Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

The National Economy

P. I. LYASHCHENKO

The selection below is from the pen of the most distinguished living Soviet
economic historian. Following the official interpretation of Marx's periodization
of Western history, Lyashchenko would like to see in the reign of Peter the
Great the formative period of Russia's capitalist development. But in spite of
the establishment of new industries and the modernization of some sectors of
Russian economic life, Lyashchenko cannot call Peter's reign the beginning of
true capitalism in Russia, since the labor force continued to consist mainly
of unfree serfs and the capital was obtained from noble landowners and state
subsidies. In spite of his questionable theoretical framework, Lyashchenko gives
an informative summary of Russia's economic development in the 18th century
and of the contribution made to it by Peter's legislative activity.


The Reforms of Peter

"When Peter the Great," says Comrade Stalin, "was confronted with the more advanced countries of the West, and feverishly went about building factories and mills to supply his army and improve the defense of the country, it was a peculiar attempt to jump out of the framework of backwardness." In this respect "Peter accomplished a great deal toward the creation and strengthening of the national state of the landowners and merchants. It should also be stated," Comrade Stalin says further, "that the exaltation of the landlord class, the cooperation with the incipient merchant class, and the strengthening of the national status of these classes was carried out at the expense of the serf peasantry, which was being fleeced threefold."

The Moscow state of the end of the seventeenth century (at the beginning of Peter's reign, 1682) already embraced nearly all Russian territories, including Smolensk, Chernigov, and the east-bank Ukraine, and was rapidly pushing its frontiers toward the east, into Siberia. It was, in the expression of Marx, "a system of local annexations, appropriate for continental areas; for a general offensive the use of the sea was necessary." The wars of Peter I during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries pursued precisely this new aim -- to obtain outlets to the seas (the drives toward the Azov and Black Sea, and the conquest of the Caspian shores), and to the western seas in particular, which would make possible "the opening of a direct passage to Europe" ( Marx). The transfer of the nation's capital to the shores of the Baltic Sea (in 1713) was the culmination of this drive toward the western seas.

By his sharp break with the old political and social order, Peter created the political, military, and material foundations for the "Europeanization of Muscovy," and its transformation into a European empire. But at the basis of this "Europeanization," Peter was unable to provide anything beyond the old system of serfdom, the same social serf institutions. The influence of Europe, inevitably, indeed, awakened among the progressive elements of Peter's associates the idea of the advisability, in the interests of the state, of abolishing the practical slavery of a vast portion of his subjects. From the foreign reports we now have on the last years of Peter's reign, it

From Peter I. Lyashchenko, History of the National Economy of Russia to the 1917 Revolution ( New York: Macmillan Company, 1949), pp. 267-270, 283-288, 291-295, 296-297. Copyright by the American Council of Learned Societies. Translated by L. M. Herman.

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