In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • The Question of Reform
  • Social Strata
  • Culture and Education
  • Political Ideology and Monarchical Power
  • Religion
  • Economy
  • Empire Building and Resistance
  • Image

Renaissance and Reformation Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia
Carol B. Stevens
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0200


The reign of Peter I of Russia (between the years 1682 and 1689 and continuing until 1725) and its impact on Russian development are among the most studied and most controversial topics in early modern Russian history. His reign is often portrayed as instrumental in dragging a “backward” Russia into the modern European world through profound cultural and military reform. Those years have also been castigated as the apotheosis of statism, years of progress through coercion that retained the fundamental principles of the traditional regime and strengthened the grip of serfdom (Anisimov 1993 and Kamenskii 1997, both cited under Question of Reform). After the seven-year regency of his half-sister, Peter claimed power in 1689 with his joint-tsar and brother. The reform of the Russian army and the creation of a navy were Peter’s dominant concerns. The army conquered the Ottoman Black Sea fort of Azov on a second try in 1696, with the help of a newly formed navy. Peter’s 1698 trip to Europe did not support continued war against the Porte, but led to the creation of an anti-Swedish coalition among Russia, Denmark, and Poland-Lithuania/Saxony. The lengthy Great Northern War against Sweden, 1700–1721, began disastrously in 1700 but concluded with military victory (most notably at Poltava in 1709) and with growing European acknowledgement of Russia’s importance. Even in the midst of war, Peter and his inner coterie launched reforms intended to systematize Russian national administrative and military life. Until after the 1711 Russian loss to the Ottomans, the rapidity of change, the turnover of personnel, and the overlap of new and old institutions often undermined the implementation and effectiveness of reform. Thereafter, reforms restructured the central and local government, often adapting Swedish models, introduced the infamous soul tax, developed state-sponsored manufacturing, and reformed the Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, as Romaniello 2019 (cited under Economy) emphasizes, Russian Eurasian trade remained important, particularly in international competition with the United Kingdom, throughout the 18th century; so did eastward expansion and exploration. But cultural norms for the elite changed as Peter insisted on the Europeanization of education, cultural forms, and gender roles. The onslaught of reform from above met resistance and rebellion. There was armed rebellion among the Bashkirs, led by Bulavin. At court, blatant disregard for established conceptions of elite collaboration with the Crown led many to support Peter’s son, Aleksei, as an alternative to his father. Political police and fiscal enforcers became entrenched, even as the maturing of a generation raised in service to a reformed state helped to balance the political system. From outside the machinery of state, such efforts entrenched serfdom and solidified a developing absolutism. They also transformed Russia culturally, socially, and politically, not always following in Europe’s footsteps, but fully “glorious” in the 18th-century sense; Peter became and remained a symbol of national achievement and power.


Peter himself, his administration, and his contemporaries left extensive records; interest in Peter’s activities as man and reformer was immediate and lasting. One of Peter’s earlier biographers was Voltaire; since then historical analyses and popular accounts of both the man and his reign have abounded. Earlier Russian-language works remain valuable, but this article concentrates on recent biographies. Wittram 1964 presents Peter as a successful reformer, rationalizing and systematizing, and as an Enlightenment figure. N. I. Pavlenko’s earlier work conforms to the Soviet pattern of praising Peter’s military and modernizing exploits, while condemning the heavy burdens, both financial and military, imposed on the population as a result. His most recent biography takes a somewhat different tack (Pavlenko 1994). In the post-Soviet era, biographies and overviews of Peter’s reign have mustered a diverse challenge to the statist approach. Anisimov 1993 and Hughes 1998 (both cited under the Question of Reform), discuss Peter’s reforms in the light of his complicated and contradictory personality and family life. Bushkovitch 2001 frames the author’s discussion of Peter himself and of Petrine reforms with an understanding of the clan-based functioning of the Russian courts before and during the Petrine era. Popular biographies of Peter, however, tend to rely on the anecdotal, following the lead of much earlier accounts of Peter’s reign.

  • Bushkovitch, Paul. Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671–1725. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511496691

    Bushkovitch offers a careful examination of the Petrine era, primarily through the lens of Petrine court politics. Peter’s careful and not always successful efforts at reform had ultimately to be negotiated with the Russian Empire’s political elite as he (and they) struggled to realize their ambitions and expectations within a developing new structure.

  • Pavlenko, Nikolaj I. Petr Velikii. Moscow: Mysl, 1994.

    Pavlenko is perhaps the dean of Soviet scholars of Peter. This volume is Pavlenko’s post-Soviet contribution. The author sees inevitability in the Petrine reforms. Elsewhere in Pavlenko’s work, the various activities of Peter’s associates and Peter’s own vision of political power are of particular interest.

  • Wittram, Reinhard. Peter I: Czar und Kaiser; Zur Geschichte Peters des grossen in seiner Zeit. 2 vols. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964.

    Wittram’s judgment of Peter and his impact is largely positive, emphasizing as he does the rationalizing and systematizing elements of the reforms.

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