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The Very First Modernization


The Petrine Transformation was launched in the period of early modern history, when the development of economic relations based on the market, new geographical discoveries, pioneering scientific inquiries,  appearance of more efficient means of travel and communication, new technological innovations were beginning to bind the world into a single civilization. Its elements - countries and continents - now actively interacted with one another as parts of a single system. In this new epoch, a nations economic or social backwardness, 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, gave 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, it has been the advanced countries of western Europe and of the West in general which have provided models for modernization. For this reason, the catching up development is also referred to as Europeanization or Westernization.  

Peter (on the left of the painting) learning shipbuilding in Deptford, England, 1698

Concrete modernization attempts may proceed at different pace and with varying intensity. They may have different forms and results. Depending on the speed and effects of reforms, the process of transformation may be represented by two basic types: evolutionary and revolutionary modernizations. These types are the two ends of the spectrum which encompass between them a whole variety of concrete  reform attempts that have ever occurred in the history of various countries. The evolutionary type of modernization is characterized by a gradual unfolding of the reform process which is spread over decades and even centuries. This approach to reform means that traditional institutions and governmental structures are not dissolved outright but are gradually replenished with new content in a process of incremental change.

In contrast, the modernization of society and rationalization of government by revolution  mean a certain sharp break with the past. This type of reform results in a fundamental overhaul of the whole system of traditional institutions. To effect a transformation of this kind, an outstanding charismatic leader is usually needed, whose popularity or authority enables him to push through a radical reform program. This type of modernization often results in significant shifts in public consciousness, major changes in the way of life, the mentality and attitudes of the people. It is often perceived by contemporaries as the dawn of a new era.

Peters Reform represents an important new departure in modern world history, for it pioneered the process of modernization and Europeanization which was later to develop on a world-wide scale. Europeanization of Russia was achieved by the deliberate importation of Western values, way of life, legislation, technical terminology, by the reform of the army, government and industry which borrowed heavily from Western models. As a result, by the end of Peters reign, Russia had acquired a new system of institutions which, while maintaining a certain degree of continuity, demonstrated, at the same time, a radical break with the past. The Petrine transformation was called forth by a combination of certain major international trends that began to effect developments in Europe and in countries worldwide, and by the operation of the basic tendencies of the Russian historical process. The joint action of these internal and external factors, coupled with the ascendancy to the throne of one of the most charismatic leaders in Russian history, produced a set of circumstances which made the Petrine modernization almost inevitable.

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Peter the Great


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