The modern Russian identity through History : Peter the Great and the Napoleonic War

By Nikita Taranko Acosta

How far did Peter the Great’s reforms transform Russia into a Country Fitted for its New European Status?

This paper aims to analyse both positive and negative effects of Peter the Great’s numerous reforms. It will conclude that despite some negative outcomes, Peter’s vision and active implementation for the country allowed the Russia of that time to greatly gain its new regional European importance. The first Russian Tsar’s radical agenda brought onto his country continues to trigger heated debate on current Russia’s identity-formation as a unique country transcending Europe and Asia. The concluding remarks of this essay will bring about this discussion of modern Russian identity, and the consequent discussion of historical interpretation of Peter the Great’s achievements and failures, which was particularly pertinent as Saint Petersburg celebrated its tercentenary just a dozen years ago, in May 2003.

Needless to hesitate about the novelty of reforms, triggered by the Petrine reign, as this period is arguably known for its innovative radical transformations, regardless of its ambivalence. Certainly, Peter’s tendency to redesign Russia was moulded during his early years of life, where foreign underpinnings were already present. “From his youth he went clean-shaven and in Western clothes (…) and he ate meat during fast days, in contravention to Orthodox practice1” [CITATION Geo97 \p « p. 76 » \l 3082 ]. Peter the Great has brought numerous progressive ideas and systems in Russia, encompassing the spheres of military (especially naval), government, economic, and education.

To begin with, Peter’s passion to invigorate Russia’s military, naval might in particular, dates from his early inspiration, the Grand Tour in 1677. It is said that even the main aim of the tour was to acquire instruction in the latest methods of shipbuilding and to recruit naval and military specialists. [CITATION Lio83 \l 1042 ]. Upon his return, the young ruler took several vital steps to develop the country’s military power, notably by creating regular, permanent regiments in place of previous semi-feudal ones and introducing, to an extent, a merit system in the army [CITATION Tol15 \p « slide 8 » \l 2057 ]. The Great Northern War, which took place over twelve years, not only rewarded the empire in terms of territorial expansion by absorbing Baltic countries and obtaining strategic access to the sea but also gave Peter’s Russia a new important diplomatic position in the North West European sphere.

Secondly, in terms of governance, Peter attempted to replace the patrimonial system of rule with a bureaucratic one by establishing a Senate of nine and promoting a system of progressive gentry based on personal merits [CITATION Geo97 \p « pp. 82-84 » \l 3082 ]. As for economic aspects, Peter was able to extend trade in silk and fur with China, and concentrated State effort to develop certain industries, such as mining and textiles to meet the country’s large-scale military needs. Although successful for immediate needs and initial requirements, these adjustments proved to be rather inefficient long-term, due to lack of transportation systems, protectionist tariff policies, heavy taxation on the peasantry and reliance on serfdom as the main working-class.[CITATION Rob76 \p « pp. 154-158 » \l 3082 ]

Incidentally, to sustain previous reforms, cultural transformations were needed; hence, the education reform was brought about. When Peter ascended the throne, there was only one school in the country, the Moscow Academy. Therefore, as Peter heavily concentrated on meeting the needs of the army and the navy, he found necessary to establish a number of schools in two capitals for future officers. Moreover, he founded the Academy of Sciences, which, according to many, truly debuted a permanent Russian intellectual culture.2 The emperor even coerced the landowning gentry to become more educated and competent by forcing them to undergo instruction in some branch of practical knowledge, either abroad or in certain ‘mathematical’ schools established by His Majesty in the new capital [CITATION Lio83 \p « p. 115 » \l 1042 ].

Nonetheless, Peter’s critics point to the high cost suffered by his subjects, blatant victims of his radical policies. To begin with, in order to support the war efforts —amounting to 2’3 million roubles in 1701, 3’2 million in 1710 and over 4 million in 1724— Peter made his subordinates, particularly the peasants, pay a heavy price. It is said that about 80% of the State’s income went to feed the needs of this period of total war [CITATION Lio83 \p « p. 108; 113 » \l 2057 ]. Levy after levy was imposed on the peasants and townspeople, usually in the proportion of one man per twenty households. The State peasants, monasterial retainers, and dependents were also subject to conditions closely resembling serfdom and many were exposed to forced labour in the new mines, factories, and ironworks. The construction of St. Petersburg on marshy swampland was “no Third Rome but a New Amsterdam”, demanding the lives of thousands of labourers, while the digging of canals and conscription claimed others —necessary sacrifice for the realization of the ultimate paradise, as Peter often described his city [CITATION Geo97 \p « p. 86 » \l 3082 ]. Repeated harsh combination of levies, forced labour and oppressive taxation provoked several internal uprisings. In his poem, The Bronze Horseman, Alexander Pushkin depicts the dreadful time, we keep still freshly on our memories painted that the author tries to acquaint by me, with all the history: A grievous record it will be.”[CITATION Pus33 \l 1042 ]. The poet epitomizes a certain Yevgeny, who lives through the flood —7th of November, 1824 in Saint Petersburg —that takes away his love and makes him a madman who later confronts Peter the Great’s statue, transformed into a living emperor himself.

