Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Great Leaders: Who was Peter the Great? (Part 4): Reforms

Peter the GreatAs the Great Northern War dragged, Peter also fought hard back home, enacting reforms after reforms. Explore how Peter the Great transformed his Tsardom.

Peter the Great’s reign had been marked by war and reforms. He had been known as the visionary Tsar that changed Russia from a backward rowdy Tsardom to a powerful and modern Empire. He aligned it with his interest in war and in his objective to transform and westernize Russia. Every aspect of Russian life transformed under Tsar Peter.

Before Tsar Peter

Before Peter, Russia been characterize as backward, and even medievalist. Church hampered reforms. Fear of foreigners and their culture ruled over the minds of Russians. It made them closed to new technologies and ideas.

The military also was in a pathetic state. Much of the army was weakened by failed campaigns during the regency of Peter’s stepsister Sophia. It lacked discipline, modern weapons, and competent officers. Much of the ranks fell to corruption and abuses. The poor state of the military had been embodied by the Streltsy, a once elite unit in the army and personal bodyguards of the Tsars. By the time of Tsar Peter, the Streltsy was still equipped with old arabesques. It had been as well riddled with corruption, intrigue, and lack of discipline.

Meanwhile, the state itself stood in a poor state. The country had a small base for taxation. Nobles and clergy paid little to none. The peasants and the serfs took the burden but even they managed to cheat the system, bringing government finances to stand in a lowly state.

The economy lacked stimulus. Trade with other countries had been difficult. Russia’s geography, its landlocked borders barricaded by forest and rough terrains turned off most of European merchants. Its economy relied on serf labor and subsistence agriculture. Much of it had been unproductive due to the climate as well as neglect. This had been the Russia that Peter took over.

The Inspiration and Motivation

Peter had numerous reasons to transform his country. During his youth, Europe had inspired him. He saw the continent as the beacon of modernity, taste, and dynamism that fit his energetic and lively personality. His European friends told him stories about the cities of London and Amsterdam. The new sciences and technologies that had been discovered caused the Tsar to be baffled and curious. His desire to Europeanize Russia further strengthen after his Grand Embassy to Europe in 1696 to 1698. Upon his return to Russia, he brought back new skills learned from Europe itself, along with foreign experts to teach their expertise to his people. He had a stronger determination to impose European practices and knowledge to his people whether they like it or not.

Another driver of Peter’s reforms was war. In 1700, he embarked in a two decade long Great Northern War. Peter had to shape Russia in a state of war. The government, resources and the economy had to be reformed to fit sustain his war. The Great Northern War called Peter also to build a new army, one that could face their powerful adversary in the Great Northern War – Sweden.

Military Reforms

The military became the focus of Peter’s reforming energy ever since his childhood. A country, such as Russia with its vast lands, needed a significantly strong military in order to defend its borders from its enemies in a volatile international arena. The military had been the focus of Peter’s passion, especially during his years in Preobrazenskoe. There he established two toy regiments, which later became the Preobrazensky and Semenovsky Regiments. When he took direct control of Russia in the last decade of the 17th century, he asked his foreign friends to help him to modernize the military. And indeed, men like Patrick Gordon and Franz Lefort assisted Peter in creating a modern army.

Peter further prioritized the modernization especially after he declared war against Sweden. In 1701, the Russian military suffered a terrible defeat in the hands of the Swedish King Charles XII in the Battle of Narva. Most of the army either fell in battle or captured by the Swedes. Peter then had to rebuild his army to avenge his defeat and also defend Russia from the threat of invasion. To build a new mighty Russian army, he drafted more to the military. He ordered men from the towns and rural areas to be drafted and serve in the military for 25 years. He imposed various quota system in each estate and town in order to recruit more men. In 1705, he demanded each household to give one recruit. During the decade of 1710’s he drafted 1 men for every 40 to 250 households. He also mandated nobles to serve in the armed forces.

Peter also gave different incentives to recruit men. He granted the serfs freedom once they serve in the military, and as long as their masters allowed them to join. He also enticed them to join by increasing their salaries while in service. During the war, 300,000 Russian had been drafted to the army. And by the time of Peter’s demise, Russia boasted an army of 200,000 men and additional 100,000 Cossacks, the second largest military in Europe.

Following the build-up of troops, Peter also focused in making it into an efficient fighting force. He promoted meritocracy. All recruits initially served with equal rank and equal pay regardless of whether they came from the nobility, townsmen, peasantry, or serfs. Meritocracy resulted in making one-third of the officers in the military not coming from noble birth by the 1720's. The military then became a path for many Russians to elevate themselves to positions of power and interest.

In addition to meritocracy and increase in manpower, Peter also had his sights in rearming his army with new modern weapons. He provided them with new flintlock muskets with bayonets. He also gave them new uniforms based in European designed and colored with the famous Russian green. He based the organization of his military from that of Europe. He also developed the Russian cavalry and created new dragoon units that served as shock troops. Peter’s reforms allowed Russia to rebuild its military force, ready to fight its foes.

The Russian Navy

The creation of the Russian navy, however, became the greatest and lasting legacy of Peter the Great’s military reforms. Peter believed that Russia could definitely be part of Europe by opening his country by sea. From this, he dreamt of one day his country becoming a naval power. From 1695 to 1696, he saw the value of a navy and from then point on, he studied naval sciences and shipbuilding in order to turn his dream into reality.

During the Great Northern War, Peter had the opportunity to build his navy. From scratch, Russia build numerous warships. Foreign experts helped in the construction. Sometimes, even the Tsar himself assisted in the shipbuilding process.

In the middle of the first decade of the 1700’s, Russia gained access to the Baltic Sea through the newly held lands in the mouth of the Neva River. There, he established St. Petersburg, which included an admiralty shipyard. This shipyard produced most of the ships that comprised the new Russian Navy. By the end of Peter’s reign, Russia had a significant navy with 50 large warship and 800 smaller warships with a manpower size of 28,000 men. Russia also started to produce its own naval officers when Peter established a naval school in 1715. Peter’s decision to create a navy allowed Russia face its adversary Sweden not just in land but in sea as well. The navy became the foundation of Russia’s new military as well as its development as a major force in international politics.

The growth of the military, however, came the burden of maintaining and financing it. Peter then had to reform his country’s finance, taxes, and economy. In addition, because of the burden of war taking up most of Peter’s time, he had to reform the government and administration in order for it to continue to function without his presence. Hence, Peter the Great’s reform went beyond military affairs and strike to almost every single aspect of Russian life.

Explore also:
“Great Northern War.” In Wars of the Age of Louis XIV: 1650 – 1750. Edited by Cathal Nolan. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Boterbloem, Kess. A History of Russia and Its Empire: From Mikhail Romanov to Vladimir Putin. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2014.

Bucher, Greta. Daily Life in Imperial Russia. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Buskovitch, Paul. A Concise History of Russia. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Gilbert, Adrian. Encyclopedia of Warfare: From Earliest Time to the Present Day. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000.

Kort, Michael. A Brief History of Russia. New York, New York: Facts On File, 2008.

Moss, Walter. A History of Russia Volume I: To 1917. London: Anthem Press, 2005.

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