Powerful, longstanding land-based empires are having mixed success adapting to the rising power of Europe. China and the Middle East have closed themselves off to a lot of new western ideas. But there are two young countries who are going to orient themselves more toward western ways, but with a few big exceptions. These countries are Japan and Russia, thanks to Peter the Great!
Japan had developed similarly to China during the postclassical era. Even though they were never conquered by them, the Japanese set up a lot of their administration similar to that of the Chinese emperors. This was known as the Heian Era and it was a Golden Age of Japanese culture and art. While China is inventing everything and Christians and Muslims are crusading, the Japanese court is flourishing.
One of the great works of world literature was written during this period called The Tale of Genji by noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu and it tells us a lot about life in the court of the emperor – it sounds relatively similar to that of absolute monarchs in Europe. But this time period falls apart and gives way to a feudal era of Japanese history – and that’s what’s going on in the early modern era.
THe tokugawa shogunate
The island is controlled by rival warring clans who compete for control. Eventually power is consolidated under the Tokugawa Shogunate – the shogun is a military leader and at this point they rule on behalf of the emperor. From the feudal period on the Japanese emperor isn’t going to have much real power, which is part of why he’s typically left alone and not overthrown.
Fun fact: the Japanese imperial line is oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. The current emperor of Japan today descends from the same family that was ruling Japan in 660 BCE. BCE. That means it’s the same imperial family that was ruling Japan before Cyrus the Great was born. What.
So the Tokugawa Shogunate isolates Japan from the outside world, which honestly might have been a good strategy – if you are a smaller, younger country you may not want to bring too much attention to yourself while Europe is out exploring and colonizing everywhere. They closed off all trade with the outside world except with the Dutch through one city. They were so mistrustful of outsiders that they made the Dutch sleep on their ships at night. They also forced out all Christian missionaries and executed Japanese Christians who had converted – the Martin Scorses movie Silence covers this in excruciating detail.
But a school of study develops using the outside knowledge the Dutch bring that is nicknamed Dutch Studies. So even though the Japanese cut out foreign cultural influence, they are open to the west’s technology and scientific innovation. And this is going to give them a foundation of western knowledge that will help them grow rapidly once they are finally forced open by the U.S. We’ll come back to them later.
Meanwhile, in Russia, they have the Mongols to thank for their unity. Ivan III rose to power when he joined together all the different Russian princes and forced the Mongols out. That’s why he is called Ivan the Great but at that point the czar is basically just the most powerful prince. His grandson, Ivan IV, does a lot more to take power from the feudal lords and other princes and consolidate it into an absolute monarchy, calling himself czar.
(Note: The Russians, as Orthodox Christians, viewed themselves as the successor to the Roman Empire – Rome fell, then Constantinople, and Moscow grew into the “Third Rome.” So they also name their leader after the Roman emperors – czar is just the shortened, Russian version of caesar.)
Ivan makes a lot of enemies when he takes power from the nobles and so he also grows incredibly suspicious over time, especially after the death of his wife – whom he believed was killed by the nobles who don’t like him. Ivan goes on a rampage, murdering nobles and eventually killing his own son because he believes he was part of an assassination plot. That makes him Ivan the Terrible.
After the Ivans, the Romanov family is going to step up to the plate and provide Russia with every czar until the last one who – spoiler alert – is going to abdicate during the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Peter the Great
The guy we want to focus on today is Russia’s greatest ruler – and the one responsible for westernizing most of Russia – Peter the Great.
Russia has always been a confusing place. Even in geography class: is it Europe? Is it Asia? It’s both. And from the beginning, Russians have had a cultural identity crisis – constantly being pulled between its Slavic roots from eastern Europe and western European advancement and culture. Peter the Great did everything he could to pull Russia away from the East – realizing that for better or for worse, the West was the future.
In 1697 He traveled to Europe disguised as a Russian sergeant to study European institutions. For context, when Peter traveled to Europe, the American colonies were growing; William and Mary have just finished ruling England and firmly entrenching their constitutional monarchy; Poland and the Ottoman Empire are fighting a war that Poland will win, marking the beginning of the slow decline of the Ottomans. (I included that last one just because I felt like Poland needed a win before we get to the 20th century.)
So Peter the Great is touring Europe in secret. He spent four months working at a shipyard in the Netherlands, learning shipbuilding techniques from the Dutch East India Company. He also visited Great Britain where he toured schools, factories, arsenals, museums, and even a session of Parliament.
This is partly what makes Peter the Great unique. Whereas the other Asian powers are hiding themselves away, ignoring Europe, Peter does the opposite. He visits them and probably sees firsthand just how advanced and powerful they had become.
Expansion under Peter the great
When he comes home, he immediately begins reforming the military. He implements a massive shipbuilding campaign and then marches off to fight the Great Northern War against Sweden.
Russia wins, giving it control of the Baltic Sea and access to a warm-water port. Peter recognized how crucial it would be to have a powerful navy but all of the Russian ports were frozen half of the year. But now, his new city of St. Petersburg (how Alexander the Great of you) is open year-round and will serve as his “Window on the West.”
Peter the Great reforms Russia
Politically, he maintains an absolute monarchy – obviously, why would he take away his own power? But he institutes a universal Table of Ranks that promotes within the government based on merit instead of nobility. He also puts the Orthodox Church in Russia under the power of the czar.
But my favorite is that he forced his nobles and members of the government to dress like Europeans. When he returned from his year-long tour of Europe, he held a dinner for all of his high-ranking nobles where he personally shaved each of their beards off. He instituted a no beard policy, which angered the Orthodox Church who believed that having no facial hair was blasphemous, for some reason. Eventually he eased up, but he did keep a beard tax, angering early modern Russian hipsters everywhere.
Peter the Great was really unpopular because of all the changes he instituted, but I really think modern Russia has him to thank for a lot of its success. In this way, I see him as really similar to China’s Shi Huangdi. Yeah, Peter built St. Petersburg in a swamp and killed tens of thousands of peasants building his new city. But he also standardized Russian law, reformed the writing so it would be easier, and set up Russia for enormous success.
Peter the Great’s lasting failure
The one thing he didn’t do was set up Russia’s economy. The Russian economy at this point was still mostly based on feudalism, serfs worked the land, and Russia wasn’t really producing anything of value. The way Peter saw it, the economy was really just to support the military because that’s where the power was – he didn’t see the value in developing an export-based economy and getting too involved in global trade.
So Russia’s economy is going to lag behind the rest of the west, slowly building resentment among the peasants who don’t see any change or new opportunities like poor people in the west will find with industrialization. And since it’s still an absolute monarchy, the unhappiness in their lives will slowly get blamed entirely on the czar… but it’s fine. I’m sure that won’t come back to bite them later.