The Founding of Russia's Navy:
Peter the Great and the Azov Fleet, 1688-1714,
by Edward J. Phillips,
review - John Sloan
The author focuses on Peter the Great's efforts to create a Russian navy
as the earliest example of a program he personally desired, which required the
allocation of significant resources and major changes "reforms" in
administrative, fiscal, and social institutions. In this way it demonstrates
the process by which the tsar's desires translated into progressively expanding
demands for a relatively narrowly focused military (naval) program in turn
necessitated fundamental changes throughout society. He confirms Michael
Florinski's contention that Peter's reforms were essentially the unplanned and
uncoordinated outgrowth of the constantly increasing demands of war.
Phillips defines four aspects that he then uses to organize his analysis of
naval developments - "impetus", the demand side;
"technology" and "resources", which constitute the the
supply side; and "setting", the environment in which these operated
and which shaped the outcome.
He provides a short introductory background on shipbuilding in Kievan and
Muscovite Russia over the centuries before Peter's reign. The general picture
is of ship building only in response to demands from
The author gives the most comprehensive description I have read of Peter's
actual education in naval practices during his tour in Holland and England. As
a result, the reader also learns quite a bit about the specifics of Dutch and
English ship building practices and the considerable differences between them.
Even having studied the Azov campaigns at some length from a military point of
view and knowing the importance Peter's small fleet played in the ultimate
successful outcome, I was surprised to learn of the massive size of the total
resources Peter devoted to the project. This is because, heretofore, I had only
counted the vessels that actually made it to Azov, not realizing the number
that were built, but did not reach the sea. Phillips provides dramatic evidence
of the scope of the ship construction program in the several appendices in
which he enumerates the ships by name, cost, and organizations or individuals
ordered to construct them.
The author chose well in limiting his time period for analysis. He brings the
story down to 1714 and the initial phase of the new naval construction program
on the Baltic, giving just enough of its origins to establish its relationship
to the first program on the Don.
One disconcerting habit to this reviewer is Philips' use of the term
"state" when describing the motivating power behind decisions to
allocate resources to ship building in general or to specific decisions
ordering construction of particular vessels. We read that even from Kievan
times the "state" had interests, exercised leadership or initiative,
sought this or that, had obligations, played a role, resorted to compulsion,
and the like. Yet within a few sentences we invariable find out that it was
actually the personal decision of one tsar or the other which generated the
program in question. For instance, Philips correctly writes, of Alexei
Mikhailovich, "The driving force from the outset was the personal
authority of the tsar marshaling the resources of the state bureaucracy."
But these clerks were the instruments of the tsar's personal bureaucracy.
It is my view that "state" is a concept, a relatively modern theory,
which was developed in western Europe as a means to provide legitimacy for the
new claims of "absolute" monarchs in opposition to those of their
aristocratic and urban opponents. It was not yet in vogue in Muscovy even by
the reign of Peter I, and certainly not those of his father and grandfather.
Contemporaries already viewed themselves as loyal slaves of the tsar and not as
citizens of some "state" that had yet to come into existance. Thus
the author's categorization of ship construction and the resources allocated
for it as "state" versus private actually means directly from the
personal resources of the tsar or indirectly from the resources held by
ecclesiastical or secular organizations and individuals at the whim of the
tsar. But the ability of the tsar to assign such responsibilities arbitrairly
to whomever he chose itself gives dramatic proof that in the final analysis in
practice all resources in Muscovy belonged to the tsar. Sources Appendices