Russian Studies                                                                                                                                 09/15/11



Peter the Great : Reading Guide 2.0


Read the Shcherbatov piece with an eye to understanding how some could (and would continue to) look upon Peter’s reforms as deeply subversive and regrettable.


The proto-Slavophile criticizes Peter for subverting the traditional religious beliefs and respect for authority in old Russia by injecting Western style competition into the bureaucracy.


“… true attachment to the faith began to disappear, sacraments began to fall into disrepute, resoluteness diminished, yielding place to brazen, aspiring flattery; luxury and voluptuousness laid the foundation of their power, and hence avarice was also aroused…”


Slavophile position: The pursuit of ‘liberal’ self-interest over dedication to the welfare of family and country will lead to social disintegration and a new Time of Troubles.  Russia ought to adhere instead to its traditional cultural patterns: autocracy, rigid social classes, and peasant communes. Instead of rational self-interest, the Russian people will model for Europe a different path to reform and social justice based on communal ties.


Spend more time on the Zitser piece which continues our exploration into the impact of Peter on the direction of Russian history.


Skim all but the last sentence of the first paragraph but then pay close attention to the argument carried forward in the next paragraph.  Follow the distinction made between organic and forced change, and Anderson’s assessment of Peter’s impact on change in Russia.


Was Peter really necessary, and if so, necessary for what?


Structural/organic historical forces determine change (Hegel) vs. Intentional/forced change from the top down


Forces gathering in Russia prior to Peter’s reign enabled the consolidation of the state. Peter did introduce reforms, but Russia was already headed towards modernization. Peter’s actions significantly accelerated change through his embrace of Western ideas about statecraft and rational bureaucratic reforms, but his reforms had been long in the making. His reforms are best understood as an evolution not a revolution. As a matter of fact, his reforms may have retarded R ussia’s natural evolution, shunting it on to a path of militarization and mechanization.


Note carefully Anderson’s analysis of the harmful impact of many of Peter’s reforms: the mechanization of force (Peter’s impersonal bureaucracy) weakened old Russian personal power politics and damaged Russia’s organic development.


Follow the distinction between “psycho-historical” and “geopolitical” explanations for Peter’s motivations.

What are the key “psycho-historical” elements noted here?

To what degree do individuals influence the destiny of nations? (and even their own destiny?)

Anderson believes that Peter’s aggressiveness was driven by psychological motivations.
The war games and mock rituals (blaspheming the church) that Peter engaged in as a child served, in ways similar to court masques in Western courts, to rehearse Peter for his own manner of exercising power.  Did Peter make war on Sweden, a real gamble, because he had been playing war games all of his life?


            What is the “geopolitical” explanation?

Hard headed real politik (Machiavellian empirical exercise of power) dictates that the leader pursue the necessary actions to enhance and preserve self- interest in any given geo-political situation. If Peter had not reformed the military as he fought and finally defeated the Swedes, they would have attacked Russia and conquered her.


                                    Why is Zitser skeptical about this theory?

Peter’s own pursuit of diplomatic initiatives actually created opportunities to transform the geo-political situation.


            Note that Zitser prefers Oliva’s view of Russia’s relationship with the West.

Peter’s example of dynamic, secular leadership ‘westernized’ the West by modeling the enlightened despot.


Note the two reasons why some find Peter’s legendary status appealing.

1. Western taste for the dramatic

2. Defense of top down, state sponsored revolutionary change (the model for Lenin and Stalin): the hope of rapid development through enlightened despotism


the intellectual appeal of the myth for Peter’s contemporaries parallels the fascination with the Soviet experiment among the western intellectuals of Anderson’s own generation.”



                        Why does Anderson object to the second and more serious source of appeal?

Peter was not a revolutionary pursuing an articulated social ideal.


                        Why does Zitser agree with Anderson but disagree with his reasoning?

The whole concept of revolution in the modern, post- French Rev sense was alien to Peter’s historical milieu.


Do you like Peter?


We would like to think that one man can change history, no matter how negative that change might be. The existence of human agency in history comforts us with the notion of progress. Human agency alone makes responsibility viable (and our dignity as sentient, autonomous beings). If, however, organic (structural) forces beyond our understanding and ultimate control drive history, then we cannot alter what is to come, which might be good news.