For now he (Yevgeny) seemed to see the awful Emperor, quietly, with momentary anger burning, his visage to Yevgeny turning!…All night the madman flees; no matter where he may wander at his will, hard on his track with heavy clatter there the bronze horseman gallops still.” (Pushkin 1833)

Although only Pushkin himself would be aware of the true intentions of the poem, his portrayal of Yevgeny’s experience in Saint Petersburg and rencontre with the first Russian Emperor could well be telling of the perplex relationship and love-hate affinity ordinary Russian subjects could have with regards to their imposing tsar.

Quite recently, the commemoration of May in 2003 of the tercentenary of Saint Petersburg —a tangible reminder of the first Russian Emperor —has given Russia yet another opportunity to reconsider its collective remembrance and understanding of Peter the Great and his achievements. Like the emperor himself, St. Petersburg as the Imperial Capital tends to be understood in a complicated manner —either as deeply foreign and non-Russian, or as highly representative of the whole of Russia, as such: cosmopolitan, poly-confessional and multi-ethnic[CITATION Joe03 \l 1042 ]. According to the supporters of the “window of Europe” narrative, Saint Petersburg much resembles its founder, in that it is “the only European city” in a half-Asian country. The beautiful Northern city is depicted as being a city charged with a civilizing mission, one of Europeanizing Russia, converting it into a “normal” country —i.e. depriving it of its uniqueness through reform[CITATION Vol95 \p « p. 10 » \l 1042 ]. In today’s Russia, Saint Petersburg attempts to assume multiple identities, in being simultaneously Russian, Baltic, European and global, and firmly anchored both in Russia and in the Wider Europe [CITATION Joe03 \p « p. 393 » \l 1042 ], again reminding of its mission dating from Peter the Great’s foundation of the city and reminiscent of his exploratory and progressive spirit.

Regarding both propitious and gloomy consequences of Peter the Great’s reforms in military, governmental, economic and educational spheres, I consider reasonable to believe that the first Russian Emperor’s rather brutal efforts to modernize and empower the country has greatly enhanced Russia’s position in the world. Despite the hardships endured by his subjects and aroused tensions in most estates, if it were not for Peter’s persistent push and passion for the making of modern Russia by means of significant reforms at its time, the country may not have been able to develop into an important global player in diplomatic and economic sphere, as it does today.

In general, “current generations” of any time period have tendencies to consider aspects of history, that have come to serve them well today, as positive and tend to quite easily overlook the consequences of those events on their ancestors of that time and vice versa. Perhaps, that is the reason why the majority of Russian people nowadays regard Peter the Great as the hero of the nation. At the same time, only those that live today can interpret history and, therefore, this “historical bias” will inevitably continue to affect how we understand history. The best solution rather seems to be to allow the whole picture be known and let people judge by themselves how certain event or historical figure have shaped their current everyday reality.


Auty, Robert & Obolensky, Dmitry. 1976. “Imperial Russia: Peter I to Nicholas I.” In Companion to Russian Studies. 1: An introduction to Russian history, 121-195. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hosking, Geoffrey. 1997. « The Secular State of Peter The Great. » In Russia: People and Empire 1552-1917, by Geoffrey Hosking, 75-95. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Joenniemi, Pertti & Morozov, Viacheslav. 2003. « The politics of remembering: Saint Petersburg’s 300th anniversary. » Journal of Baltic Studies (Routledge) 34 (4): 375-398.

Lionel, Kochan; Richard, Abraham. 1962. « Expansion and Bureaucracy: The Age of Peter the Great. » In The Making of Modern Russia, by Kochan Lionel and Abraham Richard, 105-125. London: Jonathan Cape.

Pushkin, Aleksandr. 1833. « The Bronze Horseman« .

Tolz, Vera. 2015. « Peter the Great and Modernisation of Russia. » Presentation. Manchester, 27th of October, 2015.

Volkov, Soloman. 1995. « St. Petersburg: A Cultural History. » New York: Free Press.

