- Discuss the reasons why Peter worked so hard to forcibly westernize Russia
- In his effort to modernize Russia, the largest state in the world, but one that was economically and socially lagging, Peter introduced autocracy and played a major role in introducing his country to the European state system. His visits to the West impressed upon him the notion that European customs were in several respects superior to Russian traditions.
- Heavily influenced by his advisers from Western Europe, he reorganized the Russian army along modern lines and dreamed of making Russia a maritime power.
- His social reforms included the requirement of Western fashion in his court (including facial hair for men), attempts to end arranged marriages, and the introduction of the Julian Calendar in 1700.
- One of Peter’s most audacious goals was reducing the influence of the boyars, or the feudal elite class. He did this by imposing taxes and services on them as well as introducing comprehensive administrative reforms that opened civil service to commoners. However, sharp class divisions, including the already tragic fate of serfs, only deepened.
- Tax and trade reforms enabled the Russian state to expand its treasury almost sixfold between 1680 and 1724.
- Legislation under Peter’s rule covered every aspect of life in Russia, and his reform contributed greatly to Russia’s military successes and the increase in revenue and productivity. Overall, Peter created a state that further legitimized and strengthened authoritarian rule in Russia.
Members of the highest rank of the feudal Bulgarian, Moscovian, Ruthenian, (Ukraine and Belarus), Wallachian, and Moldavian aristocracies, second only to the ruling princes (or tsars), from the 10th century to the 17th century.
Government departments in Imperial Russia established in 1717 by Peter the Great. The departments were housed in Saint Petersburg.
The status of many peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to manorialism. It was a condition of bondage that developed primarily during the High Middle Ages in Europe and lasted in some countries until the mid-19th century.
Feudally dependent persons in Russia between the 10th and early 18th centuries. Their legal status was close to that of serfs but in reality closest to that of slaves.
Table of Ranks
A formal list of positions and ranks in the military, government, and court of Imperial Russia. Peter the Great introduced the system in 1722 while engaged in a struggle with the existing hereditary nobility, or boyars. It was formally abolished in 1917 by the newly established Bolshevik government.
Russia at the Turn of the 18th Century
By the time Peter the Great became tsar, Russia was the largest country in the world, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Much of Russia’s expansion had taken place in the 17th century, culminating in the first Russian settlement of the Pacific in the mid-17th century, the reconquest of Kiev, and the pacification of the Siberian tribes. However,
the vast majority of the land was unoccupied, travel was slow, and the majority of the population of 14 million depended on farming. While only a small percentage lived in towns, Russian agriculture, with its short growing season, was ineffective and lagged behind that of Western Europe. The class of kholops, or feudally dependent persons similar to serfs, but whose status was closest to slavery, remained a major institution in Russia until 1723, when Peter converted household kholops into house serfs, thus including them in poll taxation (Russian agricultural kholops were formally converted into serfs in 1679). Russia also remained isolated from the sea trade and its internal trade communications and many manufactures were dependent on the seasonal changes.
Peter and Western Europe
Peter I the Great introduced autocracy in Russia and played a major role in introducing his country to the European state system. His visits to the West impressed upon him the notion that European customs were in several respects superior to Russian traditions. Heavily influenced by his advisers from Western Europe, he reorganized the Russian army along modern lines and dreamed of making Russia a maritime power. He also commanded all of his courtiers and officials to wear European clothing and cut off their long beards, causing great upset among boyars, or the feudal elites. Those who sought to retain their beards were required to pay an annual beard tax of one hundred rubles.
Peter also introduced critical social reform. He sought to end arranged marriages, which were the norm among the Russian nobility, seeing the practice as barbaric and leading to domestic violence. In 1699, he changed the date of the celebration of the new year from September 1 to January 1. Traditionally, the years were reckoned from the purported creation of the world, but after Peter’s reforms, they were to be counted from the birth of Christ. Thus, in the year 7207 of the old Russian calendar, Peter proclaimed that the Julian Calendar was in effect and the year was 1700.
