Changes in Russian diplomacy under Peter the Great

Changes in Russian diplomacy under Peter the Great

Bohlen, Avis

Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique, Volume 7, Issue 7-3, pp.341-358 (1996)


The reign of Peter the Great has come, rightly or wrongly, to be identified above all with change, departure from tradition and, in the Russian context, Westernization. The reforms which he carried out affected many areas of Russian life and society, but there were few where the transformation was as unequivocal, or its progress as readily observable as in diplomacy. It was evident not only in the changing nature of Russia’s relations with the countries of Europe, but also in the manner in which these relations were conducted. From his 17th century predecessors, Peter had inherited certain elaborate, rigid and uniquely Muscovite forms and patterns for the sending and receiving of diplomatic missions, which reflected more closely the xenophobia and traditionalism of 17th century Russian society than they did the practical needs of diplomacy. Under the new conditions created by Russia’s entry into the war against Sweden — her search for allies and her increasingly important role in the European political system — the old forms and techniques proved inadequate.

The break with tradition began almost at once with the rapid disappearance of many Muscovite practices and the introduction of certain Western-style innovations at the very beginning of Peter’s reign, but the break was not yet total, for during much of this period the old Muscovite attitudes and assumptions lingered on. The picture of Russian diplomacy under Peter is largely, therefore, one of transition: in all its essentials (personnel, techniques and institutions) the direction of its evolution was clearly towards a Western style of diplomacy more suited to Russia’s needs as an emerging European power, but the necessary changes in the manner of execution and in the mentality of Peter and his diplomats did not, at first, keep pace with the rapid transformation of its outward aspects.

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