Reforms of Peter the Great Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Peter the Great instituted a series of reforms designed to Westernize the Russian military, economy, religious institutions, bureaucracy, and political and social structures. These reforms helped Russia develop into a major European power, with the strength, the clout, and the will to intervene in international affairs involving the traditional powers of Western Europe.

Summary of Event

The reign of Peter the Great marked the emergence of a decisive Russian influence in European affairs, an influence that would last into the twenty-first century. It was Peter who inaugurated modern Russia’s vigorous and aggressive foreign policy against its three neighboring states, Sweden, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire. Through the Great Northern War (1700-1721) Great Northern War (1700-1721) , he decisively broke Sweden’s supremacy in the Baltic, while his wars against the Ottoman Turks and his interference in the internal affairs of Poland set precedents that later Russian rulers would follow in subsequent decades. These great strides made by Russia in Eastern Europe were to a considerable extent the result of Peter’s extensive program of reforms, which touched all facets of Russian life. [kw]Reforms of Peter the Great (beginning 1689) [kw]Peter the Great, Reforms of (beginning 1689) Government and politics;Beginning 1689: Reforms of Peter the Great[2890] Social issues and reform;Beginning 1689: Reforms of Peter the Great[2890] Economics;Beginning 1689: Reforms of Peter the Great[2890] Russia;Beginning 1689: Reforms of Peter the Great[2890] Peter the Great Peter the Great Kurbatov, Alexis Lefort, François Menshikov, Aleksandr Danilovich Gordon, Patrick Petrovich, Alexis

Many of the reforms undertaken by Peter the Great were influenced by his contacts with Western Europe. As a young man, his companions included a number of Westerners, including Patrick Gordon, Gordon, Patrick a Scottish adventurer who sought his fortune at the czar’s court, and the German François Lefort Lefort, François . The transfer of Russia’s capital to the new city of St. Petersburg symbolized the Western orientation of Peter’s reign, and the number of foreigners in Russian service increased significantly after his celebrated journey to Western Europe in 1697-1698. Largely as a result of this journey, Peter decided to undertake a selective Westernization of his country, especially in financial and political administration, foreign and domestic trade, the military, the church, education, and society in general. Gordon and Lefort, for example, were recruited to work with Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov, Menshikov, Aleksandr Danilovich one of Peter’s closest advisers and friends, in order to modernize the obsolete Russian army. Military;Russia

The reforms that Peter brought about were designed not only to strengthen Russia as a nation but also to strengthen his rule over that nation. He sought practical Western techniques and skills, rather than theory and philosophy, that could be applied directly to improve Russia’s political system, economy, and military forces. When these techniques were introduced into Russia, the result was a country half European and half Russian. This contradiction can be seen in the financial reforms carried out by Alexis Kurbatov, Kurbatov, Alexis one of Peter’s leading advisers, who substantially increased government revenues by imposing new taxes and increasing existing ones. Such policies added to the misery and hardship of the general population. Peter’s political reforms produced an expanded bureaucratic structure, which was clearly designed to be more efficient and augment the autocratic power of the czar.

Peter improved Russia’s domestic and foreign trade with the West, using mercantilist Mercantilism;Russia theories of extensive state control over goods to be shipped abroad. Primary emphasis was given to the development of industry, including mining and the manufacture of military equipment such as cannons. Substantial funds were provided for Russia’s industrial growth. Peter sought to make his nation more independent in meeting its own essential needs, especially for his numerous military campaigns. Mining;Russia

Queen regent Sophia was forcibly seized and whisked off to a convent at the start of Peter the Great's reign. Sophia was the czar's half sister.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The size of the Russian military was increased, training was provided by Western officers brought to Russia for that purpose, and the quality of Russian weapons was improved. A new policy of raising military forces through an expanded conscription system provided the sizable forces Peter needed for his campaigns. He also established the first Russian navy of note.

Among other reforms, Peter abolished the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church Russian Orthodox Church and placed religious affairs under the control of a government department. He ordered the establishment of technical schools to provide the needed skills for government officials and military officers. Less significant but still often noted reforms include the elimination of the old Russian calendar in favor of the Julian calendar and the adoption of Western dress for the upper classes of society. The Russian alphabet was also simplified.

