Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World

From Peter the Great to Karl Marx

by James Cracraft (Author) William Benton Whisenhunt (Volume editor)
©2021 Monographs XVIII, 350 Pages


Professor James Cracraft is an established specialist on early modern Russian history, particularly the era of Peter the Great (1682-1725), tsar and first Russian emperor. This volume gathers some of the many key articles and reviews published by him over the last forty years and more in a wide variety of scholarly venues, some of which are not readily accessible. They constitute in sum important contributions not only to Russian history broadly understood, but also to the study of history itself. The collection will include a preface by the editor and an introduction by the author, where he will sum up his decades of historical work and point to new avenues of needed research, all the while emphasizing that "history" properly understood does not exist somewhere on its own but is the creation, however imperfect, of professional historians (as "chemistry", say, is properly understood as the work, however imperfect, of professional chemists).

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Editor’s Note
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I Peter the Great
  • 1 The Revolution of Peter the Great
  • 2 Some Dreams of Peter the Great
  • 3 Opposition to Peter the Great
  • 4 Empire versus Nation: Russian Political Theory under Peter I
  • 5 St. Petersburg
  • Part II The Church Reform
  • 6 Feofan Prokopovich
  • 7 The Petrine Church Reform Revisited
  • 8 Church and Revolution in Russia
  • Part III In the Longer View
  • 9 The Russian Empire as Cultural Construct
  • 10 Money Talks? A Note on Political Stability in Late Imperial Russia
  • 11 Russia Discovers America
  • 12 From the Russian Past to the Soviet Present
  • Part IV Review Essays
  • 13 Great Catherine
  • 14 The Dilemma of Orthodoxy in Early Modern Ukraine
  • 15 The Specter of Marxism
  • Part V Thinking about History
  • 16 A Berlin for Historians1
  • 17 Implicit Morality
  • 18 Faith in History
  • 19 History as Philosophy
  • Index

Editor’s Note

←vi | vii→

James Cracraft had a long career teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) where he quickly gained notoriety in the history profession for his first book, The Church Reform of Peter the Great (Stanford University Press, 1971). From there he became a leading authority on Petrine studies, especially reflected in his later “trilogy” of works on Peter’s influence on Russia’s architecture, imagery, and culture. Yet, as is evident from this collection, Cracraft’s historical expertise expanded into many areas of Russian history, historiography, and beyond. This collection provides a fascinating and compelling compendium of works published across several decades that encapsulate Cracraft’s overall historical view. I am certain the reader will appreciate the range and depth of his scholarship.

When he asked me to edit this collection of his works, I was flattered and humbled. After working through all nineteen essays in this collection, it only made me think of what a small sample this is of his overall contribution to the field of Russian history and beyond. As one of his doctoral students (in the mid-1990s), two memories of working with him come to mind. The first was the feedback he would give me on papers that I submitted in classes. While he often gave constructive comments, I remember fondly and frustratingly that he would often just write, “So what?” in the margins (almost always in pencil). While he was right, I still found it frustrating at times trying to answer that question. ←vii | viii→Sometimes I still do! The other memory was as his teaching assistant for a survey course on Russian history. Among academics, there has always been some tension between scholarship and teaching. That was not the case here. In my time at UIC, this class was extremely popular and students told me how much they enjoyed his course. His ability to bring Russian history to life and make it accessible to the uninitiated was excellent and inspiring.

I want to thank Peter Lang Publishers, Dr. Meagan Simpson, and Dr. Philip Dunshea for undertaking this project. A note of thanks to Dr. Ginny Lewis and Dr. Steven Usitalo for directing us to Peter Lang Publishers. I would like to extend a sincere thanks to Karyin Boulom at College of DuPage for excellent technical support in assembling this manuscript. Above all, though, I would like to thank Jim Cracraft for asking me to be part of this project and for all that he has done for me.

Ben Whisenhunt
Professor of History
College of DuPage


The nineteen essays and articles collected in this volume were initially published over the last half-century in books issued by academic presses and in various scholarly journals. The time lag from initial publication to the present as well as the variety and specialized nature of the books and journals in question suggested that it might be helpful to fellow historians of Russia along with historians more generally if these essays and articles were brought together in one place. Aside from this question of convenience, the volume has also been assembled in the conviction that professionally researched and published history retains enduring value as a telling reflection of the mental climate that prevailed during the times in which it was written–in this case, during the era of the Cold War (1945–1991) and its aftermath. The outlook and concerns of historians, surely, no less than those of other people, are conditioned by the vicissitudes of the world in which we live and work.

