Russian Aristocracy

According to tradition since the establishment of the Russian state, harmony between the tsar and his people was of utmost importance.[1]  The tsar was expected to be a strong and central leader while consulting and heeding the advice of his powerful, elite subjects – the boyars.[2]  In turn, the boyars were expected to serve and council the tsar and be loyal to his leadership.[3]  Under the rule of Peter the Great, however, this system did not function according to plan, which led to Peter’s mistrust of the long-standing boyar families and his desire to operate outside of their council.  The boyars, in turn, opposed many of Peter’s desired reforms and fought amongst themselves.  This conflict remained a consistent part of Peter’s reign, but led to increased mistrust and reforms on the part of the tsar in regards to rank, government structure and the construction of the Russian state.

From almost the beginning of his rule, Peter viewed the boyars of the Russian elite as an impediment to his grander plans, rather than in the traditional role of advisers.[4]  As early as 1697, members of the boyar elite conspired to remove and replace Peter due to his break with Russian tradition.[5]  The elite further did not hesitate to oppose Peter’s wishes, both in terms of his divorce and his nomination of the Patriarch Adrian.[6]  A further musketeer revolt led to executions for open result against the tsar.[7]  The investigation into the rebellion encouraged Peter’s mistrust – not only of the boyars – but of the clergy as well.[8]  Peter hated rivalries between boyar families in their endless struggle for power, and that combined with the musketeer’s rebellion contributed to Peter’s first attempt at drastically changing the structure of Russian government.[9]  He began by removing the taxation system from under the control of the boyars and he began personally handling foreign policy in order to further avoid their input.[10]  While Peter could avoid soliciting the boyar recommendations in the duma, they still held the majority of the highest military commands.[11]  While many aristocrats still held powerful positions, new state structures allowed Peter to go around them in order to enact the changes he desired.[12]  Peter stopped consulting the duma entirely and began making all state decisions himself with the help of a handful of his favorites.[13]  Peter’s suspicion of the boyars was not unfounded, and he believed their complaints over his policies to be the beginning of covert opposition to his will.[14]

The trial of the tsarevich Aleksei directly contributed to new changes and reforms under Peter’s rule.  Given its lack of central government, Peter already desired another sweeping change and the trial gave him the opportunity to enact it.[15]  Nine colleges or administrative boards were formed to take control of different aspects of daily governance.[16]  These colleges lasted through the 18th century.[17]  The majority of the presidents of these colleges were not from the aristocratic families.[18]  An additional check was placed on the college’s presidents by requiring a majority vote of the board in order to enact changes.[19]  A new taxation system was put into place which created a further distinction between serfs and the gentry.[20]  In addition, the table of ranks allowed a visual understanding of rank and the promotional ladder for both members of the military and civil service.[21]

Under Peter’s rule was the ‘first appearance of a conservative, aristocratic ideology that persisted in Russia throughout the 18th century’.[22]  These nobles did not oppose the introduction of Western ideology or culture as much as they desired the power and stability of old noble families within government and in close collaboration with the tsar.  As Bushkovitch mentions in his introduction, Peter’s time on the throne was a continual struggle for power between the tsar and his elite – a struggle that Peter ultimately won.[23]  While the boyars had no problem resisting Peter, the tsar saw it and the continuation of boyar rivalries as disloyalty which further cemented his commitment to Russian reform.[24]

[1] Paul Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016) 54.

[2] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 54.

[3] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 54.

[4] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 68.

[5] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 79.

[6] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 81.

[7] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 81.

[8] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 82.

[9] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 83.

[10] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 84.

[11] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 88.

[12] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 89.

[13] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 89.

[14] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 89.

[15] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 129.

[16] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 129.

[17] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 129.

[18] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 129.

[19] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 129.

[20] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 131.

[21] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 131.

[22] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 140.

[23] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 1.

[24] Bushkovitch, Peter the Great, 7.


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