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Certainly, the most powerful demonstration of his approach to protection of his authority and the state against political dissent would come in the form of his uncompromising treatment of rebellion. The enormity and ethnic variations defining the Russian empire would subject it inherently to acts of rebellion, regional conflicts and various small but organized efforts at undermining the authority of the tsars. Peter took an extremely decisive approach to these threats to his authority, responding to rebellion with not the slightest withholding in retribution. This is best exemplified by the first uprising of his rule, where the streltsy emerged in support of the authority of his half-sister Sofia. Most acts of rebellion would come about in the opposition of Peter's apparently greater admiration for aspects of European rather than Russian culture. Accordingly, our research reports that "heavily influenced by his advisors from Western Europe, Peter reorganized the Russian army along modern lines and dreamed of making Russia a maritime power. He faced much opposition to these policies at home, but brutally suppressed any and all rebellions against his authority, the rebelling of streltsy, Bashkirs, Astrakhan and including the greatest civil uprising of his reign, the Bulavin Rebellion." (Hughes, 1)
Peter's response to the streltsy rebellion would help to set the tone for his low level of tolerance for civil insubordination. The tsar's forces reportedly suffered the loss of only a single serviceman as a result of the uprising. In unilateral response, Peter had 1200 streltsy rebels executed for their roles in the insurrection. Here, Peter would show his true colors to those that may have perceived his European inclinations as affectations dictating a lesser interest in rulership than aristocratic hedonism. But the transition from the Peter the wealthy young recreationalist to Peter the reformer would see his pursuits turn not just to the affairs of state and empire, but to the continuity of his own lineage. Peter may be said in this regard to have employed a certain foresight in justification of his excesses of violence. Peter adopted on behalf of tsarist Russia an understanding of his divine appointment to leadership which suggested an intellectual and spiritual hierarchy justifying his authoritarian tendencies. In this regard, he would be a catalyst in the Soviet ascendancy to feudalism. The disjointed territories of Rus and Kiev had become the province of a single crown, which Peter intended to retain for generations.
It is thus that we find even in Peter's own words a recognition of his authority as being for the good of a peasantry and court which he characterizes as lacking the wherewithal to makes its own decisions. Here, we begin to understand the perspective that drove Peter to such ends of authoritarian excess in pursuit of that which he perceived to be necessary and even progressive reform. Like most reformers, Peter would be faced not just with opposition from fringe ethnicities and border regions, but would also suffer the opposition of forces internal to his own government. It would be Peter's response largely to appeal to an even greater demonstration of his willingness to employ force against his political enemies.
On this point, Hughes reports that "Peter was frustrated that his reforms were not working more quickly and that few people seemed to understand his most cherished ideas. In a manifesto on the encouragement of factories issues in November 1723 he wrote: 'It's true that there are few who are willing to participate, for our people are like children who, out of ignorance, will never get down to learning their alphabet unless the master forces them to do so. At first they find it tedious, but when they learn their lesson they are grateful. This is evidence in the current state of affairs where everything has to be done by force, but already thanks can be heard and fruit has been produced." (Hughes, 182)
This is an illuminating perspective on exactly where Peter the Great stood in terms of preservation of rights and the extension of individual freedoms. These, he argued, were secondary in the achievement of social progress to the programming of widespread and dramatic cultural change. To his view, the importance of his intended accomplishments was such that the consequences of his means were to be overlooked to his favor. For Peter, there was a far bigger picture than the loss of individual freedom and rights. The effective occupation and governing of an empire also demanded the projection of an empire, with all the fierceness, intimidation and divine befitting one in such a position.
Thus, when we assess the change implemented in Russia and the empire beyond it as they occurred under the rule of the Peter the Great, it is appropriate to acknowledge this on two different levels. First and foremost, it is true that Peter was a strategic mastermind in reaching new borders at Russia's monarch, with his intense personal interest in naval pursuits inclining a strategy of gaining Russian access to port cities and waterways. This would push the empire to a new scope and impose the influence of Russian culture as far afield as North Africa. Peter would impose aspects of an evolving Russian cultural identity in a great many contexts that now, as parts of Eastern Europe, bear striking cultural similarities to the modern state of Russia.
However, this influence alone does not fully capture that which Peter the Great represented to the Russian people in perpetuity. As one of its great icons, its most important leaders and its most prominent legacies, Peter the Great also leaves a trail of cultural dictatorship that Russia still struggles to cast off today. In the totalitarian interpretation of communism undertaken by such figures as Lenin and Stalin, as well as in the uncompromising cronyism of the Putin administration, we can hear echoes of Peter's authoritarian decrees. Today, Peter's stamp may be most notable in the cultural proclivity of Russians to expect a mode of highly centralized, deeply uncompromising and often internally contradictory governmental authority.
Gordon, a. (1755). The History of Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia. London: F. Douglass and W. Murray.
Hughes, L. (2002). Peter the Great: A Biography. Yale University Press.
Levykin, a.K. (1999). Peter the Great (Peter Alexeevich). The Moscow Kremlin Museums. Online at http://www2.sptimes.com/Treasures/TC.2.3.6.html
NNDB. (2010). Peter the Great. Soylent Communications. Online at…[continue]
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