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Peter the Great of Russia

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Peter (I) the great lived between 1672 and 1725. He became a Russian Tsar in 1682 after the passing away of Tsar Feodor III who happened to be his half brother. Despite rising to the position of power this early, he only assumed full government responsibility in 1689. He, Peter the great, believed that westernization was synonymous with modernization. During his first years of assuming power he understood that traditional and conservative forces were great hindrances to implementation of reforms. With this understanding, Peter felt that ruthless reforms were necessary if Russia had to be saved from its backwardness. Today, this Tsar is described as barbaric and controversial yet as a Tsar, he helped in making Russia move great strides towards modernization. By the time of His death, he had accomplished a lot: Russia had become a force to reckon with not only in Eastern Europe but in the whole of the European continent.

Previous Russian regimes concentrated on improving the military while neglecting other sectors of the society. Peter the Great was to distinguish himself from other Tsars that had preceded him. He realized the crucial role that the military played in protecting Russia from the Swedish and the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, even with this understanding, Peter was never going to give all his attention towards strengthening the military alone. He focused on all that was part of Russia. His reforms touched almost each and every aspect of the people of Russia.

Like everyone else in Eastern Europe he instituted reforms that affected military operations. Other reforms that are associated with Peter (I) affected political, social, religious, bureaucracy, and economic structures. All reforms that were made during his reign can largely be attributed to his relations allies from Western Europe. It is evident that this ruler became the first Russian ruler to visit Western Europe. During his tour to London, Netherlands and the rest of European continent, he learned a lot and made great friends who later became his advisors. Patrick Gordon, a Scottish adventurer is one of such allies. This ally helped him reorganize the obsolete Russian military.

From his allies, Peter aimed at borrowing practical skills and techniques that would move Russia as a nation forward as well as strengthening his rule. With this Tsar, theory and philosophy had no place. Some of the techniques that this ruler borrowed from Western Europe are those that had to do with taxation and revenue collection. At first, new taxation policies and rules were introduced in addition to those that already existed. His financial advisor, Alexis Kurbatov, advised that initially new taxes would cause misery and hardships to the people of Russia, but benefits would be reaped later.

The Tsar’s participation in the “Northern War” had drained most of the resources and wealth that he had inherited from his predecessors. A solution, thus, to restore the country to a state of financial stability and solvency was a needed. Increased taxation through introduction of new taxation policies was thus deemed necessary. This financial reform spearheaded by Peter’s financial advisor, Kurbatov, is said to have given mixed results. The reforms made led to Russia to be described as half European and half Russian nation.

Economy wise, there are a number of reforms that Peter and his advisors spearheaded. During his trip to London, Peter had learned great mercantilist theories that he later introduced into his territory. His mercantilist theories were applied in opening up the domestic economy so that Russia could trade with the west. Weight was placed on developing industries that other rulers had neglected. Nations like Sweden and Britain were already performing excellently as far as industrialization was concerned. Peter felt that there was no reason why Russia could not be industrialized as other countries. In collaboration with his advisors’ he introduced reforms that transformed mining and other industries that were concerned with manufacture of military equipments like canoes.

His plan to reform the Russian industrial sector faced challenges mainly because he had opened his territorial economy to western trade. Russia’s trading partners from the west and the east who Peter had opened trade to were already far ahead in terms of industrialization. This meant that Russian industries could not effectively compete with those of her trading partners. Due this fact, industrial protective measures were put in place with an aim to protect “infant” Russian industries. Protection, however, was only necessary for a few years since the economy was performing pretty well and foreign trade flourished. All in all, Peter’s dream to make Russia an industrialized economy and improve foreign trade relations were realized long before his death thanks to the advice from his advisors.

Peter took a bold step that was aimed at eliminating monarchies. He believed that anyone ought to occupy any rank not because they belonged to certain families, but because they had merited doing that.  Occupancy of any civil servants office was thus open to any person who had the skills to carry out the duties that went with a certain office. To make this possible, Peter introduced the table of ranks for government and military officers. With the table of ranks, any one would occupy any rank. Although the institution of serfdom remained, table of ranks served its purpose efficiently. Peasants and their subjects now had relatively significant impact in the running of the military and the civil service.

With these changes, the proportion of the Russian population living in urban areas swiftly rose to more than 35%. Before Peter assumed power, less than 20% of the total Russian population was living in the rural areas. Peter had made a commitment that, like other European nations, more than one third of the total population would move far away from the farms into the cities. The mass movement of the population to the urban areas provided much needed labor for the growing industries. Further, the population not only offered cheap labor for the new industries but also offered ready market for industrial products that could not shipped to other countries.

