Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

Peter's Accomplishments and Their Historical Significance

B. H. SUMNER

The late Warden of All Souls ( Oxford University), B. H. Sumner ( 1893-
1951), brings an Englishman's common sense and detachment to his discussion
of the relationship between Peter's reforms on the one hand, and parallel trends
in Western Europe and the radical transformation wrought by the Soviet regime,
on the other.

PETER was an iconoclast: he broke with many externals, and with the ritualistic, traditional orthodox manner of life that hitherto had been part and parcel of the nationalism and religion of the court and the magnates and landed families, and in some degree of the bulk of the Russian people. He was lay and secular in his interests, aims, and habit of mind and of life; rationalism and utility were uppermost. He had dynamic energy, violent unbreakable determination, and unfailing courage: therewith he triumphed in the long run over all his adversities, defeats, and setbacks -- except one, and that one curiously enough his defeat at the hands of the Turks, in 1711, on the Pruth. He was a patriot, devoted to Russia, not sparing his subjects, but least of all himself, in unremitting service to her. He worked upon her "like nitric acid on iron." He was untiring in his plans for the development of Russia's economic resources, particularly her industries, and among those especially metallurgy. In this he had much success, and the great iron and copper industries in the Urals owe their origin to Peter. He was the initiator of what may be called modern education in Russia, not confined to one class, though mainly confined to the immediately useful and the technical. He devoted great attention to Asiatic lands and to Siberia, marched in person into Transcaucasia in war against Persia, sought out Central Asian routes to India and initiated the first successful search for a Northeast passage, discovered shortly after his death by Behring. He made the Russian navy out of nothing. He re-made the Russian army on the model of the up-to-date European armies of that day, armed for the greater part with flintlocks and bayonets, wellequipped with a varied artillery, in the end munitioned for the most part from Russian resources. With this army and navy he defeated Sweden, ultimately, after twenty-one consecutive years of war; and Sweden ranked among the foremost military powers of the day, and had in her King Charles XII, a military leader who was the compeer of Marlborough and Prince Eugene, however lacking he was as a statesman. (Thanks to Creasy, Macaulay's schoolboy used to know of Poltava, for it is numbered among his fifteen decisive battles of the world -- the only Russian one to be so: Poltava, "the Russian resurrection," as Peter and his wife Catherine refer to it in their intimate letters.) With this army and navy Peter gained for Russia the Baltic provinces and the mouth of the Neva, where he founded his new capital, St. Petersburg,

From B. H. Sumner, "Peter the Great," History, XXXII ( March, 1947), pp. 42-49. Reprinted by permission of B. H. Sumner's executors.

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