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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. More than any other person, this Tsar changed the direction of Russian history, and many believe that he transformed the country and opened it up to the west.
What was Russia like before Peter the Great?
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 centers, 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.
This was because the government of the country was archaic. Much of the population were serfs, who were not legally free and 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 mighty, and its Patriarch was second in power only to the Tsar. Many enemies encircled Russia. It was menaced by many powerful enemies, including the Swedish and Ottoman Empires, who frequently threaten its territories.
Who was 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 protect them from their many enemies. To do this, he wanted to modernize his realm. He also wanted to strengthen his own position regarding 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. Early in his reign, Peter solidified his rule crushed a rebellion by Moscow's soldiers 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.
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, which 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 Ukraine 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's army. In the aftermath of his victory over Sweden, Peter founded a city on the Baltic Coast and named it 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.’
By this time, Peter was the 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. He 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 St. Petersburg. It is reported that when asked who should rule after his death, he whispered ‘the strongest.’ Stability was only restored after many years when his daughter Elizabeth became Tsarina.
Why did Peter the Great give landowners more power over 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 landowners' rights about the serfs, and as a result, the unfree class became ever more dependent on their masters. Peter gave estate-owners new powers, including requiring no serf to leave his master’s lands without their written permission. He also placed new financial burdens on the serfs.
The tax system that Peter established was very oppressive to 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 a fall into abeyance in western Europe in the Middle Ages.
How did Peter the Great change the Russian Economy?
The Great Northern War required unprecedented economic resources, and Peter needed new revenue streams to pay for his reforms and 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 an 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, which helped boost the economy.
However, the country remained agrarian and private enterprise was stymied by the vast state monopolies and heavy taxation. Peter began 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. As a result, Peter did not really modernize the Russian economy as he tightly controlled it, and the country’s economy did not fundamentally change.
Which Administrative Reforms did Peter the Great Institute?
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 Table of Ranks' establishment was an attack on the Boyars' power and transformed Russian society. 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 Russia's civil service and who were, unlike the nobles, loyal to the Tsar. The new civil service governed Russia for two centuries. The Communists only abolished the Table of Ranks 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. Despite his reforms, Russia remained an autocracy, and Peter was an absolute ruler.
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 on the battlefield. The Tsar turned the military into a professional force. He appointed western officers to his army and trained them.
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. Before his reign, Russia did not have a real maritime presence and was essentially landlocked. Peter imported skilled artisans and established shipyards. In doing so, the monarch created the first Russian Navy, which allowed Peter to project his military power and helped boost maritime trade.
How Peter the Great Westernize Russia?
Many historians argue that Peter initiated a cultural revolution that transformed Russia and changed it from a traditionalist and even medieval society into one deeply influenced by the west. Certainly, Tsar Peter was deeply influenced by the West. 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 on his foundation, and his successors continued this. 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 Tsar critics state that he created a police state in Russia and created a rigid and stratified society, where most of the populace were serfs. The Tsar reforms did not change Russia and 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 about his many and varied achievements. He defeated the Swedish Empire and turned his realm into a true Empire. Peter opened Russia to the West, curtailed the nobility's power, and created a modern state that could compete with other European countries. The Tsar also established the great city of St Petersburg, which became one of Europe’s great cultural centers.
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 or orientated towards Europe. The Tsar was an autocrat, and he created an absolute monarchy in Russia, which resulted in a feudal and highly stratified society.
- Bushkovitch, Paul. Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671–1725 (Cambridge, Cambridge Press, 2001), p 6
- Bushkovitch, p. 134
- Anisimov, Evgenii V. The Reforms of Peter the Great: Progress Through Violence in Russia (London, Routledge, 2015), p. 187
- Anisimov, p. 159
- Masie, p. 214
- Anisimov, p 115
- Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great: His Life and World (London, Random House Publishing Group, 2012), p. 22
- Masie, p. 113
- Massie, p. 156
- 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
- Meehan-Waters, B. "The Russian Aristocracy and the Reforms of Peter the Great." Canadian-American Slavic Studies 8, no. 2 (1974): 288-302
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