Towards the end of the seventeenth century Russia differed very little from what it had been at the end of the fifteenth. During the reign of Peter the Great Russia’s desire for change and a quest for progress was reaching levels comparable to those of Europe. Peter the Great is associated with the movement of Russia from the Medieval world to the Age of Enlightenment. Throughout the centuries historiographical debate has been in progress. There was a debate between historians who consider Peter the Great as a great Tsar of Russia and those who perceive him as an autocratic tyrant.
Scholars ask if Peter the Great did indeed open the ‘Window to the West,’ ans if so what kind of window, and what aspects of the West? The interpretation of Russia’s past remains a subject of debate among historians. Image and accomplishments of Peter the Great with each generation produce different attitudes. What views are put forward by Peter’s contemporaries and modern historians? How did advocates and opposition portray the reign of Peter the Great? These are important questions to ask in an explanation on how Peter the Great was seen in the eyes of his contemporaries and of modern historians.
In order to understand the image of Peter the Great and his significance it is necessary to know his background and the influences that shaped his life. Peter the Great was the fourteenth child of Alexei Mikhailovich, born in Moscow on May 30, 1672. Tsar Alexis died when Peter was four years old. His mother raised Peter. Tsars’ Alexis son from his first marriage, Feodor Alekseevich succeeded to the throne but his reign did not last long. On April 27, 1682, Tsar Feodor died. In line to succeed him were, his brother Ivan and Peter who was his half-brother.
Peter was only ten years old. With the assistance of the semiprofessional musketeers garrisoned in Moscow, sister of Feodor, Sophia, seized power and declared herself regent, proclaiming both Ivan and Peter co-tsars. Sophia was in conflict with the family of Peter’s mother and she forced the boy to reside on one of the suburban estates of the crown. The hostility during Sophia’s regin was significant influence on Peter’s development as a Tsar. Peter grew up away from the constricting atmosphere of the Kremlin, and he was left to his devices under his mother’s supervision.
Peter was a lively and energetic boy compared to his other siblings who were sick and weak. From his early years he was interested in military games, fire, bombs and fireworks. He organized his own “play regiments” and war games by enlisting gentlemen’s sons. He also had contact with foreigners and was fascinated with their way of life. His education started around the age of seven. One of his tutors was Nikita Zotov, who was a kind clerk, literate man who knew the Bible well but was not a scholar. While Zotov was teaching Peter to read and write, he told him stories of Russian history; of battles and heroes.
Peter’s education was less classical then that given to Feodor or Sophia. By the time Peter reached manhood, he was basicaly a self taught man since he chose what he wished to learn. His lack of formal education would be reflected in the decisions and situations with which he had to deal with during his rule. Number of features of Peter’s childhood and youth makes it possible to see his intellectual development. At the age of sixteen, Peter was introduced to a dutchman, named Timmerman who became his second tutor.
Under Timmerman’s guidance he was learning arithmetic, geometry, and the sciences of fortifications and artillery. Timmerman had also introduced him to sailing which became one of the favorite interests for Peter. Early contacts with Timmerman and other foreigners had opened his mind to the technological West. Overall, Peter early in his childhood, was cut off from the typical old Russian environment, ideas, customs and traditions of government of a Muscovite Tsar. This lack of knowledge of political and moral ideas, about the people, government and a ruler’s obligations to his subjects was reflected in his reign.
Peter’s growing interests in foreigners and the western atmosphere which he was found of, disturbed his mother, Natalia. In order to convert Peter she had hoped that marriage would change his perspectives. Peter married Eudoxia Lopukhina in 1689, who was chosen by his mother. Unfortunately the match was a disaster, since the couple did not have much in common. However, through this marriage, Peter had two sons but the second died at age seven months. Most of the time Peter was away from his wife engaged in work on boats and sailing.
