Pavel Miliukov on the Reforms of Peter the Great

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Pavel Miliukov on the reforms of Peter the Great.

Pavel Miliukov (1859-1943) was educated at Moscow University where he studied under V. O. Kliuchevskii, Russia's leading historian. After completing in 1893 a pathbreaking dissertation on State Administration under Peter the Great, Miliukov began a short-lived career teaching at Moscow University which came to an abrupt end in 1895 when he was dismissed for his political views. Miliukov went on to become one of the founders of the liberal Kadet party and a major political figure in the last years of Tsarist Russia. After the revolution of 1917, in which he played a prominent role, he continued to be active in exile as a writer, scholar and editor. The passage below is from his major work "Outlines of the History of Russian Culture," first published in the late 1890s and revised and republished in the 1930s.

In the absence of a [consciously developed plan of reform] there remained only one feeling, continually raising Peter above all the trifles and details in which he was constantly entangled. This feeling was very strongly developed in Peter and was the only thing that could discipline him, take the place of all the restraint that his upbringing could not provide. This was the feeling of responsibility, the feeling of duty, of obligation imposed from without. It is curious how even this consciousness of duty toward the motherland takes on the form with Peter of military discipline, the form most comprehensible for him and for those around him... He served the fatherland -- not only as a Tsar, as the "first servant" in the manner of Frederick the Great; no -- he served above all as a drummer boy, a bombardier, a night watchman, a vice admiral...In all of Peter's activity we find nothing more deeply rooted, almost to the point of instinct, no other guiding idea other than this idea of service...The feeling of duty, without a doubt, helped Peter -- amidst all the fluctuations and vicissitudes of fortune, amidst his own impulses and caprices -- to hold his will steady, to outlast his enemies, his allies, his helpers and his nation in the quest to attain the goals he had set. But this feeling could never take the place of a clear plan or make Peter's actions systematic.

The absence of such a plan and system, without a doubt, could only deprive the reformer of the chance to control the reforms, the guide their progress in a fully conscious and expedient manner. In other words, his personal influence on the reforms was significantly diminished in scope under these circumstances. But this condition only casts into particularly sharp relief...the degree of personal participation that nonetheless remained... One only has to go over in one's mind the main objects of Peter's reform to become convinced of the truth of this point... Let us look at just one area of reform that would seem to be the most personal, the most dependent on the will of the reformer and, consequently the most accessible to planned implementation. Petersburg-- this was the embodiment of all the passions and antipathies of Peter: his love for the sea and the navy, his need for wide open space, his habit of dabbling in the external cultural environment, and his fear in the face of the hollow hostility of the old capital. This Petrine "paradise" created, according to the picturesque Finnish legend, entirely in the air and then lowered all at once into a marsh so that it would not sink in separate pieces, this Petersburg also reflected not only the full substance of the reforms in miniature, but also all of their methods. On the small patches of land, divided up by the mouth of the Neva, Peter thrashed about for ten years without tiring, and the result was again a mass of unproductive wasted efforts, a mass of beginnings without ends, magnificent and expensive plans left without realization, and nothing coherent. One day Petersburg was to be on the present day Petrograd side. And so they began to build there churches, an exchange, shops, buildings of the colleges, and private houses, which every nobleman in service was required to build, depending on his wealth. The next day it seemed better to move the trade and main settlement to Kronstadt. And there again, every province had to erect an enormous stone building, in which no one would live and which would gradually fall into ruin over time. Meanwhile, the city was emerging in a new place, between the Admiralty and the Summer Garden, where the banks were higher and the danger from floods not as great. And again, Peter was not satisfied. In his leisure time during his last years, a new idea came to mind: to turn Petersburg into Amsterdam, to replace the streets with canals, and for this to move the entire city to the very lowest place, Vasil'ev Island, which had earlier been given in its entirety to Menshikov. To protect from floods and hostile attacks, dykes would have to be built. And once again the entire nobility, which had already built their homes in other parts of Petersburg, received mandatory invitations to build obligatory houses on Vasil'ev Island. Peter dies, and the building that had started was abandoned. The houses fell into disrepair and served merely as the butt of jokes: in other countries time creates ruins, but in Russia we build them on purpose...

The personality of Peter is visible everywhere in his reforms: his imprint lies in every detail. And it is precisely this feature that imparts to the reforms to a significant degree it elemental nature. This endless repetition and accumulation of experiences, this uninterrupted cyclone of destruction and creation, and in the midst of it all a kind of inexhaustible life force which no sacrifice, no loss, no failure has the power to break or even to stop. These are all features which are more reminiscent of the wastefulness of nature in all its blind elemental creativity, than the political art of a statesman. In drawing this conclusion, we must not forget yet another feature... It is precisely due to the particular form that the reforms took that they cease to appear as a miracle and descend to the level of the surrounding reality. They had to be the way they were in order to correspond with this reality. Their randomness, arbitrariness, individuality, and violence are all necessary features. And despite their sharply anti-national appearance, they are completely rooted in the conditions of national life. Russia received the only reform that it was capable of receiving. (166)

Source: P. N. Miliukov, Ocherki po istorii russkoi kul'tury (Moscow, 1995), v. 3, pp. 161-162, 166.

Translated by Nathaniel Knight