The Russian Empire Before Nicholas II: Westernisation of the Empire (1/?)

Russia’s relationship with ‘the West’ was, and continues to be, a complex one. Whether that is either due to Russia’s geographical position, as after all the entire country takes up a fair chunk of Eastern Europe and almost all of the continental Asia, or due to political differences or due to cultural ones, one will never be able to know for certain. However, one can gain knowledge by attempting to unpack the causes and effects of various historical events that had caused this relationship to be so complex. One of such causes was the process of Westernisation that had been started in full force by Peter I. As thus, this series of posts will be dedicated to a lengthy historical process called Westernisation and its effects on Russian politics, culture and various societal groups.

SOURCE TIME: Here are two very different portraits of two Russian rulers. The individual on the left side of the slide is Peter I. The portrait was painted in 1698 and was given to the English King, William III in 1698. On the right side of the slide is Peter’s predecessor, Alexis I. This portrait was painted in 1670s. Why do you think the two are depicted so differently?

So what on earth, is this ‘Westernisation’ process all about?

Collins dictionary defines ‘Westernisation’ as- “the process” by which “a country, a person or a state” adopts “ideas and behaviour that are typical of Europe and North America, rather than preserving the ideas and behaviour traditional in their culture”. Whilst the definition seems to be clear- cut and simply means that the ‘Westernisation’ is a process of adaptation of various ‘Western’ cultural, political and economic ideas, the process itself is complex if you were to dive in deeper. On one hand, this definition implies that ‘Westernisation’ is a negative process because people lose their sense of identity and ties to their culture. On the other hand, however, it implies a positive, more progressive change towards a ‘better’ way of structuring ideas about the state and the society.

In practice ‘Westernisation’ can mean almost anything. This is because it is a process by which various cultures from the Western Europe interact with other cultures from other parts of the globe. As thus, the process can be both aggressive and amiable. The repercussions of such meeting have profound effects on the local population for years after the original contact had taken place.

Think like a Historian:

Can you ever describe a historical process as ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Why do you think this?

The Russian Empire did not have a majorly differing experience when it came to the ‘Westernisation’ process up to 1690s. Indeed, there were political, societal and cultural effects of Russia’s interaction with the West. Tsar Ivan IV, corresponded with Elizabeth I over military and trade relationships between England and Muscovy. Tsar Alexei I, influenced by the increasing importance of Louis XIV’s plays and attitude to the arts, had built the first tsarist theatre as well as the Palace of Amusements. Consequently, up to 1690s Westernisation process in Russia was slow-paced and gradual.

This is a very good video that discusses Molière’s plays and life. You may find it useful for contextual purposes to answer the question below.

However, what was different about the Westernisation of the Russian Empire, than, for example in the colonies of the British Empire, was that the Westernisation process was induced upon an already large territory that was not separated by oceans and that the process was not gradual to a large extent from 1690s. As a result of such rapid change, almost a developmental ‘skip’ between Medieval Muscovy and Modern Imperial Russia, various societal splits began to occur that lasted and grew all the way until 1917. Consequently, when discussing the Westernisation of the Russian Empire one ought to have a look at the role of Peter I in this process and the effects it had.

Russia and ‘the West’ before Peter I

When Peter I had assumed personal rule, in 1689 Rus’ (former Duchy of Muscovy) spread from the Caspian Sea in the West to the Pacific Ocean in the East. By that stage most of Russia’s expansion into Siberia and Asia had already occurred and most Siberian tribes have been pacified. Yet, Rus’ remained an overall politically and economically backward country. It relied on feudal agricultural methods, internal and external trade depended heavily on seasonal changes, which was made harder by Rus’ being predominantly landlocked from main trade routes. Only a very small percentage of the overall population lived in towns.

In internal politics Rus’ was divided. Various court factions struggled for power by trying to put their candidate onto the throne after Ivan IV’s heirless death. This period later became known as the ‘Time of Troubles’.

A quick video that lays out the essential facts about the Time of Troubles

Consequently, Peter I was faced with a wide set of issues in 1689. He had to deal with political and economic backwardness. He had to deal with political tensions. Thus rapid change in the face of the Westernisation seemed to be a clear-cut, easy answer to these problems for someone who was as principal and as ambitious as Peter. This could be backed up by Peter’s personality. One of the ministers of Tsarina Sophia, who acted as a regent, described young Peter as “[having] a thirst for knowledge that cannot be quenched. He wishes to know everything“.

Think like a Historian:

To what extent can a historian rely on someone’s description of a ruler’s personality in order to draw conclusions about the ruler’s aims and policies?

The Role of Peter I in the Westernisation of the Russian Empire: Politics, Economy and the Army

So, what did Peter I actually do when he decided to pursuit the Westernisation policy of the entire Rus’? Well… he had decided to lead by example and travelled all the way to various European countries to educate himself on such matters like ship-building, state-making and the arts to apply his knowledge upon return to the Rus’-ian systems of government, economy and culture.