I might expand for a moment on this latter point, and on the title chosen for this collection. Whether as the Russian Empire or as the Soviet Union, the geographical-linguistic entity known since the later Middle Ages as Russia (Rossiia) has played a major role in the making of the modern world. Dominating at one time or another more than one-sixth of the land surface of the earth, and incorporating within its boundaries a wide range of European and Asian ethnic ←ix | x→minorities as well as its Russian core, Russia has participated, often decisively, in every major conflict that divided the leading world powers over the last two and a half centuries except the partition of Africa. The truth of this generalization became especially clear in the course and then the aftermath of World War II, which left the Soviet Union in control of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe as well as the northeastern portions of defeated Germany and the islands just north of defeated Japan. For anyone seriously interested in the making of the modern world, in short, Russian history, at some level, must be studied.

Russia’s quest for a place among the major European powers began irreversibly under Tsar Peter I (reigned 1682–1725), who in 1721 assumed the Latin-European title of emperor (imperator) and the honorific “the Great” (Petr Velikii) in recognition of his military victories over Sweden, then the leading power of northeastern Europe (he also campaigned, less successfully, against Turkey and Persia). It was Peter the Great who founded, on territory conquered from the invading Swedes, a new capital for his newly named Russian Empire (Imperiia) which he called, after his patron saint, St. Petersburg. Russia’s traditional capital city, landlocked Moscow, located in the ethnic Russian heartland, was thus abandoned by the increasingly cosmopolitan Russian elite in favor of Peter’s new Baltic seaport situated at the western extremity of the Russian Empire. St. Petersburg’s location made it readily accessible by land or by sea to mainland Europe, as Moscow was not, and this at a time when Europe itself, via its commerce and colonization, was moving to dominate much of the rest of the world.

More generally, I came to conclude during the course of my research that Peter’s reign constituted nothing less than a revolution in Russian, and by extension, modern European history. But what kind of revolution? It was, first and most obviously, a revolution in Russia’s status in Europe: Russia became a fully recognized sovereign state among the established states of Europe with whom, for the first time, full diplomatic relations were instituted. Internally, Peter had simultaneously engineered, following German and Swedish models, a bureaucratic revolution in the administration of both the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox church, thus creating an administrative behemoth that was now ruled, from St. Petersburg, by a newly absolute monarchy. Yet it cannot be said that Russia had thereby undergone a full-blown political revolution on the scale of the English, American, French, or indeed Russian revolutions of modern times: neither royal dynasty nor ruling elite were overthrown. Nor was the social-economic structure of Russia fundamentally changed under Peter: both the industrial and the commercial (capitalist) revolutions of modern Europe came late to Russia. Russian society, overwhelmingly a peasant-agricultural society, continued until ←x | xi→long after Peter’s reign to be dominated by the entrenched landowning elite–an elite that also helped to man, at first by Peter’s command, later by their own choice, the newly reorganized and expanded Imperial Russian bureaucracy.

Rather, what Russia underwent under Peter the Great, I came to understand, was essentially a cultural revolution. “Culture” is of course our common word for the innumerable ways human beings have of making and doing things, and of thinking and talking about them. Language is culture, as are literature, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and the graphic arts; so are ways of cooking, fighting, dressing, dancing, feasting, praying, courting, and governing. The term “cultural revolution” then subsumes changes in a given people’s culture that were major, and were recognized as such by contemporaries; that were consciously intended, at least by an active minority; that happened relatively suddenly, making the post-revolutionary stage readily distinguishable from the pre-revolutionary one; and that produced transformations in their respective societies which were lasting This is the sense in which I’ve said that what happened of greatest historical significance in Russia during the reign of Peter the Great was a wide-ranging cultural revolution. And that is the subject of the articles and reviews collected in Parts I and II of this volume.

In Part III of the volume I go on to explore, with Peter’s revolution in mind, several longer-term developments in modern Russian history and the sometimes radically opposed interpretations of those developments advanced by American historians. And here the Cold War is a constant, if not always explicit factor in these historiographical debates, as can be seen particularly in the last of the essays included in Part III, “From the Russian Past to the Soviet Present.” Post-Petrine developments in Russia are also the subject of the three review essays collected in Part IV of the volume, in the last of which, I again suggest, the influence of the Cold War on a prominent American historian of modern Russia can be readily detected.

One last introductory note. The importance of Peter’s reign in modern Russian and indeed world history was greatly downplayed by historians in Russia itself during the long Soviet era in keeping with the official Marxism of the time. Early on in my research, conducted in archives, libraries, and museums in Russia as well as in Europe and the United States, I witnessed how official Soviet Marxism–the Marxism of the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union–required historians in Russia to minimize if not to ignore a great deal of what actually happened in Peter’s time and as the outcome of actions he took. We need think only of St. Petersburg, whose name the Party insisted on changing to Leningrad (1924) in a patent effort to deflate the historical importance of “Peter ←xi | xii→the Great,” as he was still widely known, in favor of the now idolized founder of the Soviet Communist Party and state. I also came to realize in the course of my work that Marxism in less dogmatic forms influenced to some degree many of my Western and particularly American colleagues as well, who increasingly shunned the study of “Great Men” in favor of the history of radical thought and social-class conflict.

