Peter had inherited absolute power, took it for granted, and never doubted its necessity. Rule by the duma of boyars would restore feudal separatism and national chaos or stagnation; rule by a democratic assembly was impossible in a country still mentally and morally primitive; Peter agreed with Cromwell and Louis XIV that only the concentration of authority and responsibility could organize the human motley into a state strong enough to control the passions of the people and repel the attacks of land-hungry enemies. He thought of himself not as a despot but as a servant of the nation and its future; and in large measure this was an honest belief, at least half true.
He worked as hard as the simplest peasant in his realm. Normally he rose at five in the morning and labored fourteen hours a day. He slept only six hours at night, but took a siesta after noon. Such a program was not impracticable in the St. Petersburg summers, when daylight began at 3 A.M. and lasted till 10 P.M.; but in winter much of it had to go on during the night, which began about three in the afternoon and continued till nine the next morning.
St. Petersburg was the symbol and Archimedean fulcrum of his revolution. It was not an ideal site for a capital, being too close to the coast; even so, it was twenty-five miles from the sea, at a point where the River Neva split into two branches; and Peter hoped to protect it by the fortress of Kronstadt that he raised (1710) on an island at the entrance to the bay. The city itself was founded in 1703, on the model of Amsterdam. Since much of the site was marshy (neva is Swedish for mud), St. Petersburg was built upon piles—or, as a sad Russian saying had it, upon the bones of the thousands of laborers who were conscripted to lay those foundations and rear the town. In 1708 some 40,000 men were sent to the task; in 1709 another 40,000; in 1711, 46,000; in 1713, 40,000 more. They were paid half a ruble per month, which they had to supplement with begging and thieving. Swedish prisoners of war employed in the construction died by the thousands. As there were no wheelbarrows, the men transported the materials in their uplifted caftans. Stone too was conscripted; a ukase of 1714 forbade the erection of stone houses anywhere in Russia except in St. Petersburg; but there every nobleman in the land was commanded to raise a dwelling of stone. The nobles did it under protest, hating the climate and not sharing Peter’s love of the sea. For himself Peter had some Dutch artisans put together a cottage like those that he had seen at Zaandam, with log walls, shingle roof, and small rooms. He disliked palaces, but allowed three at Peterhof (now Petrodvorets), on the southern outskirts of the city, for ceremonial occasions; this “Summer Palace” was destroyed in the Second World War. In a nearby suburb, Tsarskoe Selo (now Pushkin), he built a summer cottage for his Katierinoushka.
He did not at first intend to make St. Petersburg a capital as well as a port; it was too close to hostile Sweden; but after his victory over Charles XII at Poltava he decided to make the change. He longed to get away from the somber ecclesiastical atmosphere of Moscow and its narrow nationalism, and he wanted the conservative nobles to feel progressive winds from the West. So in 1712 he made it his capital. The Muscovites mourned, and predicted that God would soon destroy the half-heathen city. “Before the new capital,” wrote Pushkin, “Moscow bowed her head, as an imperial widow bows before a young tsaritsa.” 12 Peter was so anxious to Westernize Russia that he dragged it, so to speak, to the Baltic and bade it look through his “window on the West.”* To this purpose, and to have a base for his fleet and a port for foreign trade, he sacrificed all other considerations. The port would be icebound five months in the year, but it would face the West and touch the sea. As the Dnieper had made Russia Byzantine and the Volga had made it Asiatic, so now the Neva would invite it to be European. 14
The next step was to build a navy that would guard the lanes of Russian commerce through the Baltic to the West. Peter achieved this for a time by building in the course of his reign a thousand galleys; but they were hastily and badly constructed, their timbers rotted, their masts broke in the wind; and after his death Russia reconciled herself to being what geography had made it, a landlocked country shut off from the Atlantic, and waiting for the conquest of the air to overleap its barriers into the world. In this sense Moscow was right: Russia’s power and defense had to be on land, through its armies and its space. So, in 1917, Moscow had its revenge, and became the capital again.