In short the situation was very much like the meme above (cc: Rimma)

SOURCE TIME: This painting was painted in 1838-40 by a French artist Louise Marie-Jeanne Hersent-Mauduit. The original title of the painting is “Louis XV visiting Peter the Great, May 10th, 1717”. This is a very wholesome painting of an equally wholesome historical event that took place in the palace of Versailles in the 1717. It depicts Peter I (the tall bloke with moustache who is standing in the centre of the scene) holding the young Louis XV (the child that Peter is holding), whilst Louis’ French ministers are shocked by Peter’s behaviour. What can you tell about Peter I’s character from this painting? Does this painting present any issues if a historian is trying to find out about the perception of Russia at a French court?
Politics and Administration

One of the major reforms that came about of Peter’s application of the ‘Western’ ideas was the reform of the administration of his domain. This was done predominantly via the introduction of autocracy, and the consequent reversal of traditionally Rus’-ian court rituals and traditions, which reversed Rus’ feudal governmental system to a large extent. In order to achieve Western-styled autocracy Peter attempted to reduce the influence of boyars in the Boyar Duma, which had constituted a relatively strong opposition to Peter’s reforms. This was done by targeting boyars with numerous taxes, obligatory services and reforms of their appearance, which was made according to the contemporary Western fashion. The two final blows at the boyars was delivered in 1712 as the Western-styled St. Petersburg was announced as an official capital of Russian Empire and in 1722 via the creation of the Table of Ranks, a list of ranks within the Russian society that established a honorific system of loyalty to the tsar. Consequently, Peter’s reforms not only Westernised the Muscovite state, but also established the order and the tensions of the contemporary Russian society that would come into play in 1917 Revolution.

Here is a very brief video that outlines the history behind the foundations of St Petersburg. There will be more about the city and its culture in future posts.
Economy and Administration

Just as Peter reformed the political administration of his realm, he also reformed its economy. The reform of the economy was required for two main reasons: firstly, because both the reformed political system and the army required a reformed economy to secure both of them; and secondly, because the reformed economy was more profitable than the one that existed under Muscovy. The economic system of Muscovy was highly complex and inefficient, as for example, there was no universal methods of payment, which meant that people could pay for the goods in either coins or physical labour or goods. Furthermore, many people did not pay their taxes. In order to eliminate the complexities of the system, Peter had decided to charge a single tax on each individual adult male which partially resolved the problems listed above as people could not evade taxation anymore and the government knew theoretically how much revenue they could receive. Furthermore, due to the rapid militarisation of the Russian army some industries began to develop quickly. For example, the iron mining industry was one of them as it allowed to produce various military devices domestically at a cheaper price as there was no need to transport them from other countries.

This video doesn’t necessarily touch upon the economics of Peter I as much, but it gives a very nice overview of his reign and compares it to the rise of the Prussian Empire.

Such economic changes had significant consequences for the Russian society. On one hand, the government gained the means of increasing their profit, and was successful at it. For example, the Crown’s income tripled and many people were able to find new jobs in the rapidly deserving industries. On the other hand, however, due to the government’s attempt to reduce the industrial difficulties and to gain a larger body of people to enforce taxation upon, merchant enterprises were allowed to purchase serfs, thus furthering the subjugation of the serfs to the landowners. Consequently, both Peter’s economic and political reforms arguably divided the contemporary society more than united it long-term.

Think like a Historian:

What do you think the historian Paul Bushkovitch means in this quote? The historian is commenting on Peter’s economic reforms.

Substantial industrialisation cannot take place on the basis of mass demand private domestic capital and available entrepreneurial resources. The state, if it desires industrialisation, has to foster industries.
The Army

Another major target for reform of Peter’s Westernisation policy was the army. In 1689, Russian army was much weaker than any of the European ones. It was militarily backward because there were a small number of well trained army men and the soldiers themselves were usually untrained serfs. A well-trained army was necessarily not only for Russia to establish herself on the European political scene, but also for Peter to exert control at home given various political instabilities that had occurred during the ‘Time of Troubles’. In order to deal with these issues and to strengthen the army Peter attempted to Westernise it. One of the ways how this was achieved was by Peter recreating a Western-styled army hierarchy. For example, all soldiers received basic training, but only the officers from two special regiments– the Preobrazhenskii and the Semeovskii–were able to command the army.

Furthermore, Peter enhanced the role of the navy in the Russian army. Prior to Peter’s reign, Muscovite navy was almost non-existent as Muscovy was mostly a landlocked territory that mainly traded with her neighbours, like Livonia or Poland, which could be reached by land. Peter based the growing Russian navy on the mouth of the Don River, near the Azov Sea.

Such rapid reforms of the army were highly successful short-term. For instance, the 1709 Battle near Poltava was a breaking point in the Russo-Swedish relations as the Russian army was able to overcome the Swedish army and ultimately sign a very beneficial Treaty of Nystadt in 1721. By the terms of this treaty Russia received control over some regions in the Baltic, such as Estonia, therefore allowing for easier access to international naval trade. In 1722, Peter was able to lead a campaign against the Ottoman Empire, which although was less successful than the Swedish campaign, nevertheless allowed for the Russians to gain the ports of Baku and Derbent and therefore the access to the Caspian Sea.

Think like a Historian:

Why is a strong army and a strong navy necessary for an Empire?
Important vocabulary:
  • Westernisation: a socio-cultural process whereby a contact is made between a Western European nation and a non-Western European one.
  • Expansion: a process by which a country grows geographically larger
  • The Time of Troubles: a period in Russian history in the late 16th century- early 17th century that was characterised by massive political and economic instability.
  • Regent: an individual that rules instead of a monarch. This situation could occur as a result of a monarch being too young to rule by themselves or there not being one on the the throne.
  • Boyar: a member of an old aristocracy in Russia.
  • Boyar Duma: a council that consisted of members of old Russian aristocracy from the Mediaeval times.
  • Militarisation: a process by which a state’s army is strengthened.
  • Serf: an unpaid agricultural labourer.
  • Regiment: a unit within an army.
To explore the topic further…
  • Read a biography of Peter I by Robert K. Massie, which is called Peter the Great: His Life and World. It is very comprehensible and contextualises Peter’s reign very well.
  • Read a poem by a Russian poet A. S. Pushkin called The Bronze Horseman, which is about Peter I’s statue driving a young man, Evgenii, insane. It’s a top-tier read if you’re either into Russian Literature, or want to read about statues coming to life.
  • Watch these videos on the Great Northern War to contextualise Peter’s foreign policy and the Russo-Swedish relations