Recent Works on the Reign of Peter the Great
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001, ISBN: 521805856X; 497pp.; Price: £50.00
New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2002, ISBN: 300094264X; 303pp.; Price: £19.95
University of Leeds
Date accessed: 1 April, 2023
Not so long ago, Peter the Great was commonly portrayed by historians on both sides of the Iron Curtain as a proto-Homo Sovieticus: an icon of muscular masculinity, giant in both frame and achievement. According to this tradition, it was Peter's distinctive genius to drag a backward and xenophobic Muscovy, kicking and screaming, into the rational modern world. Led by the tsar himself, his troops thrust Russia onto the European stage, guided by borrowed tactical manuals and armed with muskets made in the factories Peter had built expressly for the purpose as part of a new command economy, itself designed to drive the development of an increasingly bureaucratic state. Though the tsar's curiosity about Protestantism and other features of Western culture could hardly pass unnoticed, the emphasis of most twentieth-century accounts was overwhelmingly materialist: 'pig iron figured strongly', as Professor Hughes reminded the audience at her inaugural lecture at the University of London in 1998.
Over the last fifteen years, three scholars have done most to reinvigorate study of the subject and shift the balance of interpretation. Two beautifully illustrated books by James Cracraft - The Petrine Revolution in Russian Architecture ( Palo Alto; University of Stanford Press, 1988) and The Petrine Revolution in Russian Imagery ( Palo Alto; University of Stanford Press, 1997) - were the first to place the accent firmly on culture. But since a comprehensive assessment of Cracraft's achievement must await the appearance of the final volume in his projected trilogy, attention here is focussed on the remaining two historians: Lindsey Hughes herself and Paul Bushkovitch. Hughes's new book pares down the detail from her earlier monograph, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great (New Haven and London; Yale University Press, 1998), rearranges it in roughly chronological order, and adds new chapters on Peter's legacy and posthumous iconography.(1) Adamant that the earlier work was not a biography, she has now, as her subtitle makes clear, placed the tsar himself centre-stage. Bushkovitch, writing in a different register for a different readership, contributes a detailed monograph, focused on the balance of power at court, which is intended to transform the way we think about Russian politics in this period. It is a crucial part of his argument that the tsar is only part of the story.
Unlike Cracraft, both Hughes and Bushkovitch convincingly place Peter in the context of Muscovite political culture. Bushkovitch is almost halfway through his narrative by the time he reaches the death of the tsar's mother in 1694, an event that left him 'alone, his own man for the first time in his life'.(p. 180) 'Many things which Peter's own publicists and later historians included among the achievements of the Petrine 'revolution', Hughes reminds us, 'had their roots in his father's and even his grandfather's reign, including a professional army based on infantry, subjugation of the church, use of foreign specialists and imported technology and culture'.(p. 11) The two scholars nevertheless differ somewhat in their verdicts on the persistence of the Muscovite legacy. Bushkovitch, here concerned exclusively with the elite, notes that Peter, at his death in 1725, 'left a country that had in many respects changed beyond recognition'.(p. 442) Even the 'Old Russian' group at court derived their conception of Muscovy from 'European tracts on aristocracy or from Polish experience, not from Russian reality' (p. 443), and the 'cultural' opposition to Peter was complicated by the fact that his aristocratic critics owed more to Ukrainian mediation of both Catholic and Protestant ideas than they did to 'traditional' Muscovite Orthodoxy. Hughes's chapter on Peter's legacy similarly emphasises that there was no way back to Muscovy in eighteenth-century Russia. No less persuaded than Bushkovitch of the tsar's power to transform, or of his contempt for the past, Hughes nevertheless allows room for the resilience of old ways of doing things among the Russian people. And she is also interested in some decidedly anti-modern elements of Petrine rule.
