Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Great Leaders: Who was Peter the Great? (Part 6): Reforms

Peter the Great Meditating the Idea of Building St. Petersburg at the Shore of the Baltic Sea
Peter shaped his reforms to match his ambitions, but he also made contribution that were less violent. Explore how Peter contributed to Russia’s education, culture, religion and society.

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 as well.

Education Reforms

Education was one of Peter’s endeavors. As a child, Peter did not attended a school but he developed an inquisitive active mind that led him to learn new skills and knowledge. Nevertheless, he wanted institutions to teach modern sciences and technology to serve as the driving force of Russia’s modernization. In 1701, he founded a school for mathematics and navigation. Between 1711 and 1712, with the help of the famous mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, Peter founded the Academy of Sciences. In 1712, he approved the charter of a school for engineering. And in 1716, he established a school for mining.

Other than specialized institutions, basic schools sprung out across Russia. By 1722, 40 new schools operated in Russia. When children of the nobles took for granted their birth right and neglected education. Peter took a serious step to enforce a law to prohibit aristocrat fathers from passing their inheritance to their heirs if they failed to complete their education.

Peter also approved projects that aimed to shed to light new knowledge. Geography had been one of Peter’s passions. In the 1720’s, he approved the expedition of Vitus Bering to Eastern Russia to discover what laid between Asia and the Americas. Peter’s steps in promoting education was the foundation which his successors built upon.

Cultural Reforms

Russian culture transformed significantly under Peter. Because of his exposure to European customs and culture in the German Suburbs during his childhood, Peter liked anything western. This included preference for western clothing, practices, architecture, music, and dances. The Grand Embassy further strengthen Peter’s desire to "Europinize" his country. Upon his return, he started his Europinization of Russia. He began by banning beards to any nobles, violating the tradition of keeping it so as not to deface the image that God had given man. Anyone who refused to shave their beards must pay the infamous "Beard Tax." But Peter fell short in cutting the beards of all Russian when clerics as well as peasants were exempted from the new beard policy.

Following the issue on beards, he continued cutting out old tradition. He cut the long-sleeve coats of the Boyars called the Caftans. And later he even made nobles disregard wearing it in favor of more comfortable and easy-to-wear western clothing.

Women fashion also underwent changed. Peter made women to abandon their close dresses and to adopt more revealing western dresses. Russian women discreetly complained about vulgarity of European dress.

Other than appearances, Peter dragged on with transformations by adopting Arabic numeral and publishing the first newspaper in Russia.

In 1699, Peter decided to change the Russian calendar. He moved the New Year from September 1 to January 1 to synchronize with the rest of Europe. He also changed how Russia counted the years, from the supposed year of the creation of the world to the year of the birth of Christ. Hence, the Russian years changed from 7208 to 1700. Peter made one step forward by changing the years and the day of the New Year, however, he held back one step. Instead of adopting the Gregorian calendar that the rest of Europe used, he adopted the obsolete and late Julian calendar. Thus, Peter had been credited why Russian history books had two dates in it, one based on the Julian and another based on the Gregorian.

Peter issued numerous decrees that changed the daily lives of many Russian. They varied from the coffin to be used in funerals to the simple music and dance entertainments. Indeed, Peter the Great used his autocratic powers to the fullest in order to align his people’s way of life to that of European.

Religious Reforms

Peter also reformed the church in order to weaken its power to oppose his reforms. As a lover of European ideas, Peter also adopted secularism, where the church had less influence in daily lives and the matters of state. Peter saw the church as a hindrance to his reforms. They held a great deal of influence to the nobility and to countless of Russians. Especially, when the Russian Orthodox Church dictated what Russians considered moral and immoral. Because of this, Peter wanted to reduce the powers and influence of the church by placing its authority under the state or in other words his powers.

In 1700, when the ruling Patriarch Adrian passed away in 1700, Peter took the chance to place the Church under his control.  He prevented the election of a new Patriarch and in its place, established the Holy Governing Synod It composed of 11 clergymen under the leadership of Stefan Iavorsky.

When Stefan Iavorsky and Peter had disagreement over the pace of the reforms, a falling out occurred. Stefan disagreed to Peter’s intention to increase government control over the Church, as well as the Tsar’s tendency to be tolerant of other religions, such as the Protestants, Catholics, and even the stigmatize and marginalized Old Believers from the Raskol. In the end, Peter looked for another way to control the church further.

He then placed the responsibility of finding a way to Feofan Prokopovich. Prokopovich studied how Sweden handled the Lutheran Church. His studies formed the basis of Peter’s reform of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Finally, in 1722, Peter created the office of the Oberprokurator to head the Holy Governing Synod. The Oberprokurator reported directly to the Tsar. The position lasted until the fall of the Tsarist regime in 1917. Peter’s reform of the church led to the decline of the influence and power of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian politics. It gave Peter and his successor a more welcoming atmosphere for reforms and change.

Social Reforms

Peter made an impact in Russian society. For instance, the ancient boyars disappeared in the face of Peter’s reform.

