Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

Introduction

WE call the world we live in "modern" -- stressing the fact that it seems to us far different from what the world was to our ancestors of the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, and classical Antiquity. And implied in this difference is the belief that what is "modern" has come about through rapid and far-reaching changes in the political, economic, and cultural aspects of Western life. We speak, therefore, of the industrial revolution, the great political revolutions of the United States and France, the revolutions in thought and taste associated with the "modern" notions of science, realism, individualism. In short, we have become quite familiar with the idea of revolution and change, and we associate it with innovation, acclaiming it as evidence that things are moving forward, are improving and giving wider scope to man's energies. Even if we disapprove of some specific results of a revolution, we still feel that it is but a perversion of something basically desirable and good, an effort at correcting and improving a bad situation that has gone wrong. We stress the element of innovation, the new direction which the revolution has brought about.

In so doing we tend to forget at times that however radical and thorough a revolution, it must have its foundations in the conditions that preceded it and that its results, therefore, cannot be completely unrelated to what went on before. As time passes, the novelties introduced by the revolution are taken for granted, and we are made aware of the survival of some of the antecedent conditions. We begin to speak of fundamental continuities in the country's history and downgrade the revolution as an accidental and superficial development in the basic structure and direction of a society's evolution. And yet, something did change, a new turn was taken, no return to the past was possible any longer. There is no denying that something of a break did occur in the continuity of a nation's history.

What at first glance distinguishes the history of Russia from that of most Western European countries is that it has experienced a greater number of profound, "revolutionary" breaks in its history, each one leaving a deep imprint on the nation's consciousness. Like all European nations, Russia experienced its first "revolution" with its conversion to Christianity. Then came the Mongol or Tartar conquest which had a similar impact, though it did not change the Russian people's self-image as much. But it did interrupt contacts with other Christian nations and thereby stop Russia's participation in the life of Europe for two centuries. Whether the reign of Ivan the Terrible ( 1533-1584) marked a revolution may be a matter of debate. But there can be no question of the profound impact of the reign of Peter the Great, the subject of the present collection of readings. Lastly, without any question, the Revolution of 1917 profoundly transformed Russia and its people. In every instance, but more particularly in the last two (though not to the same extent for all social classes), the Russians felt that they had not only undergone institutional changes but that, as people, they had been transformed spiritually, culturally, psychologically.

The reign of Peter the Great ( 1682- 1725) is known in Russian literature as the

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