1 This attitude received severe criticism from the Orthodox Church. Especially furious were the Old Believers who, ironically, gained nothing but more persecution with Peter’s enlightened secular reign to come. [CITATION Rob76 \p « p. 179 » \l 3082 ]

2 He published thirty decrees devoted to education, simplified the old Cyrillic alphabet, promoted translation of foreign works and inaugurated the first public Russian theatre.

The Napoleonic War

The topic this essay addresses is how profoundly the Napoleonic War changed the way Russians regarded their own country. The period covered in the essay starts from the beginning of the XIX century up to 1812, when Russian Empire is being invaded by the Grande Armée. This will lead to the epic Battle of Borodino by September of the same year when both empires are going to clash. The war represented not only a military conflict, but also a personal rivalry between Alexander I and Napoleon Bonaparte (both enemies and mutual admirers) —two main figures at that time. The points to be analyzed include the strengthening of the national identity as a result of the 1812 invasion as well as Russia’s increasing dependence on European cultures, the construction of a collective identity through myths persistently promoted by literature and the role of the Orthodox Church. My overall goal is, however, to illustrate that the Patriotic War bears its name for a reason as, for the first time, Russian people united together to fight as a single nation against the aggressor.

According to R. F. Christian’s Tolstoy’s War and Peace: a Study, the writing of that novel was linked to the patriotic spirit that swept through Russian literature in the 1860s. At that time, there existed a heated intellectual debate between Slavophils and Westernizers [CITATION Cla68 \p « pp. IX-X » \l 3082 ]. Tolstoy shares most of the tenets of the former, namely the emphasis on the moral and religious sense over the demands of reason. To support his narrative, Tolstoy manages to change some historical facts with outstanding dexterity. As John Valliant wrote in The Tiger[CITATION Vai10 \p « p. 30 » \l 2057 ], “fact checking and the documentation of sources is pursued much less rigorously in Russia than in many Western countries”. In the second epilogue to War and Peace, Tolstoy explains that traditional history is based upon deeds and ideas of certain individuals aimed at reaching a collective goal, be it liberty, equality or the greatness of an empire. “Modern history has given us either heroes endowed with extraordinary, superhuman capacities, or simply men of various kinds, from monarchs to journalists, who lead the masses”. [CITATION Tol01 \p « p. 929 » \l 2057 ] So, instead of that traditional theory, the centre of gravity shifts from heroes and reason to the townsfolk and faith: “Success never depends, and never will depend, on position, on equipment, or even on numbers, and least of all on position. –But on what then? – On the feeling that is in me and in him [he pointed to Timokhin] and in each soldier”—Prince Andrew in War and Peace [CITATION Tol01 \p « p. 612 » \l 3082 ]. In sum, Borodino symbolized a moral victory that helped to shape a national identity, a founding myth upon which a new vision of Russia emerged.

Dostoevsky is committed to the same endeavour, built upon inherited Christian faith and redemptive spirituality, “ignoring the empire’s official structures and concentrating on Orthodox Christianity and the peasantry as the sources of salvation”[CITATION Hos97 \p « p. 307 » \l 2057 ]. Gogol took to the same task as well, namely in Dead Souls. Literature, for Dostoevsky, is the quintessence of the spirit of a nation. The Russian soul is a two-pronged force, all-European and universal, both seeking to heal the wounds of Europe’s conflicts and to propound a brotherhood of man, embracing peoples and individuals in universal bliss.

To build a civic nationhood, Russia relied on a Europeanized culture: balls, soirées, an Academy of Sciences, theatre, opera and press, to name a few; “the cultural construction of Russian citizenship had largely foreign underpinnings. To put it another way, citizenship in the Russian republic of letters presupposed a cosmopolitan upbringing”.[CITATION Hos971 \p « pp. 287-290 » \l 2057 ] The renewed language, on the other hand, made easier a rapprochement with the major European cultures. Novels, poetry and plays were some of the means to reach to ordinary people, making the ties among each other stronger, creating a sense of community that goes beyond the short-term interests of social classes. Belinsky found in Pushkin’s Eugenii Onegin the ideal embodiment of popular culture and aesthetic achievement. The national essence runs deep in works of that magnitude, contributing on a major scale to the construction of a collective identity, to a greater extent than the state or the church, according to him [CITATION Hos97 \p « pp. 292-294 » \l 3082 ].

