Dynastic Law or the Will of the Emperor: On the Problem of the Succession to the Throne in Eighteenth-Century Russia
The article is devoted to one of the most painful problems encountered by any absolute monarchy – the problem of the transfer of power. Taking the example offered by 18th-century Russian history, the author explores the contradiction between the need to frame a law that would strictly regulate the rules of succession to the throne, and the desire of the reigning emperor to identify the law with his own personal will and his exclusive prerogative of appointing a successor. This contradiction was most clearly expressed in the draft papers of Catherine II, who, while having a clear understanding of the full force of the “fundamental” rules that work to stabilise society, simultaneously did not regard her son as a worthy successor of her policy. The Empress’s views are investigated on the basis of archival sources, several of which are introduced into academic circulation here for the first time, and are evaluated in the historical perspective of their relationship to the 1722 Charter on succession to the throne in previous reigns, a period that has come to be known in historiography as the “era of palace coups”. The question of the extent of the power of the ruling monarch is examined as part of the broader problem of the essence of autocracy.