In the XVII century, religion played a significant role in the lives of not only Russians but on the lives of each and every person in Europe. The Orthodox Church was the mainstream church at the time in Russia and its effects were felt all over the country. Peter realized that he needed to consolidate power from all facets and so he had to define a way that would trim powers that the church had at the time. Orthodox Church’s affairs were placed under a government department and the patriarchate was abolished. Peter went ahead and organized introduction of technical schools especially in the Urban areas. His bet was that these schools would provide the much needed skills for all those who served in government institutions and in the military.

During his tour to London, he had realized that the skills and technical knowledge possessed by those who served in the army or in the government could not compare with that of Russia. Technical schools, he thought, would help bring at par the level of skills of Russians and others from Eastern Europe (especially Poland and Sweden) and the west. His ideals lived up to their promise and to his surprise, military skills and competence surpassed those of Sweden and Turkey. In the same vein, Peter is praised for the role that he played in abolishing the Old Russian calendar in favor of a more modern Julian calendar. In addition, this Tsar is commended for having simplified, the rather ambiguous and difficult to comprehend, Russian alphabet.

Before the Peter (I) became Russian Tsar, the Russian system of government was antiquated compared to those of other Eastern and Western European countries. The Russian administrative system was divided into units that were referred uyezds. These units mostly comprised of cities and their surrounding environs. It is reported that this administrative system resulted to uneven distribution of population with some areas being sparsely populated and others being extremely densely populated. After coming into power, Peter abolished the uyezds and replaced them with guberniyas. In total, there were eight Guberniyas which were named: Azov, Archangelgorod, Ingermanland, Kaza, Kiev, Moscow and Serbia.

All the 8 admisnistrative units were established in 1708. Five years later (1713), Guberniyas were abolished and replacehd with Landrats. In 1719, Peter made yet another decree that led to abolition of Lindrats. These were replaced with other units called the Collegia. In making all these changes, Peter hoped to bring at par Russia’s administrative system with those of other European nations that were doing well politically, economically and socially. By introducing the Collegia, he achieved the objective of having administrative units similar to the provinces of Sweden. With these systems of administration, it was emphasized that more politically important areas receive greater autonomy while politically insignificant areas remained under full control of the central government.  

In social circles, Peter also made great reforms that he is still remembered for. Historical literature is replete with evidence indicating that for many centuries, Russian women remained secluded from public life. It was mandatory that all women had to wear clothing that covered all parts of their bodies except the eyes. Russian women of pre-Peter regimes can be compared with Arab women of the modern world.  It is said that Peters trip to other European countries between 1697 and 1698 is said to have opened his eyes. When he returned to Moscow, his thoughts of westernization were equated with modernity. He abolished the idea of women having to wear clothing that covered almost every part of their bodies. He argued that women could dress as they wished. According to him, Russian women were not any different from those of London. It is from this point that women in Russia were allowed to wear short skirts just as other women from other parts of Europe. Moreover, Peter ordered that women be allowed to pursue education just as their male counterparts. He felt that women also needed to be enlightened if at all Russia was to move forward.

Historians argue that although Peter the Great accomplished a lot during his reign, the most important and notable achievement that can be attributed to this ruler is the establishment of St Petersburg. This city was captured from the Swedes in 1703 and became the Russia’s capital city about ten years later (1713). The city served as a “European trade window”. It served as a trade hub for Russia and other neighboring countries. As a city, St Petersburg played an important role in propping up the Russian economy.

More than any other city in Russia, this city brought in foreign exchange and helped the country in improving balance of payments. Apart from trade, the city served as an educational and administrative center. Many education institutions ranging from primary to tertiary institutions of learning were established. Other cities were later established during Peter’s reign but none of these can match the development record and historical importance of St Petersburg. The momentum that was started in the 18th century has been maintained to date. Today, the city is a commercial center that largely deals with petroleum gas, electronic and many kinds of trade merchandise. Many universities and churches have also been added to the number that was initially established during Peter’s rule.

Peter is said to have drawn a lot of his inspiration from his tour of Europe. However, Peter believed that although it was paramount to imitate what other European nations had done, domestic and original ideas were needed in order to move the country forward. To start with, Peter needed to increase the number of engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs to serve in the civil service. Domestically available skilled professionals to train local population were available only in small numbers. Foreigners had to be hired to fill positions that required skills that were unavailable locally. Over time, Peter was able to develop a pool of professionals who could be relied upon to serve efficiently in the army and in the government. Before his rule, Peter’s predecessors relied heavily on foreigners, but this was to change for good.

