Peter the Great and Bolshevism (On the 200th anniversary of Peter the Great’s death)
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30
Leon Kozłowski

[from:] L. Kozłowski, Półksiężyc i gwiazda czerwona, Vilnius 1930.


On 8 February, 200 years will have passed since Peter the Great died. Had it not been for the Bolshevik revolt, that anniversary would have certainly been solemnly celebrated in Saint Petersburg. Today, however, there is no Saint Petersburg or Petrograd, only Leningrad.

Probably not even the Bolsheviks claim that Saint Petersburg was built by Lenin – they just want to convince the population that the red dictator was greater than the greatest Tsar of All Russia. In Bolshevik literature, many analogies have been drawn between Peter the Great and Lenin. Whereas Peter the Great started a new period in the history of Russia, Lenin gave rise to a new age in the history of all mankind.

There are certainly analogies between Peter the Great and Lenin, and between Peter’s age and Bolshevik times, it is just that they are not those highlighted by the Bolsheviks.

However, Peter the Great’s eulogist Pushkin, who in his Bronze Horseman erected a monument to the Tsar that was “more durable than bronze”, nevertheless dubs Peter’s work a violent and bloody revolt in his historical notes. Vasily Klyuchevsky, a brilliant Russian historian who emphasises the importance of Peter’s reforms, still admits that they had all the characteristics of a revolution.

“Started and led by the supreme authority that directed the nation’s life, this reform appropriated the nature and methods of a violent revolt and was in fact akin to a revolution. It was a revolution not with respect to its goals, but only with respect to its means and to the impact it had on contemporary minds and emotions”.

What, however, was the essence of those methods that gave Peter’s reforms the appearance of a revolution? Adam Mickiewicz studied this subject most thoroughly. In his Paris lectures, he draws an analogy between the Russian reform at the beginning of the 18th century and the French Revolution at the end of that century, i.e. between Peter and the National Convention.

“Both undertakings were born from the principle that man is the judge of mankind, that there is no need to listen to opinions other than those of one’s own mind and that, taking his own intellect as the compass, man may set a historical direction for all nations and decide in his own discretion what is good for others. This individual pride and presumptuousness of the highest degree give rise to a violent energy that does not heed anything, tramples on the past and overturns all; hence the instinctive hatred towards all that is religious, moral and results from the life of the entire society”.

If Mickiewicz saw similarities between the activities of the first Tsar of All Russia and those of the Great Revolution, it is even easier to find such similarities between the bloody and violent revolt perpetrated by Peter the Great and the Bolshevik revolution.

“Hatred towards all that is religious, moral and results from the life of the entire society” guided the hand of Lenin who, having taken his personal intellect as the compass, attempted to set the historical direction for all nations, and above all for those that were ruled by Peter the Great’s empire. However, the same hatred was also characteristic of the acts of the giant on the throne, the Tsar who did not heed anything, trampled on and threw away everything along his way.

Building not “a city for his people – but a capital for himself” in the mud, he not only “trampled on the bodies of a hundred thousand peasants”, but also trampled on millions of souls – on national and religious feelings. He removed and tore not only old costumes but also things that were sacred to the nation. He not only abolished the Patriarchate and subordinated the Church to his power, but also indulged in blasphemous revelries similar to those engaged in by the Bolsheviks today.

The power of Peter’s predecessor was unlimited in principle, but in fact it was constrained by customs, traditions and ceremonies that, similarly as old costumes, restricted the Tsars’ freedom of movement. On Saturday, the Tsar had to go to the bath and on Sunday, to the Cathedral. When judging a boyar, the Tsar had to do that in the location dictated by that boyar’s pedigree. The Tsar believed in what his people believed – he did not like foreigners and ruled according to the old laws to which everyone had got accustomed. In the 17th century, when the times of Ivan the Terrible had already been forgotten, Muscovite Tsars were like an old tree trunk overgrown with moss, i.e. not overly hard on those who surrounded them, and their people looked at them from afar, not feeling the Tsars’ power in their everyday lives, which followed old patterns.

