Peter the Great 1702-25 – Russian Army at War I

Given the enormous shortcomings of the Petrine army, how did Peter the Great manage to win the Great Northern War? In order to answer, we must look at Petrine economic and military innovations. The economic policies of Peter the Great were of significance because they allowed him to expand Russia’s military potential, thus making possible a protracted war. Yet Peter’s contributions to operations and strategy were no less important. The economic reforms and the operational/strategic practices were mutually interdependent; together they were the necessary and sufficient condition for Russian victory. We shall first examine the economic policies in each of three realms: revenue, industry, and transport. The changes in those areas permitted Peter to overcome, or at least partially to overcome, Muscovy’s weaknesses in military endurance, which had proved so frustrating for previous Romanov rulers.

“Money,” Peter wrote, “is the artery of war,” which shows that he was aware of the connection that existed between Russia’s unstable revenues and its past military failures.69 As we have seen earlier in the case of the Smolensk war, impending bankruptcy could leave Russia’s leaders with no choice but meekly to sue for peace, whether they wanted to continue or not. The emptiness of the treasury often created a situation in which the decision for war or peace was taken out of Russian hands altogether and placed solely at the discretion of Russia’s adversaries. It was a trap that Peter was determined to avoid and did.

The key here was simultaneously expanding the pool of available taxpayers while increasing the tax burden generally. Muscovy’s state revenues grew constantly under Peter. Amounting to roughly 1.5 million rubles in 1680, they attained 3.6 million in 1701 and 8.7 million in 1724, the year before Peter’s death. Even taking into account the debasement of the coinage (another revenue-enhancing measure introduced by Peter’s government), state receipts from direct taxes, indirect taxes, and other dues increased 2.7 times. Up to 1720 or so, those results were attained not by rationalizing the arbitrary and capricious pattern of Muscovite tax-gathering but by intensifying that very same pattern. From the beginning of his reign Peter ceaselessly multiplied the taxes that Russian subjects were supposed to pay; taxes were slapped on glass, stove pipes, doors, beards, and bathhouses. Indirect taxes on all manner of goods similarly went up. Nor did the Petrine government refrain from imposing extraordinary additional taxes of money and grain, just as it called up extra levies of recruits in addition to those inducted by the regular recruiting system. Indeed, the connection was very close between those two phenomena, since the mustering of additional recruits required additional taxes to clothe and equip them.

Extraordinary taxes were also charged to meet emergency expenses connected with the construction of St. Petersburg, to build ships, to supply the needs of troops in winter quarters, and so forth. So sizable were those extraordinary levies that they amounted to almost 60 percent of all taxes paid by the peasants of Kiev Province from 1719 to 1723. Surrendering money or rye to tax collectors, whether on a regular or an ad hoc basis, did not mark the limit of a taxpayer’s obligations to his government, either, for there were also many natural or labor duties. Even if the state did not “draft” a peasant for years of toil in construction, it could still exact short-term labor services from him. He could be ordered to do road repairs, drive loads by cart, or fell trees. Sometimes those natural services were demanded by the government regardless of the difficulty or even possibility of their fulfillment. Among the many grievances that sparked off the revolt of the town of Astrakhan (1705–6) was this: each soldier and strelets had suddenly been required to supply six sazhens (58 cubic meters) of firewood for the need of a nearby saltpetre works, despite the fact that there were scarcely any trees in the vicinity at all.

Toward the end of his reign Peter did overhaul his tax system thoroughly. In 1718 a decree announced the abolition of most direct taxes and their replacement by the unitary soul or poll tax—an annual payment of 74 (later 70) kopecks, which was to be made by a taxable community on behalf of every male who resided in it from babes in arms to crippled old men. To enhance compliance with the act in 1724 the government unveiled the regimental district system: thirty-five regiments, quartered on the population throughout the various regions of the country were empowered both to collect the poll tax and to spend it on their own maintenance.

