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  RusNet :: Encyclopedia :: P  

Peter I: Internal reforms

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Updated: 05.12.2003

At the beginning of Peter's reign, Russia was backward by comparison with the countries of Western Europe. This backwardness inhibited foreign policy and even put Russia's national independence in danger. Peter's aim, therefore, was to overtake the developed countries of Western Europe as soon as possible, in order both to promote the national economy and to ensure victory in his wars for access to the seas. Breaking the resistance of the boyars, or members of the ancient landed aristocracy, and of the clergy and severely punishing all other opposition to his projects, he initiated a series of reforms that affected, in the course of 25 years, every field of the national life-administration, industry, commerce, technology, and culture.

The towns

At the beginning of Peter's reign there was already some degree of economic differentiation between the various regions of Russia; and in the towns artisans were establishing small businesses, small-scale production was expanding, and industrial plants and factories were growing up, with both hired workers and serfs employed. There was thus a nascent bourgeoisie, which benefited considerably from Peter's plans for the development of the national industry and trade. The reform of the urban administration was particularly significant.

By a decree of 1699, townspeople (artisans and tradesmen) were released from subjection to the military governors of the provinces and were authorized to elect municipalities of their own, which would be subordinated to the Moscow municipality, or ratusha - the council of the great merchant community of the capital. This reform was carried further in 1720, with the establishment of a chief magistracy in St. Petersburg, to which the local town magistracies and the elected municipal officers of the towns (mayors, or burmistry; and councillors, or ratmany) were subordinated.

All townspeople, meanwhile, were divided between "regulars" and "commons" (inferiors). The regulars were subdivided between two guilds-the first comprising rich merchants and members of the liberal professions (doctors, actors, and artists); the second, artisans (classified according to their vocations) and small tradesmen. A merchant belonged to the first or to the second guild according to the amount of his capital; and those who were also manufacturers had special privileges, coming under the jurisdiction of the College of Manufactures and being exempt from the billeting of troops, from elective rotas of duty, and from military service. The commons were hired labourers, without the privileges of regulars.

Thanks to the reforms, the economic activity and the population of the towns increased. Anyone engaged in trade was legally permitted to settle in a town and to register himself in the appropriate category, and there was a right of "free commerce for people of every rank."

The provinces and the districts

In order to create a more flexible system of control by the central power, Russia was territorially divided in 1708 into eight guberny, or governments, each under a governor appointed by the tsar and vested with administrative, military, and judicial authority. In 1719 these guberny were dissolved into 50 provinces, which in turn were subdivided into districts.

The census of 1722, however, was followed by the substitution of a poll tax for the previous hearth tax; and this provoked a wave of popular discontent, against which Peter decided to distribute the army regiments (released from active service by the Peace of Nystad) in garrisons throughout the country and to make their maintenance obligatory on the local populations. Thus came into being the "regimental districts," which did not coincide with the administrative. The regimental commanders, with their own sphere of jurisdiction and their own requirements, added another layer to the already complex system of local authority.

The central government

In the course of Peter's reign, medieval and obsolescent forms of government gave place to effective autocracy. In 1711 he abolished the boyarskaya duma, or boyar council, and established by decree the Senate as the supreme organ of state - to coordinate the action of the various central and local organs, to supervise the collection and expenditure of revenue, and to draft legislation in accordance with his edicts. Martial discipline was extended to civil institutions, and an officer of the guards was always on duty in the Senate. From 1722, moreover, there was a procurator general keeping watch over the daily work of the Senate and its chancellery and acting as "the eye of the sovereign."

When Peter came to power the central departments of state were the prikazy, or offices, of which there were about 80, functioning in a confused and fragmented way. To replace most of this outmoded system, Peter in 1718 instituted 9 "colleges" (kollegy), or boards, the number of which was by 1722 expanded to 13. Their activities were controlled, on the one hand, by the General Regulation and, on the other, by particular regulations for individual colleges, and indeed there were strict regulations for every branch of the state administration. Crimes against the state came under the jurisdiction of the Preobrazhensky Office, responsible immediately to the tsar.


A secondary purpose of Peter's Grand Embassy to Western Europe in 1697 had been to obtain firsthand acquaintance with advanced industrial techniques, and the exigencies of his great war against Sweden, from 1700, made industrial development an urgent matter.

In order to provide armaments and to build his navy (Russia had virtually no warships at all), metallurgical and manufacturing industries on a grand scale had to be created; and Peter devoted himself tirelessly to meeting these needs. Large capital investments were made, and numerous privileges were accorded to businessmen and industrialists. These privileges included the right to buy peasant serfs for labour in workshops, with the result that a class of "enlisted" serfs came into existence, living in specified areas and bound to the factories.

