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Sovereignty as a constitutional issue in Imperial Russia, 1905-1915. Hutchinson, John F

Abstract

The turbulent reign of Tsar Nicholas II has been treated by many historians, but few of them have delved deeply into the important constitutional issues which arose during the crucial years 1905-1915. Undoubtedly, the most important constitutional problem of the period was the exercise of sovereignty. Where did sovereignty reside in theory, and who exercised it in practice? Was the Tsar the sovereign power, or was sovereignty exercised on his behalf by someone else? Could the Tsar have become a constitutional monarch by limiting his own sovereign powers? Did the October Manifesto establish a constitutional monarchy, and if not, what was its real significance? These are some of the most important questions which are discussed in detail in the thesis. The political events of the decade are examined in the light of the constitutional problems raised in 1905. The evidence presented suggests that the importance of the October Manifesto as a constitutional document has been exaggerated, and that the Fundamental Laws of 1906 were far more significant than has been generally believed. Count Witte's role in preserving the imperial prerogative powers is analysed in some detail. It is argued that the Fundamental Laws left the Emperor's legislative prerogative intact, and that the Duma therefore lost its raison d'être long before its first convocation. This loss caused the first two Dumas to challenge the constitutional system established by the Fundamental Laws. The Third Duma achieved a kind of pragmatic authority during the Stolypin regime, but after 1911 the Duma ceased to play any kind of effective role in the governing process. Finally, it is argued that Nicholas II was incapable of exercising intelligently the extensive prerogative powers which the Emperor retained after 1905. His deficiencies of character and his reactionary political ideas made it impossible for reasonable men to serve as his ministers. In August of 1915, the worsening military situation necessitated an unequivocal decision by the Tsar as to whether he would accept once and for all the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. From the course of the negotiations between the Progressive Bloc and the cabinet, it would appear that a final transfer of the imperial legislative prerogative to the Duma was not contemplated; rather, the legislative prerogative would be exercised by a ministry of public and military leaders on behalf of the Emperor. This Nicholas could not bring himself to accept. He chose to rule rather than reign, and ruled as a virtually absolute monarch until 1917, when he suddenly found he had no choice at all but to abdicate.

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