Peter the Great’s Westernization of RussiaPeterthe Great’s Westernization of RussiaIn 1689, Tsar Peter I forced his way intopower in Russia.
Better known as Peter the Great, he overthrew hishalf-sister’s regime and took control of the state. At this time,Russia was dealing with rapid expansion, yet it was still a very backwardscountry compared to the rest of Europe. Russia was also dealing witheconomic woes. Peter loathed this backward condition and deviseda plan.
Within ten years of gaining power, he began to travel throughwestern Europe in search of skilled workers. On his tour of westernEurope, Peter met kings, scientists, craft workers and ship builders. He even worked undercover in a Netherlands shipyard in hopes of learningbetter methods of crafting vessels. Eighteen months later Peter returnedto Russia and began to use this new wealth of knowledge to “westernize”his nation. His idea of westernization was the modernization of Russia.
He wanted to “turn Russia to the west”. Peter the Great adopted many of the ideasused by Ivan the Terrible in the fifteenth century. He ruled as atyrant and held himself above the law. Peter alarmed the nobilityand churchmen with his new objective. He snipped off the beards ofthe Boyars, land-owning men of influence and wealth, and ended their swayin government. Peter was determined to “civilize” nobility and evencomposed a book of manners.
This book forbid such actions as spittingon floors and eating without utensils. He also promoted courtly discussionsbetween men and women. Eventually he ended up increasing their powerover the serfs, the countryside peasants. Next, Peter fortified Russia’sarmy and navy to ensure a strong military, established a modern iron industryto promote production, and expanded and added additional roads and canalsfor the purpose of stimulating trade. Farming and manufacturing werealso encouraged by the tsar.
Unfortunately for the serfs they werenot only burdened with the task of mandatory labor for the state, but theywere left to deal with steep taxes as well. For them,a less than bountiful harvest often meant starvation. In the implementation of his new ideas,Tsar Peter had twelve hundred of the streltsy, the elite army corps whoopposed westernization, executed and hung in public. He lefttheir decomposing bodies on display in front of the Kremlin for monthsto dissuade challenges to his authority. He even tortured his ownson when he voiced opposition to Peter’s wave of change. These mercilessactions stunned everyone and proved his determination and power.
Peter also appointed a personal agentto regulate the affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church. This ledto the church becoming a virtual extension of the state. In1709, Peter defeated Swedish forces at the battle of Poltava and gainedland on the Gulf of Finland. He then moved the capital of Russiato the newly constructed port city of St. Petersburg.
It is herethat Peter flaunted his country’s rising wealth and created Peterhof, anelaborate palace emulating Louis XIV’s Versailles. St. Petersburgwas built by serfs and ensured Russia’s access to the west. Peter the Great died in 1725.
Onemajor thing he left out of his idea of westernization appears to be theexploration and colonization of far off lands. He was more focusedon strengthening Russia from within. While England, France, Spainand Portugal were heavily involved in exploration, Peter was working diligentlyto bring his nation to the same level as his western neighbors. Hecarried Russia a long way from Ivan the Terrible’s “time of troubles”. His country was now much more powerful in terms of its military, its economyand its status in Europe. Peter had paved the road to a more powerfulpositon in the world economy.
The reign of Peter the Great was not oneof grand humanity but it led his country into the future. His hardwork and stringency created a nation of power and influence out of thebackwards and laggard realm that he had acquired. He was astern man, often overly barbaric, but he achieved many of his “westernization”objectives. Without his rule, Russia may not have become the powerfulnation that it needed to be in order to survive in theearly-modern era.