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Peter's Motivation


The question of Peterís motivation in launching the Reform is, arguably, the least controversial aspect of his legacy. As any reform program usually implies the existence of some general idea in the mind of the reformer of the aims of the reforms and of the ways to attain them, the question which is often asked is whether young Peter had such a general blueprint. What we know about the early period of his reign seems to suggest that Peter thirsted for more information, mastered new knowledge and skills, tested established assumptions by practice. It is highly significant, that he   befriended people like the  Swiss diplomat Francois Lefort, the experienced general and Scotsman Patrick Gordon, or the scientist and engineer, and Russianized Scotsman, James Bruce. In this circle of close  companions, some of whom had traveled the whole extent of Europe to reach Russia, he must have  been acutely aware of Russiaís backwardness, the need for change, for Europeanization, and at the same time realized that he had almost unlimited resources at his disposal to bring about the desired transformation. 

The capture of the fortress of Azov. Painting by K. Porter

In the early years of his reign, Peter with his circle of like-minded associates, both Russian and Western European, made two trips to the White Sea in the north of Russia (1693-1694), where he familiarized himself with shipbuilding.  A year later, in 1695, he joined the Azov campaign in the south, which was led by the generals A. Golovin, F. Lefort and P. Gordon against the Crimean Tartars and the Turks. The capture of the fortress of Azov in 1696 was Peterís first major military success and a proof that the first steps in the reorganization of the army and the navy had been made in the right direction.

Peterís next important  step was quite untypical of a Russian ruler up to that time: he made a long visit to Europe (1697-1698) known as the ĎGreat Embassyí. Significantly, the aims of the Embassy foreshadowed the main directions of his future Europeanization of Russia. Its main aim was to make closer military and diplomatic alliances with Western powers, in particular against Turkey. It also sought to establish cultural, trade and technical ties with the West and obtain an informed view about the European way of life. Peterís informal participation in the Embassy gave him an excellent opportunity to learn about various aspects of the life of European states and different sections of Western society - from courtiers to craftsmen.  As a result, Peter could form a broad and objective view of the larger world outside Russia and of Russiaís place in it.


Throughout almost the whole of the Petrine reign Russia was engaged in the Northern War against Sweden (1700 -1721). At that time Sweden was the dominant power in the Baltic, and the early stages of the war had clearly demonstrated that Russia could hope  to beat Sweden only when it had reorganized its army and created a strong navy. Peterís military reforms were among his most radical and successful ones. He extended conscription for the army, equipped it with modern firearms and artillery and gave it training manuals acquired from the West.  As a result, by the end of his reign Russia had a  powerful standing army of 200 000 - the largest such force in Europe. It provided Russia with the military muscle to replace Sweden as the greatest power in north-eastern Europe. The war with Sweden ended with the conclusion of the Treaty of Nystadt (1721) that gave Russia access to a strategically important stretch of the Baltic coast. The country had now a much needed access to the sea and sea trade which opened the opportunity of economic and cultural exchanges with the countries of western Europe.

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Peter the Great


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