Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

The Opposition of the Traditionalists

E. F. SHMURLO

It is common knowledge that there was great resistance to Peter's innova-
tions. Usually this resistance is ascribed to the backward traditionalists, to
those concerned only with the preservation of hoary external forms. The
enemies of Peter's reforms, it is often thought, were either incapable or un-
willing to understand the necessity for Russia to join up with Western civiliza-
tion and the advantages of being a modern and dynamic nation. Eugene F.
Shmurlo ( 1853-1934), whose main work was on Russia's religious and cultural
relations with the West, tries to describe and explain the deeper reasons for
the popular opposition to Peter's reforms.

THE era of Peter the Great has long since become a part of history. Two centuries separate us from the reforming work of the first Russian Emperor. Much water has flowed since then, and yet we still seem to be under the spell of that period, as if we had not yet emerged from its troubled, feverish days and are still unable to deal with it altogether objectively. The spirit of Peter is still alive among us, and at moments we are ready to think that the Royal reformer has left us only yesterday, that he has not as yet had time to become a historical personage. Nor can we think of him as we do Ivan III, or the Terrible Tsar, or even Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, who was only a single generation away from the Reformer. These rulers have receded into such a distant past that we are able, to quote the poet, to speak about them, "hearing indifferently of good and bad." Not so with Peter. His "good" is still palpable and visible; his "bad," at moments, still makes it difficult for us to breathe. The great Emperor posed in all their sharpness questions that we have not yet entirely resolved to this day. Willynilly, we still live in an environment of concepts and practical activities which he had been the first to invest with immediacy and sharp definition.

This proximity to Peter's epoch inevitably affects our appraisal of it. The lack of historical distance has interfered with proper perspective, and the literature devoted to Peter's reforming activity is more reminiscent of the speeches in a courtroom, defending or indicting a defendant, than of the calm analysis of scientific historical criticism.

The movement which created the era of transformation began in the 17th century. The terrible depredations suffered by our country at the beginning of that century compelled us to awaken from long hibernation and to give serious thought to our shortcomings. Although the basic mass of Russian society continued to vegetate in its old inertia, a small handful of progressive people had already separated itself from it. This handful consisted of all who were no longer satisfied only with past traditions, with the way of life inherited from ancient times. The fact of which they were most keenly aware was the lack of education, and the need to borrow it

From E. F. Shmurlo, Petr Velikii v Otsenke Sovremennikov i Potomstva, Vyp. I, XVIII vek,
[Peter the Great in the Judgment of Contemporaries and Posterity--fasc. I, the 18th century
],
( St. Petersburg, 1912), pp. 1-6. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg.

-71-

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