There can be no doubt that those tax policies were effective in the end; Peter did squeeze more money, food, and labor out of his subjects than had any of his predecessors. The revenue that was harvested not only allowed Peter to continue his war but even tolerated subventions to his allies, such as the 100,000 rubles Peter promised to pay Augustus II annually in the Traktat of Birsen (1701). We should emphasize, however, that there were some peculiar problems with this tax system.

In the first place, as we already observed at the beginning of the chapter, one response of the peasantry of Russia to the increasing tax burden was to run away. The number of peasant households counted by tax collectors declined by 20 percent in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, and in some provinces by as much as 50 percent. What this statistic revealed, however, was not demographic collapse but massive peasant flight. It was difficult for the state meaningfully to assess or to collect ordinary taxes as a consequence, which in part explains why the government was so heavily dependent on extraordinary tax levies. Yet there was a problem here too. If peasants had difficulty paying their ordinary taxes even when they were aware of their assessment for months in advance, they had even greater difficulty discharging their obligations when extraordinary taxes were suddenly and arbitrarily imposed upon them. Arrears in extraordinary taxes thus mounted at a greater rate than did those in ordinary taxes. Arrears of the former type were more dangerous: extraordinary taxes were usually assessed in response to a specific need or a real emergency, which required an immediate rather than a tardy infusion of revenue. The tax system, however, produced the funds belatedly and incompletely, if at all. Money did not flow into the Muscovite treasury in a broad and constant stream. Rather, owing to peasant flight and the massive reliance on extraordinary taxes, it came in spatters and spurts, like water groaning from a rusted pipe. For most of the reign, then, the Russian government lurched from one fiscal crisis to another; the rational budgeting that might be considered indispensable in a war was virtually impossible.

To be sure, at the very end of the period the introduction of the poll tax did bring order to the tsarist fisc. But as assessment of the tax depended upon a nationwide census of taxable males, implementation of the reform took years. It was not really until 1724 that the majority of localities within the Russian Empire were operating under the poll tax system. A rational system of taxation had finally been created, but the war with Sweden was long over.

Peter’s exertions with regard to industry, or at least military industries, seem to have produced more consistent results than his tax reforms. One of the most successful of all of Peter’s military industries was surely shipbuilding. Before Peter, Russia almost totally lacked a tradition of constructing oceangoing vessels. In the aftermath of the successful capture of Azov, however, Peter commanded that a fleet be constructed in the Sea of Azov and a flotilla in the Caspian. Naval architecture was not, however, the preferred metier of the carpenters who built those early fleets: many vessels were constructed of green wood and used wooden pegs in place of iron nails, which resulted in their scuttling themselves. Given the low level of craftsmanship indicated by such episodes, Russia’s success in building up its fleet was all more remarkable. By the end of his life, Peter possessed thirty-two ships-of-the-line and sixteen frigates, all of modern design, not to speak of the scores of galleys, bomb boats, and other craft. This navy, whose Baltic presence alone surpassed that of Sweden or Denmark, bore witness to the efficiency of Peter’s sawmills, boatyards, and hired British experts.

Metallurgy was another area in which Russia’s accomplishments were both impressive and crucial to the war effort. In 1699 work began on the large Nevianskii iron foundry in the Urals. The factory, which was handed over to the Demidov family in 1702, soon grew highly productive. By 1707 the gross weight of iron sent from the Nevianskii factory to Moscow in raw and finished form (as artillery pieces) amounted to more than 2 million pounds. At Peter’s death, some seventy mines and factories were devoted to the extraction and working of copper and iron. The output of such establishments fed Russia’s weapons industry. Although it is clear that significant numbers of muskets were imported up to 1707 or so (which probably helps to account for the fact that the Russian troops were armed with weapons of many differing calibers, making the exchange of ammunition impossible), we are told that Russian factories were capable of turning out 15,000 muskets a year by 1709 and 40,000 by 1711. Despite that, Russia still imported almost 60,000 fusils and flintlocks from 1706 through 1712. Thanks in part to large reserves of saltpetre, Russia is believed to have become nominally self-sufficient in gunpowder by 1710.

