Peter the Great: Emperor of All Russia

By Ian Grey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXXIX
Social and Economic Reforms 1714-1725

THE revolutions in government and in the church were matched by a revolution in Russian society. By his social and economic reforms, Peter broadened the composition of the landowning class, regularized the position of the peasantry, and reorganized the merchant-traders. His reforms were designed to strengthen the nation by giving it an efficient administration, by maintaining its armed forces, by developing its natural resources, and by establishing new industries. They did not lighten but added to the burdens of the people, and their effect was to widen the gulf between the landowning class and the peasant masses, which had appeared early in the previous century, and which was to lead to the complete isolation of the upper class and to revolution.

Russian society was based on the contract of service. The nobles had the right, shared only with the church, to own land and the serfs on it, and they in turn owed service to the Tsar. Originally they had been divided between those holding their estates in perpetuity and those holding them on a service basis, but gradually during the seventeenth century, all estates had become hereditary. In 1714 Peter gave legal recognition to this change; the distinction had no validity when he required all without exception to serve. The nobles had grown lax in meeting this obligation, but service was the driving principle of Peter's life, and he exacted it from his subjects on a scale more extensive and onerous than his predecessors had ever expected.

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