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.

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.

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