“The Petrine Testament”


From Russia in the Era of Peter the Great (1969) by L. Jay Oliva



Peter died in 1725 and the manner of his death was wholly consistent with the manner of his life. Suffering from a painful kidney disease, he had plunged into the sea to help rescue some of his sailors and thereby aggravated the fever which ultimately brought him to his end. When he struggled to name his successor under the system of nomination which he himself had devised, in his weakness he could write only "leave all to . . ." before his hand slid from the page. That act dramatized one of the most serious shortcomings of his testament, for the success of the Petrine autocracy depended heavily on the quality of the person who exercised it and on his security in office and confidence in his authority. Peter left behind a more organized autocracy but also the weakness of a questionable succession, and the Tsar who had never accepted any limitation on his power to influence the present was as powerless in his last moments as any other man to determine the future.  Peter was only fifty-three years old when he died, still a relatively young man even in this age; Louis XIV of France had died at seventy-seven and Frederick William of Brandenburg at sixty-eight. But despite his age few Russians at the end of his reign could recall any ruler except Peter the Great; he had been officially on the throne for forty-three years. His reign might have been outstripped by Louis XIV's seventy-two years and matched by the Great Elector's forty-eight, but it was still substantial. Such a simple matter as the length of Peter's effective rule, and he was effective to the last month of his reign, was vitally important to the Petrine testament, for many of the reforms which were resisted in their origins had become so deeply




rooted in the quarter century after 1700 that few of his enemies could really think of destroying them outright. There is a signal advantage in holding power long enough to convince your subjects that already at your death your work is a historical legacy. Franklin D. Roosevelt's four terms in the presidency of a modern republic certainly had some such effect.


There was little mourning at Peter's passing. In fact his death elicited much the same popular response as that of the Sun King-- general rejoicing that the heavy burdens had at last been lifted from the shoulders of the lowly. The few who seemed to mourn his passing were actually mourning for themselves. These were the Petrine favorites, the scavengers who had pillaged and prospered beneath the protection of the eagle's wings; to them the future without their Emperor was a threat and they scuttled hurriedly, even around the deathbed of their leader, to insure continuing control of the machinery of state in the hands of their comrades, Menshikov and Catherine I. Perhaps, in the last years, most certainly in the last hours, Peter must have come to recognize that, of all his talents, judgment of people was the least developed. Among those "friends" who viewed the passing of the Emperor as politically inconvenient, none was even vaguely shaped in the Petrine mold. Yet Peter left a legend behind him. Even those contemporaries who scorned his work and cheered his passing were in awe of his image, and the Petrine legend emerged in lively form within twenty years of the Emperor's death. The speed of the legend's formation was accelerated by comparison of the Tsar with his weak and colorless successors-- Catherine I, Peter II, Anne, and the infant Ivan VI beside whom Peter seemed an astonishing colossus. Violent and ruthless though he might have been, he at least had an obvious pride in his state, a willingness to work harder than the meanest of his laborers, an honesty unmatched by any bureaucrat, a character unimpressed by pomp, and a martial aura shared by none of his early successors. How rapidly the excesses of the Tsar-Reformer were forgotten, and how quickly in a generation of foreign politicians feeding at the Russian trough did Peter become a "true Russian"! Not until the apotheosis of Napoleon did another European state produce such a full-blown legend in so short a time. By the middle of the century rulers in Russia were invoking that Petrine legend. His daughter Elizabeth came to the throne in 1741 in a coup which proudly exalted her ancestry and promised an end to




the baneful influence of foreign princelings; as a matter of fact, Elizabeth's only real asset was her bloodline. And if his legend was soon a powerful force pressuring his successors and being invoked by all of them from Elizabeth and Catherine the Great onward, so his legend also became a European phenomenon. With Louis XIV and the Prussian princes he provided the practical lessons behind the theories of "enlightened despotism" which served to replace divine sanction as the rationale of absolutism; the legend of Peter sparked the imagination of the lumieres. It was Feofan Prokopovich, delivering the Tsar's funeral oration, who set the outline of the Petrine legend: The Tsar was Russia's Samson, her Japhet, her Moses, Solomon, David, and Constantine.


