Question 5: Were Peter and Catherine wise rulers? Did they act in the interests of their people or themselves?

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Question 5: Were Peter and Catherine wise rulers? Did they act in the interests of their people or themselves?

The 17th and 18th centuries saw the modernisation of Russia as it began to adopt the customs and ideals of the Western European nations. This change could not have occurred without the reigns of Peter I and Catherine II. Peter focused on the modernisation of Russia, seeking to establish and consolidate power throughout Europe. However, Peter also chose to further establish a system of feudalism within Russia, limiting the power of the aristocracy and peasantry. Catherine continued with Peter’s developments, as well as focusing on Russia’s domestic governmental systems and foreign policy. However, the changes made by Peter and Catherine to the largest country in Europe were not achieved without great human cost. Russia’s peasantry suffered heavily as a result of Peter and Catherine’s reforms, and though Russia emerged as a more powerful nation, the harsh conditions forced upon the serfs began the social unrest that would continue until the 20th century.

Peter I (1682 – 1725) was the first modern ruler of Russia. He aspired to transform Russia into a modern nation, modelling his reforms on those of the Western European nations, particularly Britain and France. Peter was inspired by years of travel throughout Western Europe where he witnessed the different systems of government and the role of the classes used in the Western European nations, and the power that it brought them as a result. He sought to increase Russia’s military, naval and industrial power, as well as reforming Russia’s government and consolidating his power over the country.

However, Peter’s aspirations were not without flaw. Peter abolished the power of the aristocracy within the army by establishing the first Russian naval and military colleges. This allowed the members of the lower classes to advance to prominence in the army despite their poorer backgrounds. By giving higher ranks to the most able as opposed to the most wealthy or prestigious, Peter reduced the input and effect of the nobility upon Russia’s army. However, he also forcefully recruited many inexperienced peasants. This resulted in heavy casualties and even desertions from the army, as the peasants were ill-equipped, inexperienced and in many cases, unwilling (Pares, B., 1958, p240 – 41).

In order to increase trade and encourage relationships with Western Europe, Peter naturally established the Russian industry. He believed it quintessential to Russia’s success as a nation, and would allow the owners of companies that produced materials for the state to acquire state loans, or be exempt from his heavy taxes. However, he employed the peasant population to work in these factories, often without their consent (Pares, B., 1958, pp243). The growth of the Russian industry therefore resulted in the growth of serfdom.

Throughout his reign, Peter increased his power over Russia, adopting the title of ‘Emperor’, establishing his own new capital city, St. Petersburg, in 1703, and making all parties directly answerable to the tsar. Peter divided Russia into gubernii 1 that appeared to encourage the representation of all districts back to Moscow (Phillips, E.J., 1995, p96). In actual fact, the Governors (gubernators) that these representatives would report to were more concerned with army and administrative duties, such that they had little time to ensure the fair representation of all. Ultimately, the tsar had absolute power over all political matters anyway, and treated the members of his government harshly if he did not believe they were doing a satisfactory job:

“…the Senate did not gain any kind of right to challenge the will of the sovereign… he [Peter] appointed one official after another to control the Senate, first an Ober-Revizor and later a General Procuror, who could report the Senate to the sovereign, or veto its measures, in which case after a given delay the sovereign would decide.”

  • B. Pares, 1958, pp2465 – 46.

Peter’s treatment of the governmental system in Russia essentially bestowed all power to the tsar, without promoting the opinions or needs of the common people, particularly the lower class who continued to slip deeper into oppression.

However, his rule was not without opposition. His half sister, Sophia, instigated three coup d’états, with the help of the Kremlin Guard, in 1682, 1689 and 1698 respectively. The most notable of the three revolts was the Streltsy Uprising of 1698. Dissatisfied with Peter’s reforms and poor working conditions, the Moscow Streltsy Regiments staged a revolt while Peter was touring Western Europe. Upon hearing of the disloyalty of his people, Peter reportedly cried:

Not one of them shall escape with impunity. Around my royal city, which, with their impious efforts, they planned to destroy, I will have gibbets and gallows set upon the walls and ramparts, and each and every one of them I will put to a direful death.”

When Peter returned to Russia, he ended the revolt in mass public execution. Peter believed strongly in force as a means to gain and consolidate power, and made no exemptions for his own people. After Peter’s treatment of the Moscow Streltsy Regiments, uprisings became uncommon for the remainder of his reign. As a result, Peter has been remembered for ruling with an iron fist, allowing for no opposition from his people and believing solely in the power and judgement of the sovereign as the only force of control in Russia.

Catherine II (1762 – 1796) also sought to strengthen Russia, however focused more upon domestic policy than Peter, who aspired to establish strong relationships between Russia and the Western European nations. Catherine sought to gain the approval and satisfaction of her people in order to maintain her illegitimate rule, spending much of her reign attempting to appease the gentry and promote local government systems. She also managed to expand Russia’s territories into Ukraine (1786) and Poland, as well as securing land from her victories in the two Russo-Turkish wars (1774 and 1792).

