The Revolution of Peter the Great

James Cracraft

Harvard University Press 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
The Revolution of Peter the Great is a lively and readable account of the reforms of Peter the Great and the tremendous changes he wrought in Russian government, culture and society. It is not a general history of Russia during Peter's reign, but background is provided as necessary to make the work accessible to readers who may not be that familiar with the period.

Cracraft begins with Peter's childhood and personality and a description of his "company", the group he assembled around him who influenced his ideas and helped him implement them. This included foreigners as well as Russians such as Menshikov, and Peter's mother and sister and second wife Catherine. Cracraft also tries to make sense of Peter's fondness for pantomime and riotous living, and of his disinheritance of his son Aleksei.

Among Peter's earliest reforms was the modernization of the Russian army and the creation of a Russian navy pretty much from nothing. His early campaigns were attempts to take Azov from the Turks, with the new navy contributing to success in 1696. But most of Peter's reign was spent in a long war for control of the eastern Baltic with Sweden, under its fighting king Charles XII. Peter acquired nautical skills himself and part of his legacy is the cult of the botik, a small boat he used as teenager.

Military demands drove state-building and a bureaucratic revolution, but these extended much further, even into reform of the Church. The resulting state may seem limited by modern standards, but "Peter's new state was a Russian variant of a common European type and arguably as successful, in its time and place, as the others were in theirs". In the diplomatic area, Cracraft considers two key publications, one an argument for absolute monarchy and the right of the monarch to choose his successor, the other a justification of Russia's war against Sweden. "By the time of Peter's death Russia had become a full member of the European system of sovereign states."

Turning to broader culture, Cracraft summarises from his three volume study The Petrine Revolution. Peter started with fortification and shipbuilding, but he also transformed civil architecture, introducing European styles and architects and creating demand for them among his followers. Painting and etching and the other fine arts followed a similar course, while the imagery of coins and maps provided direct support for imperial rule. Peter created a new standard alphabet, massively expanded printing, which had largely been restricted to religious texts, and added extensively to the Russian lexicon. He also imported European science and medicine and set up institutions such as the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences to support and maintain them.

Resistance to Peter's reforms came from those whose privileges and positions were threatened. There were military revolts by the old army of streltsy musketeers and Cossacks, and the records of the Preobrazhensky Office reveal dissent among nobles and especially clergy. But another form of resistance was the persistence of "old Muscovy" in broader culture, religion and society; here Cracraft draws on Geroid Robinson's accounts of peasant Russia in the early 1920s.

Cracraft concludes with an account of St Petersburg, which Peter founded and which was in many ways the embodiment of his revolution. Originally a military base, St Petersburg became an administrative centre as government functions were transferred there from Moscow, and grew to be "the new cultural capital of Russia". Accounts by foreigners give some idea how it compared with contemporary cities in Western Europe.

A chronology is provided to help those unfamiliar with the period and there are thirty six pages of halftones, mostly of contemporary portraits and architectural studies. The Revolution of Peter the Great offers a good mix of biography, cultural and social history, and other material, with some glimpses into Russia's subsequent history and the fate of Peter's reforms. It is entertaining and informative, and recommended to anyone curious about just how important Peter was to Russia.

January 2008

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%T The Revolution of Peter the Great
%A Cracraft, James
%I Harvard University Press
%D 2003
%O paperback, notes, further reading, index
%G ISBN 0674011961
%P 192pp