Autocracy. A form of government in which a monarch or a group of individuals headed by a supreme ruler possesses absolute power. Autocracy (samoderzhavie) became a specific phenomenon in Russia. Its roots can be traced back to the Grand Principality of Muscovy and the prince's struggle against the boyar oligarchy; it was further developed theoretically under the Russian Empire. Autocracy is also associated with the theory of Moscow as the Third Rome. Ivan IV ‘The Terrible’ (1546–84) was the first ruler of Muscovy to elevate autocracy to a political craft based on divine right. The main promoters of theocratic absolutism were the archpriests Joseph of the Volokolamsk Monastery and Philotheus of Pskov and the secular writer I. Peresvetov. With the decline of the boyar duma, the idea of autocracy was left unchallenged. Subsequently Peter I adopted autocracy as the official doctrine of his empire. The tsar was proclaimed ‘the absolute monarch,’ who did not have to account for his actions to anyone. Teofan Prokopovych, former professor of the Kyivan Mohyla Academy, in his Pravda voli monarshei (The Justice of the Monarch's Will) summed up the arguments in favor of autocracy. Self-coronation, which was practiced by the Russian monarchs from 1742 instead of consecration by the highest church hierarch, enhanced the status of the autocrat, especially in relation to the church. In theory and practice the tsar became the head of the Orthodox church, and, after abolishing the patriarchate in 1721, Peter administered the church through the Holy Synod. Under Nicholas I autocracy was proclaimed in the official motto of the Russian Empire— ‘Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality’ (in the sense of Russian nationalism). The concept of ‘official nationality’ was elaborated by Count Sergei Uvarov, minister of education and president of the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Among other promoters of autocracy were Prince Viktor Kochubei, a Ukrainian by origin, who served as a Russian diplomat and president of the council of ministers, and the jurist Konstantin Pobedonostsev.
Historians point to several sources of the Russian concept of autocracy: the Byzantine political theory of Caesaropapism, the Mongol heritage of oriental despotism, and European enlightened absolutism. Some scholars also emphasize the geopolitical factors (the perpetual striving for improved security and Russia's economic development), which find expression even today in Russian imperialism. For these reasons personal freedoms were sacrificed to autocracy.
The Soviet Russian regime, which was forced upon many other nations, including the Ukrainians, was in fact a variation on tsarist autocracy. Its essential features were the embodiment of the supreme power in the person of the party leader and a small circle of the highest Communist party leadership; government through decrees rather than the legislative process, in which the key role would lie with the elected, representative bodies; and the extreme centralization of political and economic administration. Traditional tsarist autocracy was organically assimilated by Soviet totalitarianism. The continuity of tsarist autocracy with the Soviet political system under the leadership of the party and its general secretary was described by A. Toynbee, K. Wittfogel, T. Szamuely, K. Friedrich, Zbigniew Brzezinski, John Reshetar, and others. The brief interruptions in this process came at the Time of Troubles (1605–13) and in the few years after the October Revolution of 1917. The Ukrainian Hetman state of the 17th–18th century fell victim to Russian autocracy, and the national-cultural renaissance of the 19th century and the liberation movements of the 20th century suffered on its account.
Autocracy as a form of government did not exist in Kyivan Rus’ or Ukraine. The power of the prince, the hetman, and then the head of the state (1917–20) was kept in check by other bodies.
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[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).]