Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

I. MUSCOVY BEFORE PETER THE GREAT

The Heritage of Muscovy

S. F. PLATONOV

The outstanding specialist on the political history of Muscovy in the 16th and 17th centuries was Sergei F. Platonov ( 1860-1933). He was Professor of Russian history at the University of St. Petersburg until the Soviet government established its ideological control over all Russian academic life. One of the first and most important historians to fall victim to Stalin's drive for conformity to the party line, Platonov died in exile in the Ural mountains. Primarily interested in the history of Russia as a state and a great European power, Platonov gave in his university lectures -- from which the selection below is taken -- the most comprehensive and sympathetic picture of what had been accomplished in the domain of foreign affairs and administration by the predecessors of Peter the Great.

Now let us examine what Peter the Great found on his accession, and what he had to start from. In other words, let us acquaint ourselves with the condition of politics and life in Muscovy at the end of the XVIIth century. A general survey of this condition would take us too far afield. Not all the details of the pre- Petrine era are equally important to us: we are concerned here only with facts that have a bearing on Peter's reforms. Our survey of the XVIIth century will therefore follow the headings under which we shall later examine the various facets of Peter's activity. This activity falls into two main areas: 1) he gave Russia a new political position among European nations; 2) he reformed, to a greater or lesser degree, the organization and administration of the state. We shall briefly review the situation in the XVIIth century under these two headings.

1) Russia's foreign policy before Peter was guided not by chance, but by a long historical tradition. Already in the XIIIth century, we see the emergence of circumstances which shaped both the external aspirations of the Russian people and the Russian state, and their internal organization for many centuries to come. During the early years of the XIIIth century the Germans appeared on the shores of the Baltic Sea; they pressed against the Lithuanian tribes, and at the same time became the enemies of Russia (Pskov and Novgorod). The Swedes also began to move against Russia at this period. Under the impact of the German threat, the Lithuanian tribes organized themselves politically and, united by Mindovg, appeared on the stage of history as a principality hostile to Russia. Lithuania subjugated the southwestern part of Russia and threatened its northeast. At the same time, the Golden Horde was formed in the southeast and began to overrun northeastern Russia. Thus, almost simultaneously, the Great Russian people were ringed on three sides with ag-

From S. F. Platonov, Lektsii po Russkoi Istorii [Lectures on Russian History], edited by I. Blinov ( St. Petersburg, 1904), pp. 367-378. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg.

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