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The "Royal Revolutionary"


The most contentious aspect of Peterís legacy, however, is not the question of his motivation in launching Europeanization, but  the question of the effects of his Reform on Russia. Were they, for example, revolutionary, signifying a complete break with the Muscovite past?  Or were they merely a continuation of changes already set in motion by Peterís predecessors, in particular by his father, tsar Alexis (reigned 1645-1676 )? 

The extent of Peterís radicalism and innovation can be measured by setting his reforms within the context of the Muscovite past and trying to assess to what degree they represented the continuation of the previous trends and to what extent they signified a break in the continuity with the earlier Muscovite Russia. Stephen Lee has grouped Peterís policies in categories according to the degree of their continuity with the previous trends.

Peter the Great

 At one end of the spectrum is a group of policies which represents a clear continuation of  the trends and practices of the traditional Muscovite Russia. The best example of the continuity between Peter and his predecessor was the tightening of the control by the State and the nobility over the serfs and the intensification of the economic and social burdens on the Russian masses. This group is represented by such policies as the levying of the soul tax on all males from the Ďtax-payingí classes (i.e. the entire non-noble population), the introduction of compulsory military service for most of the Russian male population and the extension of conscription for construction projects (such as, for instance, the building of St Petersburg).

At the other end of the spectrum are a few policies which might be called revolutionary in the sense that they signaled a complete change of direction and had no precedents in previous reigns. One obvious example was creation of a modern navy. Peter was the first tsar not only to establish a powerful navy but also to set up a Russian ship-building industry, which transformed Russia from a land-locked military state into one of Europeís largest naval powers. At the close of his reign, Russia had almost fifty major war vessels and a navy of nearly thirty thousand.

The bulk of Peterís innovations occupy the middle ground between examples of clear continuity and totally new departures. These were the policies that had to some extent been anticipated in the past but which were now more fully implemented as a result of more conscious imitation of the West.  The word Ďrevolutionaryí may still be applied to some of them, but in the sense of a revolutionary acceleration of past trends rather than of a complete change of direction. This group includes measures such as the creation of a modern army, a radical administrative reform, active efforts to develop the countryís industrial capacity and the promotion of secular culture and education. 

Grouping the reforms into categories helps to see the extent of Peterís radicalism and innovation in respect to his predecessors. However, it does not necessarily explain why the radical acceleration of the previous processes and the introduction of entirely new policies happened when it did - in the era of Peter the Great. In order to understand deeper causes of his Reform, it is necessary to put it into a broader comparative and historical perspective and  define its place not simply in relation to the Muscovite Russia, but also in the context of European history and   contemporary worldwide developments.

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Peter the Great


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