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Peter the Great - Government Reforms

Peter the Great - Government Reforms

Peter the Great saw the government in the same light as the military and the general domestic situation - in need of major reform. However, by the time Peter died in 1725, there had been no lasting improvements.

Russia was essentially divided into three with regards to divisions of government: local, provincial and central.

Local government: In January 1699, towns were allowed to elect their own officials, collect revenue and stimulate trade. The gift of greater powers of local government was deliberately done in an effort to reduce the power of provincial governments. The work of local government was co-ordinated by the Ratusha based in Moscow. In 1702, towns were governed by an elective board which replaced the old system of elected sheriffs. By 1724, this was again changed so that towns could govern themselves through elected guilds of better off citizens. On paper these reforms were fine. But in reality the power of the local landlord and the provincial governor was immense and difficult to break.

Provincial government: In December 1707, Russia was divided into 8 guberniia. Each was lead by a Gubnator who had full power within his guberniia. Each guberniia was further divided into districts calleduzeda. By November 1718, the number of guberniia had increased to 12 and each one was divided into 40 provintsiia which were then further divided into districts (uzedas). A Gubernator was directly answerable to Peter the Great.

Central government: To begin with, Peter was advised by a council and his orders were carried out by 40 departments in the Prikazy. Some had specific functions while others had vague responsibilities which could overspill into other departments making for inefficiency.

In 1711, Peter appointed a 9 man senate which evolved into a chief executive and the highest court of appeal. It was supervised by army officers on Peter's behalf until 1715 when an Inspector-General was appointed who in turn was replaced in 1722 with a Procurator-General who was the most powerful man in Russia after Peter.

The Prikazy was abolished in 1718 and replaced with a scheme borrowed from Sweden whereby 9 colleges were established with a specific function to cover the whole of Russia. Each college was run by 10 to 12 men and all their decisions were collective.

As early as 1711, an Oberfiscal was appointed aided by a staff of fiscals who had to be secret appointments as they had the task of checking the honesty and integrity of government officials.

All careers were open to the talented and educated - though, invariably, this favoured the side of the nobility. Promotion in the civil administration or the military in theory was on merit. There were 14 steps in the military's promotional ladder whereas the civil service had just 8. Those who reached the top step in both ladders were automatically granted hereditary noble status. However, the system did not operate as it should have as those at the top or nearing the top of the promotion ladder did nothing to encourage those mid way up the ladder in terms of developing their career as they were seen as a threat to those at the top.

How effective were these reforms?

In theory they were major achievements. Russia, pre-Peter, had a backward and barely functioning structure of government. Peter attacked this as he believed it hindered Russia's progress and modernisation. However, by 1725, little had changed. Why was this?

Peter has to take some of the blame here. He was an autocrat and he believed that everything should go through him. He was unwilling to delegate and allow people to take a final decision. He stifled initiative and such was his reputation, everybody worked in the way Peter wanted them to work. Few had the courage to buck the system in case they incurred the well-known wrath of the tsar.

Also Peter favoured using the army for policy initiation rather than his civil service. The civil service was in place but it was never given the opportunity to function at its best.

Another major failing was that once an order had been issued by Peter, no-one evaluated whether that order had been carried out and if it had, to what extent it was successful. It was assumed that if an order came from Peter it would be carried out and that it would be carried out well.

“The Russian government remained what it had always been: a collection of irresponsible tyrannies, working through fear, and softened occasionally by bribery, crudely carrying out their primeval tasks - the extracting of money and the recruitment of men”