In particular, she draws attention to the significance of the tsar's 'mock court' - the All-Drunken, All-Jesting Assembly, presided over by a 'Prince-Pope', a role filled by the tsar's former tutor, Nikolai Zotov, until his death in 1717, and subsequently by Peter Buturlin. Devoted to elaborate (and notoriously bawdy) parodies of religious ceremonies, possibly inspired by the election of the real patriarch, Adrian, in August 1690, the assembly symbolised Peter's lasting fascination with charades, already demonstrated by the formation of his two 'play' regiments at Preobrazhenskoe in the 1680s. This fascination found further expression during the Grand Embassy to the West (1697-8) when Peter sought in vain to conceal his identity as the humble bombadier Peter Mikhailov, a ruse that merely served to intensify public interest in his outsize person. As Hughes plausibly claims, the tsar's 'love of play-acting and "pretendership"' was so pronounced that it 'verged on a desire actually to be someone else'.(p. 41) Yet, for all his efforts to divert attention towards others, there is no doubt that the central playmaker in this bizarre coterie was the tsar himself, abnormally tall at six feet seven inches, but by no means the Charles Atlas figure of popular mythology. As the life-size Rastrelli waxwork now in the Hermitage Museum shows, Peter's elongated body was oddly proportioned. The same distorted image, echoed in Valentin Serov's 1907 portrait, was reinforced in 1991 by the Russian émigré sculptor, Mikhail Shemiakin. His statue, symbolically placed at the heart of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, portrays the tsar as 'an ill-formed freak, unnaturally small-headed, bald, bug-eyed and spindly-limbed'.(p. 245) And these were not Peter's only physical peculiarities. 'Sometimes,' a Swiss traveller reported in 1698, 'his eyes roll right back until only the whites are visible . He even has a twitch of the legs and can't stand in the same place for long.'
Peter, then, was not only fascinated by the human monsters that he had pickled for preservation in his new Kunstkammer, but was himself a freak of no mean proportions. However one might characterise his extraordinary reign, surely no-one has ever thought of it as a 'stagnant pool of routine autocracy', an interpretation Bushkovitch (p. 11) implicitly ascribes to the nineteenth-century 'state school' of historiography, of which the emphasis on institutional development is said (p. 2) to have guided the approach of a remarkably heterogeneous group of historians, from Bogoslovskii to Riasanovsky and from Marc Raeff to Hughes herself. Nor is this the only curious judgement in the brief 'Introduction'. Hughes's work alone gives grounds for wondering whether the history of elite women has been quite so grievously neglected as Bushkovitch claims.(p. 6) Though his decision to sidestep detailed historiographical debate (p. 11) is fully understandable, it occasionally seems involuntarily to have generated summaries of existing scholarship that are less persuasive than the fine analysis of the primary sources that make his book such a resounding success.
Bushkovitch is concerned above all to uncover the extent to which Russian rulership was a joint venture between the tsar and his boyars, and to determine the changing balance of forces over time, problems that lead him, in turn, to probe the nature and strength of aristocratic opposition to Peter. At the heart of this investigation lies an attempt to trace the development of a vigorous high politics, and to show how, allowing for phases of relative stability, power was subject to more or less continuous renegotiation in the light of fluctuating domestic and international circumstances. To complement (and occasionally challenge) the structural accounts produced by recent historians of Muscovite political culture, Bushkovitch takes a resolutely chronological approach. He aims to provide 'a new narrative of Peter's reign' that 'makes clear the informal rules of the political game, the need of the monarch to balance factions at court and to compromise even when carrying out radical changes'.(p. 11) As the author acknowledges, not everything he says is novel. But reading even the more familiar parts of his story is like hearing for the first time a favourite symphony played on original instruments. It is an exhilarating and revelatory experience, dependent not only on the author's avowed determination to strip away the accretions of anecdote and falsification perpetrated by later mythmakers (Bushkovitch is surely not the first to give battle against anachronism), but even more on his use of a range of previously untapped archival sources to reshape our understanding of key decisions and episodes.