Peter’s most permanent reform was the reorganization of the army. Before him it had depended upon levies of peasants led by their feudal lords, loyal chiefly to them, poorly disciplined, and poorly armed. Peter undermined the boyars by establishing a standing army manned by conscription, equipped with the latest weapons of the West, officered by men who had passed through the ranks, and disciplined in the new ideal of proudly serving Russia rather than a narrow province or a hated lord. It was military necessity that dictated Peter’s revolution. He could not develop Russia without opening a way to the Baltic or the Mediterranean; he could not do this without a modern army; he could not maintain such an army without transforming the Russian economy and government; and he could not transform these without remaking the Russian people in manners, aims, and soul. It was too great a task for one man, or for one generation.
He began, in his whimsical impulsive way, with the beards and dress of the men around him. In 1698, soon after returning from the West, he had his own sparse beard shaved, and commanded all who wished to keep his favor to do the same, excepting only the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church. Soon an edict went throughout Russia that all laymen were to shave their chins; mustaches might remain. The beard had been almost a religious symbol in Russia; it had been worn by the Prophets and the Apostles; and the reigning Patriarch, Adrian, only eight years before, had condemned the shaving of the beard as irreligious and heretical. Peter accepted the challenge: beardlessness was to be a sign of modernity, of willingness to enter into Western civilization. Those laymen who felt a dire need of whiskers might keep them by paying an annual tax rising from one kopek for a peasant to a hundred rubles for a rich merchant. “There were many old Russians,” says an old history, “who, after having their beards shaved off, saved them preciously, in order to have them placed in their coffins, fearing that they would not be allowed to enter heaven without them.” 15
Next to go was the Russian costume. Here too Peter felt that internal resistance to Westernization would be reduced by wearing Western garb. He himself cut off the long sleeves of the army officers who appeared before him. “See,” he said to one of them, “these things are in your way. You are safe nowhere with them. At one moment you upset a glass, then you forgetfully dip them in the sauce. Get gaiters made of them.” 16 So an order went forth (January, 1700) commanding all courtiers and officials in Russia to adopt Western dress. All persons entering or leaving Moscow had to choose between having their ankle-long caftans cut at the knees or paying a fine. The women were likewise urged to adopt Western costume; they resisted less than the men, for in dress women are annual revolutionists.
Not so much by decrees as by the example of his family, Peter ended the seclusion of Russia’s women. His father, Alexis, and his mother, Natalia, had led the way; his half-sister Sophia had broadened it; now Peter invited women to social gatherings, encouraged them to remove their veils, to dance, to make music, and to seek education, even if only through tutors. He issued edicts forbidding parents to marry their children against their will, and requiring an interval of six weeks between betrothal and marriage; in that period the engaged couple should be allowed to see each other frequently, and to break off the engagement if they wished. The women were glad to emerge from the terem; they began a race to adopt new fashions; and some increase in illegitimate births gave the clergy a weapon against Peter’s revolution.
