Peter the Great and the Modernization of Russia

Overview | Before Peter | Czar Peter | Reforms | Warm Water Port | Conclusion

Peter the Great is one of the prime examples of what the force of a single individual can achieve. He basically dragged, kicking and screaming, an entire society toward modernization of its military, government, behavior, and even its appearance. He introduced a European culture that was foreign to the Russians and made demands upon both the people and nobility that at least attempted to make them more effective and more efficient. Peter understood that European technology, and the culture which drove it, were an avenue to national power. He did not want his country left behind, much less to be left vulnerable to the expansionist powers in Europe which were constantly at war attempting to take away each other's territory. To this end, he plotted a modernization strategy for Russia which would ultimately make her the greatest power in Europe.

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The “Great Man Theory” of history stipulates that it is great individuals who drive history. This idea finds much support in the life of Peter the Great. Moscovy or Russia was not one of those countries ripe for change. Although elements fought among themselves for power, entrenched forces within the nobility, military, and church were quite happy with the way society was structured. It took a visionary to see that change was the only way to defend Russia from outsiders and make the lives of its people more comfortable. Peter was very much aware of the Scientific Revolution and he wanted Russia to benefit from it.

Russia Before Peter

Before Peter the Great, Russia was a strictly agricultural society. It was cut off from year round shipping and sea lanes because it did not have a warm water port. The only real seaport being Archangel in the north in the White Sea, which was frozen over more than half the year. The Russian Orthodox Church was different from the religions of the rest of Europe. It was based on the Greek Orthodox model, but it was completely separate in its hierarchy and even some of its doctrine. There was devout fear of change among the people. Xenophobia (fear of anything foreign) and anti-intellectualism was rampant among all classes of society.

The Russian executive was called the Czar. (In some texts this ruler is called a Tsar. The name is a derivative of "Caesar".) The government was unstable at the time because it required a strong individual as Czar to run it and to keep obstreperous boyars (Russian nobles) from asserting their own authority. There was also the difficulty of dealing with the army (called the Streltsy) which felt entitled to interfere in politics when its petty interests were threatened.

Peter the Great Comes to Power

Peter came to the throne in 1682 as a boy, along with his half-brother Ivan V. He was placed in power by the Streltsy, which played a role not unlike the Praetorian Guard in ancient Rome. His elder sister, Sophia, was made regent. (A regent is a person who rules temporarily in place of a king or queen.) During Sophia's strong regency there was relative peace. At this time Peter received a relatively unstructured education. Yet he was a curious and energetic young man. He spent his time in pursuits such as ship building, playing war with his own regiments – which were modeled on western armies, and some tutoring. He investigated all manner of scientific inventions.

As Peter approached the age when he could assume the throne, Sophia resisted giving up power. There was an incident in the Kremlin in which many of Peter's supporters were taken by the Streltsy, which had been stirred up by supporters of Sophia. Peter's friends were impaled on pikes. Peter moved outside of Moscow and began to gather allies. Turmoil reigned as the principal parties, Sophia, Peter, the boyars, and the Streltsy all vied for power. Peter finally gained dominance in 1689. His sister was turned out of office and imprisoned in a monastery. From this time on he worked to limit the power of the boyars, to make the czar secure from the Streltsy, to advance a new military system (based on his two play regiments), and most of all to expand the territory of his country.

Diagram of How Metal Detectors Work

In 1697 the young Czar Peter, to better understand European technology, society, and governmental structures, of which he had only had a glimpse in his boyhood, decided to make a grand tour of Europe (in disguise - though thinly veiled). He traveled throughout western Europe, visiting with powerful monarchs, scientists, men of business, engineers, and technicians. He was especially fascinated by shipyards and factories. He realized that the military might of the west was due to its technological advancement and manufacturing capabilities. When he returned to Russia, he was determined to advance his own country in a similar direction.

Reforms of Peter the Great

Nearly seven feet tall, Peter the Great was an imposing figure. He was also a tough minded individual. He was ruthless in his efforts to change Russia. He began with the boyars. He insisted that they shave their traditionally long beards and cut short the long sleeves which were the fashion among them. (The sleeves sometimes swept the floor.) He also worked to make the boyars loyal to the state by publishing a table of ranks that made a noble's rank equal to his status in the government or the army and not on his birth. In this way Peter also forced the nobles to work for the advancement of Russia and not their own private interests.

He then proceeded to deal with the Streltsy. These guard troops had rebelled while he was away on his "grand tour". Peter swiftly put down their rebellion. He had over 1200 men tortured and executed. Their bodies went on display to discourage future misbehavior. He also dealt with recalcitrant "Old Believers" in the Russian Orthodox church which resisted reforms. He restructured the church hierarchy so that he could have a bigger say in the running of the church.

In administration he looked to the Swedish model, creating "colleges" or groups of officials who ran departments. To deal with central administration he created a "senate" which handled the running of the country on a daily basis, especially when he was absent from the capital. He sent promising young men abroad to learn how certain industries worked. He established iron mines and steel mills in the Ural Mountains. Most of the industries he sponsored, especially ship building, were done to enhance the military status of Russia.

Seeking a Warm-Water Port

In order to secure uninterrupted trade with the rest of the world, Russia had long sought warm-water ports. For Peter the Great it was the spur to war with both the Ottoman Empire and Sweden. The wars with the Ottoman Empire were inconclusive. However, the war with Sweden (under Charles XII), after the battle of Poltava, resulted in the conquest of Estonia, Livonia, and part of Finland. These territories afforded Peter the opening he needed to found a new city, a (mostly) warm-water port called St. Petersburg, which he made the capital of Russia. (The Baltic, upon which St. Petersburg is situated, does freeze over in the winter months. However, it is not as far from commerce, and it does not freeze up as long as the White Sea.)

St. Petersburg was designed to be a very European city. The very name "burg" is German for town, while the Russian name for town is "gorod". The new capital was his window to the west. The language of the nobility and court eventually became French. Houses were built in the European style, with an occasional onion dome just to remind the visitor where he was. New buildings were largely neo-classic, in the Greek and Roman style.


Peter, who died in 1725, brought Russia into the 18th Century. He made her a power both militarily and politically. Because of her advances, Russia would be the arbiter of the fate of Napoleon after Waterloo. She would be a powerful force against Hitler in World War II. And yet for all of Peter's work, the basis of the economy remained agriculture. Huge boyar estates were served by a peasant class that was attached to the soil. The administrative, industrial, and social advancement became a brittle shell. Much of the peasant class would remain recalcitrant, and many of the nobles became mired in an ennui which became known as Oblomovism. Even so, the Russia of today lives with the decisions and deeds of Peter the Great, making the country an integral part of a modern Europe.

Overview | Before Peter | Czar Peter | Reforms | Warm Water Port

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The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe


Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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