The main challenge facing any attempt to 'put the people in' to an account of Russian politics in this period lies in the dearth of sources capable of transforming even the best-known actors from two-dimensional figures into believable characters. Unlike many of their Western contemporaries, the Muscovite elite left little personal correspondence. How has Bushkovitch filled the gap? Even his Sisyphean labours in the intractable service records of the Razriad - the Muscovite military chancellery - seem to have yielded only moderate dividends. Though there are, as he promises, genuine nuggets in his copious footnotes (some of which are themselves miniature works of scholarship), the uncertain linkages between lineage, rank and political influence necessarily force some conclusions to remain speculative. (See, for example, the discussion of the implications of changes in the composition of the Duma for the fall of Matveev in 1676: pp. 84-6.) More directly persuasive - and more immediately appealing to the reader - is the testimony drawn from the dispatches of the Dutch, Swedish, Danish and Saxon envoys, overlooked by the compilers of the 148-volume miscellany published by the Imperial Russian Historical Society between 1867 and 1916, in an era when it seemed more natural to focus on Russia's relations with Britain, France, Austria and Prussia (though there is more to say about them, too). How much confidence can we place in these reports? Later in the eighteenth century, when the tsarist court had expanded, foreign ambassadors found its secrets so hard to penetrate that their accounts are rarely to be trusted at face value. Despite his friendship with Potemkin, Britain's Sir James Harris laboured under the misapprehension that Catherine the Great was no more than a puppet whose strings were pulled from Potsdam. Under Peter and his predecessors, however, the circle of intimates was smaller and in some ways easier to access. Foreign envoys were able to gather accurate intelligence - sometimes in advance of events - because they were close either to the tsar's entourage (as was the Dane, Magnus Gjøe, who relied in the 1670s on Matveev's confidant, Paul Menzies) or to an influential aristocratic family (as was the Prussian, Johann Georg von Keyserling, to the Sheremetevs in the early eighteenth century), or simply (as in the case of Peter's denunciation of Aleksei Petrovich) because the tsar deliberately left the Senate windows open in order to be overheard. Bushkovitch makes no attempt to conceal the potential limits of such sources. To take only one example, his discussion of opposition to V. V. Golitsyn's ill-fated Crimean campaign in 1687 (pp. 152-3) incorporates in close succession the phrases 'supposed to have been', 'supposed to be', 'seems to have been', 'it is said that', and 'it seems that'. Time and again, however, an unanswerable case is made for the plausibility of these newly discovered materials, not least because the munificence of Cambridge University Press has permitted the author to include generous translated extracts in his text and to provide in his footnotes still more extensive passages in the original languages. Such gobbets simultaneously allow readers to sample for themselves a wide range of new primary material, and to see how closely Bushkovitch has relied on it in framing his own narrative (for examples, see p. 201, n.78; p. 202, n.79).
Though it is part of the author's point to show that this complex narrative defies simple summary, it demonstrates clearly enough that periods of domination by favourites - Matveev between 1671 and1676, Golitsyn in the mid-1680s, Golovin and Menshikov between 1699 and 1708 - were punctuated by periods in which decision-making had to allow for wider consultation among the great families of the Muscovite elite. By no means monolithic, these boyar clans were just as capable of dividing on policy lines, as they did over foreign affairs during Sofiia's regency, as they were over the personal quarrels that dominated the early 1690s. It is not always clear why one set of divisions succeeded the other. But it is plain enough that the underlying cause of Russian political instability was lack of trust. Boyars resented the gradual accumulation of power by favourites; tsars thought it prudent to develop a nose for disloyalty. Peter was notoriously mistrustful. In the wake of the Streltsy revolt of 1698 (which took place while the tsar was abroad on his 'Grand Embassy') and mounting rivalries amongst the boyars (which were all too evident on his return), it seemed that all his fears had been justified. As the imperial ambassador, Ignaz von Guarient, reported in January 1699, 'the tsar finds daily, more and more, that in the whole empire not one of his blood relatives and boyars can be found to whom he can entrust an important office; he is therefore forced to take over the heavy burden of the empire himself, and pushing back the boyars (whom he calls disloyal dogs) to put his hand to a new and different government'.