Common section

To Modernize or to Westernize? That Is the Question

When Ivan died in 1584, perhaps by poisoning, Russia faced hard times known as the “Time of Troubles.” Family members of the dead Ivan warred and intrigued amongst themselves in hopes of becoming czar. Finally, in 1613, Michael Romanov, grandnephew of Ivan, became czar. The next 70 years, though, were filled with social, political, and religious instability. The nobles worked to take back some of their lost powers and further oppressed the peasants. Scandal rocked the Eastern Orthodox Church as reformers targeted corruption. A rebel named Stenka Razin led a Cossack rebellion that threatened to overthrow the Russian government.

Things looked bleak in 1689 when Peter took over as czar. Not only was Russia being torn apart by internal strife, it also lagged behind the rest of Europe in many areas. Peter had quite a job ahead of him.

Peter the Great

Peter the Great (1672-1725) made strengthening the Russian military his primary goal, so he could continue the expansionism of his predecessors and keep the rowdy peasants in check. Peter inherited an army that paled in comparison to some of the other European armies of his day. The Russian army was not a full-time professional standing army like the army of Prussia or France, and it relied heavily on the service nobility. In his early days, Peter didn’t do much with his obsolete army. He watched from the sidelines more than he participated. Then Peter became interested in modern weapons and military strategy and decided he needed to upgrade his military.

Historians like to debate whether Peter the Great upgraded his military, and eventually his country, in order to modernize or in order to westernize. On a year-and-a-half tour of western Europe, disguised as a common Russian and not dressed as czar, Peter found many ideas he later used in Russia. He visited the courts in the capital cities and the schools and workshops of the leading academic cities. In truth, Peter wanted to become more modern, especially in the field of military science, and used the western example to do so.

Reforming Russia

After his tour—and a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Swedes—Peter shook up the military. He tightened his hold on the nobles by carefully enforcing the program of service nobility. Since his nobles were required to serve in the military, he required all nobles to first attend five years of schooling and imported the best teachers from western Europe. They taught his future officers languages, science, math, engineering, and medicine.

Peter created a bureaucratic meritocracy to handle both military and civilian affairs. He created a professional standing army that numbered more than 250,000 and consisted of noble officers and peasant foot soldiers. He also created a navy practically from scratch. Peter eventually tied up more than three-fourths of his country’s revenues in his military. To finance his army, Peter changed the primary tax from a land tax to a soul tax, or a tax paid for each person rather than on the land that people owned; after all, not every Russian owned land.

In the process of modernizing his military, Peter infused his entire country with western, and modern, ideas. Peter encouraged Russians to dress like western Europeans. He even required nobles to shave their beards or pay a beard tax. Peter encouraged the nobles to hold tea parties and socialize the way westerners did.

He changed the calendar from the traditional Russian to the Julian calendar, with January 1 as the first day of the year and years counted from the birth of Christ.

He encouraged education, began a state-sponsored newspaper, and also instituted reforms in the church hierarchy.

At first glance, it would seem that Peter’s list of reforms had far-reaching effects in Russia. While some reform did occur, particularly in the military, Peter’s reforms required a huge bureaucracy to enforce them. The 14-level bureaucracy Peter created was such a managerial nightmare that many reforms never went into effect simply because there weren’t enough administrators to make sure the reforms were carried out.

As a Matter of Fact

Russia's Peter the Great towered over most every one of his contemporaries. He possessed amazing athletic abilities and, interestingly, an inclination for tinkering with things. He built numerous models of buildings, ships, and more. This knack for working with his hands led to an interest in dentistry and even minor surgery. Peter experimented with dentistry and often “practiced" on those around him. He kept many of the teeth he pulled and they are still on display in a museum in St. Petersburg. Also on display in St. Petersburg are many of the medical and dental instruments Peter used for his hobby.

The City in the Swamp

Peter dreamed of having a warm-water port on the Baltic from which he could launch his mighty navy. To gain the territory to build such a city, Peter engaged the Swedes in the Great Northern War, a long, drawn-out war that finally ended with Russia gaining what is now Estonia and Latvia.

On land gained in the war, Peter built his city—actually starting work long before the war was over. Named St. Petersburg, not for Peter but for his patron saint, St. Petersburg was to be his capital.

For his new city, Peter chose a plot of land in the middle of marshland. Peter and his army of engineers and serfs drained the marshland and erected a magnificent city.

Would You Believe?

As many as 30,000 or more serfs and other laborers lost their lives to the harsh conditions during the construction of St. Petersburg.

Peter, so impressed with Versailles, modeled his palace and his city on western stylings. To make his city modern, like everything else he created in Russia, his engineers constructed straight streets, straight city blocks with houses in straight rows, drainage canals, and even street lights. All construction conformed to rigorous standards set forth by the government. To jump-start the population of St. Petersburg, Peter ordered nobles to move to the city and build expensive homes. Likewise, he ordered craftsmen to move to the city. The serfs, of course, were already there doing the manual labor. To finance the city, Peter taxed the wealthiest Russians. When Peter died in 1625, St. Petersburg boasted thousands of residents and a style that was at once uniquely western and uniquely Russian.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!