Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

Peter's Paradoxical Legacy

V. O. KLIUCHEVSKY

The brutal means which Peter the Great adopted to carry out his reforms
have presented historians of liberal and humanitarian sympathies with a di-
lemma: how to accept the positive side of Peter's reign (i.e. the westernization
and modernization of Russia) without at the same time excusing his barbarous
methods. Kliuchevsky tries to come to grips with this dilemma. Looking at
the results of Peter's "stormy passage" almost two centuries later, he sees in
the brutal methods employed by the Emperor the unavoidable manifestation
of the dynamic energy which helped bring into being Russia's modern power
and glory.

THUS Peter took from the old Russia the absolute power, the law, and the class structure; from the West he borrowed the technical knowledge required to organise the army, the navy, the economy, the government. Where then was the revolution which renewed or transformed the Russian way of life, which introduced not only new institutions, but new principles (whether they were good or bad, is for the moment, immaterial)? Peter's contemporaries, however, thought that the reforms were revolutionary, and they communicated their opinion to their descendants. But the reforms did not stop the Russians from doing things in their own way, and it was not the innovations that agitated them so much as the methods Peter used. Some of the results of the reforms were only felt in the future, and their significance was certainly not understood by everyone, and contemporaries anyhow only knew the effect the reforms had on them. Some reactions, however, were immediate, and these Peter had to account for.

The reforms were influenced not only by Peter's personality, but by wars and internecine struggles. Although the war had caused Peter to introduce reforms, it had an adverse influence on their development and success, because they were effected in an atmosphere of confusion usually consequent on war. The difficulties and demands of war forced Peter to do everything hastily. The requirements of war imposed a nervous and feverish tempo on the reforms, and an unhealthily fast pace. Peter's military preoccupations did not leave him time for critical analysis of a situation or careful consideration of his orders and the conditions in which they would be carried out. He could not wait patiently for natural improvement; he required rapid action and immediate results; at every delay or difficulty he would goad the officials with the threats which he used so often that they lost their power. Indeed for any offence against the law, such as petitioning the Tsar without going through the proper authorities, or felling an oak, or even a spruce, or failing to appear at a nobleman's review, or buying or selling clothes of the old Russian pattern, Peter ordered confiscation of property, loss of civil rights, the knout, forced labour, the gallows, or physical and civil death. This

From Vasilii Kliuchevsky, Peter the Great ( New York: St. Martin's Press, 1958), pp. 33-56. Reprinted by permission of Macmillan & Company Ltd. and St. Martin's Press Inc. Translated by Liliana Archibald.

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