(p. 210) Peter then embarked on what was probably 'his most anti-aristocratic' period (p. 442), when, ignoring the great families, he embarked on the war against Sweden and introduced a series of radical domestic reforms by means of personal decree. Because war was expensive, even victory was insufficient to quell rising resentment at various levels of society. Bushkovitch's greatest achievement is to demonstrate, in unprecedented detail and with unprecedented conviction, how aristocratic opposition (and with it, domestic politics as a whole) began to revolve round the person of the tsarevich. A brilliant reconstruction of the Aleksei Petrovich affair marks the culmination of the book. Though the brutal investigation that resulted in the death of Peter's son produced no real evidence of widespread conspiracy, the evidence of widespread opposition was overwhelming. Since it was impossible to conceive of ignoring hostile aristocrats, as he had tried to do between 1699 and 1708, the tsar 'once again reset the balance among factions at court' (p. 426), surrounding his critics with favourites and bureaucrats, and driving forward the pace of change. 'The case of Aleksei was the greatest spur to Peter's reform in the history of the reign, greater even than the Northern War'.(p. 425)
The book is studded with all manner of individual insights. A detailed discussion of the Tsykler affair of 1697 - 'the first serious case of opposition to Peter on the part of the court elite' (p. 188) - demonstrates, contrary to some accounts, that the investigation 'turned up nothing about Old Belief and the subject was not even mentioned'.(p. 197) A particularly cogent section (pp. 280-92), linking the vicissitudes of internal politics, as reported by the foreign ambassadors, to the progress of the Great Northern War, shows how Charles XII's fateful decision to turn south towards the Ukraine in September 1708, though 'in retrospect a fatal error' culminating in the defeat at Poltava, was 'a perfectly logical move for man counting on revolt and treason within Russia to bring him victory'.(p. 286) Nor is all the most interesting material confined the later years. The implicit analytical thrust of the early chapters consists in a provocative attempt to puncture the pretensions of both the Miloslavskii faction and those scholars who have stressed its importance in Muscovite politics from the 1670s to the 1690s. Because the much-vaunted rivalry between Naryshkin and Miloslavskii clans 'only dates from the winter of 1676-77', when Bushkovitch attributes it to 'concrete actions by Ivan Mikhailovich Miloslavskii', 'the struggle of the Naryshkins and Miloslavskiis before 1676 is a myth'.(p. 57) 'During the last five years of the life of Tsar Aleksei, after his marriage to Peter's mother, the most important sources for Russian court politics, the reports of the various resident ambassadors, make no mention of a Naryshkin faction'.(p. 63) During the regency between 1682 and 1689, 'the Sofia-Golitsyn faction was not really a 'Miloslavskii' faction in that Ivan Miloslavskii played no role. The only 'Miloslavskii' was Sofia herself'.(p. 136, n.20) There is much for historians to chew on here.
Though it seems churlish to ask for more, one wonders whether the argument might have been expanded (or perhaps reshaped) in three inter-related ways. The first concerns the 'mock court' of the All-Drunken Assembly. Perhaps because its freakish machinations were beyond the comprehension of, distasteful to, and partly hidden from the foreign envoys on whose reports he relies, Bushkovitch mentions the assembly only in passing as 'a sort of drinking society that parodied church and state'.(p. 179) For Hughes, however, the drunken antics in which Peter played the part of humble bombardier or deacon in attendance on the Prince-Pope 'demonstrated his ability to set the rules and choose his own roles'.(p. 32) Was this because he struggled to set the rules in the 'real' world? Was the mock court the only place where he could be sure of loyalty? 'All the mock post holders were absolutely loyal', Hughes notes, 'all close to the tsar. This was essential, because Peter made himself vulnerable by posing as their humble subject or pupil and had to be confident that none of them would take advantage of his assumed "weakness"'.(pp. 107-108) If it was not mere escapism, the mock court - by no means a passing phenomenon - may deserve greater prominence in the study of Petrine high politics than it has so far received. It certainly gives pause for thought about the nature of that politics, which was no more a conventional factional system than it was a stagnant pool of routine autocracy. 'The machine seemed to be working smoothly', Bushkovitch remarks in passing (p. 184), but he never quite tells us precisely what sort of machine he thinks it was, and the mechanical image sits somewhat uncomfortably with his overall emphasis on fluidity. A final point concerns change over time. While his magnificent opening chapter on the 'structures and values' of Muscovite political culture demonstrates that narrative is not the only historical form that Bushkovitch has mastered, it is not quite held in balance by the 'Epilogue and conclusion, 1718-1725'. How stable was the Petrine regime by 1718? The William Mons affair is but one indication that simmering under the surface of these later years lies a further narrative that might reveal them as an integral part of Bushkovitch's story, rather than as the appendage to it that they are made to seem.
