On the Education of Autocrats: Catherine's Grandsons

An abstract of a B.A. Essay

by Kate Pickering

University of Chicago, Department of Russian Civilization, 1997

The institution of autocracy is a well-studied one, and the Romanovs, too, have been much written about. Yet, relatively little of the research done on autocracy treats autocrats as individuals with distinct personalities, quirks, and cultural biases. Similarly, in the many royal biographies from scholarly to popular, monarchs are generally portrayed as either political figures or as personalities, but rarely both. But it is a peculiar characteristic of the institution of autocracy that the individual characteristics of an autocrat do have a major impact on the political and cultural life of the nation. When all the power of a state lies in a single pair of hands, one cannot hope to understand the nation without understanding the hands behind it.

Historian Richard Wortman has breached this historiographic gap in his work on the upbringing of the nineteenth-century Russian tsars, illuminating the link between the way these men were brought up and the way the autocracy functioned in its last century. Wortman identifies Nicholas I as the initiator of the form of child-rearing that dominated this era.

In this essay, I compare the upbringings of Alexander I, Constantine Pavlovich, Nicholas I and Michael Pavlovich in order to explore the transition period that led Nicholas to make these changes. The transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries in Russia was also the transition from Catherinian glory to Nicholaien oppression. Thus, I attempt to explain part of reasons why things changed so rapidly and the role the Romanovs played in this change.

By comparing four siblings (two of whom succeeded to the throne), I mitigate somewhat the psycho-historical problem faced in studying later tsars, where each emperor was the only person in his generation to experience his particular upbringing, leaving us to wonder how much of his behavior was influenced by his upbringing, and how much was simply individual character. Catherine's careful rearing of Alexander and Constantine and the Gatchina childhoods of Nicholas and Michael were instrumental in making them into the men who would later rule Russia at a critical period of transition.