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Barbarian or Transformer?


Any critical assessment of Peter’s prodigious labors invariably entails a value judgment about the effects and nature of his transformation. Was it beneficial or destructive to Russia’s interests? Did it signify real progress or was obstructive to genuine and urgently needed change? The intellectual and political controversy over Peter’s legacy has been raging for nearly two centuries and shows no signs of abating. Its two opposite extremes may be expressed with the help of the following contrasting propositions: (1) ‘Peter’s Reform brought Russians into the fold of the world humanity’: (2) ‘Peter’s aping of Western ways marked the beginning Russia’s descent into barbarity’. 

Peter the Great

Peter was first given the credit for being a Great Transformer in the positive sense by a group of Russian nineteenth-century intellectuals known as the ‘Westernizers’. The Russian philosopher Peter Chaadaev, for example, argued that Peter found Russia as ‘only a blank page when he came to power, and with a strong hand he wrote on it Europe and Occident: from that time on we were part of Europe and of the Occident’.  The Russian historian Sergei Soloviev, too , maintained that: ‘No people have ever equaled the heroic feat performed by the Russians during the first quarter of the eighteenth century’.

The famous literary critic Vissarion Belinsky compared Peter to a god ‘who called us back to life, who blew a living soul into the body of ancient Russia, colossal, but sunk in a deadly torpor’.  The Westernizing intellectuals generally lauded Peter’s attempt at Europeanizing Russia. But even in their midst there were some whose attitude to Peter was more complex  than simple unequivocal approbation. Some pointed out that, while Peter had introduced western influences, he had also developed  institutions  that would impede Russia’s future progress to a more democratic society along Western lines.

A predominantly negative view of Peter the reformer was developed  by the Slavophiles’ who  were the intellectual opponents of  the ‘Westernizers’. According to the Slavophiles, Peter’s reforms had permanently damaged the very fabric of traditional society by introducing alien ideas and institutions. They destroyed the harmonious unity of Russian society by creating  a chasm between the government and the people. By implementing the Westernizing reforms, the government had severed itself from its roots in the ‘Russian Land’. One of the chief ideologists of the Slavophiles, Konstantin Aksakov, observed: ‘The agents of the State, the serving class go over to the side of the State. The populace, the common people proper, continue to live by the old principles. The upheaval is accompanied by violence... Russia is split in two, into two capitals. On the one hand, the State with its foreign capital  of St Petersburg; and on the other, the Land, the people, with its Russian capital of Moscow ‘.  

Yet even the Slavophiles, who generally condemned Peter’s reforms, did not completely loose sight of certain positive sides of his transformation. Thus, Ivan Kireevsky regarded highly Peter’s efforts to promote enlightenment in Russia and thought that these: ‘... to a great extent justify the extremes to which he went.  Love of enlightenment was his passion. He saw it as Russia’s sole salvation, and Europe as its only source’.

The  agonizing ambivalence  towards Peter’s legacy, which was first so vividly revealed during the protracted and animated debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles a hundred and fifty years ago, has persisted in Russian social and political thought right into the twentieth century. Entirely negative evaluations of Peter’s modernization have been arrived at, for example, by such outstanding Russian thinkers as Nicholas Trubestkoy and Nicholas Berdyaev.

Statue of Peter I in Deptford, England. He visited its dockyard in 1698

According to Trubestkoy, Russia, as a result of the Westernization forced upon her by Peter the Great, lost her cultural identity and yet failed to assimilate properly the Western traditions. She thus ended up in a sort of a cultural cul-de-sac: ‘If before Peter the Great Russia and her culture could be considered almost the most gifted and fertile successor of Byzantium, then after Peter the Great, having taken the road of “Romano-Germanic” orientation, she found herself at the tail of European culture, in the backyard of civilization’.

The philosopher Berdyaev has been probably the strongest critic of Peter in the twentieth century. Berdyaev drew a direct parallel between Peter and the destructive impact of the communist experiment. The Petrine and Bolshevik Revolutions, he said showed: ‘the same barbarity, violence, forcible application of certain principles from above downwards, the same rupture of organic development and  repudiation of  tradition... the same desire sharply and radically to change the type of civilization’. The resemblance between the radicalism of the Petrine transformation and the Bolshevik methods of social engineering has been noted by the poet Maximilian Voloshin who in one if his poems has described Peter as ‘the first Bolshevik’.  

These negative perceptions contrast with views upholding Peter’s claim to greatness. Ivan Il’in, for instance, an outstanding twentieth century theoretician of Russian monarchism, has called Peter ‘the greatest of monarchs’ and asserted that : ‘Russia needed Peter the Great in order to discover and reveal her great power status (‘velikoderzhavie)’.

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