Observations such as these are not so much criticisms as reflections on the continual stimulation to be derived from a close reading of an outstanding work of scholarship. The scale of the achievement is enviable: by scouring European archives and applying his forensic intelligence to a daunting range of published sources in several languages, Paul Bushkovitch has given us a wholly refreshing view of the politics of Peter's reign, rich in texture and all the more attractive for being expressed in plain English. Though the detail is demanding, there is not a dull page in the book. Provided that they are prepared to concentrate, readers at almost every level of sophistication have much to learn from it. And they will appreciate the importance of its insights all the more if they read Lindsey Hughes first. Her readable, wide-ranging, and exceptionally well-balanced biography, not only has much to teach the expert, but also offers an excellent introduction to the reign.
- For a review of Russia in the Age of Peter the Great on these pages, please click here.Back to (1)
Professor Hughes thanks Professor Dixon for his generous review, and does not wish to comment further.
Simon Dixon's review of my Peter the Great: the Struggle for Power is so generous that a response in the usual sense of the word would be churlish. In place of that response I offer a few further reflections and clarifications.
Professor Dixon is right that I avoided current historiographic debates, perhaps to excess, for they seem to me increasingly noisy and unproductive. The historiography of older Russian history, however, has its own problems, different from those of the literature of the Soviet and pre-revolutionary eras. It is not the imposition of contemporary political debates on the past that is the obstacle, rather it is the persistence of a picture of the Russian past derived from long-dead modes of analysis. This is my point about the Russian state and the 'state school' of Boris Chicherin and S. M. Solov'ev. They understood Russian history as the growth of Statehood (gosudarsvennost' /Staatstum), the principle of the state understood in Hegelian terms. In practice this notion meant that historians were to study formal institutions and their legal basis, and worry about whether the boyar duma was a House of Lords or not. For reasons unique to Russian history, their impact has lasted far beyond the original impulse, indeed up to the present day. Most of the existing literature on the state that laid down the factual picture that we accept was the product of the state school or its immediate successors. The last general study of provincial administration in the seventeenth century was Chicherin's, the last largescale work on the same subject in Peter's time that of M. M. Bogoslovskii (1902). The Senate was last examined by S. A. Petrovskii (1875) and the authors of the 1911 official history. We still rely for information on taxation and finance on P. N. Miliukov (1905), while E. V. Anisimov's 1982 study of the soul tax, exemplary as it is, examines only one aspect of the problem. Claes Peterson's 1979 work on the Colleges is also foundational, but mainly concerns their formation, and formal mode of operation. The bibliography and notes to Anisimov's 1997 survey of state institutions prove this point: only in a few cases is there literature from the Soviet era on the state, and however active Russian and Western historians have been since 1991, it is too soon for much of the ground to be cleared. In the Soviet era the state was just not important enough - compared to agrarian history, class struggle, and economic history - to attract much attention.
By accident of fate historians in the West also followed the state school in concentrating on formal institutions of the earlier Russian state, rather than the people who ran them. In part this was the result of the importation of Russian historical ideas through emigration. Then in the West, not just the Anglo-Saxon world, the fascination with American social science in the 1950s and early 1960s produced a whole series of studies that merely reinforced the assumptions of the state school: formal bureaucratic organization and the legal basis of social organization is the key to understanding. Afterwards social history came along and the state was largely abandoned for several decades, only to re-enter through the back door by way of studies of the boyar elite, the work which formed the foundation of my own.
