Peter the Great
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Peter the Great

M.S. Anderson

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eBook - ePub

Peter the Great

M.S. Anderson

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An excellent introduction to the formidable life and career of Peter the Great and his impact on Russia. M.S. Anderson assesses his aims and achievements at home and abroad, and examines the pressures and restrictions that shaped his attitudes and limited his actions.

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Chapter 1
Russia before Peter: Modernization and Resistance

The Russia into which Peter was born, on 9 June 1672,1 was already in some ways a part of Europe, or rapidly becoming one. It differed radically, none the less, from the states and societies to be found further west. Though much smaller in terms of territory than it was to become under Peter and his successors, it already covered a huge area. In the west it was severed from the Baltic by Sweden’s possession of Finland, Ingria and Estonia. The great fortress-city of Smolensk, only 150 miles west of Moscow, bitterly contested for many years, had been finally wrested from the Poles as recently as 1654, and not until 1667 was the Polish Republic forced to surrender Kiev. Moreover, Russia had no outlet on the Black Sea, from which it was separated by hundreds of miles of largely uninhabited steppe as well as by the Moslem Nogais and Tatars of the Khanate of the Crimea, a vassal-state of the Ottoman empire since the later fifteenth century. Its only usable coastline, on the White Sea in the far north, where the new port of Archangel had been established at the end of the sixteenth century, was blocked by ice for much of the year. In the Caucasus, though its influence was growing, Russia as yet held no territory. It had nevertheless, in spite of these still restricted European frontiers, already shown both the desire and the capacity for territorial growth on a great scale. In the 1550s Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) had made a gigantic forward step by conquering the Tatar khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan, thus gaining control of the whole course of the river Volga. From the 1580s onwards the exploration and conquest of Siberia had been pushed ahead with remarkable speed, so that by the 1630s Russian adventurers had already reached the shores of the north Pacific. Long before Peter’s birth, therefore, his country had become, in mere size, a giant who dwarfed all the states of Europe.
This enormous territory was as yet undeveloped or only inadequately developed, and almost everywhere very thinly populated. In the north, vast tracts of tundra and forest supported only hunters, fur-trappers and a little primitive and precarious agriculture. The potentialities of Siberia, in the main still peopled only by native tribes, were almost completely unexploited, as indeed they were to remain until the present century. Even in central Russia, in the area around Moscow whose expansion had produced the huge territorial aggregation which Peter inherited, the population was scanty and the level of economic development low by west-European standards. It is impossible to say with any accuracy what the total population was; perhaps a figure of 10–12 million for the second half of the seventeenth century is the most plausible. Some signs of economic growth were visible. From the sixteenth century onwards, with the emergence of larger and to some extent unified internal markets, a tendency for different areas to specialize in the production of particular commodities had become more marked. Thus iron was smelted and worked in the north-west and around Tula, south of Moscow; linen and canvas were also produced in the north-west, grain most abundantly in the middle Volga valley and the area south of Moscow; and salt was an important product on the White Sea coast, in the Perm area and on the lower Volga. But the overwhelming impression is still one of potentially enormous resources exploited very inadequately if at all.
To some extent this was a matter of geography. Great distances and an extreme ‘continental’ climate, with severe winters, burning summers and a shorter growing season for crops than in western Europe, were in themselves barriers to economic progress. For each grain of wheat or rye sown only three or four were harvested; this was far lower than the standard yield in the more advanced areas of western Europe. Such a scanty yield meant that the overwhelming majority of the population had to till the ground if any kind of organized society were to survive. These natural obstacles, however, were reinforced by man-made ones. The rulers of Russia had forged a form of government more completely autocratic, in both form and substance, than any to be found elsewhere in Europe. The services rendered to the country by the autocracy were real. From the time of the Grand Duke Ivan III of Muscovy (1462–1505), a line of rulers had struggled, with considerable success, to unify Russia, to extend its territory and