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The Absolutism of Peter the Great in His Reforms

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Peter’s social reform was the attempt to reorganise Russia’s class system. The establishment of the Table of Ranks ‘promised ennoblement to any commoner who attained a sufficiently high level of rank’, essentially intending to rid Russia of corruption and to encourage state service. Although initially successful in purging old nobility from high levels of rank, the Table of Ranks soon lost its purpose under Peter’s successors. It became an instrument to class division and encouraged social hierarchy, broadening the gap between the upper and lower classes. This was mainly due to state service awards, which enabled the nobility to attain greater privileges and thus solidify their grip on serfs. Other oppressive policies included restrictions placed on serfs, such as being unable to leave their master’s estate without written permission. Peter’s oppression of serfs was very ‘non-western’ and thus also unmodern, when placed in context with other European rulers of the 18th century. For instance, Frederick the Great (1740-86) epitomised the idea of an ‘Enlightened Despot’, as a distinguished figure in the movement of enlightened absolutism. He effectively established innovative and progressive policies which abolished serfdom in Prussian Pomerania. It must be noted, however, that Frederick’s reign began two decades after Peter’s death and that enlightened absolutism was a foreign concept during the Petrine era and only fully found its way into Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great. Still, Peter’s social reform must be considered as backwards and less modern than his other reforms. Hughes maintains that ‘Peter’s cultural reforms led to a (…) deep rift between the elite and the mass of the population’. This is a well-founded argument which reveals Peter’s unmodern approach to Russian society and class, by encouraging the oppression under which the lower members of society suffered. When compared to Frederick the Great and his progressive belief of protecting his people and ensuring Prussian prosperity, Peter cannot be considered to have implemented successful reforms in regards to furthering and modernising the class system of Russian society.

Peter’s new capital of St Petersburg was the physical embodiment of his efforts to modernise his country and the ‘visible symbol of the new Russia’. The city was crucial to the progression of Russia, economically, diplomatically and socially. The new capital stimulated trade with the West, being a geographically useful port westwards. Tar, caviar and potash were traded with foreign European countries, thus successfully adopting the European mercantilism in trend during this century. Diplomatically, St Petersburg offered Peter a strong base to assert his influence in Europe, in particular in Poland, which was geographically located nearest. Russian presence in Poland would later prove to be crucial in the Partition of Poland (1772), where the Russian empire would further expand her territories. This increase in communication with the West as a large step for Russian modernisation as it enabled the country to have a foothold in European politics. Socially, however, Peter’s reforms cannot be considered as modern, in comparison to his other achievements. The city was significant as a social hub where foreign culture could be nurtured, yet when foreign ideas and behaviours were influenced, the gulf between the upper and lower classes of society merely widened. Westernisation ‘reached only a tiny segment of the population’, causing the ‘upper echelons of society to use foreign terms as a form of social snobbishness’. This led to resentment from lower classes towards the upper classes, and created an inflated animosity between the ‘educated minority at the top [of society] and a dead weight of ignorance and conservatism at the bottom’. Anderson argues, however, that ‘Peter cannot be fairly blamed for having widened (this rift between classes)’. This argument is further backed by the Marquis de Custine, who states that ‘the magnificence and immensity of St Petersburg are tokens set up by the Russians to honour their future power’. Both argue that the long-term impact of St Petersburg as the Russian capital far out-weighs any short-term drawbacks. Despite the unmodern nature of deepening the rift between social demographics, St Petersburg represented much more than that: it was a physical commitment to Western ideals and paved the way for further Russian modernisation. The city’s tactical location, coupled with its symbolic significance, enabled it to be the ‘epitome of Peter’s policy of Westernisation’.

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Peter certainly modernised Russia to a great degree. Having examined Peter’s reforms in the context of other European rulers in the same century, it is clear that there was a significant attempt in pursuing the precedent set by leading Western powers in this period. The birth of the Russian Empire can be attributed to Peter’s reign, with his military campaigns leaving a lasting impact on the expansion of Russian territory, which can be considered as a good adaptation to the expansionist nature of other European powers. Domestically, the centralisation of Peter’s government and the Russian Orthodox Church fortified his absolute authority over Russia, in a manner akin to Louis XIV and other significant monarchs of the 18th century. Economically, Peter did indeed follow the trend of Western mercantilism, with effective stimulation of the Russian industry to produce the maximum amount of Russian exports. Socially, Peter had both successes and failures in his reforms. Despite the general short-term drawbacks, it is fair to say that Peter pioneered the westernisation of Russian culture by introducing Western influences in his society. His biggest failure is perhaps his inability to narrow the gap between the upper and lower classes of society. Although the foundation of St Petersburg was accompanied by multiple issues, it is important to note the significance of this new capital as the spearhead of Russian modernisation. Overall, it is fair to say that Peter modernised Russia to the extent that she became relevant on the diplomatic map of Europe. This notable achievement would continue on to change the course of Russian history.

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