Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

Peter's Reforms: A Blueprint for the Future

S. M. SOLOVIEV

Sergei M. Soloviev ( 1820-1879) is the founder of modern scientific Rus-
sian historiography. Yet, as a child of the Romantic period and influenced by
Hegel, Soloviev believed that all nations go through specified historical stages
before they reach their maturity within the framework of the modern state.
Soloviev thought that Muscovy was characterized by a domination of the tribal
and clan principles, inherited from an earlier and more primitive stage of de-
velopment of the Russian people. These clan and tribal principles of social
organization left no room for the needs and demands of the individual or much
scope for his creative energy. The modern period, on the other hand, was
marked by a breakdown of the clans and tribes and the rise and triumph of
the individual within the framework of the state. In Russia, it was the reign
of Peter the Great which signified this momentous turning point in the social
evolution. Believing, as had Hegel, that history is the work of outstanding men,
Soloviev felt that Peter's personality and leadership played a decisive role in
bringing about this turning point, at this precise moment, and in such a rapid
and dramatic way. In Soloviev's opinion, Peter was the giant who had cleared
the terrain and blazed the trail along which Russia's further modernization was
to proceed for several centuries.

THE greatest of historical leaders died in frightful physical pain, fully acknowledging his human weakness, praying for strength and begging for the succor of religion. We have spoken earlier of how the entire course of previous history had paved the way for Peter's activity; how inevitably his work had been determined by this history; how it had been demanded by [the interests of] the people, which had to wrest itself out of its desperate situation by way of a shattering upheaval, in order that, by straining all of its energies, it might emerge upon a new road, into a new way of life. But this in no way diminishes the stature of the man who lent his powerful hand to the great people engaged in this mighty effort, who, by the strength of his extraordinary will, marshalled all its forces and gave direction to its movement.

The history of no other nation presents a comparable example of such a great and many-faceted transformation, attended by such far-reaching consequences, both for the internal life of the nation, and for its place in the general life of all nations, in world history. Western nations and Western historians cling to their prejudiced notion of the exclusive predominance of the influence of the German race in modern history and are understandably fearful of losing the monopoly on an effective historical role. Because of this, and because they are hampered by the difficulty -- indeed, the impossibility of a calm and unbiased study of Russia, of its past and present -- they cannot and will not give just due to the world significance of the events which took place in Eastern Europe in the first quarter of the 18th century. Nevertheless, they are compelled to deal with the results of these events -- with the decisive influ-

From S. M. Soloviev, Istoriia Rossii s Drevneishikh Vremen [ History of Russia since Earliest Times], St. Petersburg (izd. Obshchestvennaia Pol'za) n.d. vol. XVIII, ch. 3, col. 848-849, 851-852, 854- 858. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg.

-79-

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