13 FEBRUARY 1959, Page 25


Peter's, Reforms


KLYUCFIEVSKY, greatest of Russian historians, died in 1910. Here is a new translation of the fourth volume of his History of Russia.* It is a good translation, far more readable than the old one by C. J. Hogarth. It has been competently and unobtrusively edited by the translator, though one regrets her decision, in referring to works written since Klyuchevsky, to cite only those available in English or French. This hides from us the continuity of the great debate in the USSR today. The debate concerns not only Peter's reign but the whole of Russian history. To Klyuchevsky We owe the classic statement of this point.

The question of the significance of Peter's reforms is largely a question of the development of Russian historical understanding. For over two hundred years Russians have written a great deal, and talked even more, about Peter's activities. . . . Very often, indeed. Russian philosophies of history have been in the form of judgments of the Petrine reforms; and, by a remarkable feat of condensation, the meaning of all Russian history was looked for in the significance of those reforms, and in the relation- ship between the old and the new Russia.

Mr. Charques, who has written a highly com- pressed but useful Short History of Russia,t sub- stantially follows Klyuchevsky's interpretation of Peter's reign, seeing it as 'the great divide between Muscovy and imperial Russia, the iron bridge between the harsh paternalism of Moscow and the harsher regimentation of St. Petersburg.' So it is perhaps worth looking again at Peter's place in history through Klyuchevsky's eyes.

We may start from a remark which the Tsar made during his visit to England in 1698: 'It is good to hear subjects speaking truthfully and openly to their King. This is what we must learn from England.' Twenty-five years later. looking back over his reign, Peter exclaimed : 'Was not everything done by force, and are not people grateful for what has resulted?' The contrast between the two remarks tells us much about his reign : that Peter started with relatively liberal intentions, and came to attribute the brutality of his reforming methods to lack of co-operation from his subjects. This was not wholly fair : the Tsar himself had an astonishingly violent and Unstable temperament. At a diplomatic banquet he spat in the face of a foreign officer who ven- tured to disagree with him. His favourites were liable to be cudgelled or punched in the face. Corrupt senators were publicly knouted; so were noblemen who appeared at reviews with beards and moustaches. Peter had his son and heir executed. Side by side with Peter's praise of English outspokenness we must set the Eng- lish diplomat's heartfelt cry of relief, 'tonight we drank as much as we liked.' Usually guests at official banquets had to drink as much as the Tsar liked. Courtiers were terrified of falling ill, lest Peter should wish to use the forceps or the knife

upon them. -

Peter grew up in an atmosphere of assassina- '1' PE l'ER THE GREAT. By Vasili Klyuchevsky. Trans- lated by Liliana Archibald. (Macmillan, 36s.) t A SHORT HIS I ORY or' RUSSIA. By Richard Charques. (English Universities Press, 8s. 6d.)

tion, palace revolution and torture. He received an utterly inadequate education, and from the age of seventeen he was continually grappling with problems of immediate urgency. Only one of the thirty-five years of his reign was completely peaceful : his reforms were made under the stress of direct military necessity. All this helps to ex- plain why 'he never managed to rid himself of the biggest fault of Muscovite politics—their arbi- trariness.' In the early part of his reign 'his letters took the place of laws'; they were only codified after 1709. Often his hastily drafted decrees con- tradicted one another; some could not be carried out for years until gloss after gloss had been put upon them.

To understand Peter we have to press below the Muscovite political tradition to the economic and social facts which underlay it. 'The Tsar pulls uphill alone with the strength of ten, but millions pull downhill,' wrote his peasant admirer Pososh- kov. 'How then can his work prevail?' This vast power of inertia was reinforced by Russia's appalling communications: it took five weeks to travel the 500 miles from St. Petersburg to Mos- cow. Peter's Government, like its Soviet successor, was unable to raise loans; its unprecedented expenditure had to be raised by taxation, its new industries run by conscript capital and labour. 'Women and girls in sin' were sent to factories to be reformed; State subsidies were forced upon merchants who were told off to run clothing fac- tories. Peter trying to build a capitalist society with few and unwilling capitalists strikingly fore- casts the Soviet government's attempts to build Socialism with a backward and depleted working class.