But those moral foundations cannot be properly understood without the important role played by the Orthodox Church. An entire nation defied the French invaders with the unified banner of religious faith brandished by nobility, clergy and peasants. This gave way to a sentiment of national unity in the face of the enemy. It was this faith which had the ingredients of “miracle, mystery and authority”, as The Brothers Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor put it[CITATION Dos80 \p « p. 281 » \l 2057 ]. A century later, the radical intelligentsia in Russia would preach a different message, or maybe a similar one in new robes, those of cold rationality and revolutionary socialism. In the end, a narrative that captures the collective imaginary is always needed to assemble people towards a shared aim, be that defeating the French or the Germans, developing a Tsarist regime or a Communist one. It does not matter whether the utopia that gathers people around is feasible or a fantasy, it just needs to work as a social glue. “The face of truth is terrible” —wrote the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno—. “The people need myths and illusions; they need to be lied to. Truth is frightening, insupportable, deadly” [CITATION Uto \p « p. 50 » \l 2057 ]

Russian president recently said in a speech commemorating the 1812 war, “All in all, unity —the unity of our people— is what patriotism is all about”[ CITATION Put12 \l 3082 ]. Indeed, the Napoleonic War turned out to be known as the “First Patriotic War” (the “Great Patriotic War” being the Second World War). That phrase was coined a couple of decades after the events, and it stuck in the popular and official languages. The Battle of Borodino left a huge amount of casualties on both sides, especially on Russia. The French were masters of the field, but in the end their victory was a pyrrhic win, a triumph turned sour after the conquest of Moscow, nearly empty and in flames when they stormed it. Only a barren and desolate city was at their feet after the scorched earth policy of its already fled inhabitants. The Grande Armée with no supplies nor winter stores, finally had to retreat. Furthemore, that pullout was all but a peaceful retreat: it was marked by freezing cold, famine, typhus and occasional raids by Russian forces and Cossacks [CITATION Koc62 \p « pp. 151-152 » \l 2057 ]. The French Army was eventually crushed in Smolensk, with terrorized survivors routing in disarray.1 So defeat was destined to turn into a victory even from the very beginning, because the moral outrage, the ardent idealism, the remarkable courage, the close-knit ties of popular resistance, were the key factors in building up a national upsurge, later embellished in a renaissance. This somewhat fictional rediscovered collective pride, a sense of unity and common purpose, continues to persist even to this day.

The national custom of learning poems by rote, of attending concerts and the like, is a very effective way to instill a collective mindset, which becomes shared and enjoyed by the majority. Poems like Borodino, by Lermontov, are known by heart throughout Russia, and even in countries of the ex-Soviet Union. We have already mentioned War and Peace, the epic masterpiece, all-encompassing and eternal, which has contributed so much to delineate and characterize the very essence of the Russian spiritual nature. Another good example is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, a familiar landmark of classical music. Incidentally, it was released for the first time in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, built to commemorate Russia’s defence of its motherland, and the piece was conducted by the immortal composer.

I would like to conclude by outlining that, despite the backwardness of relatively liberal reforms and subsequent discontent among higher ranks of Russian society about this situation2 due to Napoleonic invasion, Russian heroism and determination to protect its homeland were remarkable and proved to be not only victorious in battle but also in heightening the national identity. Today, it is thanks to all these previously mentioned works, learnt and transmitted from generation to generation, that a legacy— which sows the seeds of stamina, resilience, fortitude, self-respect, honour and dignity, so essential for a country to become united, with loyal and dedicated citizens —was bequeathed and this needs to be maintained.


Claridge, Henry. 1869. « Introduction. » In War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, IX-X.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1880. The Karamazob Brothers. Worldsworth CLassics, 2007.

Heller, Michel & Nekrich, Alexander. 1986. Utopia in power; A history of the USSR from 1917 to the present. Hutchinson.

1997. «  »Literature as Nation Builder ». » In Russia: People and Empire 1552-1917, by Geoffrey Hosking, pp. 287-290 and 292-294; pp. 286-311. London: HarperCollins.

Kochan, Lionel and Abraham, Richard. 1962. The Making of Modern Russia. London: Jonathan Cape.

New World Encyclopedia contributors. 2008. Alexander I of Russia, New World Encyclopedia. August 29. Accessed November 21, 2015.

Putin, Vladimir. 2012. Speech at ceremony presenting the certificate conferring City of Military Glory title to Maloyaroslavets and Mozhaisk, The Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. September 3. Accessed October 28, 2015.

Tolstoy, Leo. 1869. War and Peace. Wordsworth Classics, 2001.

Vaillant, John. 2010. The Tiger. Sceptre.

11 One may notice a clear parallel between the 1812 Napoleon’s defeat and the 1612 battle that resulted in the Poles withdrawal, where Smolensk played a key bit.

22 Alexander I had promised a set of reforms, the most liberal ones were halted after the 1812, though. [CITATION New08 \l 2057 ]


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