In 1722, Peter instituted the Table of Ranks. It was composed of fourteen ranks within the army, bureaucracy, and court. It allowed commoners and peasants to rise up in the social ladder by gaining promotion within the position stated in the Table. It improved social mobility and challenged birthright as a basis of attaining a position in the three areas. And so, many more men like Alexander Menshikov, who did not came from aristocratic family, rose up in status in Russia. The Table of Ranks brought a positive change.

But for serfs life became harder. They took the burden of taxation as well as faced abuses from their landlords. Serf living in the state lands suffered equally if not worst compare to other private serfs. The State Serfs had been coined by Peter himself in 1724. Previously, he had utilized them as a source for manpower for the army or for government mines and factories. He made male state serfs to choose between military service and state labor. Either way, life in both fields proved to be difficult. State serfs drafted in the military served for life. Hence, some men never returned to their hometowns. Choosing mines, however, proved to be even more unbearable and difficult than a soldier. In working in mines they faced abuses, hard labor, terrible treatment, abuses, and occupational hazard in unsafe mines or quarries. Some even commented that life as a soldier was easier than the life of a laboring serf. State serfs, however, also faced a threat of becoming privately owned serf. This happened when the Tsar, gave a state land with state serfs to a distinguished individual. Once the individual took control of the state land, the state serfs in the granted area then became privately owned serfs. So for commoners, society improved under Peter the Great. But for serfs, life continued to be difficult if not downright hellish.

St. Petersburg – the Embodiment of Peter’s Reign

The greatest testament of Peter the Great’s reforms was embodied in the city that bears his name – St. Petersburg. Peter established St. Petersburg as a testament to his vision as well as victory. He wanted a city that serves as Russia’s window to the west. A city that displayed a westernized Russia.

The city where St. Petersburg stood had been seen as a desolate marsh that held no possibility of being a metropolis. The river froze for 5 months each year and floods frequently submerge the surrounding areas. The place had a swampy mosquito ridden terrain and it had an awful unhealthy cold damp climate.

The area of the mouth of the Neva River was a prize for Tsar Peter in 1703 upon his invasion of Ingria. In 1704, Peter decided to found a new city to cement Russia’s control over the region. He then build a fortress – the Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress. To further enhance the defense of the city, few kilometers away he established a naval base in the island of Kronstadt. Peter then invited architects to work in designing the city. He wanted it to resemble the city he adored so much – Amsterdam. He dreamt St. Petersburg to be recognized as the Amsterdam of the East. He wanted it to have canals, streets, and houses and buildings that displayed Dutch and other European designs.

Building of a city from a wasteland, however, proved to be costly. 10,000 to 30,000 draft laborers began to work in the city in 1704. Much to the horror of the workers, they lacked the suitable tools like shovel or picks to dig canals and foundation and so they used their own hands. Day and night they labored on the new city. Many perished due to burdens of labor. Many more died due to exposure to the terrible climate, disease caused by mosquitos, and hunger because of lack of supplies. Estimates showed that 100,000 workers fell during the construction of St. Petersburg. Hence, it became known as the “City Built on Bones.”

The notoriety of St. Petersburg’s construction made the people see the place as hell. But for Peter, he saw it as a paradise, a city where he belonged. When St. Petersburg became suitable for building houses, few nobles did so. So Peter forced his aristocrats and his people to live in St. Petersburg. In 1712, he made St. Petersburg the new capital of Russia. He then decreed that merchants and nobles had to live in the city and build stone houses based on European designs. However, the city lacked stone masons to work because masons did not want to work in the infamous city. Peter then decreed in 1714 to ban building of stone houses across Russia except in St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg grew to become a new major city in Russia. By 1725, the city boasted a population of 40,000. The city displayed anything what Peter stood for. It had European clothing, houses, music, and parties. It also became a center of military operations in the Baltic, when St. Petersburg opened its Admiralty Shipyard. It produced new warships for Russia’s new Baltic Fleet. In effect, St. Petersburg became a capital fit for the new Russian Empire that Peter had forged.

Effects of Reforms

The effects of Peter the Great’s reform in Russia created a lasting effect that went beyond his reign or that of the Romanovs. Basically, he opened Russia to Europe and even made it more aligned to Europe than Asia. His reforms led his country’s victory in the Great Northern War, and earned the status as a major power. It also moved Russia away from the obscure conservative views of the old and allowed Russia to modernize and to welcome sciences and technology and new ideas such as that of the growing movement called the Enlightenment. He allowed social mobility and meritocracy to rule his ranks, allowing men from humble background to rise up in the social ladder.

But to be fair, Peter the Great did have reforms that brought negative impact. For instance, Peter’s financial reforms brought hardship to numerous peasants and serfs. He did not promote better conditions to those who served the state as a result of his draft policies. His St. Petersburg, which today dazzled millions of tourist, had been built from sweat, blood, toil, and bodied of countless laborers that built its foundations.

His reforms aligned Russia to modernity as well as Europe, but it did went without noise with Russians. Peter had been autocratic and intimidating, but some strongly voiced their opposition to his reform, which they considered as an act of the Anti-Christ.

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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