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James Crarer 12EUC709 - The Russian Empire The Russian Empire Essay “In what ways did Peter the Great’s reforms transform the concept of the Empire?”

Peter the Great’s reforms are widely considered to be one of the most defining moments in Russian history. Beginning as an effort to modernize the country’s military, as the era progressed the reforms expanded, instigating economic development, governmental modernization, intellectual reorientation and social reconstruction.1 The injection of European practices into Russia arguably set the precedence for the onslaught of a top down modernization that has since been a trait of Russian state development, as well as illuminating the beginning of the transition into a form of Russian modernity. The geographical historian Dennis Shaw, reiterates this by suggesting Peter exposed Russia “to the ideas of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Building on the achievements of his father, Peter launched a thoroughgoing reform or modernization of his realm with the aim of transforming it into a major European state.”2 In order to comprehend this transformation of the Russian empire, an appreciation of meaning of the term ‘empire’ is required. Stephen Howe suggests that ‘an empire is a large, composite, multiethnic or multinational political unit, usually created by conquest, and divided between a dominant center and subordinate, sometimes far distant, peripheries.’3 While Howe’s definition provides a coherent basis from which to judge the concept of Empire from a modern day perspective, the question of the transformation of the concept of empire within Russia requires an appreciation of what the concept was considered as within Russia prior to the era of Peter’s reforms. Moreover, it is also important to have an understanding as to what constitutes a transformation. In this instance, the Oxford

1 Denis J.B Shaw, A strong and prosperous condition’ — the geography of state building and social reform in Peter the Great’s Russia (Political Geography 18 (1999) 991–1015) p.992 – URL: - (Date Accessed - May 3, 2013) 2 Denis J.B Shaw, Geographical Practice and its significance in Peter the Great’s Russia (Journal of Historical Geography, 22, 2, 160176, 1996,) p. 161 – URL: - (Date Accessed - May 3, 2013) 3

Stephen Howe, Empire: A very short introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002) p.30


James Crarer 12EUC709 - The Russian Empire English dictionary definition of: “a marked change in form, nature, or appearance”4, provides the most coherent explanation in explaining this particular topic. Moreover, it seems at least to this writer, that unlike in the modern era whereby a transformation of something is generally considered to be ‘positive’, highlighting what we in the western world would consider ‘progression’; analyzing the manner in which Peter’s reforms transformed the concept of empire should not be done so with this air of positive or negative judgment attached to it, thus an appreciation of objectivity should therefore also be applied to such a term. This essay will highlight how the traditional concept of the Russian empire was transformed into a more Europeanized concept of empire through Peter the Great’s reforms. The first part will assess the key elements that made up the traditional concept of empire in the pre-Petrine era, focusing explicitly on the manner in which Muscovite empire was ruled and the importance religion played in that. The second part will assess how the key reforms of Peter the Great represent how the image of the ruler as Emperor and the symbolism this has is hugely influential in the wider transformation of the concept of empire. The concluding argument will suggest the creation of the image of the ‘Emperor’ set in motion the top-down, authoritarian modernization that transformed the concept of the empire as well as becoming an enduring characteristic later imperial and modern Russia.

The first question to pose is: what characteristics made up the concept of empire prior to Peter the Great’s era? In order to answer this question it is important to assess the foundations and structures within which the 17th century Muscovite Empire functioned, thus providing a contextual appreciation to impact of Peter’s reforms. The first important characteristic is the relationship between the state and the Christian Orthodox Church. Modern day interpretations place politics and religion in separate ideological spheres, however such a dichotomy did not exist prior to Peter’s reign. Instead politics and religion were symbiotic entities, informing and influencing one another by occupying the same ideological

Oxford Dictionaries, Definition of Transformation (Oxford University Press April 2010) – URL: (Date Accessed May 09, 2013) 4


James Crarer 12EUC709 - The Russian Empire space. This point is substantiated by Marc Raeff, who suggests: “It is clear that the Muscovite regime never conceived of itself as existing outside the ecclesiastical framework … the tsar and his subjects defined themselves as members of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose teachings functioned as what we call nowadays an ideology.”5 Moreover, the major influences on this particular political ideology and practices were firstly the idea of Moscow as the ‘Third Rome’, with the Tsar considered the ‘heir to the legacy of Rome and Byzantium’ and ‘could be approached only in an attitude of fervent devotion.’6 Thus this clear religious orientation was key in determining the legitimacy of the tsar during that period. His divine image placed him at the center of the concept of ‘empire’; an empire built on strong religious foundations, in which there was no disassociation between the temporal and the spiritual realm. Furthermore, it was this Christian Orthodox foundation that brought new parts of the empire under Russian influence. The establishment of monasteries between 1552 and 1652 in news areas under the tsar’s control helped to imprint a Russian Orthodox identity on the space that had been conquered. 7 Romaneillo summarizes Orthodoxy’s importance, stating: “Muscovy could have an Orthodox tsar as the charismatic symbol of the state, leading a territory filled with diverse peoples, languages, cultures and religions.”8 Moreover, the realm displayed a clear hostility toward the presence of foreigners, which was in contrast to the ideological stance of Peter. Russian culture was protected from external influence through strict controls promulgated by the central power of the Orthodox Church. Such strict controls that appeared to characterize the pre-Petrine Muscovite era is highlighted by Tsar Alexis’s decree in 1675 in which he stated: “Courtiers are forbidden to adopt foreign, German (inozemskikh i nemetskikh) and other customs, to cut their hair on their heads and to wear robes, tunics and hats of foreign design, they are to forbid their servants to do so.”9 Evidently the Muscovite empire prior the reign of Peter the Great reflected a deeply religious,

