecstasy on the part of the believer. I am a Catholic, and when my Orthodox friends have accompanied me to Mass, they have usually been disappointed by its' low-key ritual (this may not have always been the truth prior to Vatican II, but it certainly is now). It also recognizes a wider variety of God's Fools than western Christianity, i.e it makes provision for a much wider range of mystical experience as part of the everyday life of the Church. The world-view that it creates is encompassing, so while it is odd to read that people believe in the miraculous, it is not out of line with the beliefs of the church. In that sense, Nicholas' use of the comb may strike us as silly --- but it would have been integrated into his psyche without too much difficulty.

You have made an excellent point, Simon. I don't know if many people here are all that aware of the important role that holy fools (yurodivye) played in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Russian Orthodoxy. Many of these yurodivye were quite bizarre by any Western standards. One very famous medieval holy fool, who became a revered Orthodox saint (I'm sorry I can't remember his name, I'll try to find it), according to his hagiography actually struck dead some children who were taunting him. Surprisingly, this was not considered an "unholy" action on his part! I would also note the pivotal role that the yurodivyi or holy fool plays in Alexander Pushkin's play Boris Godunov, later the basis of Mussorgsky's famous opera of that name. In short, we see in the figure of the yurodivyi that Russian Orthodoxy is much less than Catholicism a religion of the word and the book (none of these yurodivye could be called learned men or women - quite the opposite). It is much more a religion of the heart and the spirit. I think this is what Simon is getting at.

Leo Tolstoy, in his flight from his family and estate at Yasnaya Polyana at the end of his life, was in many ways acting out the role of the yurodivyi in eschewing all family ties and worldly goods. I suppose the modern American equivalent of a yurodivyi would be a street person who talks aloud to God.

This reminds me of an experience I had in Russia back in the early 1990s, when an obviously very mentally unbalanced man came into a bookstore and started ranting about how the KGB and CIA were out to get him. Now, most Americans, confronted with such a scene, would look away in embarrassment and try to pretend they had heard nothing - whereas the Russians present on this occasion actually stopped whatever they were doing and paid close attention to the poor insane man. At the end of his rant an older lady went up to him and said, "Ne bespokoites', ne bespokoites'," which is the Russian equivalent of telling a small child, "Don't worry, don't worry."

I have to admit that this side of traditional Russian culture holds tremendous appeal for me, but I fear it has died out in the last ten years or so, under the onslaught of Western values of worldly success and fame.

Surely if the theological underpinnings of the autocracy itself were persuasive to the Tsar, one holy comb more or less wasn't going to be much of a strain. Alexandra had what might be called a convert's mentality -- so did Ella --- in that they became more Orthodox than the Orthodox, if you see what I mean. That, combined with her natural guilt over Alexei's condition --- well, I think she grasped at everything that was available, including magic combs.

Again, you make an excellent point. IMHO Russian Orthodoxy at the turn of the twentieth century would have been especially appealing to anyone with the equivalent of, shall we say, modern-day New Age leanings. The number of mystics in Russian Orthodoxy at this time was quite large and it was not a prerequisite that one be highly learned in order to understand their teachings. (Contrast the lay appeal of Russian Orthodoxy with the intellectual rigor of some Catholic orders like the Jesuits, not to mention that of many Catholic saints like Thomas Aquinas.)
« Last Edit: November 09, 2006, 03:57:17 PM by Elisabeth »
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Offline Tsarfan

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #10 on: November 09, 2006, 04:38:23 PM »
I find this discussion to be both very enlightening and quite horrifying.

In essence, it suggests that a tsar who believes in magic combs as an efficacious means of preparing to meet with his advisors is within the mainstream of the state religion of Russia.  No wonder they had a revolution.

Offline Louis_Charles

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #11 on: November 10, 2006, 09:54:16 AM »
Well . . . yes.

But I think this has less to do with the theological underpinnings of autocracy as a system. and more to do with the fact that he was a moderately religious man (Nicholas once ate a relic of the True Cross because he was starving and the beeswax in which it was encased was delicious, which comes to think of it makes him a second-class relic) who married a religious . . .  hysteric may be a little strong, but not by much.

I mean, all of the Orthodox Tsars before Nicholas believed that they had been divinely elected to the throne (except maybe Catherine I, who had a peasant's head on her shoulders), and none of them strayed into the sort of New Age-y things that you cite.
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Offline Elisabeth

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #12 on: November 10, 2006, 01:24:50 PM »
I mean, all of the Orthodox Tsars before Nicholas believed that they had been divinely elected to the throne (except maybe Catherine I, who had a peasant's head on her shoulders), and none of them strayed into the sort of New Age-y things that you cite.

