Peter the Great is famous for his large number of reforms throughout his reign. However, whilst some reforms were mild and intended only to modernise Russia, others were more drastic and resulted in significant changes in the lives of ordinary Russians. However, the extent to which Peter the Great was a reformer or a revolutionary must be considered when taking into account his reforms within the military, economy, industry, administrative system, Church and education. Each one of these must be fully investigated in order to conclude whether Peter the Great was a reformer or a revolutionary.
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The debate as to whether Peter the Great was a reformer or a revolutionary can be best be argued through his military reforms. Peter massively modernised the army and navy, growing from a small force into a larger one which was loyal to Peter; the Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky. Russia’s military before Peter came to the throne was in a dire state; the hereditary musketeer corps which had been maintained by previous tsars was undisciplined and not particularly reliable. However, Peter experimented with new military techniques in order to strengthen his army and navy; he took inspiration from his 1697 tour of Europe and his studies of English naval architecture. Peter was keen to apply these new techniques to his military and thus create a stronger, more efficient military force. In order to facilitate this, Peter introduced conscription into the military in 1699, and by the end of his reign nearly 285,000 men had been conscripted into the military. However Russia still suffered a humiliating defeat at Narva to the Swedish army despite superior numbers of men in service, demonstrating the need for further reforms. Peter increased the infantry to 52 regiments in 1708, and developed domestic industry to provide armaments for battle. These reforms paid off; in 1714 Peter’s navy was able to destroy the Swedish fleet at Hango and thus establish dominance of the Baltic Sea. However, Maclean has argued that despite Peter’s reforms, the Russian military was unprepared for war with “powerful modern states”, demonstrating that although Russia was victorious against Sweden, a stronger, more powerful enemy could destroy Peter’s efforts. This shows that although Peter reformed his military to such extremes that they might be considered revolutionary, he had not done enough to strengthen his military to such a standard that it might be successful against more powerful nations, thus demonstrating that in terms of military reforms, Peter was not revolutionary.
Further to his military reforms, Peter made great changes to the Russian economy throughout his reign which might be considered revolutionary. Most importantly, Peter manipulated Russia’s tax system in able to ensure funding for the ever-increasing military, which consumed almost all available revenue. Nonsensical taxes were imposed onto the public; beards, windows and baths were among a long list of things which would increase the amount of tax an ordinary Russian would pay. This angered the Russian people and lead to an increase of tax evasion. In this sense, Peter the Great can be seen as revolutionary in his ideas of how to fund his military, as they appeared to lack the signs of a well thought through plan which comes with reform and instead included drastic changes which affected the entire population of Russia. However, Peter also introduced a poll tax, which can be seen as far more logical as it was the easiest tax for him to collect and manage from the Russian people. Not only did this benefit the economy, but once the tax census was completed (after a lengthy drafting process), it provided “the most detailed account of the population Russia had ever had”, lasting long into future reigns. However, even in light of this sensible system of poll tax, Peter the Great’s economic reforms can be viewed as revolutionary as they aimed for drastic change in such a short space of time, altering the lives of ordinary Russians in the process.
However, Peter’s changes to Russian industry can be considered far more logical than his reforms to the economy, and thus are less likely to be considered revolutionary. Peter had put Russia through what many historians have come to term the ‘military revolution’, and in doing so had put Russia at a great advantage compared to European rivals. However, this revolution had to be funded, and so reforms to industry were crucial. Through the use of state monopolies Peter was able to expand Russia’s manufacturing industries as well as developing industries; for example the expansion of mining operations in the Urals. Peter had a deep interest in developing new industries which subsidised the Russian military, including armaments and textiles for uniforms, which further demonstrates how many of Peter’s numerous reforms were in order to strengthen his military, whether directly or indirectly. New industries developed particularly around St. Petersburg, and were leased out to merchants and nobles. However, the rapid expansion of industry led to an inevitable shortage of labour, especially when considered alongside a rapidly increasing military. Therefore Peter was left with the problem of how to solve such a shortage of labour. Shortage of labour was a significant problem in relation to industry and so Peter encouraged hiring of free wage labour, however he eventually permitted factory owners to purchase Serfs. The reforms Peter made in developing industries included the expansion of Serfdom from agriculture to industry, which could be considered the most revolutionary aspect of industrial reform. Although the reforms regarding Serfs might be considered revolutionary, in the context of greatly expanding industry Peter’s reforms come across as sensible solutions to the problems he was faced with.
Peter the Great’s administrative reform might be considered revolutionary when compared to the administrations previous dire state. There is little doubt that Russia’s governmental administration was corrupt, and it was common practice for civil servants to help themselves to portions of revenue coming through their office. Russia’s civil service was dominated by high class aristocrats, which only served to widen the gap between the peasants and the aristocracy. However, Peter intended to revolutionise the administrative system in Russia through the introduction of the Table of Ranks. Peter meant this reform to ensure that it was not only wealthy aristocrats working in office. The Table of Ranks had a significant impact on class structure; the new system depended on one’s governmental service rather than their birth right, thus allowing for lower classes to reach equilibrium with the aristocracy. The introduction of the Table of Ranks into the Russian administration caused a massive change to the system, with administrative workers now coming from all backgrounds and being able to work their way up to the top without having been born into a wealthy, aristocratic family. When considered in relation to the social make up of Russian society, in which class divisions dominated politics, this move was without doubt one of Peter the Great’s most revolutionary decisions.
Peter the Greats reformation of the Church was undoubtedly revolutionary as religion had always played an important role in Russian society. The Orthodox Church was an important authority in Russia, and yet Peter brought the Church under state control and deprived it of its independence. Through this, Peter granted himself not only the power of government but also the power of the Church. Hoskings has argued that the reasons for this were purely selfish ones; Peter did not want any competition to his authority, and so the only way to prevent the Church from challenging his power was to control the Church himself. Peter continued to revolutionise the Church through the creation of the Holy Synod and Supreme Synod in 1721, answerable only to himself. When one considers the importance of the Orthodox Church in Russian society, and the purely selfish motivations for taking control of it, Peter the Great is arguably a revolutionary, making drastic changes in a short period of time in order to secure his own authority.
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Peter’s reformation of the educational system in Russia might be considered revolutionary only when its future impact is considered. Peter no doubt understood the importance of education, and so established new schools specialising in maths, science and medicine in the hope of creating a generation of educated Russians. So-called ‘cipher schools’ were set up to train future civil servants and military men, which again demonstrates how Peter was looking to the future through his educational reforms. However, these were not always successful at attracting pupils, demonstrating how Peter’s reforms initially failed. However, towards the end of Peter’s reign he initiated the process of integrating these schools into a more general educational framework of science and technology. This resulted in Russia receiving science and learning at the highest international levels, thus leading the way in Europe and creating a solid ground work for future leaders of Russia to build upon. In this sense, Peter the Great undoubtedly revolutionised the Russian education system and had a significant impact on future generations.
In conclusion, there is a vast amount of evidence to suggest that Peter was both a revolutionary and a reformer. His radical changes in the military, economy and the Church can certainly be considered revolutionary, however many of his other reforms were milder in comparison. Changes in industry and the economy can be considered merely a response to Peter’s military changes, whereas changes in education and the administrative system looked towards Russia’s future. It would seem that the most accurate conclusion is that Peter’s revolution was practical, in response to changing needs, rather than ideological, and so it was a revolution to modernise Russia and make it a comparable threat to European rivals.
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