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By the time Peter the First, or how he came to be known through the generations, Peter the Great, was coronated, Russia was the largest country in the world. Its vast dominion stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Much of Russia’s expansion had taken place in the 17th century, culminating with the first Russian settlement of the Pacific, the reconquest of Kiev and the Ukrainian territories, and the pacification of the Siberian tribes. However, the vast majority of the land remained vacant, the infrastructure for travel was virtually nonexistent, and the majority of Russian population was dependent upon the agrarian economy. Only a fraction of the populace resided in towns, while the Russian agriculture, with its short growing season and backward methodology was ineffective and lagged behind that of Western Europe. The class of kholops, or feudally dependent persons similar to serfs, whose social status was closer to that of slaves, remained a major institution in Russia until 1723. Russia also largely remained isolated from trade by the sea and its internal trade communications and manufacturing were heavily dependent on seasonal changes with most major roadways becoming impassible once the colder season took hold.
When Peter came to power, he immediately realized that the only way to modernize the feudal and antiquated Russia, was to model its social and economic foundations upon the contemporary Western societies. During Peter’s reign, the connections between Russia and Europe became more intimate, and more diverse. Peter took the opportunity to see Europe for himself as a young tsar on his so-called Great Embassy tour of 1697. Peter’s prior victory over the Ottoman Empire in 1696, through which he gained the Black Sea and the fortress of Azov, provided the premise for this journey. Peter was now prepared to offer Europe the committed engagement of Russia in the Holy League against the Ottoman Empire. As part of his campaign, Peter traveled to a number of major European cities: Konigsberg, Berlin, Amsterdam, London, Dresden and Vienna. Although ultimately unsuccessful, The Great Embassy proved nonetheless a big event in Russian history, and had far-reaching consequences for years to come, pretexting significant changes within the Russian Empire, as well as in its relationship with the West. Peter was able to prepare the ground for future alliances with Denmark, Brandenburg-Prussia and Saxony, which would prove important during the Great Northern War against Sweden in 1700–1721. Apart from pursuing the agenda of the state, Peter gained a pivotal insight into the mechanisms of cultural transfer which was to prove very important. On the journey, Peter came to realize that passive use of European technology and hiring of foreign experts would not advance Russia’s cause in the long term. In the eyes of the tsar, Russia’s status demanded that his subjects, including the aristocratic elite, should personally acquire the knowledge and skills of the Europeans in the sciences and technologies and the crafts, in order to be able to independently apply those faculties for betterment of Russia. With a mixture of enthusiasm and stoic commitment to duty, young Russian aristocrats made their way to Europe in order to implement vision of their tsar.
In the Great Northern War (1700–1721), and in particular through his victory over Sweden at Poltava in 1709, Peter impressively demonstrated the newly acquired military capabilities of the Russian Empire on the European stage. However, Peter’s eagerness to bring about change was not limited to the military sphere. He drastically reduced the number of the old central institutions of administration in Moscow and he converted them into administrative colleges based on the Swedish model. In 1721, he gave himself the title of ‘Emperor’ (Imperator), drawing on models from ancient Rome to underscore his new status. Peter’s desire to reshape all aspects of the Russian state and society was also included a cultural revolution. He moved the capital of the empire from the old city of Moscow to the new city of Saint Petersburg. Peter broke with Muscovite Orthodox traditions of ceremonial court customs and re-orientated the court etiquette to mimic the baroque forms and the classical Greek and Roman system of symbols instead. Peter ordered his aristocracy to dress in accordance with contemporary European fashions and styles.
Hereafter, Peter the Great was the first to enforce the truly archetypal system of autocracy in Russia and played a major role in introducing his nation to the European state structure. His visits to the West impressed upon him the notion that European customs were, in many respects, superior to Russian archaic traditions. Heavily influenced by his advisers from Western Europe, he reorganized the Russian army according the modern Western lines and dreamed of making Russia a maritime power. He also commanded all of his courtiers and officials to wear European style clothing and forced his nobles to shave off their traditionally long beard, thus causing great upheaval among the boyars, or the feudal elites. Peter the Great even instituted a tax on those who, in their defiance, sought to retain their beards in the amount of one hundred rubles annually.
Furthermore, Peter the Great instituted critical social reforms. He sought to end arranged marriages, which were the norm among the Russian nobility, deeming the practice as barbaric and commonly resulting in domestic violence. In 1699, he changed the date of the celebration of the new year from September 1 to January 1. Traditionally, the years were being enumerated from the purported creation of the world, but after Peter’s reforms, they were to be counted off from the birth of Christ. Thus, in the year 7207 of the old Russian calendar, Peter proclaimed that the Julian Calendar, which was adapted thought out the rest of Europe, to be in effect, which effectively standardized the Russian almanac with the rest of the civilized Western world.
Yet, one of Peter’s major goals was always to undermine and to reduce the influence of the Russian boyars, who proclaimed Slavic supremacy and opposed any European influence and intervention. While their clout had steadily declined since the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the Boyar Duma, an advisory council to the tsar, still wielded considerable political power. Peter saw them as backwards and as obstacles standing in the way of Europeanization and reform he meant to spearhead. Peter strategically targeted boyars with numerous taxes and obligatory services meant to undermine them economically and to make the nobles more co-dependent upon the centralized rule of the Tsar.
