Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

Peter the Great Not a Revolutionary Innovator

S. F. PLATONOV

In the first selection from the pen of this distinguished historian, we have
read a high estimate of the accomplishments of Muscovy in solving Russia's
traditional diplomatic and political tasks and problems. It will not come as a
surprise, therefore, to find Platonov arguing that, however impressive and ex-
citing Peter's personality, the Emperor did little that was radically new; that
he only followed in the footsteps of his Muscovite predecessors; and that like
them, he was not always successful in solving Russia's basic problems.

OUR approach to the description of the era of transformations stemmed from a conviction that this period has been pre-determined by the entire course of Russia's previous history. We have therefore examined the essential features of pre-Petrine life as it had evolved up to the moment when Peter began his work. We then acquainted ourselves with Peter's upbringing and the circumstances of his childhood and youth, in order to understand the development of the reformer's personality. And, finally, we have studied the character of Peter's reforming activity in all its aspects.

What are we to conclude from our study of Peter? Was his activity traditional, or did it represent a sharp and sudden revolution in the life of the Muscovite state, for which the country was entirely unprepared?

The answer is quite clear. Peter's reforms were not a revolution either in their substance or their results. Peter was not a "Royal revolutionary," as he is sometimes called.

To begin with, Peter's reform was not a political revolution. In foreign policy, Peter closely followed the old directions and fought the old enemies; he achieved unprecedented success in the West, but he did not resolve by his successes the old political problems in relation to Poland and Turkey. He did a great deal toward the attainment of the cherished aspirations of Muscovy, but he did not complete all that had to be done. The conquest of the Crimea and the partitions of Poland under Catherine II were our nation's next steps forward, directly continuing the work of Peter and of old Russia.

In domestic policy, Peter did not leave the XVIIth century far behind. The organization of the state remained the same. The fullness of sovereign power as it had been formulated by Tsar Aleksei in the words of the Acts of the Apostles, was given more extensive definition under Peter in the Military Regulation, in decrees, and in the philosophic tracts of Feofan Prokopovich. Local self-government, which had been a class institution, unpolitical in character before Peter's day, remained the same under Peter. Bureaucratic institutions continued to be superior to the organs of self-government of the social classes, and although the outward forms of the administration were altered, its general nature remained unchanged. Under Peter as before him, the administration was based on a mixture of principles: personal and collegial, bureaucratic and estate-based.

From S. F. Platonov, Lektsii po Russkoi Istorii [Lectures on Russian History], edited by I. Blinov ( St. Petersburg, 1904), pp. 457-460. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg.

-88-

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