Educational and Social Reforms of Peter the Great
From January 1, 1700, Peter the Great introduced a new chronology, making the Russian calendar conform to European usage with regard to the year, which in Russia had hitherto been numbered “from the Creation of the World” and had begun on September 1 (he adhered however to the Julian Old Style as opposed to the Gregorian New Style for the days of the month). In 1710 the Old Church Slavonic alphabet was modernized into a secular script. Peter was the first ruler of Russia to sponsor education on secular lines and to bring an element of state control into that field.
Various secular schools were opened; and since too few pupils came from the nobility, the children of soldiers, officials, and churchmen were admitted to them. In many cases, compulsory service to the state was preceded by compulsory education for it. Russians were also permitted to go abroad for their education and indeed were often compelled to do so (at the state’s expense). The translation of books from western European languages was actively promoted. The first Russian newspaper, Vedomosti (“Records”), appeared in 1703.
The Russian Academy of Sciences was instituted in 1724. Beside his useful measures, Peter often enforced superficial Europeanization rather brutally; for example, when he decreed that beards should be shorn off and Western dress worn. He personally cut the beards of his boyars and the skirts of their long coats (kaftany). The Raskolniki (Old Believers) and merchants who insisted on keeping their beards had to pay a special tax, but peasants and the Orthodox clergy were allowed to remain bearded.
Unlike all earlier Russian tsars, whose Byzantine splendors he repudiated, he was very simple in his manners; for example, he enjoyed conversation over a mug of beer with shipwrights and sailors from the foreign ships visiting St. Petersburg. Restless, energetic, and impulsive, he did not like splendid clothes that hindered his movements; often he appeared in worn-out shoes and an old hat, still more often in military or naval uniform.
He was fond of merrymaking and knew how to conduct it, though his jokes were frequently crude; and he sometimes drank heavily and forced his guests to do so too. A just man who did not tolerate dishonesty, he was terrible in his anger and could be cruel when he encountered opposition: in such moments only his intimates could soothe him – best of his entire beloved second wife, Catherine, whom people frequently asked to, intercede with him for them.
As a ruler, Peter often used the methods of a despotic landlord – the whip and arbitrary rule. He always acted as an autocrat, convinced of the wonder-working power of compulsion by the state. Yet with his insatiable capacity for work he saw himself as the state’s servant, and whenever he put himself in a subordinate position he would perform his duties with the same conscientiousness that he demanded of others.
He began his own army service in the lowest rank and required others likewise to master their profession from its elements upward and to expect promotion only for services of real value. Peter’s personality left its imprint on the whole history of Russia. A man of original and shrewd intellect, exuberant, courageous, industrious, and iron-willed, he could soberly appraise complex and changeable situations so as to uphold consistently the general interests of Russia and his own particular designs.
He did not completely bridge the gulf between Russia and the Western countries, but he achieved considerable progress in development of the national economy and trade, education, science and culture, and foreign policy. Russia became a great power, without whose concurrence no important European problem could thenceforth be settled. His internal reforms achieved progress to an extent that no earlier innovator could have envisaged.
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