Peter the Great was not interested in his family, he was very much interested in an atmosphere which was open to progressive influences from the West. In 1689, Sophia’s regency ended when once again she tried to take full control of Russia. Peter expelled her from the palace and sent to the Novodevichi nunnery. Many of her close associates were executed or exiled. Peter returned from hiding to Moscow but at that time he was not interested in ruling the country. He appointed a group of ministers with whom he left state matters for another five years before he took the reins of government into his own hands.
From 1690 foreign influences were increased in Peters way of life. In 1691 for the first time a Russian tsar, Peter the Great adopted Western dress. Two of Peter’s close foreign friendships were with Patrick Gordon and Franz Lefort. Their education and their information about ways of life, science, and Western institutions were always of great interest for Peter. He was attracted and enjoyed the company of foreigners mostly because of the greater social, sexual, and intellectual freedom. He recognized his own drives and energy among the ambitious and adventurous foreigners who came to Russia.
During his time spent in the company of foreigners he acquired mechanical skills and accumulated as much knowledge as he could. His military establishment was reorganized on the Western model, and his “play regiments” were transformed into regiments of the Guards. This improvement of military force was going to help him in defeating Russia’s enemy. In 1696, after his mother and Ivans death he took over the actual governance of his realm. Peter’s violations of the customs and his decision to visit western Europe shocked the Muscovites.
Opposition groups and the signs of revolt were very quickly discovered and dealt with. People were arrested, torture, exiled to Siberia or executed. Nothing was going to stop Peter from going abroad. In August 1697 Peter left for journey to the West. He was the first Russian ruler to do so. His journey created not only sensation in Russia but in the countries he passed through. He visited Germany, Holland where he spent several months improving his knowledge of shipbuilding and navigation. He also visited England and Vienna. While on his journey he bought scientific instruments, books, and many curiosities.
Peter was successful in furthering his knowledge and in laying the groundwork for regular technical and intellectual exchanges. In his diplomatic efforts he did not succeed. Peter returned to Moscow in August 1698. He brought back not only material things but also a new vision of change for Russia. The new visions or “transformation” of Russia that Peter the Great was determined to create throughout the years of his reign, received positive and negative assessments from his contemporaries and historians. By transformation Peter the Great meant “modernization.
Peter wanted for Russia to become part of Western Europe in political, economic and cultural sense. Change, for Peter included acceptance of the technology and the outlook of the West. Change also meant absolutist state with the absolute monarch and his centralized bureaucratic state. The monarchs like Peter the Great, sought to follow the pattern set by Louis XIV of France in building and strengthening the machinery of a centralized royal government. Enlightened despots believed their own interests could best be served by internal dynastic reforms.
Measures designed to promote the development of the economy not only increased the wealth of their subjects but also provided the treasury with more revenues to finance larger armies. By restraining the power of the nobility and church, building up a trained and salaried officialdom, and rationalizing administrative procedures, these monarchs were able to strengthen the central government. The era of Peter’s reign was a period of transformation in Russia’s position as a great power. How effective and influential were the changes has been argued by many historians.
Numerous scholars as Miliukov, Kliuchevsky, Anderson agrees on the fact that the actual reform that Russia experienced during Peter the Great reign was one of militarization and mechanization. According to Miliukov, Kliuchevsky, Anderson and others “war and its effects central not merely to Peter’s foreign policies but also to his domestic achievements and failures. Without a grasp of this fact no real understanding of his reign is possible. ” The demands on the new armed forces had both positive and negative effects. Historians have struck, and continue to strike different balances between these effects.
The new Petrine institutions were developed in the process of mobilizing the resources of the country and organizing the army. The demands of army and navy inspired many of the changes that took place during he reign of Peter the Great. With the creation and maintain of the army, Peter had few problems. One of them was supplying men for the army. New system of recruiting which was more effective and enduring was created. Volunteers and peasant conscripts were enlisted on large scale in order to form new regiments. By these means there was twenty-seven new infantry regiments and two of dragoons formed.
