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The Reforms of Peter the Great

The reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725) is often used to illustrate the prime importance of leadership in the development of nations; another much quoted example is the Emperor Meiji of Japan (1867– 1912). Although few would question the influence of their personalities in effecting internal changes, there is inevitably a conflict of interpretation as to the precise nature of their achievements. Peter the Great has been the subject of particular controversy among Russian historians. On the one hand, he is seen as a revolutionary, comparable in his measures with the Bolsheviks. Berdyaev, for example, believed that ‘Peter's methods were absolutely bolshevik. He wanted to destroy the old Muscovite Russia, to tear up by the roots those feelings which lay in the very foundation of its life.’ To Berdyaev the Petrine and Bolshevik Revolutions showed ‘the same barbarity, violence, forcible application of certain principles from above downwards, the same rupture of organic development and repudiation of tradition...the same desire sharply and radically to change the type of civilization’.1 By other historians Peter has been projected as the personification of Russian evolutionary progress. Soloviev believed that Peter's personality and achievements directed the flow of Russian history into a more advanced stage of its evolution and made possible future modernization and progress. ‘No people had ever equalled the heroic feat performed by the Russians during the first quarter of the eighteenth century.. The man who led the people in this feat can justly be called the greatest leader in history, for no one can claim a place of higher significance in the history of civilization.’2

These two important but extreme interpretations provide, between them, a method by which Peter the Great's achievements can be examined. The approach of Berdyaev raises the question: to what extent were Peter's changes really a break with the Muscovite past? Soloviev's thesis lends itself to the question: to what extent were these changes really the basis of future progress and development? The answers are not easy to provide, and depend upon the relative importance of the military, administrative, economic, social and religious reforms of the reign.

Peter assumed full autocratic powers in 1689 and ruled Russia until 1725. During these thirty–six years he involved Russia in twenty–three years of hectic warfare (with Turkey 1695–6 and 1710–11, and with Sweden 1700–21). It is only to be expected, therefore, that military matters would have received absolute priority, and there is some scope for stressing his innovatory role in this area.

Russian military power in the seventeenth century had been tested by a series of costly wars and had been found seriously defective. The main components of the army were: the militia provided by the service nobility (dvoriane) in exchange for landed estates (pomestie); permanent units like the Cossacks and the Streltsy Guard; and foreign mercenaries, who accounted for over half of Russia's military capacity. Peter the Great introduced Russia's first major national army. Although he had certain precedents to guide him (like Ivan the Terrible's use of foreign advisers before 1584 and the gradual development of a more efficient infantry force by the 1680s) Peter's reforms were, nevertheless, sweeping and fundamental. He was inspired, or obsessed, by an overwhelming desire to defeat Sweden and to annex her Baltic territories of Karelia, Ingria, Esthonia and Livonia. He was prepared to learn from his own mistakes (for example, the defeat of the Russian army at Narva in 1700) and to adapt western technological advances for his own use. His first major measure was the introduction of conscription, and the general levy was fully effective by 1709. This made the use of mercenaries unnecessary, as he was able to maintain a standing army of at least 210,000 regulars. He followed other European rulers in making full use of the flintlock and bayonet and he fully appreciated the need for careful training; hence his intro duction of the Naval and Artillery Academies for officers. He also considered the deficiencies of leadership within the army and, by his introduction of the Commissariat, provided greater co–ordination and contact between the Russian generals. These developments were not the only factor in the eventual victory of Russia over Sweden; Charles XII, after all, made serious mistakes in his Russian campaign. Nevertheless, Russia could not have emerged as the victor without Peter's reforms. She would merely have survived, weakened and depleted. It would be no exaggeration to claim that Peter's military success in the Great Northern War provided the basis for Russia's emergence as a major power in the eighteenth century. This strength was sustained even during the period of administrative crises between 1725 and 1762, and after the accession of Catherine the Great Russia was able to expand her frontiers more rapidly than any other European state.

Muscovite Russia had possessed no fleet, mainly because of the lack of suitable outlets to the Baltic and the Black Sea. Peter the Great can be considered the father of the Russian navy and here he had no precedents to guide him, only his visits to Western Europe, which acquainted him with the principles of naval design. The first six frigates were launched in 1703 (this was made possible by the capture of Swedish territory on the Baltic coast while Charles XII was campaigning in Poland); by 1714 Peter had developed a substantial fleet and inflicted a serious defeat on the Swedish navy at the Battle of Cape Hango. By 1725 Russia possessed 50 battleships and 400 galleys, and was in firm control of the Baltic. Russia's future as a naval power was therefore assured and it was left to Catherine the Great to acquire control over the Black Sea, an area in which Peter was less successful. The extent of Peter's achievement is aptly expressed in Sir Godfrey Kneller's portrait, which shows Peter clad in armour in the foreground, with the fleet which he had created in the distance.