However, Catherine believed strongly in the absolute power of the sovereign over Russia, and ultimately favoured the noble classes over the lower classes, resulting in yet another increase in the subjugation of the peasantry.

Catherine focused many of her reforms upon the growth of government input in Russia. She built upon the initial reforms put in place by Peter, however, promoted more power at the hands of local governments, unlike Peter who made it clear that all power was bestowed to the sovereign. However, she would later retract her promises of reform and increased public input into government policies, adopting harsher laws after the peasant revolt of 1767.

In 1785, Catherine passed the Charter to the Nobility. This gave the noble classes of each province the ability to protest against any of Catherine’s actions, as well as bestowing them with exemptions from taxation, greater expanses of property, and more power over the serfs. However, despite her reforms towards a more democratic political system in Russia, Catherine still echoed the attitude of Peter when it came to the power of the sovereign; that is, that ultimately, all decisions were to be made by her:

The Sovereign in absolute; for there is no other Authority but that which centers in his single Person, that can act with a Vigour proportionate to the extent of such a vast Dominion.”

  • Catherine II, “Proposals for a New Law Code”, 1767.

Despite her insistence upon the autocratic nature of the rule of the sovereign, Catherine still ensured the satisfaction of the nobility. Catherine made exceptions for the gentry in the cases of state obligation and taxation, and meanwhile made it clear that the serfs were the lowest class in Russia. In 1773, the oppression of the serfs under Catherine’s reign had become so much such that Emelian Pugachev lead a revolt of the peasant class against the monarch. In 1775, Pugachev was brought to Moscow, where he was publicly executed and then burnt as punishment. The following year, Catherine expressed her attitude towards the uprising of serfs in the Decree of Serfs:

“…the landlords' serfs and peasants . . . owe their landlords proper submission and absolute obedience in all matters… all persons who dare to incite serfs and peasants to disobey their landlords shall be arrested and taken to the nearest government office, there to be punished forthwith as disturbers of the public tranquillity, according to the laws and without leniency.”

  • Catherine, 1767, “The Decree on Serfs”.

To further please the nobility, Catherine often gave away land and serfs as rewards to the gentry. Under Peter’s rule, the peasants were identified as the lowest class of human in Russian society, however, by Catherine’s reign, serfs were being treated more as material objects, fuelling social unrest and dissatisfaction within the lower classes.

Catherine, like Peter, sought to strengthen Russia in a rapidly changing international political climate. However, Catherine focused on strengthening Russia internally by promoting the relationship between the people and the sovereign, whereas Peter spent much of his time on international campaigns and the reformation of Russia to assist in these campaigns, caring little for his people. Both rulers exercised their powers as sovereigns, establishing clear boundaries between the classes. However, it was under Catherine’s rule that the rift between the nobility and the peasantry grew, as she continued to attempt to appease only one class of her people. Catherine’s actions throughout her reign expressed her aspirations for a change in Russia, however, the results of her reforms show little progress. Instead of giving the nobility the political power she initially promised, she rewarded them with material wealth, keeping the power to herself as the sovereign.

Peter and Catherine implemented the reforms that made Russia a powerful and prominent nation throughout Europe. Peter modernised Russia using his idealisation of France and Britain as inspiration, as well as strengthening Russia’s military and industrial power, and constructing an entirely new capital city, Saint Petersburg. Catherine gained Russian territory from Poland, Ukraine and the Ottoman Empire, whilst effecting domestic changes to appease the gentry; showing her support for local governmental systems. However, their reforms were conducted at the expense of the Russian people. Under Peter’s rule, the first traces of serfdom began to emerge as the peasants were forced to support the changes in Russia’s militaries and industries. Any opposition to the oppression of the lower classes was met with aggression from Peter, who believed strongly in the absolute power of the sovereign, and ruled Russia with an iron fist and a feudal system. Catherine, while aiming to appease the noble classes in order to maintain her power, was unable to address the problems faced by the lower classes, and, as a result, the peasants only suffered more subjugation. Like Peter, Catherine believed in the absolute power of the sovereign, and revolting peasants were executed, contradicting her aims to please her people. Peter and Catherine successfully modernised Russia into a powerful and expanding nation. However, they did so regarding their own desires and ideals above the needs of their people, resorting to the implementation of extreme oppression in order to sustain their power over Russia.

1 The gubernii developed by Peter were nine different districts throughout Russia. Each district had its own gubernator that would report back to the tsar. The system was used in place of the old gubnoy system, which was the local government system used previously, however, by Peter’s reign, it had become a formality only and was essentially useless (Pares, B., 1958, p242)

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