One of Peter’s major goals was reducing the influence of the boyars, who stressed Slavic supremacy and opposed European influence. While their clout had declined since the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the Boyar Duma, an advisory council to the tsar, still wielded considerable political power. Peter saw them as backwards and as obstacles standing in the way of Europeanization and reform. He specifically targeted boyars with numerous taxes and obligatory services.
Prior to Peter’s rule, Russia’s administrative system was relatively antiquated compared to that of many Western European nations. The state was divided into uyezds, which mostly consisted of cities and their immediate surrounding areas. In 1708, Peter abolished these old national subdivisions and established in their place eight governorates. In 1711, a new state body was established: the Governing Senate. All its members were appointed by the tsar from among his own associates, and it originally consisted of ten people. All appointments and resignations of senators occurred by personal imperial decrees. The senate did not interrupt the activity and was the permanent operating state body.Another decree in 1713 established Landrats (from the German word for “national council”) in each of the governorates, staffed by between eight and twelve professional civil servants, who assisted a royally-appointed governor. In 1719, after the establishment of government departments known as the Collegia, Peter remade Russia’s administrative divisions once more. The new provinces were modeled on the Swedish system, in which larger, more politically important areas received more political autonomy, while smaller, more rural areas were controlled more directly by the state.
Peter’s distrust of the elitist and anti-reformist boyars culminated in 1722 with the creation of the Table of Ranks—a formal list of ranks in the Russian military, government, and royal court. The Table of Ranks established a complex system of titles and honorifics, each classed with a number denoting a specific level of service or loyalty to the tsar; this was among the most audacious of Peter’s reforms. Previously, high-ranking state positions were hereditary, but with the establishment of the Table of Ranks, anyone, including a commoner, could work their way up the bureaucratic hierarchy with sufficient hard work and skill. A new generation of technocrats soon supplanted the old boyar class and dominated the civil service in Russia. With minimal modifications, the Table of Ranks remained in effect until the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Peter’s government was constantly in dire need of money, and at first it responded by monopolizing certain strategic industries, such as salt, vodka, oak, and tar. Peter also taxed many Russian cultural customs (such as bathing, fishing, beekeeping, or wearing beards) and issued tax stamps for paper goods. However, with each new tax came new loopholes and new ways to avoid them, and so it became clear that tax reform was simply not enough.
The solution was a sweeping new poll tax, which replaced a household tax on cultivated land. Previously, peasants had skirted the tax by combining several households into one estate. Now, each peasant was assessed individually for a tax paid in cash. This new tax was significantly heavier than the taxes it replaced, and it enabled the Russian state to expand its treasury almost sixfold between 1680 and 1724. Peter also pursued proto-protectionist trade policies, placing heavy tariffs on imports and trade to maintain a favorable environment for Russian-made goods.
Subjugation of the Working Masses
Peter’s reign deepened the subjugation of serfs to the will of landowners. He firmly enforced class divisions and his tax code significantly expanded the number of taxable workers, shifting an even heavier burden onto the shoulders of the working class. A handful of Peter’s reforms reflected a limited understanding of certain Enlightenment ideals. For example, he created a new class of serfs, known as state peasants, who had broader rights than ordinary serfs but still paid dues to the state. He also created state-sanctioned handicraft shops in large cities, inspired by similar shops he had observed in the Netherlands, to provide products for the army. Evidence suggests that Peter’s advisers recommended the abolition of serfdom and the creation of a form of “limited freedom,” but the gap between slaves and serfs shrank considerably under Peter. By the end of his reign the two were basically indistinguishable.
Peter’s reforms set him apart from the tsars that preceded him. In Muscovite Russia, the state’s functions were limited mostly to military defense, collection of taxes, and enforcement of class divisions. In contrast, legislation under Peter’s rule covered every aspect of life in Russia with exhaustive detail, and it significantly affected the everyday lives of nearly every Russian citizen. The success of reform contributed greatly to Russia’s military successes and the increase in revenue and productivity. More importantly, Peter created a state that further legitimized and strengthened authoritarian rule in Russia. Testaments to this lasting influence are the many public institutions in the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, which trace their origins back to Peter’s rule.