Military developments were accompanied by administrative re-organization. The basic motive was to make the conduct of the war with Sweden as efficient as possible by introducing several western institutions to renovate the creaking Muscovite bureaucracy. There is, however, a strong case against regarding Peter's approach as revolutionary. He operated without an overall design or plan and sometimes made mistakes which he subsequently had to rectify. Nor were many of his reforms of any lasting influence. Far from providing the basis of the administration of Tsarist Russia for the next two hundred years, Peter introduced what turned out to be a series of temporary institutions which were substantially modified by his successors. A brief survey of central and local government should illustrate these points.

The seventeenth–century Muscovite structure of central government was based on the Boyars’ Duma, the Zemskii Sobor, the prikazi and the autocracy of the Tsar. The Duma was an advisory council, possessing some executive and judicial functions and composed of the upper sections of the nobility. The Zemskii Sobor was an irregular institution through which the nobility, on occasions, managed to exert extra influence on the Tsar, but its history is somewhat erratic. The prikazi were the government departments, under the control of the Duma, and consisting of between forty and fifty members. Unfortunately, the whole system was generally inefficient and many individual functions of the various institutions overlapped. Peter the Great attempted to make the structure more effective. The Duma and the Zemskii Sobor were replaced in 1711 by the Senate, consisting of nine members, which thus eliminated the advisory influence of the nobility. The Senate supervised the Colleges which Peter eventually set up in 1718 to replace the prikazi as the main executive departments. The main contrast between the prikazi and the Colleges was that, in the former, decision–making tended to rest with individual officials, whereas the latter used the Swedish method of boards to arrive at collective decisions.

Peter's changes were therefore limited, modernization rather than destruction being his main motive. That he failed to provide an adequate solution to Russia's administrative problems became obvious during the reigns of his successors. The Senate had a complex history after 1725. Peter's immediate successors, Catherine I (1725– 7), Peter II (1727–30) and Anna (1730–40) ignored it; its place was taken by a Privy Council which could be regarded as a reversion to the Boyar Duma. Elizabeth (1741–62) re–established the Senate, but it had to compete with an institution known as the Konferents. Catherine the Great (176296) reduced the Senate's powers and ruled through her own Imperial Council. Eventually Alexander I (1801–25) relegated the Senate to a judicial role, and its remaining political functions were absorbed by the Council of State. Peter's Colleges were also gradually undermined. Between 1725 and 1762 the general tendency was for departmental heads to emerge as petty autocrats, thus, in effect, reverting to the prikazi system. Catherine the Great eventually replaced all but three of the Colleges with a new system of ministries directed by presidents rather than boards. This process was continued by Alexander I, who ended the last Colleges in 1802 and 1811. Nineteenth–century Russia, therefore, possessed institutions which owed far more to Catherine the Great and Alexander I than to Peter the Great.

Local government reforms were similarly unimpressive in their lack of radical change and lasting influence. It has often been asserted that Peter the Great brought local government into line with the central government bureaucracy. But this was already under way in the seventeenth century. Michael Romanov (161345) made full use of the traditional local government official, the voevoda, in extending the range and scope of royal power in the provinces. Peter intended to streamline the system, again mixing traditional institutions with ideas imported from the West. He made two attempts. The first, in 1709, established eight gubernii, each ruled by a voevoda. The second, in 1718, was influenced, to some extent, by Swedish principles. It consisted of eleven gubernii, in charge of fifty provintsii (each governed by a voevoda), the provintsii being subdivided into districts. Neither the 1709 nor the 1718 system worked particularly well and the latter was greatly complicated by the need to maintain a large standing army. Military subdivisions were also introduced, and these were superimposed on the local government boundaries, creating an intolerable confusion. Under the pressure of military commanders the civilian elements of local government gradually declined. The Swedish influence soon disappeared and Russia between 1725 and 1762 possessed a local government structure which lacked any precise definition. Two further reforms were therefore necessary to create some sort of order: Catherine the Great's Local Government Statute of 1775 and Alexander II's Statute of 1864.

