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Russia's First Reform Cycle


Competition with the advanced countries of the West has become one of the key factors in Russian history over the past three centuries. Ever since the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1721), Russian history has been punctuated by reforms induced by the Russian government’s efforts to catch up with and overtake its Western rivals. Peter’s transformation inaugurates the first great cycle of modernization, which lasted till the middle of the nineteenth century (from the 1690s to the 1850s). Its aim was to make Russia the equal of the other great European absolute monarchies that dominated the continent in the eighteenth century.  

Peter the Great

Peter’s Reform was launched in the period of early modern history. This was the dawn of what we now call “globalization”, when new geographical discoveries, more efficient means of travel and communication, the development of economic relations based on the market were beginning to bind the world into a single civilization. The elements of this new civilization – countries and continents – now actively interacted with one another as parts of a system.

In this new epoch, a nation’s economic or social backwardness and its inability to set up an effective system of government posed a real threat to the very sovereignty of the state. Increasingly, the government systems of more advanced countries provided models to be imitated and offered examples of desirable restructuring for their less developed neighbors.

The attempt to “catch up” with more developed countries is usually described as modernization. Since early modern history, the advanced countries of Western Europe and of the West in general have been the models for modernization. For this reason, the “catching up” phase of development is also referred to as Europeanization or westernization. Peter’s reform movement represents an important new departure in modern world history: it pioneered the process of modernization that was later to develop on a worldwide scale.

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The "Catching up" Cycles

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