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Russian Tsar Peter The Great: Both a Hero and a Villain

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“A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development” ― Agnes Repplier.

Agnes summed it up pretty well, and what she says relates heavily to what you would see in any successful ruler, not just an evil one. So using this definition of a villian one can safely assume for Tsar Peter 1 to be a villain, but what gave him these characteristics, why would he be feared? Why would one feel sympathetic towards him? And why would his downfall need to celebrated and not mourned if all his previous development meant for the greater good of his mother-land, Russia? The views of a historical character can change along with the time that passes. And the views concerning and surrounding them can vary from personality to personality, what may appeal to me may not appeal to you. Influences placed by new and passing regimes, dynasties or governments also all play vital roles in what we as a human race perceive and learn, for they are the ones who control what we see, hear and learn. But considering in what time and place with enough information and resources one is able to make the educated assumption that if one, in their opinion, is a hero or villain. One such person that I believe is educated enough in the field of Russian history is Professor of Russian and East European Studies, Kevin M.F Platt, who had this to say on the matter: “To my mind, when one asks whether Peter the Great was a ‘hero’ or ‘villain,’ one is posing a question not simply about the innate qualities or achievements of this figure, but also about how he has been represented in historiography, literature, drama, and painting. In this regard, despite all of the violence of his reign, Peter has almost always been viewed more as a hero than a villain: as a larger than life figure who accomplished seemingly beneficial tasks of social and largely beneficial tasks of social and political modernisation at enormous cost not only to his countrymen, but also to himself.” The statement provided by Professor Platt ties in with the idea of time and how it shapes and represents a historical figure through “historiography, literature, drama, and painting” all of which granted can be of the time but are also mediums that tell stories through generations. For it is these mediums that in turn have any sort of ascendancy after the character is long gone.

Peter the Great was and to this day is regarded as one of the greatest monarchs of Russian history, and in some cases even European history. There are statues of him standing all around Russia. Most of which survived socialism/communism. True, the city of Petersburg was renamed Petrograd at the beginning of the first world war and again was renamed Leningrad, but was then renamed again to St Petersburg after the collapse of communism in Russia following the end of the ‘Cold War’ in 1991. Regardless of anything and of the reforms the country went through Peter was never largely considered as a ‘villain’. Not even during Stalinism. In Fact they even employed his tactics to some degree; the Soviet rehabilitation of Peter I started in earnest during the Stalinist period, but its roots stretched back into the 1920s. Much of the work produced on Peter I during the foundation of the Bolshevik state centered on the necessity of the tsar’s use of force to modernize the state. For example, Lenin in his ‘Left wing’ Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality argued that: “our task is to hasten (the copying of German state capitalism) even more than Peter hastened the copying of Western culture by barbarian Russia, and we must not hesitate to use barbarian methods in fighting barbarism.”

This approach to Peter I was not entirely uncritical. Mikhail Pokrovskii’s two volume survey of Russian history condemned Peter I’s arbitrary power and saw it as suggestive of the gentry class’s true face. But despite this acknowledgment of Peter I’s ‘barbarian methods,’ the approach of historians in the 1920s cemented the idea that Peter I’s reign was an important transformational period in Russian history, which begged comparison to both 1917 and the foundation of the USSR. The Russian Marxist theoretician Georgii Plekhanov, whose works would be reprinted during this period, concluded in one of his essays on Russian history:

The very character of Russian culture changes with appearance; our old, Asiatic economic way of life vanishes, ceding its place to the new way, he European one. The working class is destined to complete in our land Peter’s great undertaking: to carry the process of Europeanization of Russia to its conclusion. But the working class will give a totally new character to this task, on which the very existence of Russia as a civilized country depends. Begun at one time from above, by the iron will of the most despotic of Russian despots, it will be finished from below, by the means of a liberation movement of the most revolutionary of all the classes ever known to history.

Plekhanov’s sweeping verdict acknowledged the illiberality of Peter I, but connected it to his necessity for Russia to move forwards in its historical development. The 1930s saw the former element gradually erased in both historical materials and artistic presentations of Peter I and instead emphasized the fundamentally heroic nature of his transformation of Russia. The epic film Peter the First made the tsar a heroic protagonist and earned the personal approval of Stalin himself. Soviet pedagogy also emphasized Peter I as a workman-like figure not trapped by the class he was born into, but rather as someone who understood how to manipulate the social currents of his day to develop Russia. This view of Peter I sharpened the 1920s picture of the tsar; instead of painting him as a force for broad social change, the Stalinist historiography specifically emphasized his state-building and mastery of geopolitics as virtues to be emulated. Peter I’s personal tyranny also became less of a moral issue and one made necessary by feudal opposition to his modernizing reforms. The post-Stalinist period preserved much of this heroic image of Peter I. The 1979 entry on Peter I in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia valorized his military and political skills and ‘despite all the contradictions in his character, he is known in Russian history as a progressive statesman and military figure.’

“To study history, one must first study the historian” – Mrs K. 

To conclude, through the findings of my research it appears that there has been no other personality in Russian history that has so often been the subject of scholarly research, of polemical pamphlets and historical novels, as the first Russian Emperor. Rarely have the opinions of scholars, writers and publicists been so conflicting in judging the actions and services of this man to the Russian state. To his contemporaries Peter the Great proved to be an enigma, and so he remains to their descendants. To his close collaborators it would seem Peter was at the very least a demigod, called to awaken his motherland to new life.

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Russian Tsar Peter the Great: Both a Hero and a Villain. (2022, August 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from
“Russian Tsar Peter the Great: Both a Hero and a Villain.” GradesFixer, 30 Aug. 2022,
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