Peter Military Reform of the Russian Army

The world is built in such a way that, in order to survive, everything must adapt, change, progress in its development, and move forward. This is the world where the strongest and smartest survive, while the weakest and those who have stopped in their development surrender. This can be applied to people and animals as well as countries. Over the course of history of humankind, strong countries devoured their weaker neighbors, becoming empires with time. However, these empires collapsed under their weight and disintegrated, giving way to more advanced and developed societies.

If a country had a smart ruler, he knew that the state had to be strong in order to withstand territorial claims of the neighboring countries, which occurred all the time in the history of the world. Peter the Great, the Russian ruler in the late 17th - early 18th centuries, was one of those leaders who understood the necessity of development for their countries. He modernized Russia by introducing European culture in its society, performing various reforms, including economic, political, social, and military ones. This paper aims at studying his military reform in Russia during his rule.

Peter’s Reform of the Russian Army

To understand the need of reforming the Russian army, one should know what this army was like before Peter’s reforms. In modern world, it is a well-known fact that any nation’s army is professional. People receive military training; they learn the basics of working with weapons and how to fight in general. In some countries, military service is obligatory, and all men, having reached certain age, must be conscripted and serve in the army for some amount of time. This way, if a need to defend their country arises, they will be ready for it. Some may want to stay in the army after they have finished their conscription service, and they become professional soldiers.

The Russian army before Peter’s rule was the army that mainly consisted of amateurs. It meant that its soldier base consisted of simple villagers who, in case of necessity to defend their country, went into battle under the leadership of the people who possessed little knowledge about warfare or effective leading of people in battles.

However, the Russian army had professionals in its ranks as well. Its professional units were the Cossacks and the Streltsy, but the officers in these units were foreigners. These foreign officers did not want to include untrained soldiers in their ranks, which signified a gap between a professional and amateur army.

Before Peter began his reformation of the Russian army, it was already going through reforms caused by the necessity to be in line with the armies of the nations that threatened Russia’s interests, mainly the Ottomans. The army “had certain eastern characteristics, in its size, its emphasis on cavalry and heavy provisioning” (Stevens, 2004). However, it could not compete with the armies of European countries as the defeat of the Russian army to Sweden had shown at Narva in 1700.

Before that defeat, Peter began to change the army. As it has been mentioned before, the Streltsy were the professional, elite units of the Russian army. Essentially, they brought a young Peter to power with the revolt that followed Tsar Fyodor’s death in 1682. However, due to some complications that arose with his coming to the throne, he and his mother had to live in the family estate in Preobrazhenskoe where he did not receive an education proper for a future tsar.

Instead, he played war games and began building his own army of people loyal to him. He assembled a regiment that consisted of courtiers and commoners as well as foreigners and trained them relentlessly. Moreover, he constructed fortifications to train his regiment to conduct defense and attack.

Later on, this mock regiment would become the real elite regiment, namely the Preobrazhenskii Guards. Another regiment of elite guards was called the Semenovskii. It should be noted that the Streltsy would be disbanded for their betrayal, as they had been involved in a revolt supported by the Old Believers and boyars. Peter could not afford to keep trained soldiers disloyal to him. Therefore, he needed a strong army to protect him from possible coups in the future as well as to be able to contend with the armies of the neighboring countries.

Peter’s desire for reforms in Russia and in the military sphere, in particular, stemmed from his love to the Western way of life. Besides, he was passionate about the military craft and sailing. Therefore, he decided to learn the military craft himself without depending on the military experts surrounding him even despite the fact that those experts were foreigners.

In 1697, Peter began his tour around Europe where he studied naval architecture, carpentry, work of workshops and factories in European countries. His tour was cut short by the revolt in Moscow, but when the revolt was dealt with, Peter began the practical application of knowledge he had gained during his European tour.

Despite Peter’s desire to build a strong army led by foreign officers and trained during constant drills, it suffered defeats. As it has been mentioned before, the Swedish army defeated the Russian army at Narva in 1700 where many soldiers died and some simply fled the battlefield, becoming the deserters.

Moreover, the Turks in the South forced him to abandon the Russian fleet at the Azov Sea where Russia had a port. The shipyard and the harbor had to be abandoned as well. It was obvious that Peter’s army was not ready to fight wars against states with powerful modern armies.

The following changes were employed in the Russian army with Peter’s reforms. Recruitment was increased, and for the first time in history, serfs and peasants were allowed to serve in the army. Those serfs who joined the army were offered freedom, but their landowners had to give them permission to join the army.

Nevertheless, the attempts to regularize recruitment in 1699 and 1705 were not quite successful since recruiters lacked accurate census data and soldiers used to desert from the ranks (Stevens, 2004). Besides, the ranks swelled because of ad hoc arrangement. The personnel turnover was heavy, which hindered effective attempts to train recruits.

It should be noted that military service was not limited in time as it was lifelong. The recruitment campaign of 1705 signified the beginning of the system of conscription for all classes. However, in practice, “the least productive members of society” were chosen for conscription (Konstam, 1993). A recruit from every 20 households was sent to the army. When one joined the army, it meant he would not return to his family. Even if soldiers were injured, their injury was not an excuse for them to return home.

While initially officers of the Russian army were foreigners, Peter tried to increase the number of Russian-born officers by recruiting the Russian nobility. For the Russian nobility, serving the state was inextricably linked with their social status (Konstam, 1993). At the age of 16, they could be recruited to state service. In 1714, Peter introduced an edict according to which, a program of military education was to be implemented to increase professionalism among the officers. They were sent abroad to study, and they could study at home at colleges that allowed them to acquire military skills. Gradually, Russian officers improved their level of professionalism.

By 1701, Peter the Great separated the artillery of the Russian army into the independent corps, which allowed for quicker dissemination of equipment and information in this army sector (Stevens, 2004). It should be noted that with the evolution of cannons and guns, the importance of infantry only increased, while the importance of cavalry decreased in time.

In 1722, Peter introduced a ranking system for the military. According to this system, ranks were given to officers based on their merit and competence, which greatly differed from the system of military positions granted at birth. Common soldiers could be promoted to officers if they showed enough merit and competence.

It is worth mentioning that Peter instilled harsh discipline in the army. He revised the already harsh disciplinary codes for the military. Punishments were severe. Thus, minor offences resulted in the penalty in the form of hanging, while serious offences led to decapitation or burning. Sometimes, “units which had been routed were subjected to a lottery which chose one man in ten to be shot, while his colleagues were simply beaten” (Konstam, 1993).

Peter and the Russian Navy

Peter the Great is considered the founder of the Russian Navy. His passion for sailing led him to the shipyard in Amsterdam to learn shipbuilding skills. He even worked there as a carpenter. In England, Peter studied naval strategy and shipbuilding theory. Moreover, he hired many professionals to work with him in Russia and build the Russian fleet as well as teach local workers to build ships.

Upon his return to Russia, Peter ordered ships to be built in Voronezh since he wanted to use those ships when fighting against Turkey. However, his dreams of a southern fleet were crushed by the Turkish War in 1710 and the idea of building ships to combat Turkey had to be dismissed. Instead, he turned his utmost attention to the Baltic region where Sweden was his main enemy.

In 1704, the naval base in the Baltic region in Kronstadt was set up, becoming the home base for the Russian Baltic Fleet. Besides, naval bases on the Azov and Caspian Seas were also established in order to make Russia a substantial naval force to be reckoned with.

By 1725, the year of Peter’s death, the Russian navy consisted of 49 ships as well as 800 galleys. It should be noted that these ships had international crews with foreign officers and Russian sailors. The Navy played a significant role in defeating the Swedish navy under King Charles XII. Russia’s navy became an alarming threat to the British navy.

Peter’s input in the development of the navy in Russia was not limited to the building of the fleet. He founded the Russian Naval School and Naval Academies in St. Petersburg and Moscow. He did everything to make the army and the fleet of his country as powerful as possible.

Peter’s Reforms for the Sake of Military Reforms

Building and supporting a big army was not an easy task for any ruler. Peter the Great was not an exception. His military reforms required reforms in Russian economy since military expenditure appeared to be quite high. Wars required more money, so Peter the Great manipulated the system of taxation as well as social hierarchy to make sure that enough taxes were paid to support the army.

Households were taxed directly, but people managed to decrease taxation by grouping several houses into one household and paying taxes only for one household. The revenue collected did not correspond to the growth of population and the number of households.

People were not happy with taxes that Peter had imposed to finance his army and wars. Peter was not a very good financial administrator since he did not receive proper education in the sphere of finances, and he simply did not predict the reaction of the populace on all taxes he had introduced.

Thus, in 1718, a new tax was introduced; all males had to pay it (nobility and clergy were excluded). The Old Believers, as Peter the Great’s enemies, had to pay it double since he feared that they wanted to drag Russia back to the old times. This soul tax caused many males to flee their villages to avoid paying taxes, but in that case, the village had to pay it instead of them. When the time to collect soul tax came, people kept an eye on all males, as nobody wanted to pay for them.

The necessity to fill the treasury in order to finance the army led to the ridiculous taxes as taxes on horse-collars, beards, beehives, traditional dress, etc. It only angered people and compelled them to avoid being taxed.


Peter the Great has entered the world history as the man who westernized Russia. His energy and perseverance turned Russia into a country that the world had to reckon with. He reformed the Russian army to make it strong since he perfectly knew what direction his foreign policy would take. Peter the Great laid the foundation of the professional army, but at the same time, the Russian army was conscript-based and the service was life-long. Peter the Great founded the Russian Navy, which would become a formidable force in the future and would pose threat to other naval states, Britain, for example. His reforms in Russia were aimed at making the country and its army strong.

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