Few reigns in world history have ever produced such change as that of Peter I's. Without question the Muscovy he came to power over is not the same one he passed on from his death bed. Yet the nature of that change has been a hotly contested issuse among historians. Molchanov would have us believe that Peter was fulfilling "the objective necessity of [Russia's] socio-political development." Kliuchevsky holds the program of reform was "bequeathed to him by his predecessors" while Anderson considers it "the outcome of his own essential character." Considering what we have read so far, both about Peter and what preceeded him, as well as my own reading of Massie's Peter the Great, it would seem that the truth is a very complicated manner.
Some would posit that Peter burst onto the historical stage like Athena, full grown from the brow of Zeus. Clearly this is not the case. Peter, like any other historical figure, like any other man, is ultimately a product of his past and the past of his people. The small outpost of foreigners, and the "innovative" subjects included in his schooling were not the work of Peter. He was not the first to change the Russian Church, nor was he the first to change the status of the boyars. Yet where he went and how he went was new. During the Petrine period, much could have gone very different had Peter been any different.
In many ways, we should not turn West for our comparisions, but East, or rather towards the south, to the Ottoman Empire. Peter was not looking to make Russia Enlighted, Progressive, or any similar thing such to which the West at least paid lip service. He wanted Russia to be strong. He wanted Russia to be able to play in the European game. Power, plain and simple. Many of the steps he went to bring this about were the very same things the Ottoman Empire tried. The importation of European ordinance and munitions, the foundation of military academies on the European model, the establishment of factories to produce the materials of Western warfare, and the hiring of Europeans to provide the know-how. Even the adoption of uniforms cut in the European style is seen in both cases. In these ways, Peter is the very model of an Eastern Potentate. But he differs in one very important detail. He was not limiting the changes to just the art of war.
The Ottoman Empire was never looking to become European. The "Franks" were the House of War and by definition culturally inferior. Weapons and military tactics were all the Ottomans wanted from Europe. They ended up with more, but that wasn't the plan. Peter was different.
Peter saw Europe as culturally superior to Russia. We could say, without too much fancy, that he was convinced by a music box. He was like a curious child with Europe spread out as some wonderous Christmas display, with all sorts of toys he had never imaged could exist. As a youth he played solider with live troops and armament. Ships were not merely a means to an end for Peter, but something he had a lust for.
In this drive for European technology, not solely for the military uses, but also as an end to itself, Peter was different than the standard Eastern Potentate. Yet we should not be confused by this difference to ascribe "progressive" motivations to Peter and his path for Russia. It must be remembered that Europe itself was not all decided on such questions. Louis the XIV, the Sun King was in power in France, the Stuarts (through French influence) were to believe in the divine right of kings longer than the English could take it, and the Austrians had empire. Peter, like various Islamic rulers, thought he could have the goods without the precepts behind them.
I find Peterson's "Swedish Antecedents" to point this facet out very well. Peter tried to import an entire burecratic system which was bound to fail because of several important differences between Sweden and Russia. In fact these important differences were about the only points on which Peter was not willing to follow Western example. Serfdom and a system predicated on a free, involved peasantry mix only as vinegar and oil; under vigorous shaking. Peter realized this in part and tried lopping the bottom off and planting from there. However, that works for a government no more than a fruit tree. Peter was trying to get the goods without the social underpinnings.
The positions of Falkus and Kahan regarding Petrine industrialization are also compelling. Falkus takes the view that Russian industrialization was perforce instigated and run under government power. "Modern factories" have developed naturally only once, in the West, and under a very particular set of circumstances. Russia was without these conditions; lacking a free labor force, a merchant class , and a popular market. Without these one can have industry but it will be imposed from the outside and not a growth from the social enviroment. To compete with Europe, Peter needed industrial production in Russia. Production was geared to the needs of the state. Supplies for war and supplies for court were the products the state demanded. The state through subsidies and forced management (or foreign managers) substituted for the merchant class. Peter extended serfdom to factory labor, by allowing entire villages to be purchased to be tied to a factory instead of land.
Peter did get industrialization; yet I don't think he ever realized that industrializtion does not equal modernization. And Peter did want Russia to be modern. Peter wanted Russia to be able to create instead of copy his "toys". That the conditions required for scientific innovation were incompatible with the Russian situation was apparently never a thought in Peter's mind. Yet in this Peter was not alone. Leibnitz was, along with much of Europe, very intoxicated by the notion of beneficent autocratic rule. He thought that perfection could be brought through a planned society, laid out according to the rules of mathematics. Only through a powerful sovereign could the people, irrational and unruly, be made to change for their own, and the state's, good.
We should not think, however, that just because industry was an unnatural construct as practiced in Russia, that it went away after Peter's death. Kahan persuasively argues that while certain changes did occur, these were only normal and not so catastrophic as some would purport. While it is true things can be pushed for a time from the outside, eventually they do develop a normal inertia, after which they can only be directed, not forced. Such was the case after Peter's death. The laborers and most everyone else involved were at or past the point of endurance. The nature of goods needed was shifting to a less military stance, requiring a reshuffling of output ratios. Businesses consolidated and changed production. But in the end Peter's changes held. There was no return and regards of the direction taken, the future would have to consider it.
There are many other historiographical positions in the Cracraft bookthat appeal to me with or without reservations. Molchanov is led astray by Soviet dogma at times, and Cracraft's dream analysis leaves me sleepy.
In the main it is supportable that Peter was a powerful personality and was able to make his will obeyed much of the time. It is also within the facts to say that Peter's unique personality contributed to the course he charted. Yet he was not without historical precedent, and even he could not overturn Muscovy's history to make Russia just as he wanted it. He certainly laid the keel for his new Russia, but the timber was not of his planting. He plotted the course but couldn't change the sea.
Return to non-fiction