Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

IV. CONTEMPORARY AND HISTORICAL
ASSESSMENTS OF PETER THE GREAT

Popular Reactions to the Reform

N. P. PAVLOV-SIL'VANSKII

Peter's contemporary, the peasant writer Ivan Pososhkov, once observed
that Peter's accomplishments were almost miraculous feats, for he was alone
in pulling Russia uphill while millions of his subjects were trying to drag him
down. Pavlov-Sil'vonskii's contribution to our understanding of Peter's reign
was to discover projects and memoranda written by the emperor's contem-
poraries who thought in the same way and acted in the some spirit as he. Far
from being alone in his desire to modernize Russia, Peter had, therefore, the
support and assistance of numerous individuals within the ranks of Russia's
social and intellectual élite. Nicholas P. Pavlov-Sil'vanskii ( 1869-1908) spent
his professional life associated with the historical section of the Russian Acad-
emy of Sciences and is best known for his critique of traditional views and
interpretations.

IT is well-known that extreme hostility toward Peter and his activities was widely prevalent during his lifetime among the lower classes of the Russian population. Unable to understand his predilection for foreign ways, unable to see him as the son of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, the people believed the legend that Peter was a usurper and regarded him as "a Swedish impostor, a German from Stekolny town (i.e. Stockholm) or even as Antichrist himself." Many were indignant at the Tsar for "destroying the Christian faith and ordering men to shave their beards, smoke tobacco, and wear German clothing." But the majority seem to have joined the ranks of opposition to Peter, not as a protest in matters of principle, but for material reasons. Peter's detractors were less concerned with his German innovations than with the sacrifices he demanded from the people for the sake of the struggle against the Swedes. While they denounced the Tsar for "turning his eyes from the East to the West," they complained most bitterly because he had "dragged all the squires [boiarskie deti] into service," had " ruined the peasants and their households, had taken the husbands as recruits and left the wives and children orphaned. . . ." Peter and his closest aides were not as isolated in their society as some historians assume, on the basis of Pososhkov's wellknown comment: "He [the Tsar] pulls uphill with less than a dozen helpers, while millions pull downhill. How, then, can his work succeed?" But if Peter had not been supported by society in his reforming activity, if the majority had not been ready for closer relations with the West, how

From N. P. Pavlov-Sil'vanskii, Proekty Reform v Zapiskakh Sovremennikov Petra Velikogo (Re-
form Projects in the Memoranda of the Contemporaries of Peter the Great
), ( St. Petersburg, 1897),
pp. 1, 2-5. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg.

-68-

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