Serfs, Merchants and Peter the Great

Peter the Great did many things for the country and for the future economy, although at the time the the treasury was broken, decimated by war.  But he put the final nail in the coffin of the agricultural worker. Peter made it much worse saying there was no circumstance under which serfs could leave the land. As quoted by Sumner in his book Peter the Great and the Emergence of Russia on page 158, Peter said,”just as the landowner is to be tied to service, the townsman to his trade or handicraft, so the peasant is tied to the land.”

A serf  was already low in status. It was considered a punishment to be “reduced” to serfdom.

Peter the Great was somewhat shortsighted with his efforts to make only the non-serfs into  an entrepreneurial class. Then how could he have seen in 1700 that in 1835 there would be an industrial revolution leaving behind the estate system?  He had a landowning aristocracy who wanted an agricultural culture. But this resulted in no serf conversion to the  middle class, which would have benefited everyone in the long run.


Peter the Great wanted increased trade.  He advocated for the artisan and merchant. He saw this as the key to wealth in a nation. To a large extent in this he succeeded.

Merchants Before Peter

Merchants After Peter

He is remembered as the greatest Tzar because he put Russia on the map of Europe after The Great Northern War.  In five years  he  changed the dress, and introduced social customs of the west and their architecture. He wanted merchants from Europe to be be impressed.

Peter also promoted competent commoners because they could create the trade and industrial base needed to compete. He created a navy, a Capitol and ‘liberated” Russian women.  Everyone agrees he remade Russia.

Cornelius Cruys Architect of Navy

Anton Devier Chief of Police St Petersburg

Andrew Vinius Designer of Cannons

Russia which had been so isolated became accepted as a participant in every European war from the 18th century to the present. They fought with Britain in the War of the Austrian Alliance, with France and against Britain in the Seven Years War. They defeated the French to continue British trade, and were allies of both France and Britain in World War II, pivotal in turning the tide after the defeat of Germany at Stalingrad.

Russia and the US traditionally have been allies. Trade benefited them both. They twice refused the invitation of England to help them in the Revolution. Russia sent ships to guard American vessels if war broke out between France and England in the Civil War. They sold Alaska to the United States, their partner in trade, after losing the Crimean War fearing that Britain would seize the land.

Serfdom ended officially in 1861 a century and a half later, by order of Tzar Alexander. For the first time in more than 200 years serfs could marry as they chose, sue, own land, vote and enter a profession. But the Tzar let the aristocrats write the terms of the liberation ukase, which Peter would never do, and they were unjust and detrimental to the country.  By then there had been an industrial revolution yet conditions were created to keep Russian peasants on the land through debt.

The peasants became share croppers and had to pay a huge amount to the land owner for the worst land on the estate. This debt was passed along to the next generation. Consequently the liberation was a colossal failure leading to a revolution. The Russian people were not able to afford a good life despite their hard work.

The rest of Europe was changing and they were not. The Russians had an autocratic system with no safety valve for protest. So after 50 years the people simply killed the rich who maintained the system and Communism was born. The social order was turned upside down. This was not well received by the rich or the powerful in other countries. The US sent 5000 soldiers to Siberia in support of the white army.

In part these were the unintended effect of the laws of Peter the Great. His changes were for the non-serf population. These opened the door for the Communist Revolution and Stalin. Russia became important after Peter but a large part of Russia was silenced and they rose like a colossus.


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