2.8 Peter, the Great
Peter, the Great of Russia may be conveniently called a bundle of contradictions. He had so many inconsistencies in his character that it is very difficult to make a proper estimate of his personality. He often burst into violent passions and committed orgies of dissipation and acts of savage cruelty. He inflicted cruel treatment even on those who were very close to him. Peter was also capable of indomitable energy and singleness of purpose. He possessed an insatiable curiosity. He had the quality of sharp observation and his mind was open to new ideas and thoughts. His acts often bordered on barbarity, yet he was a genius in the mechanical and technical matters, and for method and organization.
Peter also possessed some sterling qualities. Under ordinary and normal circumstances, he was frank, jovial and openhearted. While he was severe and cruel with his enemies he was a loyal and sincere friend. He was also free from the vices of deceit and double-dealing, though his behavior was often barbarous.
When he ascended to the throne, Russia was no more than a backward Asiatic nation. It had no access to the sea and was practically an inland State that was surrounded by several great powers, Sweden, Poland, Turkey and Prussia. The main bond of unity that the Russians had with Europe was that of the Christian religion. Peter was able to widen his vision and mental horizon further by visiting Germany, England and Holland. He undertook all these journeys incognito and even took up the job of a carpenter in the shipyards of Holland and England. He assimilated the whole of western civilization and returned to Russia to begin a great movement of social, political and moral regeneration.
Peter knew fully well that Russia lagged far behind other European countries. He had good contacts with some foreign residents in Moscow. His talk with those people aroused in him an ambition to make his country a great power in Europe.
2.8a The Home Policy of Peter, the Great
In his domestic policy, Peter was guided by two motives: (i) to bring both the State and the Church under his strict control and (ii) to civilize his people by introducing western arts and sciences. He changed his country from a backward and neglected one into a modern and complete westernized one.
Peter refused to nominate the successor of the Patriarchy before he died in 1700. He placed the powers and functions of the Patriarch in the hands of a commission, which was known as the Holy Synod. It was presided over by a direct representative of the Czar. Thus he succeeded in bringing the Church under his control. During his visit to foreign countries in disguise, the Strelsi, the Kingís bodyguards, had launched a revolution. On his return, Peter suppressed the revolt, disbanded them, and replaced them with a regular army, trained after the European fashion and directly under his control.
Peter also took steps to industrialize the economy. He built up factories, roads and canals, and created favorable circumstances to boost commerce and industry. Peter invited foreigners to settle down in Russia believing that these foreigners would indirectly make his task of Europeanizing his country easy and that his countrymen would also easily learn Western ideas, arts, and science. Peter promoted the learning of science and mathematics and set up common schools for imparting training in these subjects. A number of technical schools in several provinces and an academy of sciences in St. Petersburg were also opened by him.
Peter also curbed the power of the nobility. He made the nobility dependent on service and not on birth. He undertook the reorganization of the whole system of administration according to the western model. He created special boards and directors to supervise different departments of the government. He pressed the nobles either to work as civil officers or to join the military service. An advisory council or senates with members appointed by him were set up. He also improved the currency value and checked corruption in government offices.
Peter also carried out a number of social and economic reforms
and turned almost everything into a western object. Peter introduced
the western dress, manners and customs in the social and family
life of each Russian. He even brought into use the western modes
of shaving and dancing. These steps were taken at the cost of the
national features and characteristics. He went to the extent of
imposing taxes on those who insisted on wearing the beard but did
not give up the tradition of keeping women secluded.
2.8b Westernizing Russia
Peterís most important policy was westernizing Russia. During 1697-99, Peter traveled extensively in Western Europe and gained personal knowledge of the wonders of its civilization. He worked as a ship carpenter in Holland and studied the naval system of England. He attended surgical lectures, visited paper mills and printing presses, and studied the arts and also the employment procedures of the industrial community. This famous journey was specially meant to be a voyage of instruction and knowledge.
Peter was soon eager to put the results of his trip into practice. He borrowed military organization from Austria, manners from France, clothes from England and methods of administration from Germany. He brought many skilled artisans, engineers and army officers for teaching the Russians in those subjects. With the aid of these experts he brought into existence a number of roads and bridges, ships and planes, and hospitals. The navy was under his personal supervision and special patronage.
Throughout his life, Peter labored to Europeanize Russia. Everything foreign was promoted at the expense of everything national. Those who opposed the change were treated as enemies of civilization. Russian customs were prohibited in the court and among nobles.