The resistance of religion was his greatest obstacle. The clergy realized that his reforms would lessen their prestige and power. They bemoaned his toleration of Western faiths in Russia, and they suspected that he himself had no religious belief. They heard with horror of the parodies with which he and his intimates mocked the Orthodox ritual. For his part Peter resented the diversion of manpower into the vast and innumerable monasteries, and he coveted the enormous revenues that these institutions enjoyed. When the Patriarch Adrian died (October, 1700), Peter deliberately refrained from appointing a successor; he himself, like Henry VIII in England, became head of the church, and led a Reformation in Russia. For twenty-one years the office of patriarch remained vacant, depriving the Orthodox Church of a leader against the Petrine reforms. In 1721 Peter abolished the office altogether, and replaced it with a “Holy Synod” of ecclesiastics appointed by the Czar and subject to a lay procurator. In 1701 he transferred the administration of ecclesiastical properties to a department of the government. The jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts was curtailed. The appointment of bishops was made subject to governmental approval. Further edicts forbade the ordination of mystics or fanatics, and limited the number of miracle-working centers. Men were not to take monastic vows before the age of thirty; women were not to take final vows as nuns before the age of fifty. 17 Monks were to be compelled to do useful work. A census of monastic properties and revenues was taken by the government; a part of this income was left to the monasteries, the rest was devoted to the establishment of schools and hospitals. 18
Most of the clergy resigned themselves to this Russian Reformation, which, again like that of Henry VIII, left doctrine unchanged. Some Raskolniki (dissenters) denounced Peter as Antichrist, and urged the people to refuse him obedience or taxes. He had the leaders of this rebellion arrested, and dealt with them after his usual fashion: some were knouted and banished to Siberia, some were imprisoned for life, one died of torture, two were slowly burned to death. 19
For the rest, Peter was abreast of the West in religious toleration. He protected the Raskolniki from persecution as long as they abstained from politics. In St. Petersburg, to encourage foreign trade, he allowed Calvinist, Lutheran, and Catholic churches to be built on the Nevski Prospekt, which came to be called the “Prospect of Tolerance.” 20 He protected the Capuchin monks who entered Russia, but banished the Jesuits (1710) as too sedulous in propaganda for the Roman Church. In general the religious reforms of Peter were the most lasting of all. They ended the Middle Ages in Russia.
A vast process of secularization changed the life and spirit of Russia from domination by priests and landlords to rule, almost regimentation, by the state. Peter subordinated the boyars to his will, made them serve the public, and reorganized social ranks according to the importance of the social service performed. A new aristocracy arose, composed of officials in the army, the navy, and the bureaucracy. The government was headed by a Senate of nine (later twenty) men appointed by the Czar; it was administered by nine “colleges” directing respectively taxation and revenue, expenditure, audit and control, commerce, industry, foreign relations, war, navy, and law. Responsible to the Senate were the governors of the twelve provinces, or guberniyas, and the councils that ruled the cities. The population of each city was divided into three classes: rich merchants and the professions, teachers and craftsmen, wage earners and laborers; only the first class could be elected to the municipal council (magistrat), only the first two classes could vote, but all male taxpayers could take part in the town meetings. The mir, or village community, took form not as a democratic institution, but as a body collectively responsible for the poll tax introduced in 1719. Local autonomy was checked by central control, and there was no thought of democracy. The rapid transformation that Peter planned could be achieved, if at all, only by dictatorial power.
That transformation had to be economic as well as political, for no purely agricultural society could long maintain its independence against states enriched and armed by industry. A German economist of the time pointed out what the next two hundred years would prove—that a nation exporting chiefly raw material and agricultural products would soon become vassal to states producing and exporting chiefly manufactured goods. 21 For agriculture, therefore, Peter did little. Instead of reducing serfdom he extended it to industry. By his own example he taught the peasants how to cut their corn, and he commanded the replacement of sickles with scythes. The Russians were accustomed to burn the woodlands to provide fertilizing ashes for the soil; Peter forbade this, needing lumber for his ships, trees for his masts. He introduced the cultivation of the tobacco plant, the mulberry, and the vine, and began the Russian breeding of horses and sheep.
But his chief aim was rapid industrialization. The first problem was to provide raw materials. He spurred the spread of mining; he gave stimulating rewards to men like Nikita Demidov and Aleksandr Stroganov who showed enterprise and skill in mining and metallurgy; he urged landowners to encourage or allow the extraction of minerals from their soils, and decreed that if they neglected to do this their soil might be mined by others by paying them merely a nominal fee. By 1710 Russia ceased to import iron; before Peter’s death it was exporting it. 22
He brought in foreign artisans and managers, and prodded the Russians of every rank to learn the industrial arts. An Englishman opened in Moscow a factory for treating hides and making shoes; Peter commanded every town in Russia to send a delegation of cobblers to Moscow to learn the latest methods of making boots and shoes, and held the galleys as a threat over shoemakers who clung to their old ways. To encourage the Russian textile industry he wore, after this was functioning, only native-made cloth, and forbade the Muscovites to buy imported stockings. Soon the Russians were making good textiles. An admiral shocked tradition and delighted the Czar by manufacturing silk brocades. A muzhik developed a lacquer superior to any similar product in “Europe” except the Venetian. Before the reign was over there were 233 factories in Russia. Some were quite large: the Moscow manufacture of sailcloth employed 1,162 workers; one textile mill used 742 men; another, 730; one metallurgical establishment had 683 employees. 23There had been factories in Russia before Peter, but not on this scale. Many of the new plants were started by the government and were later sold to private management; but even then they received state subsidies, and were subject to detailed supervision by the government. High protective tariffs shielded the incipient industries from foreign competition.
