Peter the Great introduced many reforms with the objective of turning Russia into a modern absolute monarchy capable of competing successfully against powerful European states. He created a new, well-trained, disciplined army with a strong infantry. After initial setbacks, in 1709 these troops proved themselves effective when they won the...
Peter the Great introduced many reforms with the objective of turning Russia into a modern absolute monarchy capable of competing successfully against powerful European states. He created a new, well-trained, disciplined army with a strong infantry. After initial setbacks, in 1709 these troops proved themselves effective when they won the decisive battle of the Great Northern War with Sweden. Russia’s victory in this war gave it the territories that are now Estonia and Latvia, and with them extensive access to the Baltic Sea as a trade route.
In order to win this war, Peter the Great launched a substantial war industry, based in the Ural Mountains. In addition, he created a new navy in the Baltic sea. Peter also centralized and modernized the government; ironically, he took Sweden as his model. Hundreds of thousands of serfs built his new, westernized capital, St. Petersburg. They suffered from terrible working conditions, which led many of them to get sick and die.
On Peter’s orders, many young Russian nobles went abroad to acquire a modern European education and become mariners and engineers. He created the Russian Academy of Sciences, the first Russian university, and some other educational institutions, where he invited foreign scholars to come and teach.
Peter’s reforms westernized the Russian elite classes. A despotic and brutal ruler, he nevertheless considered himself the first servant of the Russian state and believed that he was acting in the best interests of his country.
The other great modernizing ruler, Catherine the Great, began her rule by deposing her husband, Peter III. She did this with the support of the officers of the guard and their soldiers. She cultivated her popularity with the Russian nobility, her main power base. She helped nobles to solidify their control over millions of Russian serfs and suppressed a powerful peasant uprising led by Emelyan Pugachev.
At the same time, Catherine’s ideas reflected the influence of the European Enlightenment, and she introduced some progressive reforms; she liberalized the censorship, promoted secondary and higher education, prohibited torture, and gave most social groups the right to petition the government; the serfs were a notable exception. In addition, Catherine introduced limited self-government for Russian cities and the nobility, thereby paving the way for the gradual emergence of civil society.
Russian commerce and industry continued to grow during her long reign. Her army defeated the Ottoman imperial troops and conquered Southern Ukraine and Crimea. The Black Sea port of Odessa became an important center for Russia’s grain trade with Italy and France.