In what ways did Peter the Great change Russia?

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Peter the Great is one of the most important figures in Russian History. He was a larger than life figure and he became a legend in his own lifetime. This Tsar more than any other person changed the direction of Russian history and many believe that he transformed the country and opened it up to the west. This article will discuss the background of Peter and to understand the Russia of his youth. It then discusses the main historical events of his reign and then to outline the main reforms introduced by the Tsar. The work will identify the areas of Russian life that changed forever and how Peter changed his vast domains, but it will argue that despite his reforms, he did not really open-up Russia to the west.


Russia was a vast and sprawling country but it was backward and traditional. Under the Romanov Dynasty, the country had expanded and had become a vast kingdom. While Europe was modernizing and developing new technologies and ideas, Russia remained insular. It had few urban centres, no real infrastructure and it was an agrarian society. Much of the country was ruled by Boyars or nobles who ruled vast estates almost as independent sovereigns. They regularly defied the Tsar’s orders and they competed for influence over the Tsars. Russia despite being rich in resources was poor [1]. This was because the government of the country was archaic. Much of the population were serfs, who were not legally free and they were effectively owned by the landowning class. Russia was still very much a feudal society even as Europe was about to enter the Enlightenment. The Russian Orthodox Church was also very powerful and its Patriarch was second in power only to the Tsar. Russia was encircled by many enemies, it was menaced by many powerful enemies including the Swedish and Ottoman Empires, who frequently threaten its territories [2].

Portrait of Peter the Great

Peter the Great

Peter was born in Moscow, Russia in, 1672. He was the 14th child of Tsar Alexis by his second wife. After the death of his father, he jointly ruled with his brother Ivan V from 1682. Ivan died in 1696 and then Peter ruled alone. The Tsar was a giant of a man and was unpredictable and prone to violent outbursts. Peter was a curious man by nature and he wanted to make his kingdoms strong and to protect it from its many enemies. To do this, he wanted to modernize his realm. He also wanted to strengthen his own position in regard to the local aristocracy. As a youth, he and his brother were dominated by the Boyars and for the rest of his life, he distrusted them. Peter, early in his reign to solidify his rule crushed a rebellion by soldiers in Moscow who supported his half-sister, he had her later sent to a nunnery. Peter in the first years of his reign had to suppress many rebellions, he remained a ruthless leader[3]. This did not stop him from modernizing his country. The Tsar appointed many western advisors to his court and made western dress compulsory. Peter later toured Europe, this was known as the Great Embassy and he learned much about the west and especially its new technologies. When he returned he was ever more determined to modernize his country. Perhaps the main motive that drove the Tsar to transform his realm was to secure a military advantage. Tsar Peter was an expansionist and he wanted to secure warm water ports that would improve Russia’s access to the sea. He fought wars with Sweden and Turkey to secure these ports. Peter seized territory in Estonia, Latvia and Finland and land from the Ottoman Empire. By 1710 Russia had access to the Baltic and the Black Sea. In the Great Northern War, the Swedish King, Charles XII inflicted a humiliating defeat on Peter at the Battle of Narva. The Swedish monarch who was a military genius defeated Poland and Denmark. A Swedish attempt to march on Moscow was defeated but this did not deter the Swedes. Charles invaded the Ukraine, in order to join up with rebellious Cossacks. Peter defeated the Swedish army by purposely directing their troops to the city of Poltava, during an unbearable Russian winter and there he surrounded them and annihilated Charles XII army. In the aftermath of his victory over Sweden, Peter founded a city on the Baltic Coast and named it after himself Petersburg. This city was a symbol of the pivot that Russia was making under the Tsar and it became known as Russia’s ‘window on Europe’ [4]. By this time Peter was absolute ruler of Russia and in 1721 he named himself as Emperor of All Russia, Great Father of the Fatherland, and "the Great." Peter was a reformer but he was like previous Tsars and he had a reputation for being bloodthirsty and cruel. He was even cruel to his own family. His sent his first wife to a nunnery and had a son convicted of treason and was secretly executed in 1718. Peter the Great died on February 8, 1725, without nominating an heir. He is entombed in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, located in in St. Petersburg. It is reported that when asked who should rule after his death, he whispered ‘the strongest’ [5]. Stability was only restored after many years when his daughter Elizabeth became Tsarina.

Peter the Great and the Serfs

Peter's reign saw even great controls imposed on the serfs. Peter gave the Boyers and the landowning class more powers over the serfs. Peter passed laws that formalized the rights of the landowners about the serfs and as a result, the unfree class became ever more dependent on their masters. Peter gave estate-owners new powers, including a requirement that no serf could leave his master’s lands without their written permission. He also placed new financial burdens on the serfs. The tax system that was established by Peter was one that was very oppressive on the poor and the serfs. The Tsar who owned extensive estates created a class of state-serfs or state-peasants. They had more freedoms than the average serf and they paid their rent and dues directly to the state. Despite his reputation as a modernizer, the Tsar helped to strengthen the feudal order in his country and reinforced the institution of serfdom that had fall into abeyance in western Europe in the Middle Ages [6].