Marc Raeff, Understanding Imperial Russia: State and Sovereignty in the Old Regime (Colombia University Press USA, 1984) p.2 Raeff (1984) pp.4-5 7 Matthew Romaniello, Mission Delayed: The Russian Orthodox Church after the Conquest of Kazan (Church History. 76 (2007), Nr. 3, pp. 511-540) pp.521-523 8 Matthew Romaniello, The Elusive Empire: Kazan and the Creation of Russia 1552-1671 (Univeristy of Wisconsin Press USA, 2012) p.23 9 “Tsar Alexis Decree of 1675” cited in: Lindsey Hughes, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great (Yale University Press USA, 1998) p. 5
6 5


James Crarer 12EUC709 - The Russian Empire internationally isolated empire. With this contextual appreciation in mind, the question to pose for the next section is how did Peter the Great’s reforms transform this traditional concept? It can be argued that the key point in understanding this transformation is to appreciate how Peter changed the ideological image of himself as ‘Tsar’ to ‘Emperor of Russia’. Through this appreciation of Peter’s own philosophical lenses through which he viewed his own rule, one is able to gain a greater understanding of how this view resonated through his reforms, which ultimately transformed the concept of the empire. To begin with it is important to assess how his western image was shaped. As Shaw highlights, Peter’s exposure in his early life to such people as the Swiss Franz Lefort and the Scot Patrick Gordon, meant he was exposed to the ideas of a European world alien to most seventeenth century Russians from a young age, therefore imprinting a western perspective on him that made him think and behave in a manner unconventional by Russian standards.10 In addition much of the historical literature on him suggests that he was a hugely practical man of action. Benedict Sumner accentuates this by suggesting that as a boy he was ‘gifted with exception physique, keen intelligence, great powers of observation and a good memory’11; and then at the end of his reign how he was ‘above all a great man of action’ and how as a ruler he possessed both an ‘inquisitive mind and impetuous temperament.’12 This attitude is substantiated when one considers the trips that Peter made during the 1690s, in particular 1697–1698 to England where he worked as a shipbuilder, meeting technicians, scientists and other practical men to whom he recruited into his plan of modernizing Russia. 13 Moreover his appreciation of European modernization is substantiated further as he is reported to have stated: “The English island is the best and most beautiful in the world.”14 Such admiration is supported further by the work of Vladimir Matveev, who emphasizes a close relationship between Peter and the British monarch William III. Their first meeting was held at Utrecht and it is suggested that the key consequence was William III’s ‘de facto recognition of Peter I's desire of 'Enlarging' his 'Dominions'’,

10 11

Shaw (1996) p.162-163 Benedict Sumner, Peter the Great and the Emergence of Russia (The English Universities Press London UK, 1968) p.22 12 Sumner (1968) p.208 13 Shaw (1996) p.163 14 ‘Peter the Great quote’ Cited in: Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great (Ballantine New York, 1981) p.216


James Crarer 12EUC709 - The Russian Empire considered to be the first form of support of Russia’s imperial ambitions by a western ruler.15 Such recognition highlights how Peter’s image as a worldly, progressive emperor, rather than a backward and isolated Muscovite tsar, substantiates the influence his image had on transforming the concept of the Russian empire. Furthermore, through the subsequent meetings between the two monarchs, and Peter’s meetings with members of the English political elite, the tsar formed ‘a more or less comprehensive perception of English society and politics’ particularly with regard to how the government apparatus operated, how it was administered and organized.16 Thus, this arguably was a direct influence on Peter’s ‘General Regulations’ of 1720, which were considered to embody the administrative precepts and notions of modern politics and thus guiding Russian bureaucratic practice.17 Moreover, this close relationship between the two monarchs is accentuated by Matveev, citing a letter between John Ellis to Joseph Williamson on 8 February, which stated: “The Czar has been several times privately to wait on his Majesty's at Kensington … His Majesty intends to give him a Garter before he goes away, there being two to be disposed of, by the death of the King of Sweden and the Earl of Peterborough.”18 Arguably, what these points emphasize is Peter’s yearning for not only knowledge of European concepts and practices of rule, but also a wider desire to gain acceptance and acknowledgement of Russia from the western powers. These external influences arguably shaped the nature of Peter’s identity, the basis of his reign and thus the development of his image of the tsar into Emperor of Russia. Moreover, the traditional notion of the tsar as representing a ‘divine’ ruler appears to have been rejected by Peter, transforming the religious character of supreme power within the Russian empire. As Raeff suggests, “the administration ceased to play a religious role, whereas the church was required to take an active part in temporal life. In the place of the most pious tsar, we find the sovereign emperor,

