Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

SUGGESTIONS FOR ADDITIONAL READING
AND A BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

The figure of Peter the Great has dominated the development of Russian social and political thought, as well as Russian historical writing. As a matter of fact, the historiography of Peter the Great provides an almost perfect mirror for the Russian intelligentsia's views on the past and future of Russia, their relationship to the West, and the nature of the social and political problems confronting their country. Here we can give only the barest of outlines of this interesting and important aspect of Russian historical consciousness and writing. (For a survey of Russian historiography see Anatole G. Mazour, Modern Russian Historiography, Princeton, 1958).

Throughout the 18th century Peter the Great was the object of the most uncritical and enthusiastic admiration. He was credited with the modernization and civilization of Russia by opening it up to Western influences. His reign, it was believed, marked a completely new epoch in Russian history, and everything that had preceded it was both barbarous and of no interest any longer. Quite naturally, such an attitude could not be maintained when a strong feeling of national pride, developed after Russia's successful struggle against Napoleon, and when the influence of German Romanticism, with its love for the medieval and popular past of a nation, had made itself felt in the second quarter of the 19th century. Peter the Great began to be seen not merely as the titan who single-handed had created modern Russia all of one piece, but rather as one of several -- albeit the most important perhaps -- figures who had helped to shape the destiny of the Russian nation.

Two interpretations of Peter's role were advanced, each acknowledging his powerful impact, but giving a different evaluation of its nature and result. According to one school, Peter was the originator of Russia's westernization, and he was admired for having broken with the traditions of Muscovy. Those who accepted this view of Peter's reign, the Westerners, went on to argue that the direction given by Peter should be maintained and his work completed by Russia's becoming a truly Western nation politically (through constitutional reforms) and socially (through the abolition of serfdom). Opposed to this interpretation were those who saw in Peter's reign a great national tragedy. Indeed, they argued, by breaking radically with the Muscovite past, Peter had interrupted the normal, traditional evolution of Russia and, worse still, he had created that almost unbridgeable gap between the common people (the peasants) and the educated upper classes. The task, therefore, was to renew contact with the pre-Petrine past, undo the harm done by Peter's westernization, go back to the values and traditions of the Slavic (i.e. Russian) people; hence the name of Slavophiles given to the advocates of this interpretation. Clearly, neither Westerners nor Slavophiles were interested in an objective study of Peter's reign, for they viewed it exclusively in terms of their philosophic, national, and political predilections.

After the great controversy between Slavophiles and Westerners (which filled the 1840s and 1850s) had died down, it became possible to engage in a dispassionate and scholarly study of Peter's life and work. Begun by the patriarch of modern Russian historiography, Soloviev, it was continued by such prominent historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Kliuchevsky, Platonov, Miliukov, of whose work representative excerpts have been given in the present volume. A great number of valuable monographs on limited aspects of Peter's reign were also produced and primary sources published in scholarly

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