The one area in which Peter did attempt to introduce substantial change was municipal government. In his 1721 Edict he ordered each town to establish a council, based on limited elections and possessing a degree of financial and administrative autonomy. The experiment, however, failed, because Peter had miscalculated. He was attempting to impose a western system upon largely undeveloped towns whose inhabitants had, as yet, no desire for political participation or financial responsibility. By the end of his reign failure was already apparent and subsequent conditions of maladministration and uncertainty again necessitated further reforms: the 1785 Municipal Charter of Catherine the Great and the 1870 Edict of Alexander II. As with all other aspects of the administration this attempt indicates a lack of overall planning and a tendency to resort to piecemeal measures.

An essential factor in Russia's war effort against Sweden was the more rational and extensive use of her resources. Consequently, economic reforms were one of Peter's major priorities, although they were geared to achieving military success rather than a balanced economic structure. Again, however, there was no overall blueprint for change and the motives and effects varied.

Industrial development is generally regarded as Peter's major economic achievement, and the usual interpretation is that he forced it upon Russia from above rather than waiting for it to develop from below. Certainly his reign was something of a turning point. Seventeenth–century Muscovite Russia possessed a number of industries, including metallurgical works at Tula, but these were often run by foreigners. Peter brought the most important industries under state control and encouraged their expansion by government subsidies, which were also used to create new industries. He used a modified form of mercantilism (which was the prop of most European economies at the turn of the century), but the real catalyst for change in Russia was undoubtedly the war. He concentrated on heavy industry and the manufacture of articles used by the army. The increase in production was spectacular: for example, the output of pig-iron quadrupled between 1700 and 1720 and the number of manufactories increased from 21 in 1682 to about 200 by 1725.

This rapid growth continued after the death of Peter the Great in 1725, and the rest of the eighteenth century saw the establishment of Russia as the major iron producer of Europe. Industrial development became increasingly diversified, with consumer goods being manufactured in quantity for the first time in the late 1720s. By the end of the century, however, the impetus was slowing down and Russia began to fall behind other countries. The basic reason for this was an inherent weakness in the economic fabric of Russia. Peter's policies of state control were highly successful at the time but laid no foundations for the development of private enterprise or a more sophisticated form of capitalism of the type which accompanied, and took advantage of, the industrial revolutions in Britain and Germany. Russia never evolved out of Peter's brand of mercantilism, and even in the 1890s the Finance Minister Witte had to recommend extensive government action to bring Russian industrial development up to date.

Peter's reign saw a considerable increase in commerce with Western Europe. Trading relations had already been developed in the sixteenth century, when Ivan the Terrible (1533–84) had encouraged contacts through the White Sea port of Archangel. Nevertheless, it was Peter who ‘opened Russia's window on to the West’ by acquiring outlets to the Baltic and establishing the new capital and port of St Petersburg in 1703. The one major defect of his policy was that he was forced to depart from the usual principles of mercantilism, whereby Russian exports to other countries should be carried in Russian ships. Unfortunately, Russia did not possess anything like an adequate merchant marine: Peter had concentrated the whole of his attention upon his powerful navy.

Agriculture was scarcely affected by Peter's reign. He showed little interest in its development and made no attempts to alter practices which had remained unchanged for centuries. His successors seemed to inherit his indifference. Russia was hardly influenced by the agrarian revolution of the eighteenth century, and it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that the government really began to show concern about the low agricultural production of Russia.

Social changes between 1682 and 1725 were far from revolutionary. Although Peter sought to impose western fashions in clothes upon a largely unwilling population, the basic social structure remained unaltered; if anything, class divisions were intensified. Peter's main ambition was to impose the concept of state service upon the nobility and consequently to reduce their independence. This could be seen as backward looking; Ivan III (1462–1505) and Ivan the Terrible had both sought to increase their control over the Boyars and to develop the pomestie (estates granted to the nobility on the basis of loyal service). Then, during the Time of Troubles (1604–13), the nobility had succeeded in regaining some of their privileges. Although further attempts were made by the Tsars of the seventeenth century to limit their authority, the nobility retained an influential role in government; qualifications were based on ancestral purity rather than competent service. Peter the Great's main achievement was to revive the concept of the service nobility, and his Table of Ranks (1722) provided a rigorous means of qualification for state service, removing the previous importance of blue blood. Unfortunately, the effects were limited. Only an efficient autocrat could keep the nobility in subjection without running the risk of a palace revolt. The period after Peter's death, therefore, saw the gradual emancipation of the nobility from the harshness of state service, and a revival of their former powers. Both Anna (1730–40) and Elizabeth (1741–62) granted the nobility special privileges, while Peter III introduced his Manifesto Concerning the Freedom of the Nobility in 1762, which undid all the reforms of Peter the Great. Increasingly, the Russian nobility became a semi–independent and reactionary barrier to progress. In 1856, for example, Alexander II actually had to appeal to them to emancipate the serfs and was forced to resort to an Edict when they refused.

