The Reforms of Peter the Great

Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov, remembered today as Peter the Great, enacted a great number of sweeping and radical reforms of Russian government and culture throughout his reign as czar in 1682-1725. His reforms, implemented with the goal of transforming Russia into a state more in line with the European thought of the Enlightenment, so widely and deeply impacted every facet of Russian society that approximately a century later Count Egor Kankrin was able to write that after the reign of Peter the Great “we must be called not Russians, but Petrovians. … Russia should be called Petrovia and we Petrovians.”1 The longest lasting and most drastic of the reforms included the building of a Russian navy, movement of the capital of Russia from Moscow to the newly-built St. Petersburg, alterations in the government of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the adoption and enforcement of Western dress and grooming standards.

The establishment of a Russian navy was “one of [Peter the Great’s] passions.”2 He dreamed of establishing Russia as a maritime empire like those of the West and spared no expense in making his dream a reality. According to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, “he began from scratch – with one vessel of an obsolete type, to be exact – and left to his successor 48 major warships and 787 minor and auxiliary craft, serviced by 28,000 men.”3 Peter, in fact, traveled in person to London to learn shipbuilding from the shipwrights there because he had been “told that the theory of shipbuilding was better understood in England” than anywhere else in Europe.4 When he began to build his own navy upon returning to Russia, he remained directly and personally involved in the building as well as the utilization of the ships.

In order to make his dreams of a powerful Russian navy come true, Peter also had to capture coastal land for Russia, which was largely landlocked when he began his reign. To that end, he undertook a war with Sweden beginning in 1700, capturing the Baltic coast and establishing St. Petersburg and the port city of Kronstadt in 1703.5

In addition to being strategically located, closer to the sea than Moscow and acting as a “Window into Europe,” the establishment of St. Petersburg also fulfilled another dream of Peter the Great.6 Especially upon his return from Western Europe, Peter saw his capital city, Moscow, as insignificant and antiquated, a relic of a time long past. When he compared it in his mind with the great cities of Western Europe, such as Paris and London, he thought Moscow too religious and medieval to be the capital city of the great European empire which he sought to make of Russia.

After capturing the Baltic coast from the Swedes, Peter immediately set to work transforming a piece of swampland in the area into the new, glorious, and clearly European capital from which he desired to reign. Peter demanded that his new capital be the priority of the entirety of his people. He ordered that “no stone house was to be built in the rest of the empire till a certain number had been set up in the new capital.”7 He had the buildings, including the homes of the Russian aristocracy and his own palace, built in the European rather than the Russian style of architecture. He sought to keep his new capital free of the domed architecture and iconographic art which dominated the skyline of the old capital in Moscow.

In a similar effort to free Russia from its Orthodox Christian religious past and bring it more into line with contemporary European religious and philosophical thought, Peter also significantly altered the governance of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ostensibly in an attempt to avoid events like those which had led to the schism of the Old Believers just a little over a decade prior to the beginning of his reign, Peter abolished the Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and, in 1721, replaced it with a council of bishops, following the model of the Protestant churches in Germany. Historian Paul D. Steeves describes the council, called “the Most Holy Synod,” as consisting “of a board of bishops which supervised church affairs and which was, in turn, supervised by a secular government official, the Procurator General, appointed by the Czar.”8 As a result of this new form of church government, “the Russian Orthodox church [sic] thus became little more than a department of state for the remaining two hundred years of the existence of the Czarist state.”9

In addition to the abolition of the Patriarchate and imposition of the Most Holy Synod on the Church, Peter also established his dominance over the Church in a number of other ways. One of the most objectionable, from the standpoint of the Church leadership, was the decree contained in his “Ecclesiastical Regulation,” the same document which established the synod, that “any priest who discovered, in the confessional, evidence of treason or of anti-government plans” was obliged “to pass on such information to the police.”10

In addition to this violation of the privacy of the sacrament of confession, Peter also passed a number of rules which, in his attempts to Westernize Russia, impinged greatly on the individual freedoms and traditional ways of life of the Russian people. Perhaps the most famous of these new rules was a law against growing beards. Peter saw the beard a symbol of the old Russia which he sought to uproot. In addition to personally shaving the faces of five of his closest advisers, Peter also “ordered that none should enter his presence with beards, on which he put a tax.”11 Similarly, he ordered that his aristocrats and others replace their traditional Russian clothing with the styles then current in Europe.

As can be seen from just these few examples of the reforms he implemented, Peter the Great despised the traditional Russia he had grown up in, seeing in it and all of its symbols an antiquated way of life. He sought to bring Russia into the European fold and spared no expense – nor focus on seeming minutiae – to accomplish his goal. Many of his reforms, such as his attempt to move the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, would be reversed by his successors. Other of his reforms, such as his tax on beards, appear hypocritical in the light of the European thinking he set as his standard even while using his autocratic power to accomplish these ends. And still more of his reforms, such as his meddling in Church government, can be seen as little more than ill-advised power plays. On the other hand, however, a large portion of his reforms, such as his building of a navy and establishment of Russia as a maritime power, had overwhelmingly positive and permanent effects on his nation. There is no way to characterize the person and reign of Peter in unambiguous terms other than, perhaps, with the descriptor, used in a neutral sense, which his people would attach to his name after his death: “great.”

Notes
1 Count Egor Kankrin, quoted in Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 211.
2 Ibid., 227.
3 Ibid.
4 Bernard Pares, A History of Russia (New York: Dorset Press, 1953), 198.
5 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 221.
6 Robert Wipper, “Ivan Grozny: Excerpts,” in Thomas Riha, ed., Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 109.
7 Pares, 219.
8 Paul D. Steeves, “The Russian Church,” in Tim Dowley, ed., Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity (Carmel: Guideposts, 1977), 458.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Pares, 198-9.
Bibliography
Dowley, Tim. Editor. Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity. Carmel: Guideposts, 1977.
Pares, Bernard. A History of Russia. New York: Dorset Press, 1953.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Riha, Thomas, editor. Readings in Russian Civilization, Volume 1: Russia Before Peter the Great, 900-1700. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969.
  
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