The first major break in the official Soviet disdain for Peter the Great came in 1972, which marked the tercentenary of Peter’s birth. In order to arouse national resistance to the massive German invasion of Russia in 1941, the Communist Party under dictator Josef Stalin had found it necessary to revive traditional Russian patriotism: Russians were simply not going to fight and die en masse for the cause of Marxism-Leninism. The nationalism thus aroused only intensified after Russia’s victory in 1945, such that with the onset of Peter’s tercentenary Soviet officialdom had to implicitly assent to the at least partial rehabilitation of the legendary champion of modern Russian greatness who had, not incidentally, triumphed over another “German” invasion of the homeland. The result was a flurry of museum and library exhibitions of Petrine memorabilia in Leningrad and Moscow in 1972 and 1973 along with major scholarly conferences devoted to the first emperor’s reign and the debut of both a popular movie about him and a grand opera.

With the gradual collapse in the 1980s of the Soviet Union together with the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, to be sure, ideologies derived from the works of Karl Marx ceased to influence in any substantive way the writing of modern history, whether in Russia itself or elsewhere. Another revolution, perhaps, this time in historiography, had occurred: Marxism too had become obsolete, along with the twentieth-century political regimes in Europe that drew on Marx for their justification. In 1991, symbolic of these developments in Russia itself, the citizens of Leningrad voted to restore their city’s original name, St. Petersburg, while their compatriots in Moscow hastily erected a gigantic statue of Peter the Great, the first major monument to be constructed in post-Soviet Russia.

We move on, in Part V of the volume, to four essays exploring the nature of history itself and some of the challenges—philosophical, ethical, religious, methodological—facing professional historians these days as they work to provide accurate and understandable accounts of some part of the human past. We must hope that our successors will continue to play this vital role in sustaining the human community for generations to come.←xii | xiii→

This volume could not have been compiled and published without the expert help of my former doctoral student and published historian in his own right, William Benton Whisenhunt. I must accordingly express my heartfelt gratitude to Ben for his ever gracious and efficient assistance in this enterprise, and for his enduring friendship.

James Cracraft
Professor of History Emeritus
University of Illinois


←xiv | xv→

The author/editor and publisher gratefully acknowledge the permission granted to reproduce the copyright material in this book.

Chapter 1: Steven A. Usitalo and William Benton Whisenhunt, eds., Russian and Soviet History: From the Time of Troubles to the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 2: James Cracraft, “Some Dreams of Peter the Great,” Canadian-American Slavic Studies v. 8, no. 2 (Summer 1974): 173–197. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 3: Ezra Mendelsohn and Marshall S. Shatz, eds., Imperial Russia, 1700–1917: Essays in Honor of Marc Raeff. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press (Cornell University Press), 1988. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 4: James Cracraft, “Empire versus Nation: Russian Political Theory under Peter I,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies v. 10, no. 3/4 (December 1986): 524–41. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 5: James Cracraft, Peter the Great Transforms Russia 3rd ed. Boston: D.C. Heath (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 1993. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.←xv | xvi→

Chapter 6: J.G. Garrard, ed., The Eighteenth Century in Russia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 7: Lucian J. Frary, ed., Thresholds into the Orthodox Commonwealth: Essays in Honor of Theofanis G. Stavrou. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2017. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 8: James Cracraft, “Church and Revolution in Russia,” Modern Greek Studies Yearbook v. 12/13 (1996–1997): 21–34. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 9: James Cracraft, “The Russian Empire as Cultural Construct,” The Journal of the Historical Society v. 10, no. 2 (June 2010): 167–88. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 10: Leo Schelbert and Nick Ceh, eds., Essays in Russian and East European History: Festschrift in Honor of Edward C. Thaden. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs (Columbia University Press), 1995. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 11: James Cracraft, “Russia Discovers America,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies v. 28, no. 1–4 (2006): 405–13. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 12: James Cracraft, ed., The Soviet Union Today: An Interpretive Guide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 13: James Cracraft, “Great Catherine,” Slavic Review v. 52, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 107–115. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 14: James Cracraft, “The Dilemma of Orthodoxy in Early Modern Ukraine,” Modern Greek Studies Yearkbook v. 3 (1987): 267–72. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 15: James Cracraft, “The Specter of Marxism,” History and Theory v. 48, no. 1 (February 2009): 105–112. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 16: James Cracraft, “A Berlin for Historians,” History and Theory v. 41, no. 3 (October 2002): 277–300. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 17: James Cracraft, “Implicit Morality,” History and Theory v. 43, no. 4 (December 2004): 31–42. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.←xvi | xvii→

