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Patterns of Petrine Modernization

Peter the Great

Peter’s administrative and other reforms represent Russia’s first attempt at modernization designed to catch up with the advanced countries of Western Europe. They display certain characteristics, many of which can be traced in later periods of major reforms. The Petrine Transformation thus set certain patterns which would have a lasting effect on much of Russia’s subsequent development in modern history. Some of the more important of these are the following.

Revolution from above 

Peter was the first Russian ruler who inaugurated the pattern of a revolution from above as the chief response of the backward Russia to the challenge of the West. This pattern would be maintained down to the end of the Tsarist regime in 1917 and beyond. Alexander II, another renowned tsar-reformer, would epitomize the government’s approach to reform in a famous remark made in his address to the nobility in 1856. In his speech, which for the first time made clear his intention to emancipate the serfs,  Alexander said it would be preferable to abolish serfdom ‘from above’ than to wait for upheaval from below.  

Ironically, many Russian progressives from the oppositionist and revolutionary movement agreed with the tsarist government on this point. The manifest success of the Petrine Reform instilled within the Russian progressive camp a deep conviction that any fundamental change in their country could only be initiated from the top and carried through by the forcible action of the State. For many this attitude - and the disregard for human sacrifice that it entailed - became an article of faith. This was true, for instance, of the Narodniks - Russian  peasant socialists of the nineteenth century -  many of whom idolized Peter and his actions and saw in him an ideal patriot. The worship of Peter thus turned into the recognition of the beneficial nature of unrestrained violence.

Even Vladimir Lenin, the Marxist "gravedigger" of Russia’s old regime, sought to imitate the brutal methods of Peter’s modernization. In 1918, at the head of the fledgling Soviet state and still hoping for a world proletarian revolution, he wrote: ‘While the revolution in Germany is still slow to break out, our task is to learn state capitalism from the Germans, to do our best to emulate it, not to refrain from dictatorial methods in order to accelerate this emulation even more than Peter accelerated the emulation of Westernism by the barbaric Rus, not to shun barbaric means to fight barbarism’. (Here Lenin alludes to the famous dictum of Karl Marx that: 'Peter the Great  smashed Russian barbarism by barbarism’.) 

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Peter the Great


Tsarist Russia

Pre-Petrine Russia
Peter the Great
Catherine the Great
Alexander I
Nicholas I
Alexander II
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Appearance of Marxism
The Last Romanovs
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The Revolution of 1905-7
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The Revolutions of 1917
Interpretations of 1917
The End of an Empire
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