to defend it against the enemies - Poles, Tatars, Swedes - who confronted it across exposed and badly-defined frontiers. Military defence and territorial growth demanded strong and centralized, if necessary ruthless, government. But rule of this kind involved an increasingly complete monopoly by the ruler and the central government of initiative and decision-making of all significant kinds. New decrees in the seventeenth century still began with the traditional formula, ‘the tsar has decreed and the boyars have assented’; but in fact members of old boyar families and the ‘feudal’ influences they represented were by the later part of the century becoming less important than an inner ring of personal advisers of the tsars. Many of these were drawn from relatively minor landowning families, though they were often promoted to the rank of boyar. The disappearance under Peter of the Boyar Council (Boyarskaya Duma) was merely the culmination of a development which had begun a good deal earlier. The obsequiousness which even the greatest nobles showed to the tsar, describing themselves as his ‘slaves’ and prostrating themselves before him, together with their acceptance of humiliating corporal punishments, showed how little they possessed the outlook of a west-European noblesse, with all that this implied in terms of a sense of personal honour. In the first decades of the century it had seemed that the Assembly of the Land (Zemskii Sobor) might become a permanent feature of Russian government and even a check on the tsar’s autocracy. This was a representative body made up mainly of representatives of the service class, the ‘serving men’ (sluzhilie lyudi) who provided the tsars with most of their army and their rudimentary administration and who were normally rewarded for their services with grants of land. It also included, however, spokesmen of the town merchant class, and for a moment seemed to be on the point of gaining real power. But after the early 1650s the Assembly ceased to be called together; instead the government, for its own purposes and at its own convenience, summoned only occasional meetings of particular and limited social groups - merchants, ‘serving men’, or the representatives of Moscow. From this quasi-parliamentary direction no effective tempering of tsarist autocracy was to be hoped for. Even the officials through whom the tsar ruled were kept under continual scrutiny, guided by meticulous instructions and deprived as far as possible of all powers of initiative. Seventeenth-century Russia was thus a society in which there was no secular institution able or even willing to challenge the autocracy of the monarch. In it any display of independence or initiative, whether on a class or an institutional basis, was distrusted and discouraged.
It was largely through the landholding service class that the tsars, ruling an overwhelmingly agrarian society, made their authority effective. Whether as officials, as soldiers, or in a few cases as diplomats, it was members of this group who staffed the state-machine. Often poor, very often uneducated, they frequently depended heavily on government service for a livelihood. The tsar in his turn could not govern without their help. The result was a partnership which, although not always easy, proved lasting and for centuries gave a distinctive flavour to almost every aspect of Russian life. Most landlords still held their estates only on a life tenure in return for service. In practice, however, the traditional distinction between an estate held on these conditions (pomestie) and one held by the more prestigious hereditary tenure (vochina) was now becoming increasingly formal and unreal, since service was exacted irrespective of the type of tenure. More important, the government by the second half of the seventeenth century was in effect guaranteeing to the landlord, by the extension of serfdom, a secure supply of peasant labour. In 1649 a new law-code (Ulozhenie) bound the peasant holding land from a lord permanently to the estate on which he worked. Henceforth it was impossible for him legally to move without a certificate of permission (otpusknaya) from the lord. This legislation, the climax of a long process of cutting down peasant freedom of movement which had begun in the fifteenth century, consolidated the position of serfdom as the most fundamental and pervasive of all Russian social institutions. Free peasants still existed in considerable numbers; and even the many affected by the Ulozhenie retained significant rights - they could sue in the law-courts and own movable property. Their legal position was still much superior to that of the slaves (kholopy) who formed the lowest stratum of society. Nevertheless by the second half of the century the largest single element in the population of Russia was made up of unfree peasants paying dues to their lord in labour or kind. Given the situation in which Russia found itself, the need to pin down a scanty population in a huge undeveloped country and force it to support the service class of soldiers and officials essential for defence and the workings of