In this lesson, we explore the reign of arguably Russia’s greatest monarch, Peter the Great. We’ll also look at the westernization of Russian life and government that he implemented.
Peter the Great’s Westernization of Russia
Imitation, people say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Think about it – when a TV show or YouTube video is wildly successful, the market usually becomes awash with imitators for a few months after their initial fame. While it was certainly more complicated than a video making a million hits on YouTube, Peter the Great’s westernization projects in Russia in the late 17th and early 18th centuries were in part an imitation of Peter the Great’s favorite international region: Western Europe.
Early Life and Rise to Power
Born the 14th child of the Czar Aleksey I in 1672, Peter’s path to greatness wasn’t obvious right away. After his father’s death in 1682, Peter had to share power because he had been named joint-czar with his older half-brother, Ivan.
Ivan was clearly favored by the Moscow elite and as a result, Ivan’s even older full sister was named regent of the throne. As such, Peter, although still just a boy, was ostracized at court. As a result, Peter was forced to live outside Moscow with his mother in partial political exile.Peter’s exile would actually become a blessing in disguise. He was allowed to learn and mature outside the stifling political atmosphere of Russian court life.
He gained passions for sailing, military games, and math. Later, Ivan’s sister was displaced from the regency, causing Peter to gain considerable power at the Russian court. When Ivan died in 1696, Peter ascended to the throne as Czar Peter I.
Soon after taking the throne, Peter centralized power in the monarchy by ruthlessly breaking the power of the Boyars, the traditional nobles in Moscow who had originally obstructed Peter from power. He continued to shut out the Boyars throughout his reign, often by elevating accomplished advisors and generals of lower social rank to important positions normally reserved for the Boyars.
With his place on the throne secured, the young Czar Peter set off on a grand European tour. Although one of his main justifications for his tour was garnering allies for Russia in its fight against the Ottoman Turks on its Southwestern border, Peter did far more than play diplomatic games. He even traveled in disguise sometimes, visiting schools, factories, museums, and shipyards, learning about European practices.Many of these European practices Peter planned to implement upon his return to Russia.
Perhaps most important of these was Peter’s fascination – likely stemming from his boyhood love for sailing – with the grand European war fleets of Great Britain, France, and others. Many historians contend that it was on this tour that Peter resolved to build a Russian fleet – nonexistent at the time – and wage war against the Swedes who had shut the Russians off from the Baltic Sea in the previous century. He was serious about this ambition; later in his reign Peter sent 50 boys of noble birth to Italy, Great Britain, and Holland to study shipbuilding and master European naval techniques.
Military Reforms & War
Peter returned to Russia and, with the importance of a port with easy access to Europe in mind, began building a navy. To gain his port, Peter waged a 21-year war against the Swedish Empire, and gained his Baltic port by 1721.
In celebration, he declared Russia an empire, and himself the first Russian Emperor.Defeating the Swedes was no easy feat, and to accomplish it, Peter enacted several sweeping reforms of the Russian army. As mentioned earlier, Peter implemented a more meritocratic approach when appointing his generals and other higher military positions.
While it hurt the pride and prestige of his political enemies in the nobility who had traditionally held the posts, its greatest effect was creating a more efficient, better drilled, and prudently commanded army.
Economic and Social Reforms
The port Peter won on the Baltic was not simply meant to provide a naval base. Peter also hoped to improve Russian trade relations with the mercantilist powerhouses of Western Europe. Mercantilism was an Early Modern European economic policy where trade deficits were abhorred and gold bullion was horded, something Peter admired.
In keeping with the principles of mercantilism, Peter encouraged industrial production throughout Russia. He even invited foreign experts to Russia to direct industrial development, in order to create goods for the European market.Peter was not solely content with having a more European economy. He also implemented hardline social and cultural reforms to westernize the Russian elite. For example, the Russian nobility was forced to cut their traditional long beards and wear European-style dress. Peter intended all Russians to begin living and looking like Europeans.
In a rage, he even supposedly cut off the beards of several of his courtiers himself when they complained about the new policy.Peter’s absolutism was not felt only by the nobility; the Russian Church also had much of its power taken from it and placed in Peter’s Russian state, most importantly in the arena of education. Prior to Peter’s reign, most educational institutions in Russia had been operated by the church, but Peter created secular schools, which promoted European learning, languages (such as French and Latin), and state-sponsored studying abroad.
With Peter’s modernizations and Europeanization of Russia in full swing, Peter wanted a new capital emblematic of the new country he felt he was building.
He began building an entirely new city on the Gulf of Finland in 1703 where only a few fishing huts had resided previously. Peter promised high wages to talented carpenters and masons from abroad to plan his city, and every province was required to send general laborers to the Northern site. As a result, the sprawling edifices, which make up modern St. Petersburg, were completed in record time, despite several attempts made by the Swedes to take the city in its early years. Naming it St.
Petersburg after his namesake, Peter officially moved the Russian capital there in 1712.
While Peter’s policies transformed Russia into a major European power by his death in 1725, it’s important to note that the Russian populace paid a heavy price for Peter’s reforms. Most of the taxes needed to pay for Peter’s ambitious projects came from the working poor and any revolts were ruthlessly quashed.
The dissenters or rebels were often even put to death.
Peter’s westernization of Russia was one of the most ambitious endeavors of the Early Modern period. Peter essentially attempted to enact and enforce institutions and ideals that had evolved in Western Europe over 200 to 300 years in only a generation’s time.
While the process could at times be rocky, the results achieved Peter’s main goal of turning Russia into a major player in European geopolitics.
Possible outcomes of completing this lesson could include your ability to:
- Recall Peter the Great’s early years in exile
- Go over the fact that he came to power having been influenced by his years in Western Europe
- Make note of the changes he made by following what he’d learned in Western Europe
- Detail some of Peter the Great’s industrial, political and economic influences
- Describe the modernization of the military that gave Peter a port in the Baltic
- Discuss the building of the capital city of St. Petersburg