To man the factories Peter resorted to conscription. Since there were few free laborers available, peasants were converted, willy-nilly, into industrial workers. Manufacturers were empowered to buy serfs from landlords, and put them to work in the factories. Large-scale undertakings were supplied with peasants transferred from state lands and farms. 24 As in most governmental attempts at rapid industrialization, the leaders could not wait for the acquisitive instinct to overcome habit and tradition and lead workers from old fields and ways to new tasks and disciplines. An industrial serfdom was developed, more or less reluctantly by Peter, deliberately by his successors. Peter apologized in an edict of 1723:
Is not everything done [at first] by compulsion? That there are few people willing to go into business [industry] is true, for our people are like children, who never want to begin the alphabet unless they are compelled by their teachers. It seems very hard to them at first, but when they have learnt it they are thankful. Already much thanksgiving is heard for what has already borne fruit. . . . So in manufacturing affairs we must act and compel, and help by teaching. 25
But industry could not develop without commerce to sell its products. To encourage commerce Peter raised the social status of the merchant class. He forced the growth of a great shipbuilding industry at Archangel and St. Petersburg. He tried (and failed) to establish a merchant marine to carry Russian goods in Russian ships; the muzhik, rooted and locked in his land, did not take willingly or ably to the sea. Within Russia itself trade was discouraged by great distances and forbidding roads. But rivers abounded, fed by the snows of the north and the rains of the south; and when the rivers froze they froze so firmly that they, like the frozen roads, could carry heavy loads. What was needed was to bind these rivers with canals—to lead the Neva and the Dvina to the Volga, and the Volga to the Don, and so unite the Baltic and the White Sea with the Black Sea and the Caspian. Peter laid the foundation of the great system, and opened in 1708 the link between the Neva and the Volga; but several reigns had to pass before the network was complete, and thousands of workers died in the attempt.
War and his multifarious enterprises compelled Peter to raise capital in quantities unprecedented in Russia. Part of this he secured by giving the government a monopoly in the production and sale of salt, tobacco, tar, fats, potash, resin, glue, rhubarb, caviar, even of oak coffins. These coffins were sold at a profit of four hundred per cent; salt made a modest one hundred per cent. But the Czar realized that monopolies discouraged both industry and trade, and after peace was signed with Sweden he abolished them at one stroke, leaving internal trade free. Foreign trade remained subject to import and export duties, but it multiplied almost tenfold between 1700 and Peter’s death in 1725. Most of it was carried in foreign vessels, and what remained in Russian hands was hampered by widespread bribery that even Peter’s draconic penalties could not suppress.
Taxation was exhaustive. A special group of governmental appointees was charged with devising and administering new taxes. There were taxes on hats, boots, beehives, rooms, cellars, chimneys, births, marriages, beards. A tax on households was frustrated by whole and chaotic migrations; Peter changed it to a tax on “souls” wherever found; this did not apply to the nobility or the clergy. The revenues of the state rose from 1,400,000 rubles in 1680 to 8,500,000 in 1724—of which seventy-five per cent went to the army and navy. Half of the increase was unreal, being due to a fifty per cent depreciation of the currency during Peter’s reign, for he could not resist the temptation to make a temporary profit by debasing the coinage.