even a primitive administrative machine, some development of this kind was perhaps inevitable. Heavy losses of population in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and perhaps also the territorial growth of the Russian state from the 1550s, were powerful forces tending in this direction. In a sense, it can be argued, the peasant was enserfed not to the land or to the person of the landowner but indirectly to the state. In the last analysis he worked for the state, with the landlord as an intermediary; and Peter’s policies and the thinking behind them intensified this aspect of the situation. But serfdom, however inevitable, was being extended and made more rigid in Russia at a time when it was contracting and becoming less important in much of the rest of Europe. It therefore tended to mark the country, in the eyes of foreigners, as backward and semi-barbaric; and in the long run serfdom was to become one of the most intractable obstacles to constructive change.
Nothing showed more clearly the social and economic gulf which separated Russia from the more developed parts of western Europe than the weakness and unimportance of its towns. Even if settlements of as few as 1,000 inhabitants are regarded as towns, it is probable that less than a twentieth of the population was urban. Moscow was an exception. It had a population of 150,000–200,000 and impressed foreign visitors as one of the greatest cities in Europe (though their admiration when they saw it at a distance often turned to disappointment when they could study it at closer quarters); the German Adam Olearius, who saw it in the 1630s, thought it numbered as many as 40,000 houses. No other city except Astrakhan, hundreds of miles away on the Caspian, held even a tenth as many people. But townsmen were slowly coming to make up a larger fraction of the total population. An enumeration of 1678 showed an increase of 24 per cent in their numbers over an earlier one of 1652, though the figures are unreliable and hard to interpret. Yet the urban population remained proportionately much smaller than in western Europe. It was subject not merely to the epidemics which afflicted towns everywhere in this period (plague is said to have killed almost 80 per cent of the taxpaying population of Moscow in 1654–55) but also to devastating fires which frequently ravaged towns built almost entirely of wood. Moscow, for example, suffered great fires in 1626 and 1648; the old and still important provincial city of Yaroslavl in 1658, 1659 and 1680.
The smallness and vulnerability of Russian towns partly explain the complete subjection to the central government which had for long been characteristic of them. This also owed much to the fact that many of them, probably at least a third, were primarily or exclusively military settlements which had been placed on the country’s southern or eastern frontiers for defence against the Crimean Tatars or non-Russian tribes such as the Bashkirs. In the seventeenth century as much as half of the whole urban population of the country may have been made up of people whose functions were military or governmental. The social structure of even small Russian towns was complex: but even the richest merchants, the gosti (of whom there were in all no more than 300–400), did not enjoy the relative independence of the bourgeois of western Europe. Unlike his equivalent in the west, the Russian townsman enjoyed no taxation privileges. In so far as he was called on to take any share in local administration he did so under the control of the provincial governor, the voevod, and not as a member of a self-governing urban community. When he acted in this way he was performing, usually reluctantly, a service to the state, not exercising a right. Nor had he much more freedom of movement than the serf in the countryside. The increasingly inflexible structure of Muscovite society demanded that, to ease the collection of taxes, he should remain as bound to his town as the serf was to the estate upon which he worked. In 1665 a new searching-out of runaway townsmen was ordered by the government; and in 1674 Yaroslavl and Vologda petitioned successfully for the forcible return to them of former inhabitants now living in Moscow. Not until 1699, as a result of Peter’s rather unsuccessful effort of that year at urban reform, did the town population acquire, at least for a time, the right to move freely. Moreover, although Russian merchants showed a certain amount of enterprise as far as trade with foreign countries was concerned, their efforts during the seventeenth century to branch out into industry were nearly always unimportant and small-scale.2 Nor do we find any contributions to Russian cultural life from the merchant class of the kind made in western Europe. Even the wealthiest Russian traders owned few, if any, books; and those they did possess seem largely to have been conventional works of religion.3
