Russian Praetorians


Russian Guards of the 18th Century.

A striking paradox of Peter the Great’s rule is that, despite his many achievements in building a strong Russian state, he failed to establish a reliable mechanism for the transfer of supreme executive power and helped create the conditions for a century of palace coups. In the century after Peter’s death in 1725, army officers were involved constantly in questions of sovereign power, although they never seized power for themselves. The one episode that could have ended with an officer on the throne was the failed Decembrist uprising. In this section I review these instances of military intervention in politics.

The Era of Palace Coups

Peter himself had come to power with the assistance of military officers. Peter was ten years old when his father, Tsar Feodor, died in 1682. Feodor’s sister Sophie, with the aid of Muscovite strel’tsy (musketeers), seized power and declared herself regent. In 1689 Peter organized her overthrow with the help of his so-called play regiments, which later were transformed into elite Guards regiments. An attempted revolt by the strel’tsy in 1698 was crushed and Peter had their units disbanded; many of them were executed. Peter then ruled without challenge until his death in 1725.

In a momentous change before his death, Peter sought to make succession dependent on the wishes of the sitting tsar. Previously the oldest son generally had succeeded, but there was no set mechanism in the absence of an heir. Peter himself was unable to appoint his own successor, however, because he died suddenly in 1725. There were four pretenders to the throne in 1725: Peter’s grandson, his two daughters, and his widow (Peter’s only son, Alexis, had previously been charged with treason and tortured to death). All of the successions in the next century were marked by instability and officer involvement, and there were at least eight coups or attempted coups during this period. The Guards regiments established by Peter played a key role in these events. The most tumultuous period was 1725–1762, during which seven different monarchs occupied the throne. Only with the accession to power of Catherine the Great in 1762 did Russia once again have a stable leadership.

The details of these succession struggles are less important for our purposes than some general points about the role of officers in these conflicts. First, these palace coups involved only a small fraction of the officer corps, elite Guards officers. These officers were members of the Imperial court, and they generally acted at the behest of and on behalf of more powerful members of the court. Second, these elite officers generally acted out of personal motives and grievances, not corporate ones. To the extent that corporate interests were involved, they were those of the Guards, and not the officer corps as a whole. It was only in the late eighteenth century that Guards officers began to see themselves as distinctly military, rather than as members of the broader elite. Third, the Guards officers did not try to seize power for themselves. They remained loyal to the principle of autocracy. Finally, efforts to prevent coups through the use of material incentives, political spies, changing commanders, or creating counterbalancing units were only marginally successful.

Military Parade of Emperor Paul in front of Mikhailovsky Castle painting by Alexandre Benois, taken from the art book World of Art

The last successful military coup in Russia took place in 1801. Tsar Paul I, who had succeeded his mother Catherine the Great to the throne in 1796, was assassinated by a group comprised largely of Guards officers. Paul had alienated the military because of a purge of more than twenty percent of the officer corps, his favoritism toward elite units that he had established, and his adoption of Prussian drill and tactics. Fifty officers were involved in the coup, which made it larger than the palace coups of the eighteenth century. The coup had some support in broader society, particularly among the nobility, who were unhappy with Paul’s efforts to restrict their privileges. Thus, unlike the previous interventions, which were strictly matters of the Imperial court, the intervention of 1801 had broader military and societal support. It also is important to note that Paul I had changed the law on succession, instituting the principle of primogeniture (succession of the oldest son) in 1797. The coup of 1801 was a partial challenge to this effort to establish a stable succession mechanism, although Paul’s eldest son Alexander took his throne. The coup was not a challenge to the principle of autocracy itself.

Under Paul’s erratic rule, certain ukazy were issued to ease the burdens of the peasantry. A decree promulgated in April 1797, for example, laid down that landowners, some of whom exacted five or six days of labor a week from their serfs, should now require them to work only three days; the remaining three days belonged to the serfs for the cultivation of their own lands, and Sunday was for rest. However, it is doubtful this was ever enforced. The serfs had no means of recourse against landowners who ignored it. Paul, eager to limit the power of the upper classes, partially restored the right of the peasants to petition the throne with their grievances. But it was difficult to exercise this right, and landowners could still uproot their peasants and send them to Siberia. As if to negate these limited benefits, Paul insisted that unrest among the peasantry must be dealt with firmly. He issued a manifesto calling on all serfs to obey their masters without question.

At the same time, Paul antagonized the gentry by assailing privileges that Catherine had bestowed. In 1785, she had granted a charter guaranteeing them immunity from corporal punishments, payment of taxes, and deprivation of rank and estates except by judgment of their peers. He did not impose taxes on the gentry, but would “invite” them to contribute to the treasury for special purposes. He also required them to serve in the army. Refusal resulted in disgrace, banishment from court, and more serious punishments – often so savage that they caused severe injury or death. It was not uncommon for Paul, in one of his bouts of temper, to take away an offender’s noble rank – a crushing loss of privilege.

Foreign policy was also subject to Paul’s whims. He had criticized Catherine’s extensive military commitments and had vowed that on ascending the throne he would cancel them. But he was so strongly opposed to the revolutionary movement that he involved Russia in several European squabbles. He joined a coalition against France in 1799. He sent an army under the command of the brilliant Russian General Alexander Suvorov to join with the Austrian forces in northern Italy. But when the Austrians failed to support their allies sufficiently, relations between the two states quickly became strained. The combined armies nevertheless gained several victories in Italy and were preparing to invade France when Suvorov received orders to march on Switzerland without delay. In a feat of remarkable military daring, he led his army over the Alps by way of the St. Gotthard Pass. In Switzerland, however, relations between Russians and Austrians deteriorated further, and in 1800, Paul, angered by Austrian complaints about the disrespectful behavior of the Russian troops, suddenly canceled the accord and recalled Suvorov and his army. He next severed relations with Great Britain, mainly because the British failed to honor their promise to cede the island of Malta. By banning British ships from Russian ports, he inadvertently damaged Russia’s trade. He then joined the new Armed Neutrality with Sweden, Denmark, and Prussia to oppose British sea power, thus bringing Russian trade with its principal customer to an official standstill.

Meanwhile, Paul had reversed his earlier policy with France and decided that Napoleon was a necessary ally. He became enthusiastic about alliance with France, Austria, and Prussia for the purpose of partitioning Turkey and destroying British power. Russia and Britain now came close to war. In January 1801, the tsar formally annexed Georgia, which had been under divided Turkish and Persian suzerainty, and then he ordered a force of 23,000 Cossacks to proceed toward British India, which he dreamed of conquering.

Paul had antagonized the regular army and the gentry, the two main pillars of his throne, to the point where a palace revolution had become almost inevitable. The military governor of St. Petersburg, Count Peter Pahlen, was the leader of the final conspiracy. On March 11, 1801, he and several officers of the guard dined together and then set out for the Mikhailovsky Fortress, which Paul had ordered rebuilt for greater security. The sentries did not hesitate to admit the military governor and the officers with him. They made for the emperor’s bedchamber, but it appeared to be empty. Paul had heard them approaching and had hidden in the chimney of the fireplace, but one of the party noticed his dangling feet. They dragged him out, screaming for mercy. Someone struck him with a gold snuffbox and then strangled him with a scarf.

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