Other branches of industry did not serve the country or the army so well. Despite the resources allocated to them, for example, the textile manufacturing plants could never weave enough cloth to uniform the troops; the shortfall always had to be made up (if at all) through imports. There were critical shortages, too, in the output of other products of military use, such as finished leather.

Important points about Petrine industry, however, still remain to be made. First, it would obviously be a mistake to exaggerate Russia’s industrial progress under Peter. Although two hundred factories are said to have been opened during his reign, some of them, owned by private individuals, were clearly paper factories only—factories, launched by people eager for the special privileges and benefits Peter accorded industrialists, that produced virtually nothing. A second point that bears stressing is that industrial development was lopsided under Peter. The state emphasized (and got results in) a handful of heavy industries (the building of capital ships; the casting of iron) to the detriment of lighter industries, which nonetheless made articles like woven cloth that the army needed desperately. To a large extent the favoritism toward the output of engines of war—ships, guns, muskets—was to be expected. Yet the industrial imbalance also reveals that the Russian economy could not autarkistically turn out all of the goods that the army required, which casts light on some of the supply problems identified above. Further, with a few important exceptions (iron in particular), the greatest expansion in output generally occurred either after the battle of Poltava or at the very tail end of the war when Peter’s newly formed industrial and mining colleges devoted their attention to privatizing industry and making the economy grow. Although Peter’s industrial policies were more rational than his tax policies, the Petrine economy was not the smoothly functioning cog in the war effort is often purported to have been.

As we have already observed, all the expansion in Russian productive capacity would have been utterly useless if the goods could not be conveyed to the army in the field. On top of that, the general agricultural infecundity of the chief theaters of the war made it impossible for the Russian army to live off the land for any length of time; it was dependent on food shipments from the heartland of the country. For those reasons, Peter’s endeavors in the realm of transportation were critically important.

The geographical and climatological barriers to efficient transportation in Russia are well known.86 Most of the river systems run north to south, not east to west, thus rendering water transport complex and expensive. Further, the inland waterways are useless for several months of the year as they ice over completely during the long Russian winter. The dramatic spring thaw clogs the rivers with ice floes and turns the dry land into a vast sea of mud. During this period—the rasputitsa—transportation becomes impractical. Johann-Georg Korb, an Austrian diplomat who served in Russia, noted in April 1698 that his “horses frequently sank so deep [in mud] that hardly anything but their heads could be seen.” This statement is, of course, a specimen of hyperbole, but it gives some sense of the difficulties involved. Only in winter was transportation relatively quick, owing to the use of sleighs and sledges; even then, however, sudden blizzards and intense cold could impede a traveler’s progress.

In view of all of those obstacles, Peter made improvement in the Russian transportation network one of his highest priorities, which is why he became interested in the construction of canals quite early in his reign. The military utility of canals was never far from his mind. Indeed, an examination of the canals Peter planned gives insights into the direction he expected his campaigns to take in the future. The first canals projected by Peter’s government were to have been constructed in the southern part of the country—logical enough, given Peter’s expectation of sporadic war with the Turks. The English engineer John Perry was hired in 1698 to supervise the digging of a channel from the Volga to the Don. That canal would have connected the Caspian to the Sea of Azov, permitting the speedy transfer of both export goods and naval vessels from one body of water to the other. But the underfunded and undermanned project was never completed. One reason for the lack of support given Perry, of course, was the shift to the north occasioned by the outbreak of the Swedish war. Peter’s most immediate need after 1700 was for a water link between the Volga and the Neva river systems. In 1703 Peter ordered the construction of the Vyshnii Volochek Canal, a 2-mile passage to connect the Tversta river (an out-branch of the Volga) and the Msta (on which a transit to the Neva could be made via Lake Ilmen, the Volkhov, and Lake Ladoga). Finished in 1709, the Vyshnii-Volochek Canal doubtless facilitated the equipping and feeding of the Army of Finland and the expeditionary forces that ravaged Sweden in the last phase of the war. More than 2,100 tons of goods and grain passed through its locks annually from 1712 to 1719. Although the Vyshnii-Volochek was the most successful and enduring canal built under Peter, there were problems even here. Rapids on the Msta and the inherent dangers of navigating Lake Ladoga limited the degree to which the water system could be fully exploited; ancillary canals to bypass those hazards (the Tveretskii and Ladoga) were not completed until 1722 and 1732 respectively. Further, the system was not usable during the winter.