Peter’s policies had the broad effect of creating a larger urban population, which was somewhat better educated than previously. New skills were needed among large segments of the population, especially in industry. The institution of serfdom Serfdom, Russia remained essentially the same, however, as far as the daily lives of individual peasants were concerned. Peter’s efforts to reach his objectives led to the creation of a table of ranks of military and government officials: Persons of lower social status could climb higher on this table on the basis of merit and service to the state. Possessed of a violent temper, Peter demanded total loyalty from his subordinates, and he punished those who fell into disfavor or were suspected of disloyalty.

Peter the Great.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Such a range of reforms obviously meant changes in the traditional Russian way of life, and they provoked discontent and resistance. A serious serf rebellion broke out but was crushed by Peter’s military forces. By 1710, some of the remaining opposition to Peter found a champion in the czar’s disgruntled son Alexis Petrovich Alexis Petrovich . As the years passed, Peter’s suspicion of his son’s activities increased. The final break between the two came in 1718, when Peter, suspecting Alexis of involvement in a plot to repeal the reforms and cooperate with Russia’s foreign enemies, forced him to renounce his succession to the throne. Not satisfied with this, the czar cast him into prison where, in June, 1718, he died from repeated tortures.


Peter’s methods notwithstanding, his reforms had an undeniable impact upon Russian history, causing Russia to emerge from its Byzantine-Asiatic medieval past. The Petrine framework of modern Russia, particularly its governmental and social structure, remained relatively intact until the Revolution of 1917. Although the country, like its geography, was half European and half Asian, the domestic transformation of Russia strengthened it to the point where it could henceforth play a significant role in the international affairs of Europe.

One of the major controversies in the field of Russian historiography has been the true significance of Peter’s reforms. To some scholars, the importance of these reforms simply cannot be overemphasized; to others, their significance has been greatly exaggerated. Most scholars who study the Petrine period conclude that, while some of Peter’s reforms were relatively limited in their impact or actually began under his predecessors, the impact of his economic and military policies in particular was decisive. Moreover, the forceful methods he employed to generate change are noteworthy, even if they were not always admirable or even successful.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, M. S. Peter the Great. 2d ed. New York: Longmans, Green, 1995. Balanced and comprehensive account, emphasizing aspects of continuity during Peter’s reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anisomov, E. V. The Reforms of Peter the Great: Progress Through Coercion in Russia. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1993. This Russian historian interprets Peter as a conservative seeking to strengthen the autocratic system.
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    xlink:type="simple">Cracraft, James. The Petrine Revolution in Russian Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004. Third of three books examining how Peter the Great’s reforms profoundly altered Russian culture. In this volume, Carcraft describes the changes in publishing, literature, and the Russian language. His two previous books examine architecture and the visual arts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cracraft, James. The Revolution of Peter the Great. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Cracraft emphasizes the revolutionary nature of Peter’s reforms, maintaining Peter’s policies created a cultural revolution that changed how Russians perceived their world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cracraft, James, ed. Peter the Great Transforms Russia. 3d ed. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1991. Excellent collection of essays assessing Peter’s leadership and achievements; detailed and comprehensive.
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    xlink:type="simple">De Jonge, Alex. Fire and Water: A Life of Peter the Great. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980. Positive view of Peter’s successes in moving Russia away from its old ways, thanks to his insatiable curiosity, dynamic energy, and sweeping authority.
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    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Lindsey. Russia in the Age of Peter the Great. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Hughes, a professor of Russian history at the University of London, provides a detailed description of Peter’s attempts to modernize Russia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kliuchevskii, Vasili. Peter the Great. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961. A noted Russian historian interprets Peter as a restless reformer, without a master plan to fulfill.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Massie, Robert K. Peter the Great. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. Detailed sympathetic biography, focusing on Peter’s dynamic leadership and the creation of a major European power. Reprinted in paperback in 1986.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oliva, L. J. Russia in the Era of Peter the Great. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Comprehensive account (under two hundred pages) of Peter’s rule and significance.

Election of Michael Romanov as Czar

Codification of Russian Serfdom

Patriarch Nikon’s Reforms

Razin Leads Peasant Uprising in Russia

Peter the Great Tours Western Europe

Related articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Alexis; Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa; Nikon; Michael Romanov; Sophia. Peter the Great

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