Except possibly for Alexander I, and his weird spiritual relationship with the French writer and mystic Jule von Krüdener. For a brief time, during the Napoleonic Wars, Alexander was deeply under her sway. She lectured him for being sinful and, indirectly, for being an accessory to the murder of his father, Paul; she even convinced him that he was the "White Angel," sent by God to defeat the "Black Angel," i.e., Napoleon. As she put it: "Alexander is the chosen of the Lord. He walks in the paths of renunciation. This spiritual bond, created by God, increasingly gains strength. When he is obliged to go into society from time to time, it is never to a play or a ball. He told me that such things had the same effect on him as a funeral" (quoted in Troyat, Alexander of Russia, p. 230).

Madame de Krüdener's influence, however, abruptly disappeared after the Battle of Waterloo. It seems she had served her purpose and was then dismissed.
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Offline Tsarfan

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #13 on: November 10, 2006, 02:05:15 PM »

I mean, all of the Orthodox Tsars before Nicholas believed that they had been divinely elected to the throne (except maybe Catherine I, who had a peasant's head on her shoulders.


Sorry it took me so long to answer, Loius Charles, but I had to find my comb.

I wonder just how many tsars really believed they held their throne by the election of God, unless they believed that God's ways were not only mysterious but occasionally murderous.  Did Peter I think that God intended to remove his son from the succession by having Peter murder him?  Did Catherine II believe God wanted her to depose and murder her husband?  Did Alexander I think God opened his path to the throne by engineering the murder of his father?  Did Constantine think he was thwarting the will of God when he declined the throne?  Did Alexander III believe God killed his older brother in order to deliver the succession to Alexander?

My guess is that many of the tsars knew exactly why they were on the throne -- the result of a string of events arising from ambition, survival instincts, birth, and luck.  It was certainly convenient to have a Church that had been subjugated to royal authority under Peter I willing to say that tsars sat on their thrones only as a manifestation of God's will.  (No risk of anything like that inconvenient little nastiness over in Europe when Henry had to stand barefoot in the snow as a supplicant to the Pope's grace).

I simply cannot imagine that Orthodox rulers such as Peter I, Catherine II, or Alexander III would be anything other than derisively incredulous at the notion that God delivered the insight for them to rule Russia through a comb or that His providing an heir to Russia was dependent on the tsarina's finding the right pool in which to take a dip.

There is a huge difference between believing in something and believing in anything.  Nicholas and Alexandra set up their tent at Camp Anything.

Offline Louis_Charles

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Re: Theological Underpinnings of the Russian Autocracy
« Reply #14 on: November 10, 2006, 04:09:59 PM »
Again, the problem with autocracy is the autocrat. A powerful, intelligent Tsar-Autocrat (and here I am thinking of Peter I or Catherine II) can pull it off, and will probably not suffer from any undue confusion of his/her will with God's, although if they are smart --- like Catherine II or Elizabeth I of England --- they will understand how to play the religious card for public consumption. We have very little idea what Elizabeth Tudor's private religious beliefs were, and I'm not sure that Catherine II, as a woman of the Enlightenment, had any worth mentioning.

But there they were, the last Tsar and Tsarina, determined to set a good example of religious belief as expressed through a certain kind of life --- I mean, none of Nicholas' brothers and sisters were exactly poster children for Orthodoxy, were they? --- and it all starts to blow up in their faces. No one appreciates Alix, and when she finally produces the long-desired Heir, the boy is flawed. Nicholas is under internal and external pressure to change the Autocracy, and thanks to a murderously slack education, he is only able to grasp the basic tenets of a his inheritance:  the Tsar is God's deputy upon Earth. Is it any wonder that he clung to religion for solace? I am not knocking a religious worldview per se --- I have one of my own --- but it is easy to slip into a confused state when you operate with one, i.e. that God speaks to me. And since Nicholas was head of the church, who was able to rebuke him? Henry VIII has the same problem after 1533 --- or rather his Church does, as it veers back and forth between mutually exclusive beliefs about the nature of the sacraments, etc., which are binding insofar as the King happens to agree to them. Do you know what became popular in England by the end of the 16th century? Atheism. It was apparent to several members of the educated classes that religion was not working as the basis of government. What replaces the Tsarist Orthodox State? If you disregard the blip of the provisional government, an atheist state.

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