Throughout the course of known history, it has always been the case that the implementation of various innovations in particular country’s socio-political, cultural and scientific life, would initially be met with a fierce resistance, on the part of self-proclaimed ‘guardians of tradition’.
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Nevertheless, it had always proven to be only the matter of very short time, before such resistance would be subdued. In this paper, we will aim to substantiate the validity of an earlier statement, by reflecting upon the specifics of how Peter the Great went about modernizing Russia through 1689-1725.
Within the matter of few years, after having ascended to Russia’s throne in 1689, Peter had made it clear to Russian boyars (nobles) and to Orthodox Church’s clergymen that struggling with Russia’s social and cultural backwardness represented his life’s foremost priority.
And, Peter’s activities throughout his early tsardom, leave few doubts as to the fact that it was namely the undisputed dominance of Orthodox Church in country’s socio-political life, which he perceived as the actual root of Russia’s backwardness.
For example, in 1692, Peter parodied the functioning of Orthodox Church by establishing a so-called ‘Vseshuteishyi, Vsepyaneishyi I Sumasbrodneishyi Sobor’ (Most Drunken Council of Fools and Jesters) – a carnivalesque mockery of Church’s High Council, which was perceived by Peter’s contemporaries as the clear proof of his sinful-mindedness.
Yet, as many historical studies on the subject matter indicate, there was nothing new about drunken orgies that occurred in times of Peter Sobor’s gatherings – these orgies used to be an essential part of Orthodox clergymen’s lives, just as it was the case with their Catholic counterparts.1
By establishing his Synod of Fools and Jesters, Peter simply exposed Church’s dirty laundry – hence, contributing to the establishment of initial preconditions for Russia’s rapid transformation from essentially a barbaric little principality, to one of the world’s greatest empires.
Apparently, Peter was perfectly aware of a simple fact that the concepts of ‘tradition’ and ‘spirituality’ are innately counter-productive, for as long as the process of facilitating cultural progress is being concerned. Being at the time one of Russia’s only few intellectuals, Peter knew well that only science provides people with practically valid answers to life’s dilemmas.
This why, upon having decided to set Russia upon the course of progress, Peter realized that he had no choice but to travel to Europe, in order to study a variety of different sciences, such as shipbuilding, mathematics, philosophy, ethics, etc.
In its turn, this explains why Peter’s ‘Grand Embassy’ to Europe lasted for an year – during the course of this time, Peter and his closest associates never ceased studying and even indulging in physical labor on full-time basis.
It is not by a pure accident that Peter’s contemporaries used to refer to young Russian Tsar as ‘carpenter on the throne’ – so strong was his desire to turn Russia into civilized country that he did not mind working himself to exhaustion at Zaandam and Deptford’s shipbuilding yards as a commoner.2
Nevertheless, whatever the ironically it might sound – it was exactly to due to Peter being endowed with rationale-driven intellect and due to his willingness to work hard, in order to be able to benefit Russia, that the number of Russians began to perceive him as ‘evildoer’.
Given the fact that Orthodox Church have traditionally strived to discourage people from taking an active stance in life, it comes as no surprise that in 17th-18th century’s many Russians seriously believed that material riches should just fall out of sky, for as long as one prays hard enough. This explains why these people considered Peter’s hardworking qualities as the proof of his ‘ungodliness’.
After having returned to Russia in 1698, in order to take care of streltsys’ rebellion, instigated by overly-traditional princess Sophia, Peter had dealt with rebellions rather decisively – eight hundred of them were executed in the center of Moscow, within the a matter of days. The rumors about Peter’s cruelty began to spread throughout the Russia.
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However, it is not the fact that Peter was a cruel individual with rather short temper, which had won him a strong disfavor with the great number of Russians, while he was on the throne.
The real reason why, throughout Peter’s reign, people continued to revolt against implementation of his progressive innovations, in the fields of national defense, industry, trade, tax system, state administration and education, was their mental primitiveness.
Russian boyars and high-ranking members of Orthodox Church’s clergy were aware of the fact that, if Peter was allowed to proceed with modernizing Russia unopposed, it will only be the matter of short time, before their parasitic mode of existence would end.
It goes without saying, of course, that while articulating their grievances against Peter, these people did not act in intellectually honest matter – instead of admitting that Peter’s reforms simply threatened their bellyful idleness, they wanted to represent these reforms as such that undermined Russia’s ‘spiritual foundations’.
According to Slavophiles, Peter’s reforms caused a great deal of damage to Russia’s natural path of development, as in their eyes, this path was inconsistent with the ways of the West.3
In other words, there was absolutely no rationale behind some traditionally-minded Russians’ unwillingness to accept Peter’s reforms, just as today there is no rationale behind some Muslim immigrants’ refusal to live by Western secular laws, after having relocated to Western countries.
What gives Peter a huge credit is that, even as far back as at the end of 17th century, he had shown the whole world of what represents the best way to deal with intellectually inflexible people’s ‘traditionalist’ prejudices – if they want to proceed with denying the light of civilization, let them be taxed.
There is a famous story of how Peter the Great addressed the issue of Russian boyars refusing to take baths, to wear Western costumes and to shave off their flea-ridden beards. Peter simply issued a decree, according to which, those who wanted to stick to ‘traditional values’ had to pay taxes.
Bearded Russians were given a few weeks of time to whether find necessary sum of hundred rubles, in order to be able to retain their beards for a lifetime, or to dispose of their beards altogether. Those who could not afford paying that much but still wanted to maintain their barbaric appearance, had a option to pay for keeping their beards on annual and monthly basis.4
As practice showed, Russians’ willingness to pay taxes, in order to be able to retain their beards, did not last for too long, even though initially, ‘traditionalists’ used to threaten Peter with ‘God’s vengeance’ for his ‘unholy’ intention of popularize the notion of personal hygiene among them.
