Peter I of Russia was bestowed with the title ‘The Great’ in 1721 by Chancellor Golovkin. There are only three examples in European history of contemporaries being offered the same title: the Great Elector after he resurrected Brandenburg-Prussia from the Thirty Years War; Frederick the Great who turned Prussia into a European force and Catherine, who built on Peter’s progress, transforming Russia into the predominant power of Europe. Opinions as to whether Peter also deserves the title.’
Great’ has remained largely polarised. Lindey Hughes and Alex de Jonge argue that, on the whole, Peter does deserve the prestigious title. However, Anderson and Kliuchevsky disagree, saying that Peter was largely a favour. This essay will argue that Peter does, in some respects, deserve the title whereas in others he does not, based on an examination of the different factors that could make a monarch ‘Great’: the grandeur of royalty, large scale political changes, the quality of his domestic rule, his popularity, military achievements and whether his reputation lasted.
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The prestige of a monarch contributed significantly to whether he was considered ‘Great’ or not. This can be applied to Louis XIV, who elevated his image by creating a fabulous court at Versailles and by adopting the motifs “le roi Soleil” (sun king) and ‘NEC Pluribus impar’ (not equal to many) to describe himself. This meant that many contemporaries and successors considered him ‘Great.’ In the early part of his reign, Peter’s court was bare and was only used for functional, practical reasons. After he visited the West, particularly the Great Embassy, Peter began to change his image and Russia. However, his emphasis on the practical importance of things over culture remained, as his most impressive building, constructed by Tressini, housed the senate and colleges, not the court.
However, he also built palaces, such as Peterhof, which became known as the ‘Versailles of Russia.’ Peter also moulded himself an impressive image in a very different way to Louis. Under Peter, Russia broke free from the constraints of his court by building a new capital, St Petersburg. Peter became known as being bold by taking the unprecedented step of building his new capital at the geographical edge of his dominions on territory which had only just been annexed. Under Peter, there were significant political upheavals. Anderson maintains that these fell well short of Lenin, arguing that Peter had no clear ‘ideology, no articulated system of general ideas to guide his actions.’ Conversely, the poet Pushkin disagrees, stating that Peter had deliberately ‘sowed enlightenment’.
Like many ‘enlightened’ monarchs, Peter believed in the power of the state over the individual. If he never used Frederick the Great’s phrase ‘the first servant of the state,’ he came very close to it when he struck out ‘the interests of his Tsarist Majestry’ from a draft decree and replaced it with ‘the interests of the state’ as a proper object of a soldier’s loyalty. However, the statement of Peter being an enlightened monarch must be with caution. Some argue the Enlightenment as not having met him. Many of his reforms were generally introduced due to immediate necessity rather than as part of a rational plan.
Some regarded the popularity of a monarch as a prerequisite for being given the title ‘Great.’ Peter recognized that he lacked this, saying to a foreign ambassador, ‘I am represented as a cruel tyrant.’ Traditional clergy saw Peter as an anti-Christ, while in the church in general, there was distrust of his anti-clerical measures, secularization and westernization program. The traditional nobility was alienated by the introduction of state service, the cost of war with Sweden, and the apparent westernization. Peasants revolted against the extra tax burdens imposed upon them and the depression of their social status. Close allies, such as his economic adviser Ivan Pososhov, saw Peter as a figure struggling against ingrained backwardness and suspicion.
Many rulers have been regarded as ‘Great’ throughout history because of their military genius – Alexander the Great, for example. Peter, on the other hand, was no tactical master. He lacked the timing and finesse that Napoleon demonstrated at Austerlitz (1805). Nor did he come up with new tactics, unlike Gustavus Adolphus’s linear formation at Breitenfeld (1632) or the oblique attack which enabled Frederick the Great to win at Leuthen in 1757. However, it must be noted that he did have the ability to survive military defeat—his calculated withdrawal before Charles XII, culminating in his decisive victory at Poltava (1709).
One can also be referred to as ‘Great’ because of significant territorial aggrandizement. The regions annexed by Peter I of Russia were not extensive, amounting to the Baltic Provinces, the Southern shore of the Caspian, and Kamchatka’s remote peninsula. However, like Frederick the Great’s conquest of Silesia, these were to shape the future of Russia. This is particularly true of the Baltic provinces. They were closer to Europe than the rest of Russia and were key in his attempts to westernize the state, providing him with land for his new capital, St Petersburg, ‘The Window to the West.’ These regions also meant that Russia now had access to all-season ports, increasing their naval and commercial ability.
The Baltic States were also notoriously strong agriculturally; this was a huge bonus to Russia. Lastly, Peter’s gain of the Baltic also resulted in the demise of Russia’s traditional enemy, Sweden. Lastly, a monarch’s “greatness” can be found by assessing whether their reputation lasted after their death. At first, he was the subject of a cult proliferated by Feofan Prokopovich and later figures, including Catherine the Great. Then, during the nineteenth century, views began to polarise. He was either the source of all Russian progress or a destroyer of tradition and culture.
During the twentieth century, views became even more ambivalent; he was portrayed on the one hand as the ultimate representative of the exploitative western system and on the other as one of the great heroes of Russian history who personally worked alongside his compatriots. Therefore, the impact of Peter the Great on Russian society and imagination is unbroken, his only serious rival being Lenin. Like Peter, Lenin’s reputation was launched by the creation of a personality cult. But Lenin’s cult was destroyed by the collapse of the ideology to which it was tied. Peter has now re-emerged as the key figure in Russian history, symbolized in 1991 by the restoration to Leningrad of its original name, St Petersburg.