To be successful, compulsion demands an effec- tive administrative machine : Peter's was small and corrupt. Men calculated that 'only 30 roubles out of every 100 collected reached the Treasury, and that the civil servants divided the remainder among themselves as a reward for their troubles.' 'We all steal,' the Procurator-General told Peter, as Buckingham might have told James I, 'only some do it on a bigger scale and in a more con- spicuous way than others.' Whilst serfdom was intensified and landowners were given wider legal powers over their serfs, fiscal necessity led to taxation on serfs being increased. 'Land- owners became the government's financial agents and inspectors of serf labour, and were made responsible for law and order in the villages where the serf inhabitants were always prepared for flight.' Peter used the army to collect taxes and chivvy the bureaucrats. When census returns were delayed (and with them reassessment to taxation) guards regiments were ordered to put the civil servants in irons until the returns reached St. Petersburg. But neither this nor the subseqUent device of beating Provincial Commissioners twice a week produced results. The violence of all these measures defeated their objects. Villagers fled beyond the frontiers or to the Cossacks to avoid taxation and billeting. The taxable population steadily declined. 'Brigandage of the lower classes' answered that of the upper classes. Klyuchevsky's summing-up is melancholy : Peter's 'devotion to his people led him to overstrain their resources and waste their lives recklessly. . . . He person- ally was honest and sincere, and did not spare himself.' His court expenses were only a fraction of his predecessors'. Yet he treated his people as if they were merely tools.' An imposing legis- lative façade merely concealed the general dis- order which prevailed throughout the country.'

Nevertheless, under Peter Russia became a great power. The Tsar, if no general, was a great organiser of victory. Most of his reforms had been adumbrated by earlier Russian statesmen; but Peter carried them out. Even his apparent eccentricities, like the tax on beards, had a serious purpose. The beard had a symbolic sanctity for the Old Believers, and they were thus made to pay for the religious toleration which Peter gave them. Even the buffoonery of 'the Most Drunken Synod of Fools and Jesters,' which held public orgies at Christmas and in Lent, was thought by foreigners `to serve a political or even educational purpose' in discrediting the Church hierarchy.

What are we to conclude? It would be easy to use my hackneyed comparison of Petrine with Soviet Russia, and Peter's admiring remark about English liberty, to suggest enduring differences between the two countries, and to end with some self-congratulatOry observations about the con- stitutional traditions of God's Englishmen. But is it as simple as that? The similarities between early seventeenth-century England and Petrine Russia are greater than those between the latter and the USSR today. There was plenty of flogging in Stuart England. It failed to become a system of government only because, when Charles I tried to extend it to the propertied class, he was over- thrown by violent revolution. Were the Bloody Assizes, or the Glencoe massacre, so very superior to Muscovite methods? In England there was no serfdom; yet one could argue that there • was greater equality in Russia, where the knout or conscription to lifelong military service might be the lot of a noble no less than of a serf. Charles 1 and James II would have liked to rule through a standing army; again only violent revolt pre- vented them. English freedom owes more to the Channel than to anything else. It deprived kings of the excuse (so irresistible in Russia, France and Prussia) for maintaining a standing army. Navies are not much use for internal repression.

The mass of the Russian population under Peter the Great was no doubt more backward than the mass of the English population had been since the Middle Ages, though these are difficult matters to measure. Russia never enjoyed the stimulus to popular education which the Refor- mation gave England. Not less important, in Eng- land there was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a spontaneous economic development of the kind that Peter tried so hard to stimulate. The psychology of seventeenth-century English merchants, craftsmen and yeomen was in conse- quence utterly different from that of Russian mer- chants and serfs. Protestantism and economic success created a spirit of self-confidence, of initiative and independence. English businessmen hated the Stuart use of monopolies for fiscal pur- poses, so similar to Peter's. They did not need to be bullied by the government into building fac- tories; instead they joined in revolt against those who tried to order them about for their own good. English development over the past three centuries has been very different from Russian; but the reasons for this are to be found in historical events of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rather than in unique and permanent English qualities. Let us beware of those substitutes for analysis—the Slav soul and the English genius fix compromise.