Peter the Great

Nadezda Plavinskaia


1Last son of czar Alexeï Mikhailovitch (1645-1676), Peter I was born in 1672. At the death of his elder brother, Feodor (czar 1676-1682), Peter shared the sovereign functions with his other brother, Ivan under the regency of their sister Sophia. After the overthrow of the regent (1689) and Ivan V died (1696), he remained sole master of his country, czar and then emperor of Russia (after 1721) until his death in 1725 in St. Petersburg.

2A reforming sovereign, one of the most illustrious and at the same time one of the most controversial figures in the national history, in which he turned a new page, Peter the Great is the key person in Montesquieu’s reflection on Russia. The philosopher found a perfectly laconic formula to trace the profile of this uncommon despot: “I used to say: the czar was not great; he was enormous” (Pensées, no. 1373).

3A Despot and tyrant, without a doubt, since Montesquieu speaks of him only within the context of despotic government. However, his attitude toward Peter I sometimes appears ambivalent. He does not hide his natural aversion, when in his Spicilège he deploys a frightening fresco of anecdotes on the savagery and the blunders of the “most barbaric of all men”, who had “no religion at all”, “addicted to wine and terrifying in his drunkenness”. But the scope of Peter’s work, of his reforming design, did not leave Montesquieu indifferent. Already in the Persian Letters he sketches a two-faced portrait. He shows Peter, “absolute master of the life and property of his subjects who are all his slaves”, as an “uneasy and ceaselessly agitated” man, who “wanders through his vast states, leaving everywhere marks of his natural severity. He leaves them as if they could not contain him, and goes to seek other provinces and new realms in Europe” (“maître absolu de la vie et des biens de ses sujets qui sont tous ses esclaves, […] inquiet et sans cesse agité […] erre dans ses vastes États, laissant partout des marques de sa sévérité naturelle. Il les quitte, comme s’ils ne pouvaient le contenir, et va chercher dans l’Europe d’autres provinces et de nouveaux royaumes”). But Montesquieu at the same time underscores that the Russian sovereign is impelled by the desire to “change everything” in his country, that he “strives to make the arts flourish, and omits nothing to take the glory of his nation into Europe and Asia […]” (“s’attache à faire fleurir les arts, et ne néglige rien pour porter dans l’Europe et l’Asie la gloire de sa nation […]”, LP, 49 [51]). One can sense the same ambiguity in Romains, where the critical judgment on the tyrant, who “introduces more changes in a state which he governed than the conquerors do in those they usurp” (“introduit plus de changements dans un État qu’il gouvernait que les conquérants n’en font dans ceux qu’ils usurpent”), is side by side with the brief remark that the czar “is bringing his nation back to life” (Romains, XXII). In L’Esprit des lois Montesquieu several times returns to the theme of the czar’s violence and despotism, while nevertheless recognizing that his objective was to Westernize (it might be said to “civilize”) Muscovy, and that under his reign Russia was not “a decadent state” but rather a “nascent empire” (EL, X, 13).

4Montesquieu adorns the portrait of this national renaissance undertaken by Peter the Great with a few disparate details. He evokes the particularly singular reforms in Western eyes, such as the shaving of beards or the suppression of the boyars’ long robes, which he calls tyrannical, but makes a favorable allusion to the changes in the situation of women in Russia (EL, XIX, 14) and to the confrontations between the czar and the clergy and ignorant monks (LP, 49 [51]). He criticizes his law of succession which “causes a thousand revolutions, and makes the throne […] unsteady” (EL, V, 14) as well as his ordinance that regulated the presentation of requests (EL, XII, 26), but he appreciates his fiscal reform which he considers a “most wise rule”, nevertheless placing it in the context of despotic legislation (EL, XIII, 6). Thus the positive side of his actions barely offsets the negative.