This is one of the examples to show Peter’s efforts to increase his country’s military power. In 1705, a decree was established to recruit more young man between fifteen and twenty years old, fit for service. Recruiting on the massive scale imposed heavy burdens on the Russian people. Great importance was also assigned to regimental officers. Training schools became the most important military institutions in Russia. In organizing the army Peter discovered that the old framework of Muscovite government was not adequate for his needs.
In the process of mobilizing the military Peter the Great transformed the administrative structure of the state. The administrative structure had its roots in the Mongol era of medieval Russia. Traditionally, Tsars looked for advice to the Boyar Council which was old-fashioned and conservative institution. The main departments, prikazy, were the central administration, with various functions, often complex and overlapping. From 1699, Peter started to make some efforts in improving the structure. The Boyar Council lost its importance, and was replaced by tsar’s trusted subordinates.
New departments were created, the Preobrazhenskii Prikaz, the office of the political police was one of the most feared of all Peter’s innovations which was created in order to detect and crush disloyalty and opposition in Russia. In the 1711, the supervising and regulating force, the Senate was set up, to run the government in absence of Peter the Great. The other innovation of Peter the Great was dividing the empire into eleven gubernii, which where subdivided into about fifty provintsii and number of didtickty. Peter’s administrative apparatus was in many ways borrowed from the Swedes.
The new system was not working out the way it was planed. In theory the army was supposed to cooperate with the civilian authorities but in fact administration passed into the hands of the army. By 1725, army was gathered provisions and taxes, rounded up recruits and runway serfs, policed the countryside and meted out its own military justice. Many of the administrative changes were ineffective and temporary. The changes influenced the nature of the tsardom and the society. One of the most radical reforms of Peter the Great was the abolition of the Patriarchate and the establishment of the Holy Synod.
Peter the Great had a typical attitude towards religion as an absolutist ruler of the eighteenth century. He resented the Church’s ignorance, conservatism, and the wealth. In Russia, the Church had enjoyed great influence and its head, the Patriarch of Moscow, was the most influential and powerful individual after the Tsar. When the Patriarch Adrian died in 1700, therefore, no successor to him was appointed, and church property was placed under the control of a new Monasteries Department. This meant that much of the income from it could be used for secular, and above all military purposes.
In 1721 a new controlling body for the church, the Most Holy Directing Syndod, was set up. It had no real independence, and it was a symbol of the final subjection of the church to Peter’s control. He was not interested in reforms of doctrine or worship, his goal was to deprive the Church of its spiritual independence, and to make it one of the departments of the Absolutist State. Under Peter the Church became the agency through which the state extended its control over the minds of its subjects. The changes in the Russian Church provoked bitter resistance among the people.
Peter’s autocratic power had been asserted in the spiritual as well as in the secular sphere. The reign of Peter the Great had crucial importance for the history of Russian education. In the Muscovite state the service to the state was the leading duty, and Peter regarded education as a preparation for service or even service itself. Russia’s goal during Peter’s reign was to Westernized, to spread technology, knowledge, and education was the means to achieve that goal. The knowledge included technological and scientific knowledge of the West, not the Orthodox doctrine and learning of the Church.
Education and learning had existed in Muscovy, but the had been focused on religious concerns and were propagated on an individual basis by clerks or church readers. It was Peter the Great who introduced secular schooling. He did it primarily in order to meet his own needs for technically trained personnel to operate the ships and maneuver the army he had created. Beyond these immediate needs he realized that the new state will require educated men to continue the work of modernization he had begun.
Early in his reign, Peter sent groups of young nobles abroad to England, Holland and elsewhere, to acquire skills such as languages, seamanship, or mechanics. This experiment met with various oppositions. The first school he created was the Academy of Mathematics, later renamed Navigation, in 1701 in Moscow. Peter the Great also established an Academy of Science as both a research institute and an institution of higher education, open to the cultural elite of the empire. Other training schools were set up to provide instructions in various specializations. Education was a first step in the ladder of state service.