The ‘God’s vengeance’ also did not fall upon Peter, on account of his other ‘unholy’ deeds, such as collecting Church’s bells, and making cannons out of them, adopting Julian calendar, subjecting Church’s authority to the secular authority of the state, creating Russia’s Navy out of nothing, introducing the principle of draft for sustaining Russian Army of 210.000.000 strong at all times, establishing Russia’s first newspaper Vedomosti (News), building the great city of Petersburg as Russia’s new capital, etc.5
Nowadays, some historians suggest that, in order for just about anyone to be able to even partially grasp the extent of Peter’s contribution to the process of building and civilizing Russian Empire, he or she would have to take a stroll along this city’s streets.6
Just as any political figure of a great historical significance, Peter used to be focused on fulfilling long-term objectives, which is why it comes as not a particular surprise that many of his simple-minded contemporaries did not fully appreciate the role he was playing in the history of Russia. Just as Napoleon, Peter the Great believed in secularization and modernization as the only pathways towards building a better society.
Just as Napoleon, he had no choice but simply to crash those who resisted him, due to their intellectual backwardness. And, just as it was the case with Napoleon, who never ceased being perceived as an ideal ruler by famous intellectuals of the era, such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Thomas Jefferson, the legacy of Peter the Great’s never ceased inspiring Russian intellectuals, well after his death.7
For example, Peter’s vision of Russia as a modern European state was shared by such Russia’s renowned scientists as Lomonosov and Tatischev. In their turn, they strived to communicate this vision to Peter’s successors on the throne.8
Thus, just as we have stated earlier, the only reason why certain groups in Russia did revolt against Peter the Great’s policies, is that the representatives of these groups could never appreciate the sheer significance of Peter, as a historical figure. They wanted to continue living in patriarchic society, unaffected by the rapid pace of cultural and scientific progress that was taking place in Europe.
They wanted to continue professing ‘traditional values’ (read – prejudices), as if outside world did not even exist. The closer analysis of these people’s stance, in regards to Peter’s reforms, reveals an undeniable fact that it was namely their religious fanaticism, which added to the strength of their resolution to defy Peter the Great.
For example, after the functioning of Russian Orthodox Church was reformed by Peter’s adoption of Julian calendar, it resulted in creation of so-called Movement of Raskolniks, the affiliates of which would go as far as referring to their Tsar as the ‘Son of Satan’.
Just as today’s Jehovah Witnesses, Raskolnics used to indulge into social withdrawal, in full sense of this word. They refused to pay taxes, to serve in the army, to take part in administering country and to obey even the basic secular laws.9 There used to be whole villages of these fanatics, who would rather burn themselves, then criss-crossing their foreheads with three fingers instead of two, as they were accustomed to.
Thanks to Peter the Great though, these people did not succeed with their agenda of keeping Russia in the state of primeval savagery. Despite the fact that there were very many controversial aspects to Peter’s reforms, the laws of history dialectically predetermined his triumph over the enemies.
Anemone, Anthony “The Monsters of Peter the Great: The Culture of the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera in the Eighteenth Century.” The Slavic and East European Journal 44.4 (2000): 583-602.
Burbank, Jane & Ransel, David. Imperial Russia: New Histories for the Empire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Kamenskii, Alex & Griffiths, David. The Russian Empire in the Eighteenth Century: Searching for a Place in the World. Armonk, N.Y. : ME Sharpe, Inc., 1997.
Kohn, Hans “Napoleon and the Age of Nationalism.” The Journal of Modern History 22.1 (1950): 21-37
Lewitter, Lucjan “Peter the Great and the Modern World.” History Today 35.2 (1985):16-23.
Mackay, Charles. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions. London: Richard Bentley, 1841.
Raeff, Marc “The Bureaucratic Phenomena of Imperial Russia, 1700-1905.” The American Historical Review 84.2 (1979): 399-411.
Raleigh, Donald & Iskenderov, Akhmed. The Emperors and Empresses of Russia: Rediscovering the Romanovs. New Russian History. Armonk, N.Y.: ME Sharpe, Inc., 1996.
Waliszewski, Kazimierz. Peter the Great. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1897 (1969).
1 Anthony Anemone, “The Monsters of Peter the Great: The Culture of the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera in the Eighteenth Century,” The Slavic and East European Journal 44.4 (2000): 591.
2 Lucjan Lewitter, “Peter the Great and the Modern World.” History Today 35.2 (1985):18.
3 Donald Raleigh & Akhmed Iskenderov, The Emperors and Empresses of Russia: Rediscovering the Romanovs. (Armonk, N.Y.: ME Sharpe, Inc., 1996) 4.
4 Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions. (London: Richard Bentley, 1841) 232.
5 Marc Raeff “The Bureaucratic Phenomena of Imperial Russia, 1700-1905,” The American Historical Review 84.2 (1979): 400.
6 Alex Kamenskii & David Griffiths, The Russian Empire in the Eighteenth Century: Searching for a Place in the World. (Armonk, N.Y.: ME Sharpe, Inc., 1997) 77.
7 Hans Kohn “Napoleon and the Age of Nationalism,” The Journal of Modern History 22.1 (1950): 21-37.
8 Jane Burbank & David Ransel, Imperial Russia: New Histories for the Empire. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) 50.
9 Kazimierz Waliszewski, Peter the Great. (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1897/1969) 159.