The power of Muscovite Tsars (except for Ivan the Terrible, of course) was despotic but not ruthless, they did not rule by terror because their authority was accepted by the nation whose moral categories were aligned with it.

On the other hand, the reign of Peter, who tried to set Russia on a new road, was ruthless and based on terror just like the Bolshevik reign is presently. It offended the Russian society’s moral and religious feelings; in the eyes of the believers, his government was a foreign one just as today’s Soviet government. People believed rumours that Tsar Peter was not in fact Peter, the son of Alexei; that the true Tsar was killed abroad and someone else returned under his name: a German or Swede, or perhaps even a Jew.

Indeed, Peter’s ruthless reign of terror reached only as far as his armed, terrifying hand. The decrees, which were issued in abundance, mostly remained on paper. Punishment, which was meted out too generously, no longer served as a deterrent; not only local authorities, but even closest co-workers lied to the all-powerful ruler; rebellions, which were drowned in blood, never ceased throughout Peter’s rule; banditry grew daily and governors were afraid to set foot outside city limits so as not to fall into the hands of marauding bands. This picture also resembles the situation in Soviet Russia today. This list of similarities with Lenin’s epoch could be made even longer, but it is time to mention a fundamental difference.

Peter not only destroyed, but built as well whereas Lenin engaged in destruction only. Peter built a capital which he named after himself. The Bolsheviks just renamed Saint Petersburg Leningrad – not only did they fail to build a new capital for their communist system, but they ruined and demolished most houses in old cities.

The empire that Peter built and the institutions he established survived for 200 years. Already after two years of his reign, Lenin wrote off his communist plan and launched the New Economic Policy (NEP), which meant beating a retreat towards capitalism – he himself admitted that his work of destruction had been unnecessary.

Lenin, a corpse already during his life, symbolised the lifelessness of his actions and of the huge charnel house that is the Muscovite Commune built on the ruins of Peter the Great’s empire.

Peter built not only on bodies but also on the souls of the dead, and this is why the waves of the revolution that washed away the foundations of Peter’s edifice brought so many corpses to the shore. Bolshevism is a bloody epilogue to a great historical tragedy whose beginnings were bloody as well. Hence the analogies mentioned above.


Leon Kozłowski (1879–1927) – columnist, scholar of Polish literature, political activist. He was born on 5 May 1879 in Kharkiv where he attended secondary school. He studied law at Kharkiv University, but before he had graduated, he was arrested for socialist activities and sent to Saint Petersburg where he spent fourteen months in prison. After his release he was subject to police supervision and prohibited from living in academic cities and thus he could not finish his studies in Russia. It was only in 1904 that he went to Paris and started political and social studies. At that time, his first brochure Po co człowiek żyje [Why a Man Lives] was published by the Alliance of Polish Free Thinkers. After his return to Russia, he passed a state examination in law. From 1910, he wrote for the Russkiye Vedomosti newspaper. His articles, which were also published in other newspapers, were devoted, among others, to Polish literature. In 1914, he joined the editorial team of the Moscow-based Echo Polskie weekly, which later became a daily. He spent the war years in Russia, actively promoting the Polish cause. In 1918, he was appointed to the Representative Office of the Polish Regency Council, which was soon closed down by the Bolsheviks. In July 1919, Kozłowski was arrested by the Bolsheviks and imprisoned for six months. In January 1920, after his release, he arrived in Warsaw. He worked as editor at the Tydzień Polski weekly and then at the Kurier Poranny daily. By that time, he had progressed from his youthful fascination with socialist radicalism. Instead, he turned to religion, and as a columnist he attacked the Bolshevik ideology, presenting a description of Soviet reality in a number of articles. He died on 3 September 1927. Among those who appreciated Kozłowski’s journalistic talent and personality was Marian Zdziechowski who wrote an introduction to Kozłowski’s writings published in the Półksiężyc i czerwona gwiazda [Crescent and the Red Star] collection. The article presented here comes from this volume.

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