Apart from placing a lot of emphasis on the industrial sector of Russia, Peter the great recognized the role that the agricultural sector played in his nation’s economy. When he rose to the position of Tsar, Peter instituted land tenure reforms that he hoped would increase productivity. Landlords were given more importance while peasants were made to hold insignificant positions in the society. While most of Peter’s reforms pushed through excellently producing excellent results as planned, the agricultural policy failed to achieve its objective. Instead, this land tenure policy was a total failure. The policy served its purpose only in the short run. In the long run, peasants experienced a lot of misery and hardships. Poor became poorer while rich landlords continued to get rich. As a matter of fact, Peter’s land policy was a setback to his reforms.

What is recorded about Peter’s personality is that he was a man of tough stature and ruthless. Some of the reforms that he implemented immediately when he came to power were meant to send signals that he was a monarch unlike others. He was a person who had to make his presence felt not only by the peasants but also by the nobles. In his reform plan, he began by targeting boyars. These were nobles whose beard was left untrimmed and sometimes it could sweep the ground. Peter went ahead and ordered that boyars cut short their beards. Apart from cutting their beards, the Tsar insisted that they also cut short long sleeves which for a long time were part of their fashion and symbol of identity.

Boyars were an unlucky lot because even reforms that were later to be introduced (specifically table of ranks) affected them directly. The table of ranks was such that any rank that one held in the government was earned through merit but not by birth. In this way, all noble men were compelled to work not for their self interests but for the interests of the state. In the long run, this reform served both Peter’s selfish purpose and national purpose. It must be noted that Peter had instituted this reform with an aim of making every person in Russia (noble or otherwise) subordinate to him. Nationally, the overall economic production increased with the noble men being accredited for contributing a significant proportion of more than 8%.

As a young man, Peter had realized that strong armies and excellent knowledge in sciences were correlated. His trip to western European countries had actually confirmed his hypothesis. In his plans, he wanted to create an army that would be a force to reckon with all over Europe. However, lack of skills and proper education had made the Russian army obsolete and so Peter realized that serious reforms in the science and education sectors were a necessity. In 1701, the Tsar founded the school of mathematics and navigation based in Moscow. This school, however, experienced staff shortage. Instructors had to be hired from abroad and specifically from Britain.  

In this particular year (1701) more schools were for languages and artillery were founded in Moscow and other big Russian cities. Seven years down the line, the Russian administration under the guidance of Peter and his trusted advisors founded the school of medicine. Later, in 1712 an engineering school was founded. By the year 1724 more than thirty maths schools had been established in almost all administrative units. Before Peter passed away, Science school was opened but this one also was faced with the problem of staff shortage. This meant that the school of science had to be run by foreigners from other European countries.

During the same era of founding schools, it was Peter’s administration thought that it was only wise to found a newspaper for the educated Russian population. The name of the first Russian newspaper was Vedomosti and was established in 1703. Apart from reading newspapers, Peter encouraged young countrymen to make trips to Western Europe and learn how other nations were faring. He believed that his nation was way too backward compared to other neighbors and trading partners and so it was only a good idea if young men from Russia could take their time to visit other European countries and come back with ideas that could move his .nation forward.

Peter is said to have been obsessed with ideas of westernizing Russia. As already slightly put elsewhere in the paper, to Peter, westernization and modernization were synonymous terms. This fact was noticed by the way St Petersburg was designed. Almost every aspect of the city was European. The name “burg” itself is a German name referring to a town while a Russian name meant for the same is “gorod”. The city’s buildings were designed to resemble those of other European nations of Roman and Greek empire with an occasional onion dome shape at the top. Apart from these, the nobles’ language and the language of the courts were eventuallychanged to French.

In wrapping up, it must be admitted that what sets Peter the Great apart from his predecessors is the number of reforms that were implemented under rule. As a person, he is said to have been a tough in most of his aspects. He was 6’8” (2.04metres) tall and unlike all other tsars who came before him, he always engaged in physical labor. After assuming power and making trips to Western Europe, he actually realized that his nation was too backward and so ruthless reforms were necessary. He crushed any element that stood in his way of reforms.

It is reported that in addition to executing his son Alexei, he ordered 1200 men to be brutally tortured before being executed in public. His cruelty notwithstanding, Peter is recognized for having helped Russia move forward to an extent of performing better than some European countries and being at par with others. His greatest achievements include domestic administrative reforms that introduced colleges similar to those of Sweden. Many industries (ship making, mining, textile and so on) were founded during his reign. It is also during his term that Schools of medicine, science, maths, artillery and language were established. Other reforms include: restructuring of the military, introduction of table of ranks, introduction of Julian calendar and freedom of dressing for women.

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