Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Great Leaders: Who was Peter the Great? (Part 5): Reforms

An Engraving of Peter the GreatFollowing his reforms in the military, Peter needed to change also the state which his new army must defend. Explore how Peter the Great reform Russia beyond its military.

Following his military reforms, Russia needed a huge budget in order to maintain it. It also needed more money to satisfy the numerous projects that Peter wanted to complete.

Financial Reforms

Financial reforms had to be made to sustain reforms. War cost a lot of money. The military took 90% of the annual budget of Russia. In addition, Russia also had to pay foreign experts that provided services in educational institutions, in the military, and in the economy. Another expensive and costly project of Peter was his newly established capital, St. Petersburg. The cost amounted equal to that of the military due to the fact that a new metropolis had to be erected from scratch and marshes in the mouth of the Neva River.

Peter’s financial reform aimed in expanding Russia’s tax base. He imposed new taxes on paper through stamp taxes. Various items like watermelons began to be taxed. The Tsar legalized tobacco, despite the opposition of the Russian Orthodox Church who dubbed the weeds as the “ungodly herb.” After its legalization, Peter then taxed tobacco.

The Tsar also utilized the Old Believers from the Great Schism or Raskol in 1650’s as additional source of revenue. He showed tolerance towards their practices in exchange for paying higher tax.

The Beard Tax also earned a reputation as the most famous and notorious tax that Peter ever imposed. Under the beard tax, any noble and townsmen who refused to shave their beards had to pay the tax.

Following the Beard Tax, Peter made household taxes more efficient when he reformed it and turned it into the so-called “Soul Tax.” Previously, the government charge a fixed amount of tax in a whole household, regardless of the number of members in one house. Under the condition, families cheated the system by making 2 or 3 or more families to stay in one house in order to pay a single tax. But under the Soul Tax, households were no longer the basis of the tax. Each man from every household must pay the Soul Tax to the government. As a result, families could no longer avoid taxation and tax revenues increased significantly.

The state continued to supplement its tax revenues with other sources of income. It had monopolies. The government kept monopolies on various luxury and essential goods, like salt, liquor, furs, and caviar. Peter’s financial reforms allowed Russia to continue the Great Northern War. It also allowed Russia to modernize. However, the taxation reforms created new burdens to the already impoverish peasantry and serfs.

Economic Development

Economic development was also directed to support Russia’s endeavor in the Great Northern War. Peter used the war to foster economic growth and development. For instance, Russia developed its local arms manufacturing industry when Peter promoted local production of weapon. In 1715, the Tula ironworks produced about 26,000 muskets and various weapons for the military as well as for export. Foundries melted church bells (to the horror of the most conservatives) to produce new cannons. In all, under Peter’s rule, the Russian weapons manufacturing industry grew by an astronomical 1000%.

The war also led to the development of other military related industries like iron for weapons manufacturers, textile for uniforms, leather for belts and harnesses, lumber for ships and carriages, and shipbuilding for the navy. Iron in particular became one of Russia main products. From 1701 to 1704, seven additional iron works was established in the Ural Mountains. Initially, Russia only produced one-fifth of the capacity of that of England. But as demand for iron rose due to the war, by the time that the war ended, Russia had become the leading manufacturer of pig iron.

Other than that, new industries also sprang up in Russia. Because of Peter’s efforts to westernize Russians, products that had been in vogue in Europe became in demand in Russia too. And so, industries like glass, silk, and paper grew. These industries along others further developed thanks to government support. 

Peter, like other European monarchs, followed an economic policy of mercantilism. Under mercantilism, Peter supported local manufacturers and defended them from foreign competition by imposing tariffs in 1824. In addition, because of lack of private initiative to establish businesses, the government took the initiative. But when industries began to prosper, Peter looked forward to transferring ownership to private individuals.

Besides establishing businesses and new industries, Peter also wanted to stimulate trade by developing Russia’s infrastructure. He ordered the construction of roads, bridges, and canals, to make most of the country accessible to merchants. Because of Peter’s policy, Russian economy experienced an industrial revolution.

Administrative Reforms

Administrative reform also became one of Peter’s focus. Peter needed to set up new government institutions to govern the country especially at times when he went on campaign or inspection tours. He wanted the Russian administrative structure to be at par with its European neighbors. He wanted to reduce inefficiency and power struggles by maintaining check and balances but still maintaining the autocratic power of the Tsar.

Before Peter’s rule, Russia had a bloated bureaucracy, numbering to about 40 prikaz or bureaus/departments. This caused inefficiency and waste of money. Besides the Prikaz, the Boyar Duma also held the position of advisory council to the Tsars. But when Peter assumed the reins of state affairs, he relied on trusted friends and companions such as Alexander Menshikov and Franz Lefort to handle the government. In 1690’s, the main advisory council, the Boyar Duma began to lose it significance. By the 1700’s the Boyar Duma ceased to function. 

The Russian Senate

The Senate succeeded the Boyar Duma in 1711. Prince Yakov Dolguruky headed the 9-men Senate that served as Russia’s new legislature and judiciary. It also had the duty to watch over tax collection as well as provincial administration. In times when Peter went into trips or military campaign, he tasked the Senate to rule on his behalf.

Peter also established new offices that reported to the Senate. The Oberfiscal had been given the duty to investigate tax evasions as well seditious activities. Peter had assigned the Oberfiscal to report to the Senate but also gave it the authority to investigate Senate members as well. For the following decade, the Senate and the Oberfiscal had conflicts.

In 1722, the Procurator-General replaced the Oberfiscal. The Procurator-General had been placed in charge to supervise the Senate and represent Peter himself in the Senate’s sessions. Hence, the position of Procurator-General became one of the most powerful, prestigious, and influential positions in Russian government. 

Bureaucratic Reforms

To address the issue of a huge bureaucracy, Peter reformed the Prikazy or Prikaz from 1717 to 1718. He replaced the Prikaz with 9 colleges. This included the Colleges of foreign affairs, army or war, navy or admiralty, justice, commerce, state revenue, state expenses, state accounting, and mines and manufacture. In 1721, Peter placed the nine colleges under the auspices of the Procurator-General. The only Prikaz that remained had been the infamous Preobrazhensky Prikaz, established by Peter in 1697. It served as the Tsar’s secret police handling threats of sedition and opposition to the rule of the Tsar.

Local Administrative Reforms

Peter also made efforts to reform local administration. In 1715, Peter surprisingly sent the German lawyer Heinrich Fick to his foe, Sweden, to spy and to study the Swedish local administrative system. After four years, Fick’s research became the foundation of Peter’s decision to reorganize localities into eight and later 11 gubernilias or regions in 1719. Each gubernilias was divided into provinces and then into districts then into towns, villages, and major cities. This allowed government administration to be streamlined and recognized. Peter the Great’s administrative reform allowed his government to rule the country even during his absences.


But one thing remained that even could not solve – corruption. Peter loathed corruption but even his most trusted and loyal advisor, Alexander Menshikov, became notoriously guilty of it. Even the energetic and powerful Tsar, failed to wipe it out from the face of his government. 

Peter’s reforms did not limit itself to administration, government, and military and turning them into the pillar of a Russia in a state of war. He made also numerous peaceful reforms. He dealt with education, culture, religion, and society.

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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