Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

Social and Political Reforms

P. N. MILIUKOV

Until the end of the 19th century all those who wrote about Peter had
been mainly concerned with his successes in military and foreign affairs and
with his personal role in bringing about Russia's greatness and glory. At the
end of the 19th century, however, the interest shifted to social and economic
problems. Assuming the existence of historic laws of inevitable social progress,
historians examined Peter's reign from the point of view of the population's
material condition and of its place in Russia's social and economic evolution.
Paul N. Miliukov ( 1859-1944) exemplified this new orientation in his dis-
sertation for the degree of magister, a massive and exhaustive study of the
relationship between Peter's economic and administrative policies, from which
we quote part of the conclusion. While recognizing the necessity of Peter's
reforms in that they helped to turn Russia towards Europe and progress,
Miliukov believed that in terms of the well-being of the Russian people the
price had been much too high. So high, as a matter of fact, as to jeopardize
the future economic and social progress of Russia and as to negate in part
Peter's political and military successes. Unwilling to give much credit to Peter
for any constructive transformation of the country's structure, Miliukov felt
that the social and economic changes which occurred in the first Emperor's
reign were not the result of any conscious policy of Peter's but only the un-
avoidable by-products of his military and diplomatic efforts.

HAD Peter lived a few years longer, he would undoubtedly have gone still further along the road of Russifying his reform of the state -- a road he had taken from the very first when he introduced his reform in 1718-1719. But Peter died, and the task of adapting the reform to Russian conditions had to be completed by the Supreme Privy Council. Did this alter the fate of the reform? Hardly. In essence, it was still in the hands of the men who had carried it out during Peter's last years. As we follow the changes in the field we have selected for observation, we become accustomed to seeing reform without the reformer, and this is true of the years when Peter was still alive. Substantially the same impression was gathered by the better informed contemporary participants and observers. It was only people remote from the field of action who later naïvely identified Peter with his reform and paved the way for the view that Peter was the sole creator of the new Russia.

Unfortunately, there is not a single piece of sincere contemporary testimony by any of Peter's closest Russian aides regarding Peter's last years. However, the numerous reports and memoranda of foreign envoys consistently convey the same impression, which coincides with the results of our own study and, it seems to us, with the facts: an impression that the sphere of the Tsar's personal influence was relatively narrow. This was stated briefly, clearly, and with his usual intelligence, by Vocke

From P. N. Miliukov, Gosudarstvennoe Khoziaistvo Rossii v Pervoi Chetverti XVIII Stoleiia i Reforma Petra Velikogo [The National Economy of Russia in the First Quarter of the 18th Century and the Reform of Peter the Great] (Second Edition, St. Petersburg, 1905), pp. 542-543, 545-546 (First Edition, St. Petersburg, 1896), pp. 730-732, 734-736. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg .

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