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Soviet Union

Peter the Great and the Formation of the Russian Empire

As a child of the second marriage of Tsar Alexis, Peter was at first relegated to the background of Russian politics as various court factions struggled for control of the throne. Tsar Alexis was succeeded by his son from his first marriage, Fedor III, a sickly boy who died in 1682. Peter was then made co-tsar with his half brother, Ivan V, but real power was held by Peter's half sister, Sofia. She ruled as regent while the young Peter was allowed to play war games with his friends and roam in Moscow's foreign quarters. These early experiences instilled in him an abiding interest in Western warfare and technology, particularly in military engineering, artillery, navigation, and shipbuilding. In 1689, using troops he had drilled during childhood games, Peter foiled a plot to have Sofia crowned. With the death of Ivan V in 1696, Peter became the sole tsar of Muscovy.

Much of Peter's reign was spent at war. At first he attempted to secure Muscovy's southern borders against the Tatars and the Ottoman Turks. His campaign against a fort on the Sea of Azov failed at first, but having created Russia's first navy, Peter was able to take the port of Azov in 1696. To continue the war with the Ottoman Empire, Peter began looking for allies in Europe. He traveled to Europe, the first tsar to do so, in a so-called Grand Embassy that included visits to Brandenburg, Holland, England, and the Holy Roman Empire. Peter learned a great deal and enlisted into his service hundreds of European technical specialists. The embassy was cut short by a revolt in Moscow that attempted to place Sofia on the throne. Peter's followers crushed the revolt. Peter had hundreds of the participants tortured and killed, and he publicly displayed their bodies as a lesson to others.

Although Peter was unsuccessful in forging an anti-Ottoman coalition in Europe, he found interest in waging war against Sweden during his travels. Seeing an opportunity to break through to the Baltic Sea, Peter made peace with the Ottoman Empire in 1700 and then attacked the Swedes at Narva. Sweden's young king, Charles XII, however, proved to be a military genius and crushed Peter's army. Fortunately for Peter, Charles did not follow his victory with a counteroffensive, but rather became embroiled in a series of wars over the Polish throne. The respite allowed Peter to build a new Western-style army. When the two met again in the town of Poltava in 1709, Peter defeated Charles. Charles escaped to Ottoman territories, and Russia subsequently became engaged in another war with the Ottoman Empire. Russia agreed to return the port of Azov to the Ottoman Empire in 1711. The Great Northern War, which in essence was settled at Poltava, dragged on until 1721, when Sweden agreed to the Treaty of Nystad. Muscovy retained what it had conquered: Livonia, Estonia, and Ingria on the Baltic Sea. Through his victories, Peter had acquired a direct link to western Europe. In celebration, Peter assumed the title of emperor as well as tsar, and Muscovy became the Russian Empire in 1721.

Muscovy's expansion into Europe and transformation into the Russian Empire had been accomplished by restructuring the military, streamlining the government, and mobilizing Russia's financial and human resources. Peter had established Russia's naval forces and reorganized the army along European lines. Soldiers, who served for life, were drafted from the taxed population. Officers were drawn from the nobility and were required to spend lifelong service in either the military or the civilian administration. In 1722 Peter introduced the Table of Ranks, which determined position and status on the basis of service to the tsar rather than on birth or seniority. Even commoners were ennobled automatically if they achieved a certain rank.

Peter also reorganized the governmental structure. The prikazi were replaced with colleges, or boards, and the newly created Senate coordinated government policy. Peter's reform of the local governmental system was less successful, but its operations were adequate for collecting taxes and maintaining order. As part of the governmental reform, the Orthodox Church was partially incorporated into the administrative structure of the country. The patriarchate was abolished and replaced by a collective body, the Holy Synod, which was headed by a lay government official.

Peter managed to triple the revenues coming into the state treasury. A major innovation was a capitation, or poll tax, levied on all males except clergy and nobles. A myriad of indirect taxes on alcohol, salt, and even beards added further income. To provide uniforms and weapons for the military, Peter developed a metallurgical and textile industry based on the labor of serfs.

Peter wanted Russia to have modern technologies, institutions, and ideas. He required Western-style education for all male nobles, introduced "cipher" schools to teach the alphabet and basic arithmetic, established a printing house, and funded the Academy of Sciences, established just before his death in 1725. He demanded that aristocrats acquire Western dress, tastes, and social customs. As a consequence, the cultural rift between the nobles and the mass of Russia people deepened. Peter's drive for Westernization, his break with past traditions, and his coercive methods were epitomized in the construction of the new, architecturally Western capital, St. Petersburg, situated on land newly conquered on the Gulf of Finland. St. Petersburg faced westward but was constructed by conscripted labor. Westernization by coercion could not arouse the individualistic creative spirit that was an important element of the Western ways Peter so much admired.

Peter's reign raised questions regarding Russia's backwardness, its relationship to the West, its coercive style of reform from above, and other fundamental problems that have confronted subsequent rulers. In the nineteenth century, Russians debated whether Peter correctly pointed Russia toward the West or violated its natural traditions. Historians' views of Peter's reign have tended to reveal their own political and ideological positions as to the essence of Russia's history and civilization.

Data as of May 1989

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