“He has gone, but he has not left us poor and wretched; his enormous power and glory-manifested in the deeds I spoke of before--have remained with us. As he has shaped our Russia, so she will remain: he has made her lovable to good men, and she will be loved; he has made her fearful to her enemies, and she will be feared; he has glorified her throughout the world, and her glory will not end. He has left us spiritual, civil and military reforms. For if his perishable body has left us, his spirit remains.”    (Foofan Prokopovich, "Oration at the Funeral of Peter the Great," in Marc Raeff, ed., Peter the Great: Reformer or Revolutionary?  (p. 78.)


A curious quirk of the modern mind forces us to think of lies when we think of legends. But the Petrine legend was a strong reflection of truth. The Russian Empire at the end of Peter's reign was a great European power, and the clearer that fact became in the years between Poltava in 1709 and the annexation of the Crimea in 1783, the final partition of Poland in 1795, and the occupation of Paris in 1812, the larger loomed the figure of the Tsar who seemed so central to the development of that astonishing strength.


The emergence of Russia as a great European power seemed often to be treated by its western neighbors as some unique event, different in nature from the emergence of other European powers and thus requiring some specially tailored explanation. Such special explanations have often proceeded from ideas of the monolithic quality of "western civilization" and of the unique or even oriental quality of Russian civilization. It sometimes seems that these explanations were rooted in a western European ethnocentricity which considered it highly unlikely that a Slavic and Orthodox society could ever really




raise itself by any inner resources to match arms and wits with the true tabernacles of civilization; surely such a Slavic society was colonial rather than European, representing one of the crude subject peoples of the world being painfully schooled at the altar of "western learning." The basis of such an imperialistic attitude toward Russian emergence is nicely caught by Alistair Cooke in a review of the memoirs of Harold Nicolson, when he describes that English statesman as "quietly convinced that outside the cultivated oases of England and France lay an encircling desert of rude and alien peoples."(Alistair Cooke, "The Curious Vanity of a Latter-Day Pepys," Lifll (June 30, 1967), p. 6)   From this perspective the rise of Russian power has always seemed some aberrant affront to the traditional wielders of world power, surely temporary and soon to be rolled back, an affront which requires some special explanation which includes a central role for the old powers in nurturing and guiding this poor primitive child.


It might lead us to a fairer view to recall that a succession of European states, of which Russia was but one, had attained great power at the dawn of the modem age. The middle of the seventeenth century, for example, had witnessed the emergence of two Muscovite neighbors, Denmark and Sweden, and no one has yet applied such terms as "europeanization" or "westernization" to such emergence. Nor did the process of great power development end with Russia; even when Peter’s work was done, Prussia still had a long distance to travel to great power, and Italy even further. Peter can thus profitably he viewed as one of those northern monarchs of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries who presided over traditional societies in a state of drifting change which had the potential to achieve a large measure of influence in the general affairs of Europe; the attempt to realize that potential when undertaken was a substantial task requiring the elaboration of absolute governments and military institutions which in turn wrenched the societies which supported them and accelerated their changes in often unconscious but always vital ways.


The legacy of great power is, of course, a force all its own, at once liberating and limiting. Great power provided protection for Russia against exploitation by other states, which was the fate of Italy and Germany in the early modem era. England had feared such domination by Spain in the sixteenth century, and the Netherlands had responded in like manner to France in the seventeenth. The pursuit




of great power thus had its rewards, and the freedom to work out a national destiny was chief among them. At the same time, great power status was one of the forces at work to preserve the Petrine reforms. One might have dreamed of destroying Petersburg, but would such an act be interpreted by the Swedes and others as a willingness to see the Baltic provinces and more re-annexed? One might consider the Petrine navy a monstrosity, and indeed it suffered neglect in the years between Peter and Catherine II, but could it simply be scuttled in the face of the Turkish menace on the Black Sea and English presumption in the Baltic? One might think the autocracy an instrument of oppression over the nobility, but could the nobility afford the luxury of a Polish-style anarchy in a Europe of predatory states? One might even think serfdom a miserable evil, but could the Empire afford the internal disruption, the retreat into weakness which such a vast peasant reform would require?


