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Uncertain Legacy


Many of Peter’s critics and admirers had, of course, their own political axes to grind, which helps to explain to some extent the prevalence of either extremely negative or overwhelmingly positive assessments of what Peter did to Russia. There have always been commentators, however, who tried to bridge the gulf between the two irreconcilable poles of judgment and offer a more balanced and neutral view of Peter’s achievement. The nineteenth century critic Dmitri Pisarev, for example, tried to stay above the fray between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles by contending  that: ‘If indeed Peter overset anything, then he overset only what was weak and rotten, what would have collapsed of its own accord. Both  the Slavophiles and the Westernizers overestimate the significance of Peter’s achievement; the former see him as a corrupter of  popular life, the latter, as a sort of a Samson, who destroyed the wall separating Russia from Europe... Peter’s  work is not at all as pregnant with historic consequences, as it seems to his enthusiastic admirers and  hardened opponents’. 

The "Bronze Horseman" monument to Peter in St. Petersburg

The prominent historian Sergei Platonov, too, denied Peter the title of a royal revolutionary, arguing that there was no radical break in political, economic or social development under Peter: ‘Was his activity traditional, or did it represent a sharp and sudden revolution in the life of the Muscovite state, for which the country  was entirely unprepared?   The answer is quite clear.  Peter’s reforms were not a revolution, either in their substance or  their results.  Peter was not a ‘Royal Revolutionary’, as he is sometimes called’. In Platonov’s opinion, Peter’s reforms merely accelerated previous processes, begun under his predecessors and for this reason could not be regarded as  a particularly exceptional contribution to Russian development.

This view, interestingly enough, is corroborated in an observation made much earlier, in the eighteenth century, by a no lesser figure than Catherine the Great herself, who was one of Peter’s most celebrated successors and admirers. She believed that: ‘The reform, undertaken by Peter the Great, had been started by tsar Alexis. The latter had already set about changing attire and many other customs...’

Many analysts now adopt the line that  Peter acted as a catalyst of the Europeanization which had started before his time, by speeding up policies already slowly under way. Under him Russia was undergoing, in the main, a process of forced and greatly accelerated evolution rather than of true revolution. Peter did not place his imprint on a ‘blank sheet’ as claimed by Chaadaev, but introduced changes which were within the context of  Muscovite developments.

At the same time, many critics agree with the view of Klyuchevsky, that the pace of his changes must have appeared revolutionary at the time:


Started and carried through by the sovereign, the people’s usual leader, the reforms were undertaken in conditions of upheaval, almost of revolution, not because of their objects but because of their methods, and by the impressions they made on the nerves and imaginations of the people. Perhaps it was more of a shock than a revolution, but the shock was the unforeseen and unintended consequence of the reform.


In other words, Peter acted with such vigor and energy and enforced his changes at such pace and volume that his actions certainly seemed revolutionary to those who felt their immediate effects.

The number of contrasting views on Peter can be multiplied infinitely. The important thing to understand is that behind the controversy over the nature of Peter’s Reform there is always present, explicitly or implicitly, another fundamental argument: about the nature of the pre-Petrine Russia. The controversy over Peter is a debate about the Russian nation itself, about its roots, destiny and place in a wider world. If Peter had inherited from the Muscovite tsars a nation of barbarians, then his methods were justified and he deserves to be called a Great Transformer. If, however, Peter tried to impose his changes on a civilization which he did not understand and could not appreciate, then Peter, automatically,  becomes a tyrant and a barbarian. It is precisely because the stakes in this debate are so high, for it touches a very central issue of what Russia was and is, Peter’s legacy is likely to remain for some time an issue not easily amenable to a dispassionate, non-partisan enquiry.

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Peter the Great


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