Because Peter could not rely totally on his canals to resolve his logistical dilemma, he paid great attention to organizing transportation by road from Moscow, the chief entrepôt of the country, to his dispersed military forces. Of the eight principal roads passing through Moscow, the most important in the early phase of the war was the one leading to Pskov via Tver and Novgorod. Pskov was, after all, Sheremet’ev’s base of operations for the conquest of the Baltic. The Moscow-Pskov highway, more than 450 miles in length, was divided into four roughly equal sections; in each, peasants of the roadside villages were obligated to perform cartage services. In 1702 and 1703 (unfortunately the only two years for which documentation readily available) 3.8 and 4.7 million pounds of grain and flour were dispatched from Moscow to Pskov to feed Sheremet’ev’s army. Later, during Swedish invasion, the Smolensk, the Khar’kov, and the Kiev roads bore the heaviest concentration of military freight.

The Petrine road transport network was a magnificent accomplishment; it was not, however, perfect. The quantity of foodstuffs furnished to Sheremet’ev in 1703 may seem to be enormous, yet the entire 4.7 million pounds supplied in that year would only have provided roughly 6,000 soldiers with a daily ration of 2 pounds of bread per man. Sheremet’ev had more than 20,000 troops under his command at the time. The road transport system clearly operated better in the winter than in the summer, when the demands of field work made the peasants even more reluctant than usual to fulfill their cartage responsibilities. Still, even in winter there was significant evasion.

To sum up, then, Peter’s fiscal and economic mobilization of his country presents a mixed picture. Revenues may have risen sharply, but delayed payment or nonpayment of taxes plus peasant flight meant that Peter’s treasury could not count on a smooth influx of funds. Peter was consequently forced to finance his war without being able accurately to predict his cash flow—a very difficult task indeed. Similarly, although domestic industry eventually could supply the army with many of the commodities it needed, it was never able to satisfy all of the soldiers’ demands. Certain crucial articles, such as uniforms and boots, were always in scarce supply. Further, even the most successful among Russia’s nascent industries had little “surge capacity”—the capability to increase output rapidly in response to military emergencies. When Peter wrote Jacob Bruce demanding that he prepare enough gunpowder to supply 50,000 men with three hundred charges each, the latter responded (March 1705) that this “was not possible by any means, because it would require more than 828,000 pounds [of powder] and we have only . . . 54,000 pounds in all.” Finally, while Peter made good use of his roads and canals, the transportation system was never adequate to the demands made upon it; weather, marine hazards, and peasant stubbornness created constant bottlenecks and delays. Oddly enough, the economic and financial infrastructure for fighting the Great Northern War came completely into existence only after the Swedes had been beaten. It was only after 1721 that Russia acquired a sound tax system, experienced the greatest increase in the output of its military industries, and perfected the Volga-Neva Canal link.

All armies and all wars are characterized by logistical breakdowns from time to time. By contrast, the Petrine military economy was guaranteed to produce total logistical failures on a regular and ongoing basis. Yet despite the suffering and death that caused, Petrine fiscal and economic policies did importantly contribute to winning the war. Just enough money, food, weapons, and equipment were collected and distributed to make the difference between the barely tolerable and completely unendurable. Without Peter’s tax reforms, state factories, canals, and impressed teamsters, the army could not have survived as a recognizable military force at all. Absent those Petrine innovations, Russia certainly could not have sustained so lengthy a war. The Petrine military economy, then, produced not copious abundance but rather marginal sufficiency. And marginal sufficiency was enough.


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