Seventeenth-century Russia was thus a highly rigid and restrictive society; and at the same time it was singularly lacking in institutions through which men might exercise some initiative and some control of their own lives. It was a society still in many ways unformed, disjointed, full of contradictions. Side by side with increasing official efforts to immobilize more and more of the population and end free movement went large-scale flight to the frontier areas of the south and the east, where the effective authority of Moscow was slight or non-existent. Among the Cossacks of the Ukraine (semi-independent communities made up originally of refugees from Russian or Polish rule) or in the largely non-Russian areas of the Urals, fugitive serfs, religious dissidents, anyone in flight from the oppressive authority of Moscow, might hope for refuge. While the central government sought to assert its control by minutely detailed legislation, and opposition was severely punished, there was a stubborn undercurrent of popular resistance which often expressed itself in anarchic violence. It is significant that the brigands, who created one of the most intractable of the problems facing the tsar’s government, were the heroes of many folk-tales; oral epics (byliny) often credited them with magical powers such as invulnerability to bullets.4 And Peter himself had to issue frequent decrees (for example, in 1699, 1714, 1716, 1719 and 1724) forbidding the giving of shelter to bandits and prescribing severe punishment for those who did. Resentment of bondage, of government exactions, of oppressive administration, broke out most spectacularly in the revolt which, under the leadership of Stenka Razin, set aflame a great area of south-east Russia in 1667–71. Razin, a Cossack, dreamt of introducing the free Cossack form of government into the tsardom itself; but in practice this amounted merely to a desire ‘to take Moscow and to beat to death all you boyars and landlords and the government men’. In spite of its lack of constructive or well-defined objectives, however, this famous rising (which was also sympathetically reflected in the folk-songs and tales of the period) showed with frightening clarity the potentially explosive popular grievances and anger which simmered, barely concealed, under the surface of seventeenth-century Russia.
The greatest and most far-reaching of all conflicts in the two decades before Peter’s birth was, however, a religious one. From a remarkable churchman, the Patriarch Nikon, came the one serious effort of the age to create a power able to counterbalance the autocracy of the tsar. Head of the Church in Russia in 1652, at the early age of forty-seven, Nikon introduced over the next fifteen years a series of liturgical and ritual reforms - making the sign of the cross with three fingers instead of two and singing three hallelujahs instead of two were the most important - which had the effect of aligning Russian Orthodoxy with that of Constantinople. These changes, which also involved the repudiation of ancient and revered liturgical works if they differed from Greek originals, horrified and infuriated a great body of nationalist religious conservatives in Russia. Nikon, a learned man and a passionate reformer, stood for a more critical and intellectually questioning attitude than that hitherto dominant in the Russian Church. His reforms implied a recognition that, as Russia’s contacts with the outside world developed, its religious life must be put on a firmer intellectual basis than the blind acceptance of tradition. Nevertheless his opponents were often sustained by a fanatical loathing of ‘Greek innovations’ and a determination to adhere to practices felt to be sanctified by time. (In fact, the making of the sign of the cross with two fingers, the most emotionally charged of all the points in dispute, had been prescribed only as late as 1551, by a church council held in Moscow.) The result was a deep and unbridgeable cleavage between different aspects of Orthodoxy in Russia.
Simultaneously Nikon put forward far-reaching claims on behalf of the church against the ruler. For several years after his appointment as Patriarch he dominated the young Tsar Alexis (1645–76), receiving the title of ‘Great Sovereign’ (Velikii Gosudar) which was normally reserved to the ruler alone, and asserting the supremacy of ecclesiastical over secular power and the derivation of the latter from the former. Conflict soon followed. The growing subjection of church to state in non-ecclesiastical affairs and efforts (in the Ulozhenie of 1649) to prevent the accumulation of still more land in the hands of clerics aroused his particular anger. In 1658 Alexis deprived Nikon of his title of ‘Great Sovereign’; but it was not until the end of 1666 that an ecumenical council in Moscow, attended by representatives of the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem, finally deprived him of the patriarchate. This council reiterated the traditional subjection of the church to the tsar in all secular matters, thus clearly rejecting Nikon’s claims in this sphere; but in 1667 it confirmed his ritual and liturgical reforms and excommunicated those who refused to accept them. This decision formalized and made perm...

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