Peter the Great’s Westernization of RussiaPeter
the Great’s Westernization of Russia
In 1689, Tsar Peter I forced his way into
power in Russia. Better known as Peter the Great, he overthrew his
half-sister’s regime and took control of the state. At this time,
Russia was dealing with rapid expansion, yet it was still a very backwards
country compared to the rest of Europe. Russia was also dealing with
economic woes. Peter loathed this backward condition and devised
a plan. Within ten years of gaining power, he began to travel through
western Europe in search of skilled workers. On his tour of western
Europe, Peter met kings, scientists, craft workers and ship builders.
He even worked undercover in a Netherlands shipyard in hopes of learning
better methods of crafting vessels. Eighteen months later Peter returned
to 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 ideas
used by Ivan the Terrible in the fifteenth century. He ruled as a
tyrant and held himself above the law. Peter alarmed the nobility
and churchmen with his new objective. He snipped off the beards of
the Boyars, land-owning men of influence and wealth, and ended their sway
in government. Peter was determined to “civilize” nobility and even
composed a book of manners. This book forbid such actions as spitting
on floors and eating without utensils. He also promoted courtly discussions
between men and women. Eventually he ended up increasing their power
over the serfs, the countryside peasants. Next, Peter fortified Russia’s
army and navy to ensure a strong military, established a modern iron industry
to promote production, and expanded and added additional roads and canals
for the purpose of stimulating trade. Farming and manufacturing were
also encouraged by the tsar. Unfortunately for the serfs they were
not only burdened with the task of mandatory labor for the state, but they
were 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 who
opposed westernization, executed and hung in public. He left
their decomposing bodies on display in front of the Kremlin for months
to dissuade challenges to his authority. He even tortured his own
son when he voiced opposition to Peter’s wave of change. These merciless
actions stunned everyone and proved his determination and power.
Peter also appointed a personal agent
to regulate the affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church. This led
to the church becoming a virtual extension of the state. In
1709, Peter defeated Swedish forces at the battle of Poltava and gained
land on the Gulf of Finland. He then moved the capital of Russia
to the newly constructed port city of St. Petersburg. It is here
that Peter flaunted his country’s rising wealth and created Peterhof, an
elaborate palace emulating Louis XIV’s Versailles. St. Petersburg
was built by serfs and ensured Russia’s access to the west.
Peter the Great died in 1725. One
major thing he left out of his idea of westernization appears to be the
exploration and colonization of far off lands. He was more focused
on strengthening Russia from within. While England, France, Spain
and Portugal were heavily involved in exploration, Peter was working diligently
to bring his nation to the same level as his western neighbors. He
carried 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 economy
and its status in Europe. Peter had paved the road to a more powerful
positon in the world economy.
The reign of Peter the Great was not one
of grand humanity but it led his country into the future. His hard
work and stringency created a nation of power and influence out of the
backwards and laggard realm that he had acquired. He was a
stern man, often overly barbaric, but he achieved many of his “westernization”
objectives. Without his rule, Russia may not have become the powerful
nation that it needed to be in order to survive in the