5As for the pragmatic balance sheet, it seems at first glance to encourage optimism. Indeed Montesquieu does not contest the direct results overall of the Petrovian reforms. They have, according to him, attained their goal: the Russian nation has really become civilized. More than that, it has done so with a surprising “facility” and “quickness”. Moreover, the rapidity of these social transformations reinforces Montesquieu in the conviction that there existed in Russia particularly favorable circumstances so that these mutations could come about easily: “What made the change easier was that the mores of the time were foreign to the climate, and had been brought in by the mixture of nations, and by conquests. Peter I, giving the mores and manners of Europe to a European nation, found facilities he did not himself expect” (“Ce qui rendit le changement plus aisé, c’est que les mœurs d’alors étaient étrangères au climat et y avaient été apportées par le mélange des nations et par les conquêtes. Pierre Ier, donnant les moeurs et les manières de l’Europe à une nation d’Europe, trouva des facilités qu’il n’attendait pas lui-même”). Consequently, the czar had no need of using tyrannical measures and procedures. His violence was unjustified, for “he would have reached his goal just the same by gentle means” (“il serait arrivé tout de même à son but par la douceur”, EL, XIX, 14).

6Now it is not only the brutality and ferocity of the reforms that Montesquieu condemns. He doubts the very character of the social transformations which Peter I has undertaken, postulating that one must change by laws only “particular institutions of the legislator”. But the mores and manners are “the institutions of the nation”, and they must be modified by more delicate means. The czar “thus did not need laws to change the mores and manners of his nation: all he required was to inspire other mores and other manners” (“n’avait donc pas besoin de lois pour changer les mœurs et les manières de sa nation : il lui eût suffi d’inspirer d’autres moeurs et d’autres manières”, EL, XIX, 14).

7Thus, it is the very methodology of Peter I’s reforms that seems erroneous to Montesquieu. The czar’s capital mistake came from the “too poor opinion” he had of his people: “He excused his cruelties by the fact that his nation was made to be treated thus, but men are everywhere alike. They are not beasts here and angels there. It is the legislator’s fault if they are not better than they are” (“Il excusait ses cruautés sur ce que sa nation était faite pour être traitée ainsi, mais les hommes se ressemblent partout. Ils ne sont pas ici des bêtes, là les anges. C’est la faute du législateur s’ils ne valent pas mieux”, Spicilège, no. 551). It is indeed this fault of the legislator that explains, in Montesquieu’s eyes, the long-term misfortune of Peter I’s accomplishment. “Peoples are very attached to their customs; to take them away violently is to make them unhappy: so one must not change them, but get them to change them on their own” (“Les peuples sont très attachés à leurs coutumes ; les leur ôter violemment, c’est les rendre malheureux : il ne faut donc pas les changer, mais les engager à les changer eux-mêmes”, EL, XIX, 14). The intervention of force and the intervention of the law which characterize the czar’s approach did not induce durable transformations in the “nation’s institutions”, in other words in its mores. That is why Montesquieu is convinced that post-Petrovian Russia is predisposed to resume its former visage. The definitive diagnosis is then pessimistic: “Look, I pray you, with what industry the Muscovite government is trying to emerge from despotism, which weighs on it more than on the people themselves […]. But there are particular causes that will bring it perhaps back to the unhappiness it wanted to flee” (“Voyez, je vous prie, avec quelle industrie le gouvernement moscovite cherche à sortir du despotisme, qui lui est plus pesant qu’aux peuples mêmes […] Mais il y a des causes particulières, qui le ramèneront peut-être au malheur qu’il voulait fuir”, EL, V, 14). “Muscovy would like to come down off its despotism, and cannot” (EL, XXII, 14), because one cannot emerge from despotism by despotic means.


Albert Lortholary, Les “Philosophes” du XVIIIe siècle et la Russie: le mirage russe en France au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Boivin, 1951, p. 100-106.

Sergueï Mesin, Un regard venu de l’Europe: Pierre Ier vu par les auteurs français du XVIIIe siècle, Saratov: University of Saratov Press, 1999, p. 111-118 (in Russian; republished 2003).

Rolando Minuti, “L’image de la Russie dans l’œuvre de Montesquieu”, Les Lumières européennes et la civilisation de la Russie, Moscow, 2004, p. 31-41 (in Russian). In French: Cromohs, 10 (2005), p. 1-6.

Bibliographical reference

Plavinskaia Nadezda , « Peter the Great », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :