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(SWEDEN, RUSSIA and the GREAT NORTHERN WAR – continued)

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SWEDEN, RUSSIA and the GREAT NORTHERN WAR (2 of 5)

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Peter Rallies Russia, to 1706

Peter is reported to have wept over his bloody defeat by the Swedes near Narva in 1700. He felt the need to modernize his military. The core of the most modern armies was artillery and a disciplined infantry with rifles, which was supposed to advance while firing and then charge with fixed bayonets. Such armies were the product of training, mathematics for the artillery, and a more advanced economy than Russia had. Peter's army was more cavalry and nobles than it was infantry. His officer corps was largely generaled by foreign mercenaries, with nobles filling out the rest of the officer corps. Peter saw the need for better arms, better training and a great number of recruits.

To enlarge his army, Peter offered good pay for those who would volunteer to join. But, unable to attract a great number of young men, he resorted to the conscription of men from all classes. Debt slaves freed by the death of their owner were forbidden to contract themselves to a new master and were enlisted as soldiers and sailors. Peter created a census to keep better track of who was available. Landlords were obliged to submit a list of those working their lands and to supply the army with one peasant soldier for every 50 peasant households and one cavalryman for every 100 peasant households on their lands. Some recruits were obliged to serve in the military for life. Peter created a regular standing army of more than 200,000, with special forces of Cossacks and foreigners numbering more than 100,000, and he raised taxes to pay for his military. During Peter's reign, eighty to eighty-five percent of his revenues would go to his army and his war efforts.

Peter had no use for precise parade-ground military drilling, for fencing practice or for the elaborate and splendid uniforms of western soldiers. He was concerned with instilling confidence and a sense of purpose into his army. He tried to instill nationalist pride in his army, telling them that they were not going to fight for him but for the interests of Russia.

This he also applied to civilians for the sake of advancing Russia economically. He wished to discourage servility to him personally. He encouraged his subjects to demonstrate respect for the nation by better performance in their work. He decreed that men should no longer fall on their knees or prostrate themselves on the ground before him. He abolished the requirement that people remove their hats as a sign of respect when he appeared in public – a benefit on wintry days.

Peter was also pushing on this subjects to westernize. He put a tax on beards, which created a variety of little local rebellions. Peter wanted more of the politeness that existed in the West, and to nobles he distributed a manual on propriety. He issued decrees on dress and personal conduct for social gatherings – more in the style that existed in Germany. And he ordered women out of their traditional seclusion.

Peter needed people with the kind of training that people were getting in the West. He needed teachers of arithmetic and navigation. He needed artillerymen and shipwrights. Peter set up schools to meet these needs, modeled on schools in England. He created an academy of science and imported professors and students from Germany. And Peter required young noblemen to learn arithmetic and geometry if they were to serve the state in any position of privilege or if they were to receive a license to marry – a compulsory education away from home that young noblemen disliked.

In 1703, Peter started to build a fort in a desolate area on marshland that was slowly to become St. Petersburg – named after Saint Peter. He would have preferred to build at Riga, which tended to be freer of ice in the winter. But Riga was still held by the Swedes. So St. Petersburg was planned as his port on the Baltic, to supplant the port of Archangel far to the north, which was icebound from November to May.

In building St. Petersburg and in building roads, dredging rivers and building canals, Peter used forced labor. He had soldiers build factories. People were drafted to work in factories, where workers who displayed laziness, drunkenness or were careless were beaten or put into prison. Peter and the factory managers learned that workers who were freely hired were more efficient than those who had been coerced to work through conscription.

His mind still on an approaching showdown with Sweden, Peter, a religious man, melted down church bells to help replace cannon lost at Narva. He ordered more prospecting for metals and more iron-smelting. Ships were constructed and launched, and sailcloth was manufactured.

The increased hardship and increased taxation imposed on Peter's subjects provoked a number of revolts, the most important of which was in Astrakhan in 1705-06. There, people believed rumors that Peter was a prisoner of the Swedes or dead and that an imposter had taken his place in Russia, that Peter's reforms were part of a plot to destroy their Christianity. They were upset over officials from Moscow who were taxing not only beards but also the wearing of traditional clothing and commanding the length of women's dresses be cut above ground-level. The belief spread that the wig-blocks in the dwellings officials and military officers were idols and part of the worship of the heathen god Janus. People in Astrakhan believed a rumor that marriage for local men was to be prohibited for seven years and that in their place local girls were to be married to foreigners that would soon be arriving.

The people paid for their gullibility. Peter's military burned to the ground Astrakhan and other rebel towns. As an example for others, the people of Astrakhan were massacred. And rebel leaders were executed by beheadings or by being broken on the wheel.

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Copyright © 2001-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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