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To What Extent Was Russia Modernised During the Personal Reign of Peter the Great? (1693-1725)

Over the years, many historians have debated over whether or not Peter the Great was able to modernize Russia, some like Shcherbatov argue that “without Peter, Russia would have needed another two hundred years to reach its current level of developments” or if he just simply conducted enough reforms which allowed for the other Russian Emperors to modernize Russia. For us to say that Peter was able to modernize Russia it would mean that Russia would have to have similar standards of education and culture to that of other European powers. This lead to Peter conducting many reforms in administration, economy, education, church, cultural aspects of Russia, finance and the military. In this essay, I will be investigating to what extent did Peter reform these areas and then I shall come to a conclusion on to what extent I believe Peter the Great was able to modernize his reign.

Peter the Great had a very different childhood from that of previous Tsars before him. He grew up in the German province of Preobrazhenskoy this had a great effect on how he was as a leader of Russia, it was here that he saw the importance of education and even mocked the church in the drunken synod. But another effect of living in this area of Russia was the great influence from the west. This made Peter a modern thinking man for the age, growing up in Preobrazhenskoy allowed him to see that rank wasn’t that important to running a country and started to believe that those who were good at their jobs were the ones who should be helping him not only win battles but also help him govern the country. It could be argued that if Peter had not grown up in this area of Russia he may not have wanted to push as many reforms as he did on such a wide area of issues.

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Peter investigated the west himself and travelled Europe during the early years of his reign as Tsar of Russia. He then started to disregard the traditional Russian dress and adopted western clothes from 1690; this is the opposite of what his father Alexis had done where he banned Germanic clothing to detect Germans in church services. This leads the nobility within the courts to also adopt westernized clothing as they believed it would please Peter. However, this small reform was not adopted across the whole of Russia. The main reason for this was that Peter also adopted the western fashion of being clean-shaven, the Russian Orthodox Church says that if men allow their beards to grow they look more like Jesus and therefore devoted to God, they also believed that by shaving off your beard you were quite feminine. To try and get the Russian people to conform to this reform Peter began to cut off men’s beards himself and when this too also proved to be ineffective he introduced a bead and coat tax to encourage men to become clean-shaven and to wear more westernized clothes.

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Peter wanted to change how the Russians looked as they were seen as “backwards” and “barbaric” by the rest of Europe. To try and convince the Russian people to become more modernized he published books such as “the honourable mirror of youth”. These books showed the Russian people how to act in a civilized way. There were two problems with this policy, one was that the Russian people did not believe that they were barbaric and that there was no need for them to change how they were, and another was that the vast majority of the population couldn’t read so the books were useful. Another way Peter promoted the idea of looking western was through the use of propaganda paintings where he would always be seen as clean-shaven and with a more westernized style of clothing. It was supposed to show to other European leaders that Peter was not the barbarian they believed him or Russia to be and it was meant to show the Russian people that this was the best way forward for the Russian people even if it felt Peter

This links to Peters’s reforms on education, Lindsey Hughes comments on education in Russia saying that “at the begging of Peters reign, the learning gap was probably the widest”. This quote shows us how poor education was prior to Peters’s reign, Hughes also says that not only was the worst education in the west but it was also worse than some of its eastern countries. Peter attempted to reform education on several occasions. His first attempt was in 1701 when Peter established the Moscow School of Mathematical Science and Navigation. With the help of foreigners, this school was created. Many Russians including those from old noble families were highly against this as traditionally the Russians did not like the help of foreigners. Another reform came in 1715; Peter then moved the Mathematical Science and Navigation to Moscow where the name was then changed to the “Naval Academy. The people who then came out of these schools went on to become sailors engineers, architects some graduates went on to teach in the provinces. In 1721; these academy’s then expanded and diocese schools were then set up and 42 schools in 6 years.

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These schools were supposed to encourage the normal people of Russia to get an education. However there were problems with this, most of the academies were mostly filled with children from Russian noble families and even then the families were not that keen on sending their children to these academies, a problem facing the diocese schools was that the peasants were not prepared to send their children to these schools as they thought it was a waste of time sending their children to them when they would only ever be peasants themselves. Peter also aimed to improve people’s basic maths and literacy with those who live in poorer social backgrounds. There were once again issues with the reforms Peter tried to implement as he introduced in 1706 the Russian grammar book. However, more problems faced the schools as the institutions were badly funded and had a lack of teachers which meant most of the teachers were in fact foreigners. In the case of education, I would say that Peter did make some successful reforms to the education systems however these were not enough to modernize the Russian education system.

One of Peters’s biggest achievements in terms of culture was the building of St Petersburg. Peters’s window on the west became a symbol of civilized society and looked very western as Peter took great influences from all over the world, Marshall says that “foreign influence was everywhere” when building St Petersburg. The construction of St Petersburg took place in 1703, A St Petersburg is built in a strategic place being close to the river Narva allowing Peter access to the Baltic sea which allowed him to establish new trade routes and encourage merchants to come and live in St Petersburg. As I stated previously Peter took many influences from across Europe in the design of St Petersburg, churches were based upon ones in London and the townhouses Peter wanted his nobility to build were based upon merchant houses Peter had seen on his travels in Amsterdam. Peter bought in the Italian architect Domenico Trezzini who had a great experience in building on marshland which St Petersburg was built upon.

During construction, Trezzini split the workers (all of whom were recruited through the provinces and were made to work on building St Petersburg) into sections and they, in turn, worked on one section of St Petersburg. From 1714 onwards any worker outside of St Petersburg was not allowed to use stone, Peter did this to encourage masons to come and live and work in St Petersburg which, would give Peter more skilled workers and then would lead to St Petersburg being completed quicker. The biggest reasoning as to why St Petersburg is a crucial factor when looking at how far Peter modernized Russia is that it Peters “Window on the west” because a rival to other European cities of culture such as Paris. It became a centre for art in Russia and after Peters’s reign, Catherine the Great turns St Petersburg into one of the cultural capitals of the world.

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The biggest change in terms of reform when investigating to what extent did Peter modernize Russia is the reforms he made to the church. Religion was important to any Tsar as it meant communication to his people as religion was a prominent aspect in everyone’s lives. It was the spiritual counterpart of the Tsar. The patriarch who was the head of the Orthodox church had a great amount of influence to which, Peter felt some people, especially those who did not like his westernized ideas would follow the views of the traditional patriarch and ignore Peters’s wants and aims. The patriarch was also incredibly wealthy as he looked after nine thousand peasants’ houses which were built on church land. Peter felts angry that many people joined monasteries to avoid their compulsory military service. At the end of 1701 Peter put forward the reform that monks could only live on an allowance of 10 roubles per year this came about not only because of many people using this a loophole as too avoid joining the army but also because of the drunken state of many of these monks.

In 1709 Peter decreed that all bishops had a limited income which meant they could only look after their households and no more. This meant Peter now had full control of the church. Peters also controlled through “The Sub junction of the Church to the State”. In 1700mthe old patriarch died to further establish his power Peter appointed Stefan Yavorski as an “acting” patriarch, this allowed Peter to reduce the control of the patriarch as anything which is acting has considerably less power than those who actually were patriarch. To further put reforms further in 1716 Peter said that all new bishops must take an oath to say that they promised not to interfere.

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To What Extent Was Russia Modernised During the Personal Reign of Peter the Great? (1693-1725). (2021, May 30). Retrieved August 15, 2022, from