Chapter 18: James Cracraft, “Faith in History,” The Journal of the Historical Society v. 7, no. 1 (March 2007): 137–149. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Chapter 19: James Cracraft, “History as Philosophy,” History and Theory v. 54, no. 1 (February 2015): 45–68. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

←2 | 3→1

The Revolution of Peter the Great

Historians traditionally have viewed the reign of Peter the Great (1689–1725) as marking, or completing, the transition in Russia from medieval to modern times. To be sure, a minority of historians, specialists on earlier periods in Russian history, have scoffed at the suggestion that anything really new occurred during Peter’s reign. All the really important developments, they argue, confusing opportunities with actualities, the swallow with the summer, took place in the decades and even centuries before Peter came to the throne. Such developments, they conclude, were at best accelerated under Peter rather than initiated or transformed. But this remains a minority view. Most historiographical debate centers on the question of how and in what ways the Petrine era witnessed the birth of modern Russia. And the debate has fostered new looks at the voluminous records surviving from the era, both visual and verbal, as well as renewed quests for fresh evidence.1

The most obvious answer to our question points to political (including diplomatic) events. Russia under Peter became, for the first time, a full member of the European system of sovereign states. The system itself arose on the Italian peninsula in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and had spread from there to the rest of Europe. Dozens of principalities, dukedoms, and kingdoms (republics were few and far between) covered the continent by the end of the seventeenth ←3 | 4→century, the hereditary ruler of each area claiming “sovereignty” or absolute control of his territory and its governing apparatus or “state.” Every such state supported an army and often a navy with which its ruler enforced his control and made war on his rival monarchs. Relations between these states were increasingly regulated by a budding “international law” and the related practice of “diplomacy,” meaning the pattern of resident ambassadors, diplomatic immunity, and periodic peace conferences that we now take for granted. By the later seventeenth century the universal jurisdictional claims of the pope and the Holy Roman emperor, which went back to the early Middle Ages, had been decisively repudiated in Europe in favor of this system of sovereign states (only later, with the French Revolution of 1789 and the European revolutions of 1848, would these states begin to see themselves as “nation-states” as well).

Before Peter, Russia had not been an integral part of the European state system. By the late seventeenth century, the kingdom (tsarstvo) of Muscovy maintained only one ambassador abroad, in Warsaw, to keep a protective eye on fellow Orthodox Christians living in neighboring Polish territory and to promote the tsar’s own interests at the Polish court. Muscovy, as it was usually called in Europe, was a vaguely charted land on the northeastern fringe of Europe, a valuable source of furs and other raw materials, to be sure, but otherwise of little political account. In the decades before Peter’s active reign, Muscovy’s rulers had striven without success to gain European allies against Ottoman Turkey; and Muscovy’s periodic wars against Poland, Sweden, or the Baltic provinces controlled by German knights had been viewed with disfavor if not outright hostility by the rest of Europe’s rulers. Under Peter, however, this situation changed dramatically. In Amsterdam in August 1717, a Franco-Prussian-Russian trade and political agreement was concluded which formally recognized Russia’s role as a European power (not “Muscovy” now but “Russia” (Rossiia), the term that Russians preferred). And by 1728, with the convening of the Congress of Soissons, the first European peace conference with full Russian participation, Russia had become a permanent member of the European state system.2


XVIII, 350
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XVIII, 350 pp., 3 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

James Cracraft (Author) William Benton Whisenhunt (Volume editor)

James Cracraft taught graduate and undergraduate courses on Russian and Modern European history, on Russian-American relations, and on historiography and historical methods at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 1969 until 2010. He was also a visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago (1970-1975, 1987-1990) and a research fellow at Harvard University (1979-1989). In addition to dozens of book-chapters, articles, and reviews he has published eleven books, including The Revolution of Peter the Great, a digest of his most important scholarly work for general readers. His research has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (twice); the Davis Center for Russian Studies, Harvard; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Smithsonian Institution; and the J.S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In 1998 he was appointed a University Scholar "for distinction as a member of the faculty of the University of Illinois." William Benton Whisenhunt is Professor and Chair of History at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He earned his B.A. in History and Russian at Cornell College in 1990 and his M.A. in History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1992. In 1997, he earned his Ph.D. in History at the University of Illinois at Chicago under the direction of Professor James Cracraft. He was a J. William Fulbright Senior Scholar at Ryazan’ State University in Ryazan’, Russia in 2006. He has published seven books on Russian history, especially Russian-American relations. He is a co-managing editor of the Journal of Russian American Studies (JRAS) and co-series editor of Americans in Revolutionary Russia. His most recent publication is an edited edition of John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World.


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