The Different Manners Used by Peter the Great and Maria Theresa Joseph II in Implementing Cultural Changes in Their Respective Absolute Monarchies

During the period of the Enlightenment, the monarchs of Europe

began to assume an “Enlightened Absolutist” approach to governance. Two examples of absolute monarchies are Peter the Great in Russian and Maria Theresa/Joseph II in the Hapsburg Empire (Austria). They both strove to develop their respective countries in an effort to better compete in the multi-national imperialistic environment of Europe. Furthermore, both empirical regimes implemented policies that shook the foundations of their respective societies. While they both had similar goals of modernization and implementing cultural changes, they went about such goals in quite different manners due to their unique situations.

In juxtaposing the two empires, it is first important to outline the specific leadership styles of both empires. In Imperial Russia, under the rule of Peter the Great, the Enlightenment was both late and never fully realized (in comparison to other European monarchies). Johnson attributes this to the fact that democratic ideals and philosophy was not inherent in Russian society (Johnson, pg. 112). There was no separation of church and state, nor was there even a separation between society and government, per se. As Hungarian Historian JenöSzücs puts it, “The West subordinated society to the state, the East ‘nationalized’ it” (Johnson, pg.111) Peter the Great managed to dilute noble control of Russia by introducing “service nobility”, which were military or bureaucratic officials-made nobles. In doing so he was able to mandate such public service of all his nobility. While these are not inherently enlightened precepts, he did make progress in looking westward. He built the city of St. Petersburg from nothing in short time, making available a port to access the rest of Europe, known as

the “Window to the West”. In doing so he was able to send nobles and other Russians to the West to learn their style of governance, trade, and infrastructure. As is evident, Peter the Great did not accomplish the goals of enlightened monarchs of the rest of the world due to this inability to grasp the concepts of democracy; however, much more progress was made under his rule in comparison to other rulers of the empire.

While Peter the Great faced problems relating to maintaining a vast and ethically diverse empire, Maria Theresa faced greater issues of establishing dominance over her lands. Before her father died without a male heir, he was able to broker a deal within his empire and abroad that would recognize his daughter as the monarch of the Hapsburg Empire. However, her status as ruler was either not initially accepted by others, or outright ignored. She was quickly attacked by their allies, the Prussians. She took her position as a new ruler, in a state of war, without trusted counsel or finances. All throughout her tenure as ruler, she struggled to reign in the powers of the local provinces. In her political testament, Maria Theresa writes,

“Matters got worse and worse, and owing to the division between the Provinces, none of the Ministers was really trying to rescue me and the State from this terrible embarrassment. At first, all proposals of nature to inflict the smallest hardship on any Province were immediately rejected by the officials in charge of that Province, and everyone cared only for his own interest, and I was not able to oppose this, knowing too little of the situation.” (Maria Theresa’s Political Testament, pg. 5)

Johnson continues by stating “As the pious mother of sixteen children, who allegedly used more maternal instinct in her reform

strategies than the enlightened philosophy, Maria Theresa was a bit doughy by the standards of stellar enlightened absolutists like Frederick and Catherine” (Johnson, pg. 113). While her shortcomings and obstacles were great, she did manage to introduce laws that are enlightened in nature, establish a unified currency, and provided education for serfs.

Maria Theresa’s son and co-regent, Joseph II, picked up the torch of enlightenment following the death of his mother. Joseph II is arguably one of the best examples of “Enlightened Absolutism” in Europe. When he took control he began passing legislation that his mother was against. For example, Joseph II abolished serfdom, ended censorship of the press, and limited the powers of the Roman Catholic Church ( Furthermore, he was a champion of religious minority religious groups’ rights. He passed a series of laws labeled the “Edicts of Toleration”, granting civil liberties to all religious groups, including the Jews. For example, he made available jobs in agriculture, the factories, and art for all Jews, adding,

“To prevent the Jewish children and the Jews in general suffering as a result of the concessions granted to them, the authorities and the leaders of the local communities must instruct the subjects in a rational manner that the Jews are to be regarded like any other fellow human-beings and that there must be an end to the prejudice and contempt which some subjects, particularly the unintelligent, have shown towards the Jewish nation and which several times in the past have led to deplorable behaviour and even criminal excesses.” (Emancipation of the Jews, pg.144)

Juxtaposing the “Enlightened Absolutist” regimes of the Russian and Hapsburg empires underscores both the unique set of obstacles each ruler

faced, as well as the accomplishments made by those leaders. Although it may be hard for those us here in the modern 21st century to classify such advancements as truly “democratic” or “ideal”, in the context of the time some of these progressive policies were huge, and set their respective empires on track to become the countries we know today.


  1. Hapsburg, Maria Theresa. Political Testament. N.p.: n.p.,n.d. PDF.

  2. II, Joseph. Emancipation of the Jews.N.p.: n.p.,n.d. PDF.

  3. Johnson, Lonnie. Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends. N.p.: n.p.,n.d. Print.

  4. “Joseph II.” A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

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