The Russian serfs had no reason to regard Peter the Great as an innovator or reformer. During his reign they were treated more harshly than ever, and the period represents another phase in the long process of deteriorating conditions. Peter's contributions to this were twofold. Firstly, he divided the serfs into two official categories: those who served the state and worked in the new industries and those in the private service of the nobility. Secondly, he heaped further burdens upon them, including a passport system which restricted their movement from their owner's estate, a poll tax which increased their financial obligations, and a more systematic method of conscription into the army. His policy was not alleviated by his successors, most of whom seemed to regard the continuation of serfdom as the price which had to be paid for Russian economic development and for a degree of co-operation between the Tsar and the nobility. For once, most western historians would agree with the words of Stalin: ‘Peter accomplished a great deal toward the creation and strengthening of the national state of the landowners and merchants … and the strengthening of the national status of these classes was carried out at the expense of the serf peasantry, which was being fleeced threefold.’3

The soul of Tsarist Russia was the Orthodox Church. Peter regarded this as a thoroughly conservative institution and as a brake upon the changes which he intended to introduce (even the shaving of beards was fiercely resisted by the clergy). His Church reforms were far-reaching, but not entirely out of keeping with the aspirations of previous rulers. He succeeded in placing the Church under full state control, something which Ivan III and Ivan the Terrible had wanted to do, but had to leave incomplete.

Peter's most apparent change was to reduce the apex of the Church to the status of a government department. When the traditional head of the Church, the Patriarch, died in 1700, Peter refused to appoint a successor and eventually abolished the title altogether. In 1721 Peter issued his Spiritual Regulation by which the control of the Church was to be exercised by the Holy Synod. This Synod consisted of bishops selected by the government and was presided over by the Procurator General, who was appointed by the Tsar. The basic structure of the Church remained unaltered for the next two centuries and the subordinate role played by the Church inevitably laid it open to the charge that it was the main ideological support of the whole system of autocracy in Russia. In fact, the office of Procurator General became increasingly political. In 1877 Procurator General Pobedonostsev expressed, in a letter to Alexander II, a view which Peter would have found eminently gratifying: ‘The whole secret of Russia's order and progress is above, in the person of the monarch.’4

Peter's attitude to Church property was consistent with previous Muscovite trends. Ivan III, for example, had systematically deprived Novgorod of a considerable amount of monastic wealth in 1478. Ivan the Terrible, while not actually dissolving monasteries, had taken care to prevent the Church from acquiring any further lands. Alexis I's Code of 1649 had brought the monasteries under the control of a type of secular prikazi. Nevertheless, there was scope for greater state influence, which is what Peter the Great provided. He was hostile towards monasticism and ordered the smaller monasteries to be dissolved. The larger ones were heavily taxed and were ordered to play a more useful role in society. His policy was maintained by Catherine the Great, whose Decree of 1764 ordered the closure of over five hundred larger monasteries, making available over a million serfs for state service. Both Peter the Great and Catherine the Great adopted the familiar Western European expedient of transferring part of the wealth of the Church to the coffers of the state.

There can be no simple overall assessment of Peter's reforms, for the basic reason that he did not adopt an overall plan or even a systematic approach. His reign was of vital importance in the rapid creation of a new military and naval power. This could be interpreted as revolutionary and as the beginning of a whole new vista of active and aggressive foreign policy. His administrative reforms, however, were not fundamentally radical. Although he borrowed ideas from the West he also maintained part of the old Muscovite system, and the Petrine superstructure was frequently discarded by his successors, to be replaced with their own institutions. His economic policies produced spectacular industrial advances, but did nothing to prevent the development of an unbalanced economic structure which it was subsequently found impossible to adapt to more advanced forms of capitalism. Peter's reign had little lasting impact on the class structure. The twin processes of the emancipation of the nobility and the enslavement of the serfs was under way before 1682 and continued after 1725; the former was only temporarily interrupted by Peter, the latter was endorsed by him. As far as the Church was concerned, the period can be seen as a turning point, for it was Peter who ended its independence and made it one of the pillars of Tsarist autocracy.

In his assertion of autocracy, Peter provided a link between the Muscovite state and the Russian Empire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He confirmed the total authority of the monarchy in a manner which looked backwards to the concept of the Tsar as the heir to the power of the Caesars (with tendencies to arbitrary despotism like that of Ivan the Terrible) while, at the same time, anticipating the concept of service to the state which was to be an essential feature of the ‘enlightened despotism’ of Catherine the Great.

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