Mosaic of Peter the Great at Poltava


The Great Northern War required unprecedented economic resources and Peter needed new revenue streams to pay for his reforms and his wars. The government was in a dire financial position because of Peter’s lavish expenditure. To raise money, Peter monopolized the salt, vodka and coal industries. Peter devised many ways to raise revenue even a tax on beards that caused uproar among traditional Russians. The Tsar was persuaded that he needed to engage in major taxation reform. The solution was a new poll tax, that replaced all other taxes. The tax burden on the poorer orders increased dramatically. Peter introduced many new technologies into his country from the west and they helped to boost the economy. However, the country remained agrarian and private enterprise was stymied by the vast state monopolies and heavy taxation. Peter did begin the process of industrialization in his country when he set up state-workshops in the cities and towns. To boost Russian manufacturers also pursued proto-protectionist trade policies, placing heavy tariffs on imports and trade to maintain a favorable environment for Russian-made goods. Peter did not really modernize the Russian economy as he tightly controlled it and the country’s economy as a result did not fundamentally change [7].

File:1200px-Bronze Horseman and St' Isaac's cathedral 1890-1900.
Statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg

Administrative Reforms

Peter’s administrative reforms all sought to counter the influence of the Boyars. The Tsar hated the nobles and did not trust them and many were opposed to his reforms as they threatened their privileges. Peter the Great established the Table of Ranks this was a complex system of titles and offices. The table had twenty-four ranks. Each rank had its own level of service to the Tsar. The establishment of the Table of Ranks was an attack on the power of the Boyars and transformed Russian society [8]. The reform abolished hereditary office holding and allowed new people to join the bureaucracy and state service. Peter established a meritocracy in the bureaucracy and to a lesser extent in the military. A new generation of technocrats emerged that dominated the civil service in Russia and who were, unlike the nobles, loyal to the Tsar. The new civil service governed Russia for two centuries and the Table of Ranks was only abolished by the Communists in 1917. Peter also established a series of ministries for the first time based on the European model. He also set up a Senate which was designed to counsel the Tsar. The Tsar was an autocrat and he gave sweeping powers to the bureaucracy and the elite. He also ended the autonomy of the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church and he turned the Church into a department of the state. The Tsar totally dominated the Church just as he did all other aspects of Russian life [9]. Despite his reforms, Russia remained an autocracy and Peter was an absolute ruler.

Military and Naval Reforms

The Russian army that Peter inherited was a semi-professional militia that was recruited from villages and estates. The soldiers were poorly trained and armed. Peter knew that they were not able to match the Swedes and Ottomans in the battlefield. The Tsar turned the military into a professional force[10]. He appointed western officers to his army and to train the soldiers. Peter also established arsenals and workshops that produced modern weapons for the new army. Tsar Peter established a standing army in 1699 and he passed a law that conscripted some serfs and nobles for life. Despite his many reforms the nobles officered many units in the new army. Peter was particularly eager to establish a new navy. Prior to his reign Russia did not have a real maritime presence and was essentially landlocked. Peter imported skilled craftsmen and established shipyards. The monarch in doing so created the first Russian Navy and this not only allowed Peter to project his military power it also helped to boost maritime trade.


Many historians argue that Peter initiated a cultural revolution that transformed Russia and changed it from a traditionalist and even medieval society into one that was deeply influenced by the west. Certainly, Tsar Peter was deeply influenced by the west and he introduced many new ideas and technologies into his country. Many westerners came to settle in the country. Many point to the City that he founded, St Petersburg which became a truly European city. Peter build many churches and stately buildings in his foundation and this was continued by his successors. Indeed, the city was to become Russia’s cultural center. It became the home of many great Russian writers and composers. However, Peter did not really modernize his country. He was an autocrat and he became an absolute ruler. Some critics of the Tsar state that he created a police state in Russia and created a rigid and stratified society, where most of the populace were serfs </ref> Meehan-Waters, B. "The Russian Aristocracy and the Reforms of Peter the Great." Canadian-American Slavic Studies 8, no. 2 (1974): 288-302 </ref>. The reforms of the Tsar did not change Russia and it remained a feudal and traditional society until the reign of Tsar Nicholas II in the 19th century.


Peter the Great is widely regarded as one of the founders of modern Russia. There are no doubts of his many and varied achievements. He defeated the Swedish Empire and turned his realm into a true Empire. Peter opened Russia to the west and he curtailed the power of the nobility and he created a modern state, one that could compete with the other European countries. The Tsar also established the great city of St Petersburg which became one of Europe’s great cultural center. However, Peter should not be a true modernizer. The Tsar turned Russia into a feudal society at a time when the rest of Europe was liberalizing. Individuals had very few rights including members of the nobility. There was no opposition tolerated in Russia and not even the Church had any freedom. Peter the Great did create a Russian Empire but it was not a modern society, nor one that was orientated towards Europe. The Tsar was an autocrat and he created an absolute monarchy in Russia, that resulted in a society that was feudal and highly stratified.


  1. Bushkovitch, Paul. Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671–1725 (Cambridge, Cambridge Press, 2001), p 6
  2. Bushkovitch, p. 134
  3. Anisimov, Evgenii V. The Reforms of Peter the Great: Progress Through Violence in Russia (London, Routledge, 2015), p. 187
  4. Anisimov, p. 159
  5. Masie, p. 214
  6. Anisimov, p 115
  7. Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great: His Life and World (London, Random House Publishing Group, 2012), p. 22
  8. Masie, p. 113
  9. Massie, p. 156
  10. Anisimov, Evgenii V. "The Reforms of Peter the Great: Progress through coercion in Russia, trans." John T. Alexander (Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe, 1993), p. 186