Peter the Great: Legacy and Celebration

Yakov Rabkin
June 2022

Peter the Great: Celebration and Legacy

Yakov M. Rabkin, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Montreal, co-author of Demodernization: A Future in the Past.

My arrival in Saint-Petersburg coincided with a celebration. June 9 was the 350th anniversary of Peter the Great, the founder of this city. He changed Russia’s course of history, turning the country into an empire and himself into an emperor. Like his predecessors and successors for at least two centuries, he expanded the frontiers of Russia. In fact, the city that bears again his name (it was Leningrad between 1924 and 1991) was founded on the territory conquered in the course of a war with Sweden.

Vladimir Putin, a Leningrad native, did not miss the opportunity to make the anniversary relevant to his current agenda. “You might think he was fighting with Sweden, seizing their lands,” Mr Putin said, referring to the Northern Wars which Peter launched at the turn of the 18th Century as he forged a new Russian Empire.

“But he seized nothing; he reclaimed it!” Putin said, arguing that Slavs had lived in the area for centuries. “It seems it has fallen to us, too, to reclaim and strengthen,” concluded the Russian president, alluding to Ukraine. Peter’s rule, he suggested, was proof that expanding Russia had strengthened it.

Indeed, Russia became a great European power under Peter. He invested heavily into building a modern state bureaucracy, a powerful army and a redoubtable navy. Russia had participated in European trade before him, but he made it into an indispensable participant in European politics and wars. Russian army defeated Napoleon’s Grande Armée and made a triumphal entry into Paris in 1814. Its involvement in the First World War helped France and Britain to avoid debacle in 1914-1916, and, just a few decades later, the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the onslaught of Nazi Germany and of much of the rest of Europe united under the swastika. The country was signatory to the Helsinki accords in 1975 that stabilized the Europe security architecture. Putin attempted to reclaim this status for post- Soviet Russia but was rebuffed time and again by what he used to call “our Western partners”. Indeed, post-Soviet Russia lives within diminished borders, even though St-Petersburg is closer to Montreal and New York than it is to Vladivostok on the country’s eastern flank.

Peter was also an intrepid and ruthless Westernizer, who imposed European manners and institutions on a reluctant country. He is credited with opening Russia to Europe, integrating it in terms of economy, science, technology and culture. Denis Diderot and Johann Strauss were among the celebrities who lived and worked in Saint-Petersburg. Even Stalin admired the efficiency of American industry and brought in thousands of engineers from the United States to strengthen the backbone of Soviet economy. The decade following the dismantlement of the USSR was one of unrestrained enthusiasm about all things Western. This relationship with the West came to an abrupt end as Russian tanks rolled into the Ukraine in February 2022. Russia is now shunned by Western governments, businesses, cultural institutions, and citizens alike.

Celebrations of Peter the Great include hundreds of concerts, performances, and exhibitions. Films and TV serials also make part of the cultural programme. I happened to watch the old black-and-white film about the emperor made in the 1930s. What struck me was not only the superb acting, but also the continuity of foreign policy concerns. In the film, Peter remarks that Britain tries to involve Russia in wars while staying on the sidelines herself. In another comment the emperor warns against Western designs to dismember Russia “into small principalities”.  Nowadays, media abound in scenarios of Russia’s eventual collapse in the wake of its “special military operation” in the Ukraine.

At the same time, Russian media question the legacy of Peter the Great. Opponents of Westernization remained vocal, albeit mostly powerless, throughout the last three centuries of Russia’s history. Their ideas seem to be gaining momentum now. They call for a reorientation towards the more dynamic Asia, towards a new world in which “the collective West” that used to dominate the world would be cut to size. They also argue that concerns about the country’s status as a great power tend to drain Russia’s resources that should be better used in enhancing the welfare of its citizens.

The celebration of the first Russian emperor is far from uncritical adulation. Concerts of early 18th century music with performers dressed in period costumes take place around the city while serious debate continues on the pages of Russian media as to the continuing relevance of Peter’s political vision.

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Peter the Great: Legacy and Celebration