Konstantin Pobedonostsev: symbol of Russian monarchal absolutism

PHOTO: Konstantin Pobedonostsev drinking tea in the garden of the Cottage Palace, the Peterhof residence of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, July 1898

Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev was born in Moscow on 30th (O.S. 18th) November 1827. He remains one of the most interesting, yet controversial persons from the life and reign of Emperor Nicholas II.

Pobedonostsev was a Russian jurist, statesman, and adviser to three Tsars: Alexander II, Alexander III and Nicholas II. Nicknamed the “Grand Inquisitor,” he came to be the symbol of Russian monarchal absolutism.

Pobedonostsev and Tsesarevich Alexander Alexandrovich [future Emperor Alexander III] remained very close for almost thirty years, through Alexander’s ascension as Tsar in 1881 and until his death in 1894. During the reign of Alexander III he was one of the most influential men in the Russian Empire. He was the mastermind of Emperor Alexander II’s Manifesto of 29th April 1881. The Manifesto on Unshakeable Autocracy proclaimed that the absolute power of the Tsar was unshakable thus putting an end to Loris-Melikov’s endeavours to establish a representative body in the empire.

Pobedonostsev was the chief spokesman for reactionary positions. He was the “éminence grise” of imperial politics during the reign of Alexander III, holding the the distinguished position of Chief Procurator of the Most Holy Synod, the non-clerical Russian official who supervised the Russian Orthodox Church [from 1880 to 1905].

In 1883, Emperor Alexander III appointed Konstantin Pobedonostsev, as chief tutor to his son and heir Nicholas Alexandrodovich [future Emperor Nicholas II].

Nicholas received a thorough training under the direction of the best teachers in Russia. Among his teachers, the one who exerted the greatest influence on him was undoubtedly the ultra-conservative Russian academic Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who was highly intelligent, widely read and very hardworking. Pobedonstsev believed that only the power and symbolism of an autocratic monarchy, advised by an elite of rational expert officials, could run the country effectively.

Pobedonostsev’s guidance and influence imbibed the principles of absolutism, dynasty, military greatness and the official religious tradition on the future Tsar. He constantly reminded Nicholas that the Tsar was anointed by God and was a divinely inspired source of wisdom and order.

PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II with Konstantin Pobedonostsev (far right). Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, both dressed in white (center) standing next to the Tsar. This photo was taken on the steps of the Cottage Palace, the Peterhof residence of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, July 1898

Following the death of Alexander III on 1st November [O.S. 20 October] 1894, Pobedonostev remained an aide to Nicholas II, although he lost much of his influence. While the new Tsar adhered to his father’s Russification policy and even extending it to Finland, he generally disliked the idea of systematic religious persecution, and was not wholly averse to the partial emancipation of the Church from civil control.

In 1901, Nikolai Lagovski, a socialist, tried to assassinate Pobedonostsev, shooting through the window of Pobedonostsev’s office, but missing. Lagovski was sentenced to 6 years.

It was Pobedonostsev who ordered the excommunication of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy in 1901.

As the Chief Prosecutor of the Holy Synod – a position he held until 1905 – Pobedonostsev opposed the canonization of the Monk Seraphim of Sarov in 1903. Standing firm in his beliefs, Emperor Nicholas II ordered the canonization of Seraphim of Sarov.

Konstatnin Pobedonostsev died in St. Petersburg on 23rd March (O.S. 10th March) 1907. He was survived by his wife Ekaterina Alexandrovna, née Engelhardt (1848-1932), and their adopted daughter Martha (1897-1964).

Pobedonostsev’s funeral took place on 26th March (O.S. 13th March) 1907 at the Novo-Devichsky Convent; members of the Imperial Family were not present. He was buried at St. Vladimir Church in St. Petersburg. The church has not survived, however, the grave has survived to the present day.

© Paul Gilbert. 14 December 2022