Peter the Great: Enduring relevance of the towering tsar

Peter the Great: Enduring relevance of the towering tsar

Photo: Reuters


Vladimir Putin's policies, aimed at centralising power and projecting Moscow's influence globally, echo Peter the Great's efforts to consolidate authority and elevate Russia’s status on the world stage


Touseful Islam

Publisted at 10:08 AM, Sun Jun 9th, 2024

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As the towering Tsar who dragged Russia from medieval obscurity into the modern age, few figures loom as large as Peter the Great.

His reign marked a pivot in Russian history, blending ruthless autocracy with an insatiable drive for modernisation.

Today, his legacy is not just a matter of historical curiosity but a lens through which one can understand contemporary Russian politics and its place in the world.

Russian in core, European in colour

Born on 9 June 1672, Peter I ascended to the throne of a sprawling, yet insular, empire and transformed it into a formidable European power. 

Peter was seen as a "second Goliath" or Samson as he grew to be extremely tall, especially for the time period, reportedly standing 6 ft 8 in (2.03 m). 

However, the towering tsar's reign itched itself into history for his relentless efforts to modernise Russia. He embarked on extensive tours of Europe, where he worked incognito in Dutch shipyards and studied the intricacies of Western technology and governance. 

Upon his return, Peter introduced sweeping reforms: He reorganised the military, established a navy, and reformed the Russian Orthodox Church, subordinating it to state control. 

He also modernised the administrative apparatus, promoting merit over aristocratic birth and creating new institutions to streamline governance.

His most ambitious project, the construction of St Petersburg, was a testament to his vision. 

Built on the marshy banks of the Neva River, it became a symbol of Russia’s new orientation towards the West. 

The city, with its European-style architecture, represented Peter's break from the past and his ambition to integrate Russia into the broader European context.

Shadow of the Tsar

Peter the Great's legacy endures in modern Russian political culture and strategy. 

His emphasis on strong central authority and state-led modernisation resonates with contemporary Russian leadership. 

President Vladimir Putin has often invoked Peter the Great as a historical parallel, emphasising the need for strong leadership to ensure national unity and progress. Putin's policies, aimed at centralising power and projecting Russian influence globally, echo Peter's efforts to consolidate authority and elevate Russia’s status on the world stage.

The strategic importance of Peter’s reforms in building a capable and centralised military apparatus is particularly relevant. 

In an era where geopolitical tensions are high, Russia's ability to leverage its military power can be traced back to the foundations laid by Peter. 

His creation of a navy opened Russia to the Baltic and the wider world, prefiguring the modern emphasis on maritime strategy and control.

Peter's impact extends beyond politics into the cultural and social fabric of Russia. His push for Westernisation—introducing Western clothing, etiquette, and education—set the stage for Russia’s cultural dialogues with Europe. 

This legacy is evident today in Russia's complex identity, which straddles Eastern traditions and Western modernity. The tension between these influences is a persistent theme in Russian literature, art, and political thought.

In modern times, this duality plays out in Russia's foreign policy, which often oscillates between cooperation with Western nations and assertive independence. Understanding Peter the Great’s efforts to integrate and yet distinguish Russia from Europe helps elucidate these contemporary dynamics.

Peter the Great’s legacy is also seen in the continuous Russian drive for technological and scientific advancement. His establishment of the Russian Academy of Sciences and emphasis on education set a precedent for valuing intellectual and scientific development. 

Modern Russia’s investments in technology and education, despite economic and political challenges, reflect this enduring commitment to innovation.

Peter the Great’s relevance in modern times is multifaceted. 

His vision of a powerful, centralized state that embraces modernization while asserting its sovereignty continues to influence Russian politics. His reforms laid the groundwork for Russia’s evolution into a major global player, a status it maintains to this day. 


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