Prior to Peter’s rule, Russia’s administrative system was relatively antiquated compared to that of many Western European nations. The state was divided into uyezds, which mostly consisted of cities and their immediate surrounding areas. In 1708, Peter abolished these old impractical subdivisions and established in their place eight governorates. In 1711, a new state body was established: The Governing Senate. All its members were appointed by the tsar from among his own allies, originally consisting of ten people. All posts and dismissal from thereof, occurred only in accordance to personal imperial decrees. Another decree in 1713 established the Landrats (from the German word for “national council”). This was a local governing body in each of the governorates, staffed by eight to twelve professional civil servants, who assisted a royally-appointed governor. In 1719, after the establishment of the government departments known as the Collegia, Peter reorganized Russia’s administrative divisions once again. The new provinces were modeled upon the Swedish system, where larger, more politically significant regions received more autonomy, while smaller, more rural areas were controlled directly by the state.
Still, Peter the Great’s distrust of the elitist and anti-reformist boyars culminated in 1722 with the creation of the Table of Ranks —a formal list of ranks in the Russian military, government, and the royal court. This decree instituted a complex system of titles and honorifics, each classed with a number denoting a specific level of service or loyalty to the tsar; this was among the most audacious of Peter’s reforms. Previously, high-ranking state positions were hereditary, but with the establishment of the Table of Ranks, anyone, including a commoner, could work their way up the bureaucratic hierarchy with sufficiently hard work, skill and fidelity. A new generation of technocrats soon supplanted the old boyar class and dominated the civil service in Russia. With minimal modifications, the Table of Ranks remained in effect until the Russian Revolution of 1917.
These audacious reforms were unlike any others launched by tsars preceding Peter the Great. In times of the old Muscovite Russia, the state’s functions were limited mostly to military defense, collection of taxes, and enforcement of class divisions. In contrast, the legislation under Peter’s rule covered every aspect of life in Russia, in exhaustive detail, significantly impacting the everyday lives of nearly every Russian citizen. The success of Peter’s reforms contributed greatly to Russia’s military successes and the increase in its revenue and productivity. More importantly, Peter created a state which further legitimized and strengthened authoritarian rule in Russia. Testaments to this lasting influence are the many public institutions in the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, which trace their origins back to Peter’s rule. In order to modernize a socially and economically lagging Russia, Peter the Great introduced sweeping social, administrative, and economic reforms stated above, westernizing Russia and creating a newly-forged relationship between Russia and the West.
Contemporary European visitors to Russia could witness all these fundamental changes first hand. The Hanoverian ambassador Friedrich Christian Weber depicted the Russian empire as a ‘veränderte Russland’ (a Russia transformed) in 1739, Count Francesco Algarotti, a Venetian philosopher of the time, coined a metaphor which was subsequently quoted widely and often, when he stated that Peter the Great had opened Russia’s ‘window on Europe’. As a result of Peter’s visionary reforms, for the first time, the convergence between the Russia’s perception of itself and the Europeans’ perceptions of the Russian Empire took place. Vasilii N. Tatishchev, a Russian historian who was the first to record and document a comprehensive history of the Russian Empire, outlined a new, and more precise map of Russia, which divided the empire along the Ural Mountains into the European part and the Asian part , signifying the Russia’s arrival to and its acceptance by Europe, however fractioned. Of course, after the death of Peter the Great, his successors faced the question of how to disseminate and to continue his legacy. Generally, it seems as though the 18th century Russia was an imperial laboratory of Europeanization and aggressive social and economic expansion, the likes of which had never been seen before in Russian history.
Nonetheless, Peter the First’s reign marked by great victories and overhauling of the entire Russian socioeconomic and cultural structure was not without controversy. His ambitious and sweeping projects resulted in millions of deaths of his subjects. Peter’s iron-clad dominion over the Russian governmental assembly resulted in centuries of subjugation and intolerance of any dissent against the dominant ruling authority. His desire to mold the uniquely Russian identity to imitate those of the European nations, resulted in loss of cultural identity and national pride- aftermaths, arguably still affecting Russian citizens to the present day. In fact, some historians traced fracture in the Russia’s national consciousness back to the time of Peter the Great. Historian Michael Cherniavsky, for instance, argued that the dual consciousness emerged as direct result of Peter’s reforms, causing the schism even within ranks of the Russian Church. This rupture became evident between the “Europeanizing” gentry, who identified themselves with the progressive “Russia”, thus considering their actions and themselves “by definition, Russian”, and the consciousness of the “Old Believers” and peasants who resisted such changes and sill clanged to the past. They, [the peasants] “began to insist on beards, traditional clothes, and old rituals- creating, in reaction, their own Russian identity.” In this view “national consciousness emerged as a popular reaction to the self-identity of the absolutist state, with the threat that those things which challenged it- the absolutist consciousness of tsar, empire, and Orthodoxy- could be excluded from Russian self-identity.” But in one counterargument, historian James Cracraft points out that much of the reaction to the Petrine reforms, rather than constituting xenophobia or national consciousness, was in large part “an anguished opposition to a pattern of behavior which did great violence to a world view that was still essentially religious.” Undoubtedly, competing sentiments about what constituted the Russian character were challenged within social groups in which religious and ethnocultural distinctions overlapped and reinforced one another. Being “Russian” was closely identified with being Orthodox Christian but also with living within the tsar’s dominion. As Peter’s sovereign state partitioned itself from the more traditional ethnoreligious sense of the community, toward a non-ethnic, cosmopolitan, European nation-state, Russians became at odds with their true nature, forced to choose between these two interpretations of the “Russian” identity.
In conclusion, perhaps, it is this very juxtaposition of Peter’s vision, steely resolve to transform the Russian Empire into a modern, civilized society at any costs, suppressing any opposition in his way; all the while, spearheading his nation into an era of prosperity and enlightenment, are what made Peter the Great truly “great”. A figure, still inspiring contentious polemic regarding his legacy, whose accomplishments and visions remain relevant not just to the Russia under his rule, but to the contemporary world as well, almost 300 hundred years since his death.
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