Vladimir Matveev, Summit diplomacy of the seventeenth century: William III and Peter I in Utrecht and London, 1697–98 (Diplomacy & Statecraft, 11:3, 29-48, 2000) p.38 – URL: - (Date Accessed May 10, 2013) 16 Matveev (2000) p.40 17 Raeff (1984) p.44 18 Letter between John Ellis and Joseph Williamson February 8, 1698 - cited in: Matveev (2000) p.40


James Crarer 12EUC709 - The Russian Empire wearing a European-style military uniform, residing in the western extremity of his empire.”19 In addition to this, he still remained at the head of the church, and as emperor he remained the head of the state, enshrined in his Table of Ranks of 1722 that established social and legal relations in imperial Russia.20 This break from the empire being based upon the notion of politics and religion occupying the same ideological space is a fundamental element of how Peter’s reforms not only transformed the nature of empire but also in terms of this changing image of him as a ruler. The widespread reorganization that Peter strove for within the government, military and society all highlight this ambition of his to detach Russia from a past that reflected a lack of cohesion and organization, which inevitably gave rise to notion of an ‘empire by accident’. His frequent encounters with westerners, provided the basis for the image of a modern, militarized and autocratic empire to him. A key element of his military reform was his transformation of the nobilities military service into officialdom, as Raeff suggests: “Nobles became functionaries responsible for carrying out tasks assigned to them by the state or its ruler and intended to ensure optimal exploitation of all available resources.”21 Arguably, such explicit reorganization of the noble class represented a conscious desire to maintain a strong level of autocratic control over the nobility, thus further substantiating his own supreme power within the Russian empire. This argument is substantiated well by Lindsey Hughes who highlights the clear disparity between the portraits of Tsar Alexis – which present a ‘static figure, the Holy Orthodox tsar clad in cumbersome robes of state, and the majority of those of Peter that represent the image of the Emperor and ‘soldier, surrounded by military and naval symbols.’22 Such disparity within this imagery thus highlights the clear significance of this ideological shift in the nature of the ruler and thus the influence this then had in the transformation of the concept of the Russian empire. What is evident from these various points is the clear significance of the development of Peter’s image as Emperor from what had been traditionally associated with passive, isolated and

19 20

Raeff (1984) p.47 ibid. p.41 21 ibid. p.44 22 Hughes (1998) p.63


James Crarer 12EUC709 - The Russian Empire deeply religious previous rulers. His image represented an enlightened ideological shift, away from these traditional presumptuous ideas of the Russian ruler, and toward a modern and westernized image. Moreover, placed a top of the social strata, it set the precedence for the reforms that ultimately shaped the new concept of the Russian Empire. To conclude and with these factors in mind, one must again pose the question: “In what ways did Peter the Great’s reforms transform the concept of the Empire?” In answer to this question it is evident that the reforms played a key role in westernizing elements of the empire and therefore transforming its tangible nature, influencing particularly the external perception of Russia. However, as has been highlighted, the key point is that it was Peter’s image as Emperor of Russia that was fundamental in instigating this transformation. It is therefore the view of this writer that without this concerted ideological shift about the nature of the ruler himself, the reforms would never have come to the fore. Peter’s own influence was then fundamental in transforming the concept of the Russian empire.

Word Count: 2,227

Howe S., ‘Empire: A very short introduction.’ Oxford University Press, 2002. Hughes L., ‘Russia in the Age of Peter the Great.’ Yale University Press USA, 1998. Massie R., ‘Peter the Great.’ Ballantine, New York 1981.


James Crarer 12EUC709 - The Russian Empire Matveev V., ‘Summit diplomacy of the seventeenth century: William III and Peter I in Utrecht and London, 1697–98.’ Diplomacy & Statecraft, 11:3, 29-48, 2000. URL: - (Date Accessed May 10, 2013)

Oxford Dictionaries, ‘Definition of Transformation.’ Oxford University Press April 2010. URL: - (Date Accessed May 09, 2013) Raeff M., ‘Understanding Imperial Russia: State and Sovereignty in the Old Regime.’ Colombia University Press USA, 1984. Romaniello M., ‘Mission Delayed: The Russian Orthodox Church after the Conquest of Kazan.’ Church History. 76 (2007), Nr. 3, pp. 511-540. Romaniello M., ‘The Elusive Empire: Kazan and the Creation of Russia 1552-1671.’ Univeristy of Wisconsin Press USA, 2012.

Shaw D., ‘A strong and prosperous condition.’ — the geography of state building and social reform in Peter the Great’s Russia.’ Political Geography 18, 991–1015, 1999. URL: - (Date Accessed - May 3, 2013)

Shaw D., ‘Geographical Practice and its significance in Peter the Great’s Russia.’ Journal of Historical Geography, 22, 2, 160-176, 1996. URL: (Date Accessed - May 3, 2013)

Sumner B., ‘Peter the Great and the Emergence of Russia.’ The English Universities Press London UK, 1968.


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