The Great Power syndrome is thus a compelling one, and the Russian Empire was not the first or the last state to suffer its consequences. It would be fair to say that states into very recent times have considered their power and the protection of their international position as primary and the internal welfare of their citizens as secondary, or at least dependent on the former; the view that internal reform is the true key to international influence has been invoked only sporadically, powerful when it appears in revolutionary guise but usually quite temporary. Interpretations framed around the pursuit of great power, that Russian history is the story of a lagging society constantly struggling to bring itself abreast of its international role, have something to teach us. But we must recognize that such interpretations are not suited only to Russian experience and really apply to most major European powers; the same theme, for example, fits with equal utility the Revolutionary-Napoleonic era of French history.


The Petrine testament included not only the legend of Peter for his successors to contend with and the role of Great Power for them to protect, but included also the instrument of autocracy to implement their will. If Peter was effective in accomplishing the two primary tasks of his Romanov inheritance, then we must assume that he bequeathed these accomplishments to his successors. He completed the re-conquest from the Time of Troubles and tamed his bellicose neighbors by installing Russia as a great power, and in the process he completed the recovery and restructuring of the absolutism which the Romanovs had espoused as the best means to insure outer protection




and inner order. The autocracy was a strange part of the testament, for it was left behind as a legal instrument bound round with real limitations. I can recall asking students to evaluate a comment that "there is no such thing as an unlimited autocracy"; since that is obviously so, it is the form and extent of the limits that need our attention. Peter left the autocracy potentially limited by a larger and more articulated bureaucracy and really limited by the character of his successors, the factions upon whom weak rulers had to lean in order to survive on the throne, the necessity to cede to the interests of the nobility in order to preserve a legal freedom of action, and the requirement that to rule legally over all Russia it must deed away in practice the right to rule over the Russian peasantry.


These were serious limitations and meant that the autocracy would be seriously constrained in handling the difficult problems that were emerging in Russian society. Yet, inherent in the principle of autocracy was the means to do battle with its limitations and to change their form and character. The constant struggle to reshape the autocracy for modern duties was surely an arduous one, but the fact that it was never satisfactorily done does not mean that the struggle could not have been undertaken more often, more vigorously, and to better effect. I am not yet convinced, for example, that large-scale industrialization was impossible in autocratic and enserfed Russia and that only a Communist regime could bring it about. We can admit that the serf problem was amenable only to autocratic power, and that the emancipation of the serfs was undertaken primarily for reasons of state, to protect Russian power. We can admit that it was the weakness of autocracy which explains the failure of serf emancipation, and that the success of Stalinist absolutism in industrial transformation was a function of its completeness. But if we find that Peter was successful in adapting the seventeenth-century autocracy to the needs of his own age, we may still legitimately inquire how the leaders who seemed bound to maintain that autocracy contributed to its constant evolution as an effective instrument to serve the needs of state and society in their own eras. For example, the complaint against Catherine the Great as an "enlightened despot" might well be not that she was unenlightened but that she was no despot in any meaningful way. Several times in the history of the Russian Empire there were opportunities to emancipate the autocracy from some of its old rigidities and to unleash it against pressing problems. In these cases we must come to grips with the question of leadership. Petrine




Russia no more predestined such efforts to failure than seventeenth century Muscovy predestined Peter to success.


It is clear from a consideration of the Petrine legend, the Great Power syndrome, and the autocracy, that the Russian Empire in 1725 was far different from the Muscovite Tsardom of 1689. An emerging autocratic state bent with indomitable will on military tasks had dragged a reluctant society into more modern forms, and had left that society in the throes of difficult adjustments. Russia had been more successful than most of its neighbors, thanks largely to its heritage and its leadership, in forging its absolutism and winning its military way; it was therefore plunged more deeply and more rapidly than many European states into the problems of a military secular state. Everywhere in Europe certain historical elements were emerging to define the age: nation-states were displacing dynastic agglomerations, bureaucracies were implementing the monarch's will in wider and more penetrating ways, industrial growth and international commerce were beginning to play havoc with guild forms and native handicrafts, colonial empires were being carved out by states with the means and the will, and secular learning and secular interests were threatening religious institutions and religious spirit. And, underlying all of these, the wars of the new monarchs were more general in extent and more crucial in their consequences to society than ever before. Petrine Russia leaped from the ranks of these movements to the van in one generation, and it is within this context of the shaping of early modern Europe that Russian achievements and Russian problems are best understood. If we may be permitted to repeat an earlier observation, it was those kingdoms that made the most intensive war for the longest time with some degree of success in this age which laid many of the foundations of the modern world; not least among such kingdoms was Petrine Russia.