In short, the ideas of the state school are long dead, but for the period up to about 1800 we are left with the factual picture which they created. What they thought was important has been studied, and in the way they approved, and there was little interest before 1917 in what they did not think was important. Soviet surveys of Russian history relied on the data accumulated by their predecessors in areas like the state, and thus bequeathed to the current generation what are actually old interpretations encased in a supposedly neutral factual picture. I am not alone in making this observation, for recently A. B. Kamenskii and other Russian colleagues have noted the phenomenon. Such a situation does not exist in the historiography of any other major European country, and it complicates the task of any historian of Russia. We can only hope that the speed of publication of both sources and new research in Russia itself will render the problem obsolete in the decades to come.
I can only welcome Professor Dixon's comments about my attempts to provide a new picture of events. In the process of work it became clear that there was a great deal left to be uncovered, and there were many episodes and aspects of the period which I could only mention and not describe in any detail. One of them is women. I am quite aware of the work of Lindsey Hughes and the few others who have dealt with women at the court in these centuries, but I am mainly impressed with what remains unknown. In trying to work out the court factions of the 1670s I stumbled across tsarevna Irina Mikhailovna (the sister of tsar Aleksei), obviously a major political figure. What struck me was that there is absolutely no reference to her in the literature outside of the context of the marriage negotiations of 1642-5 with Denmark, in which she had - it seems - no personal role whatever. If I could find a woman with political power before Sofia without looking for one, what else is waiting in the sources of the seventeenth century?
The eighteenth century presents another series of related dilemmas. What about Catherine I, usually dismissed in the literature as weak and dominated by Menshikov in her short reign? It is obvious that she played a major role in Peter's time, which I had space only to outline. Do we have her reign right? The last studies are again over a century old. And why are almost all the rulers of the eighteenth century women? Especially since all of them, without exception, were put on the throne by a coup d'etat of male courtiers and the guards regiments? Most, perhaps all, were not weak rulers and they were very well known to their sponsors and supporters before the various coups. The Orlovs and the guards did not put on the throne a woman they thought easily manipulated, only to find out the opposite. They knew what they were doing. The story of Irina and Sofia suggests to me that we had better suspend judgment before we pronounce women irrelevant to politics before Sofia. And we had better look again at the eighteenth century.
Two other issues left me wondering. The All-Drunken Council did not get much attention in the book in part because both Lindsey Hughes and Ernest Zitser have been working through the records with much success, but also because I am not sure what to make of it. Is it really a case of archaic practices surviving into Peter's time, as Professor Dixon suggests? It seems to me rather another Western import, but with some Russian features such as the celebration of sviatki, the days of revelry between Chrismas and Epiphany (Reinhard Wittram had the same impression). It tells us a great deal about Peter's personality and culture, but its political role is much less clear. Its members are either unimportant (the third Apraksin brother) or had plenty of access to the tsar in other forms (Zotov). It does not figure in diplomatic accounts of court politics, though it does play a major role in such reports on Peter himself or the more general life of the court.
Dixon is also right that I neglect the last years of Peter's reign, after about 1718. In part the reason (other than personal exhaustion) was that much of the literature on Peter's reforms (the soul tax, local administration, the colleges) covered the years 1718-25 more fully than usual, and for once some of the more interesting diplomatic sources (Campredon's reports) are published. The other reason is that it seems to me, only intuitively, that the last years of Peter's reign form the beginning of another period, starting in 1718 or 1721. By then the major effort of Europeanization was over, the experiments in government had largely come to an end with the establishment of structures that last, more or less, to the end of the century, and the configuration of factions at court had stabilized. It might be more productive to see the last years together with the period from Peter's death to Anna's restoration of autocracy as a single period, one that saw a struggle for power within the new institutional, and to some extent social, forms.
Finally, I am grateful for Professor Dixon's interest and intelligent reaction to my use of diplomatic material. Unfortunately it is hard to find such sensitivity to source problems outside of 'old Europe'. I would like to add only one note about Sir James Harris and his views of Catherine. My guess would be that he reflected his sources at court, and repeated the prejudices of the opposition. Shcherbatov's criticism of Catherine was primarily that, as a woman, she let herself be dominated by male favorites, a highly improbable view but clearly widespread. Or perhaps the problem was just Harris's stupidity, a human failing which the historian cannot avoid in others any more than in himself.