From monarch to muzhik dishonesty clogged the economy, the collection of taxes, the decisions of the courts, the administration of the laws. Peter decreed death for all officials who accepted “gifts,” but one of his aides warned him that if he enforced this decree he would soon have none but dead officials. He killed some of them nevertheless. Prince Matvei Gagarin, governor of Siberia, became too conspicuously rich; he adorned his statue of the Virgin with jewels worth 130,000 rubles; Peter wanted to know how the Virgin got them; when he found out he had Gagarin hanged. In 1714 several high officials were arrested for stealing from the government and the people; they included the vice-governor of St. Petersburg, the head of the state commissary, the head of the admiralty, the commandants of Narva and Revel, and several senators. Some were hanged, some were given life imprisonment, some had their noses slit, some were beaten with rods. When Peter gave the order to halt the punishment, the soldiers who had administered it begged him, “Father, allow us to flog a little more, for the thieves [have] stolen even our bread.” 26 Corruption continued. A Russian proverb said that Christ himself would steal if his hands were not tied to the Cross.
Amid this struggle of one will to change the economic and political life of half a continent, Peter found time to attempt a cultural revolution too. He hated superstition, and longed to replace it with education and science. The Russians had heretofore dated the years from the supposed creation of the world, and had begun them with September. Peter, in 1699, brought the Russian calendar in harmony with the Julian, as used by the Protestant states; hereafter the year was to begin with January, and be dated from the birth of Christ. The people complained; how could God have chosen midwinter as the time of Creation? Peter had his way, but he did not dare adopt the Gregorian calendar, which Catholic Europe had accepted in 1582. The elimination of ten days, as required by that “papistical trick,” would have robbed several Orthodox saints of their holydays.
The restless Czar succeeded in the equally difficult enterprise of reforming the alphabet. The Orthodox Church used the old Slavonic alphabet, but the business classes had adopted an alphabet based on the Greek. Peter ordered all secular works to be printed in this new form. He imported printing presses and printers from the Netherlands; he started (1703) the first Russian newspaper, the Gazette of St. Petersburg; he ordered and financed the publication of books on technology and science; he founded the Library of St. Petersburg, and established the Russian Archives by gathering into the library the manuscripts, records, and chronicles of the monasteries. He opened several technical institutes, and ordered the sons of the aristocracy to enter them. He tried to set up in each province a “mathematical school,” and in Moscow he provided a gymnasium after the German model, to teach languages, literature, and philosophy; but these schools did not long survive. In 1724 he organized the Academy of St. Petersburg; to this he brought such distinguished savants as Joseph Delisle to teach astronomy, and Daniel Bernoulli for mathematics. On Leibniz’ prompting he commissioned (1724) Vitus Bering, the Danish navigator, to lead an expedition to Kamchatka to find out whether Asia and America were physically united. Bering sailed after Peter’s death.
Under Alexis the Russian theater had given only private performances. Peter licensed a theater on the Red Square and opened it to the public; he imported German players, who presented fifteen tragedies and comedies, including some of Molière. Foreign musicians were brought in to provide orchestras; the sonata and the concerto were introduced into Russia, and Russian secular music took European forms of harmony and counterpoint. Peter commissioned the purchase of paintings and statues, chiefly Italian, gathered these and other works into a museum of art in St. Petersburg, opened the museum to all visitors without charge, and had refreshments served to them. 27 Foreign painters came to paint portraits in Western style. Some churches were built during the reigns of Alexis, hardly any under Peter; architects now found it more profitable to build palaces.
No great literature flowered during this uprooting revolution; time would be needed before the stimulus of Peter would be felt in poetry. One brave book appeared in the year before Peter’s death. Ivan Possoshkov’s Book of Poverty and Wealth chided the Russians for barbarism and illiteracy, and strongly supported the Czar’s reforms. “Unhappily,” it said, “our great monarch is almost alone, with ten others, in pulling upwards, while millions of individuals pull downwards.” 28 Ivan denounced the oppression of the peasantry, demanded an impartial administration of justice by courts free from class domination, and shocked the Czar by asking that representatives of all classes be brought together to write a new constitution and code of laws for Russia. A few months after Peter’s death Possoshkov was arrested; he died in prison in 1726.