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 government then gave “the impression of being more powerful, more authoritarian, than other European governments at the time, because there seemed to be no limits on the tsar’s will, no obstacles of a legal or social nature to his power.” Indeed, Peter created new government institutions that would not interfere with his purposes such as the Governing Senate that “without his signature no Senate decision could go into effect.” Peter’s political absolutism was further established through changes such as dismissing the patriarch, instituting the head tax on the peasant class, and requiring life service to the state among the gentry class; changes which had their numerous implications, but mainly made authority vested in the czar. The pattern of Peter’s autocracy could thus be described as one where “everyone served: the serfs served the landlords, the landlords served the state.”
Given his established imperial authority, Peter did not attempt to draw out positive and conscious consent to his agenda from the citizens, especially from the large and spread out lower class, and thus spread change from the top down. Centralized, top-down reform resulted in the separation of the westernized, educated nobility from the Old...