The methods of other countries were further studied, and foreign experts were invited to Russia. The overall result was satisfactory: the army and the navy were supplied with their material needs; a great number of manufacturing establishments were founded (mainly with serf labour); the metallurgical industry was so far advanced that by the middle of the 18th century Russia led Europe in this field; and the foreign-trade turnover was increased sevenfold in the course of the reign.

The armed forces

Peter established a regular army on completely modern lines for Russia in the place of the unreliable streltsy and the militia of the gentry. While he drew his officers from the nobility, he conscripted peasants and townspeople into the other ranks. Service was for life. The troops were equipped with flintlock firearms and bayonets of Russian make; uniforms were provided; and regular drilling was introduced. For the artillery, obsolete cannons were replaced with new mortars and guns designed by Russian specialists or even by Peter himself (he drew up projects of his own for multicannon warships, fortresses, and ordnance).

The Army Regulations of 1716 were particularly important; they required officers tot each their men "how to act in battle," "to know the soldier's business from first principles and not to cling blindly to rules," and to show initiative in the face of the enemy. For the navy, Peter's reign saw the construction, within a few years, of 52 battleships and hundreds of galleys and other craft; thus a powerful Baltic fleet was brought into being. Several special schools prepared their pupils for military or naval service and finally enabled Peter to dispense with foreign experts.

Cultural and educational measures

From January 1, 1700, Peter introduced a new chronology, making the Russian calendar conform to European usage with regard to the year, which in Russia had hitherto been numbered "from the Creation of the World" and had begun on September 1 (he adhered however to the Julian Old Style as opposed to the Gregorian New Style for the days of the month). In 1710 the Old Church Slavonic alphabet was modernised into a secular script.

Peter was the first ruler of Russia to sponsor education on secular lines and to bring an element of state control into that field. Various secular schools were opened; and since too few pupils came from the nobility, the children of soldiers, officials, and churchmen were admitted to them. In many cases, compulsory service to the state was preceded by compulsory education for it. Russians were also permitted to go abroad for their education and indeed were often compelled to do so (at the state's expense). The translation of books from western European languages was actively promoted. The first Russian newspaper, Vedomosti ("Records"), appeared in 1703. The Russian Academy of Sciences was instituted in 1724.

Beside his useful measures, Peter often enforced superficial Europeanisation rather brutally; for example, when he decreed that beards should be shorn off and Western dress worn. He personally cut the beards of his boyars and the skirts of their long coats (kaftany). The Raskolniki (see Old Believers) and merchants who insisted on keeping their beards had to pay a special tax, but peasants and the Orthodox clergy were allowed to remain bearded.

The church

In 1721, in order to subject the Russian Orthodox Church to the state, Peter abolished the Patriarchate of Moscow. Thenceforward the patriarch's place as head of the church was taken by a spiritual college, namely the Holy Synod, consisting of representatives of the hierarchy obedient to the tsar's will. A secular official-the ober-prokuror, or chief procurator - was appointed by the tsar to supervise the Holy Synod's activities. The Holy Synod ferociously persecuted all dissenters and conducted a censorship of all publications.

Priests officiating in churches were obliged by Peter to deliver sermons and exhortations that were intended to make the peasantry "listen to reason" and to teach such prayers to children that everyone would grow up "in fear of God" and in awe of the tsar. The regular clergy were forbidden to allow men under 30 years old or serfs to take vows as monks.

The church was thus transformed into a pillar of the absolutist regime. Partly in the interests of the nobility, the extent of land owned by the church was restricted; Peter disposed of ecclesiastical and monastic property and revenues at his own discretion, for state purposes.

The nobility

Peter's internal policy served to protect the interest of Russia's ruling class-the landowners and the nascent bourgeoisie. The material position of the landed nobility was strengthened considerably under Peter. Almost 100,000 acres of land and 175,000 serfs were allotted to it in the first half of the reign alone.

Moreover, a decree of 1714 that instituted succession by primogeniture and so prevented the breaking up of large properties also removed the old distinction between pomestya (lands granted by the tsar to the nobility in return for service) and votchiny (patrimonial or allodial lands) so that all such property became hereditary.

Moreover, the status of the nobility was modified by Peter's Table of Ranks (1722). This replaced the old system of promotion in the state services, which had been according to ancestry, by one of promotion according to services actually rendered. It classified all functionaries-military, naval, and civilian alike-in 14 categories, the 14th being the lowest and the 1st the highest; and admission to the 8th category conferred hereditary nobility. Factory owners and others who had risen to officer's rank could accede to the nobility, which thus received new blood. The predominance of the boyars ended.

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