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Russian Culture of the 18th Century
August 21, 2014 16:36


The 18th century became truly earthshaking in the history of Russia. It was the time of radical changes caused by Peter I’s reforms. Peter the Great made a U-turn for Russia towards the West. This turn and its consequences for development of Russia and Russian culture became controversy for scientists and thinkers, from the 19th century till nowadays.

Reforms by Peter the Great can hardly be evaluated univocally because of their two-fold character. First of all, the emperor’s choice between the East and the West in favor of the latter was historically required and therefore proper. The attempts to preserve indigenous Russia intact were hardly feasible, or could lead to Russia’s losing its independence and consequently its originality.

The transformations started by Peter I caused the economic growth of Russia, made it possible to expand its territory considerably due to annexation of the Crimea, Northern Black Sea Coast, the North Caucasus and thus turned it into a great and mighty empire. Thanks to victories in the Northern and the Turkish wars Russia gained the status of the Baltic and the Black Sea superpower. New large cities sprang up, St. Petersburg, Sevastopol, Yekaterinoslav, Yekaterinodar, Yekaterinburg, and Odessa among them.

Boasting high economic and military capacity, Russia had a huge impact on the world history. At the same time grandiose reforms were crucible for the Russian people, who had to pay an enormous price for the birth of new Russia. The maximalism and uncompromising stand of Peter I sometimes turned into wild rage and ruthless cruelty. It happened even in regards to his family members, in particular to his son Alexey.

Though turning Russia to the West, he never renounced national culture and ancient traditions of Russia. He showed deep respect for the past by encouraging constructions of churches, bringing remains of Alexander Nevsky to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery built in St. Petersburg specifically for that purpose.

All the areas of public life — the state and administrative setup, economy, army, church, science and education, culture and art were subjected to deep reforming. The nature of those had two tendencies: secularization, i.e. loosening of religious control and strengthening of secular base in culture, as well as its Europeanization.

In 1711 instead of the former numerous Seigniorial Council (Boyars’ Duma) (consisting of up to 190 people) Peter I established the Senate of 9 people, those assigned by the Emperor himself. Since then business qualities only served as selection criterion, whereas former hereditary privileges were not considered any longer. The Senate became the supreme body for legislation and public administration.

The earlier existing departments were replaced with 12 boards (ministries) in charge of certain spheres of the state administration. The country was divided into provinces and districts. Thanks to these innovations the state reached a higher level of centralization and was turned into absolute monarchy.

The Church Reform was of exceptional importance by significantly restricting the role of religion and church in public life.  The major loss of the Orthodox church was patriarchate abolition.  Its place was taken by the Spiritual Board, aka the Holy Synod headed by the ober-prosecutor also assigned by the tsar. The church lost part of its lands and profits, the facts significantly weakening its economic status. 

The reign of Peter the Great created favorable conditions for revival of Russian economy. Russia got actively engaged in mastering industrial production. The number of weaving and textile enterprises, especially those making broadcloth and wool, sky-rocketed in the country. The Ural became the center for smelting, with the metal products exported from the 1720s. Industrial production of porcelain was arranged for the first time.

Remarkable progress was observed in material culture, especially in the field of technology and engineering. The Ural heating engineer I.P. Polzunov developed the project of the universal steam engine and constructed a steam-power plant. The self-educated technician Ilya Kulibin invented a number of mechanisms, such as the watch, searchlight, semaphore telegraph, etc. He also developed the project of bridge over River Neva in St. Petersburg. 

Agriculture was also going through changes, including replacement of the sickle with the scythe, founding horse-breeding centers, and successful development of cattle breeding. 

Peter I attached great importance to trade, calling it “the Supreme owner of human destiny” and promoted its development in every possible way. Large-scale fairs were arranged, and big canals were built on his initiative.

The development of material culture and economy made it possible to upgrade the Russian army, making it one of the most modern and mighty ones. The Russian army got horse artillery, hand grenades and bayonets. However, the principal achievement in the military science of the epoch was foundation of the Russian fleet, the most cherished brainchild of Peter the Great.

See also:
Russian Science of the 18th Century
Russian Literature of the 18th Century
Russian Architecture of 18th Century
Russian Painting of the 18th Century
Russian Music in the 18th Century


Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Russian Culture Russian History Peter the Great   

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