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  Unit 10: Absolutism / Peter the Great
Changes in Appearance   Primary Source

In order to transform Russia into a European state, Peter believed that Russians had to change their culture, which he viewed as backward and medieval in nature. For Peter, becoming modern in outlook required Russians to change their physical appearance and look more "European." In these two laws, Peter required the Russian nobility to dress in a "German" style, and to shave their long beards, which he believed to be signs of their backwardness.

The Barber

Peter's Decree on Shaving met with fierce opposition from the Old Believer Communities. This lubok, or woodblock print, depicts a barber attempting to cut off the beard of an Old Believer. According to the customs of the religious dissenters known as Old Believers, the shaving of a beard was considered to be blasphemous.

Peter and Serfdom   Primary Source

Peter's intent on catching up with other European countries, in addition to his desire to improve the Russian military, led to the establishment of factories throughout Russia. At the time, however, Russia remained an agricultural society founded on serfdom. In the first reform that follows, Peter decreed that entire villages of serfs could be purchased for work in new factories. The second edict ensured that serfdom would remain in Russia by upholding the right of landowners to sell their serfs, while ensuring that sales would not break up families.

Reforming the Church   Primary Source

When the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church died in 1700, Peter did not name a successor, and instead relied on a handful of clerics to administer the church. Traditional Muscovite theory had stressed the tsar's role as one of maintaining the true Orthodox faith and society, but Peter emphasized a more activist and secular rule. Influenced in part by Protestant political theory that justified monarchical control over church affairs, Peter set out to replace the office of patriarch with a "Holy Synod," essentially a government ministry in charge of church affairs. Once established, the Holy Synod ensured that the church no longer enjoyed an autonomous position in Russian society.

The Table of Ranks   Primary Source

One of Peter's most significant reforms was the Table of Ranks. It listed fourteen parallel ranks for officers and officials in every branch of state service: the military, civil service, and the court. According to its provisions, the Table of Ranks required Russians to serve the state, and bestowed noble rank on those who successfully climbed up the ladder of ranks. Although Peter's successors modified the Table of Ranks, it lasted until 1917, making it one of Peter's most lasting reforms.

Victory at Poltava, 1709

Peter the Great's reign was marked by consistant warfare, and many scholars believe that the impetus for nearly all of Peter's reforms stemmed from his desire to make Russia a great military power. This painting celebrates Peter's greatest victory, at Poltava in 1709 against the Swedes, a victory that established Russia as the dominant power in northern Europe. Peter's reforms also paved the way for portraiture and other secular forms of art to take hold in Russia, a process one historian has called "the Petrine revolution in Russian art."

Problems of Succession   Primary Source

The scope of Peter's reforms ensured that his successors would have to carry on his various projects. Alexei, Peter's son by his first wife, showed no signs of wanting to carry on his father's wishes, perhaps a result of Peter's heavy-handed attempts to mold his character. In this letter written to his son from 1715, Peter expresses his dissatisfaction with Alexei's character and his apparent unwillingness to learn about warfare, which served as the basis for both Peter's reforms and Russia's entry into the status of a European power. One year after he received this letter, Alexei fled abroad. Peter persuaded Alexei to return to Russia, and when he arrived, had Alexei arrested and tortured. In 1718, Alexei died under mysterious circumstances while still imprisoned. Rumors have circulated ever since that Peter participated in the torture and murder of his son. When Peter's only other son died in infancy one year after Alexei's death, it provoked a century of succession crises that did much to undermine Peter's reforms.

Drinking at Peter's Palace   Primary Source

Peter's coarse behavior and proclivity for jest became the stuff of legend both during his reign and long afterward. Peter established the All-Mad, All-Jesting, All-Drunken Assembly early in his reign, and forced his court to participate in its drunken revelries, which mocked religion and the rigid court structure in Russia. Peter also forced foreign dignitaries to engage in drinking contests, as the following passage from the Dutch envoy to St. Petersburg, Friedrich Weber, reveals.

St. Petersburg

Founded by Peter in 1703, the city of St. Petersburg (later changed to Petrograd, then Leningrad, now back to its original name) has become one of the great cities in the world. Peter wanted a new capital to replace Moscow, and the tsar ordered a city to be built near the Baltic Sea, on a marshy river delta. Many Russians lost their lives building Peter's capital among the islands that made up the land around the Neva River. For Peter, however, the construction of his city became one of the enduring legacies of his reign. This print depicts St. Petersburg as it appeared in the 1760s, when it had already become a bustling port.

Peter as Antichrist   Primary Source

Peter's changes provoked a great deal of opposition throughout Russia. Among the Old Believers who had resisted the church reforms that predated Peter, the reforming tsar came to be seen as the Antichrist, as this document explains.

"He Has Given Birth to Russia"   Primary Source

Feofan Prokopovich (1681-1736), an Orthodox cleric who had served as one of the main authors of Peter's church reforms, gave the following eulogy at Peter's funeral in 1725. In this speech, Prokopovich claims that Peter had given birth to modern Russia, and he likened him to Biblical figures. Prokopovich's eulogy established the terms that later became part of the official Petrine myth.

"The Bronze Horseman"  Audio Source Primary Source

Descended from an African slave given to Peter I and later freed, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is considered to be Russia's greatest poet. In one of his most famous works, "The Bronze Horseman," Pushkin perfectly captures the complexity of Peter's legacy. Although the poem expresses a love for St. Petersburg, Pushkin also contemplates the relationship between the individual and the Russian state founded by Peter. The first excerpt from the poem describes the poet's love for Peter's capital, while the second section features the protagonist of the poem, Yevgeny, who is chased by the Bronze Horseman statue of Peter throughout the city. Unable to escape the statue, Yevgeny goes mad and is never able to face Peter (and his legacy) again.

"The Bronze Horseman"

In 1782, the French sculpter unveiled his bronze equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. Facing the Neva River, the statue has come to symbolize Peter's legacy and his city, known as "The Window to the West." Catherine II (1763-1796) commissioned the statue in an attempt to link her rule to that of her "great" predecessor.

The Reforming Tsar's Revolution   Secondary Source

In this article, Cynthia Whittaker argues that Peter the Great's reforms deserve to be called a revolution, particularly in Peter's ability to introduce a new style and substance of rule in Russia. Peter's reign also marked an important turning point in the history of European monarchies, according to Whittaker, because his role as "reforming tsar" became the model for enlightened absolutist rulers elsewhere.

"Progress Through Coercion"   Secondary Source

Evgenii Anisimov, a historian at the St. Petersburg Branch of the Institute of Russian History, offers a different perspective in this selection from his work on Peter's legacy. Anisimov characterizes Peter's reforms as "progress through coercion," and argues that he helped to found a totalitarian state in Russia.

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