Prominent Russians: Peter I the Great
One of Russia’s greatest statesmen, Peter the Great – the Tsar and first Emperor of Russia - was a man of unwavering willpower, extraordinary energy and supreme vision. Having inherited a vast but backward state, he propelled Russia to the rank of a major European power, while his extraordinary personality and wide scale reforms have been an inspiration to generations of historians, writers and ordinary Russians.
Born in 1672 in Moscow, the future emperor was the son of Tsar Aleksey I. His mother was Natalya Naryshkina, the tsar’s second wife. Peter was his mother’s first son, but he was his father’s 14th child, so his birth was not much cause for celebration. But unlike his half-brothers, the offspring of his father’s first marriage, Peter was a healthy, inquisitive and energetic child.
When Peter was just four years old his father died and the throne was left to Peter’s elder half-brother, Fyodor III, a sickly youth. Yet, in reality, the royal power fell into the hands of the relatives of Fyodor’s mother who tried to push Peter and his closest circle aside. In 1682, Fyodor died without leaving an heir. This sparked a bitter power struggle among the nobility: some
supported Peter’s half-brother, the sickly Ivan, while others declared their allegiance to the healthy and intelligent Peter. Ivan’s backers eventually managed to use a revolt by the Moscow streltsy, an elite army corps, to their advantage. As a result, Ivan and Peter were proclaimed joint tsars. But eventually it was Ivan’s 25-year-old sister Sophia who was made regent, while Peter, excluded from public affairs and often fearing for his safety, was forced to live with his mother in a village outside Moscow.
One result of this exile was that Peter grew up away from the stifling atmosphere of palace life. He enjoyed energetic outdoor games and took a special interest in military affairs. During his frequent visits to a nearby German colony, he took a liking to all things European. Another seemingly insignificant event in his life was the time he found an old sailboat in a shed; this discovery provided his initial passion for sailing. He also enjoyed mathematics, fortification and navigation. And as it turned out, the young Peter’s interest in military and nautical games provided a sound training for the challenges ahead.
Early in 1689, Peter’s mother arranged his marriage to Yevdokiya Lopukhina – a political match aimed at proving that the 17-year-old was a grown man who could rule on his own. But the forced union did not last. The young woman shared neither her husband’s passion for war games, nor his lofty ambitions. Although they did succeed in having a son together, the couple grew apart. Eventually, Peter had his wife confined to the walls of a convent, freeing himself from the bonds of marriage.
In August 1689, the political temperature in Russia increased yet again as the streltsy once more revolted. But this time things turned decisively in Peter’s favor and Sophia was removed from power. After Ivan’s death seven years later, Peter ascended to the throne.
But the country he inherited lagged far behind most European states. And it did not escape Peter’s attention that his country lacked an access route to the seas, which was so vital for trade at the time. So the determined Russian tsar embarked on an ambitious program to transform Russia into an advanced European country while winning a maritime outlet. Breaking the resistance of the old land-owning nobility, the boyars, and severely punishing all opposition to his projects, Peter launched a series of reforms that affected, in the course of 25 years, every area of his nation’s life - administration, industry, commerce, technology and culture.
The first steps he took were the campaigns of 1695-1696 against the Crimean Tatars, the vassals of Turkey, in the hope of carving a route to the Black Sea. Initially unsuccessful, the campaign eventually brought some land gains and prompted Peter to start building a navy. His next undertaking was an extensive European tour, the first time a Russian Tsar went abroad. Accompanied by a large delegation, Peter’s main objective was to strengthen the anti-Turkish coalition, but also to learn more about Europe’s economic and cultural life.
Traveling in disguise, Peter proved an avid learner - he studied shipbuilding, even working as a ship’s carpenter in Holland, and then went to Great Britain where he visited factories, arsenals, schools and museums. From there he moved on to Austria but was forced to cut his travels short as he got news of a fresh streltsy revolt in Moscow. In the summer of 1698, Peter returned to the capital to brutally suppress the uprising. Hundreds of rebels were executed with the rest of the rebels exiled to distant towns.
Meanwhile, having found no allies against the Turks among the Western powers, and realizing Russia couldn’t fight them alone, Peter gave up his dream of a Black Sea access, turning his attention to the Baltic Sea to the north instead. At this time, Russia’s route to the Baltic coast was blocked by the powerful Swedes. To dislodge them, Peter allied himself to several European powers and, in 1700, embarked on his biggest military undertaking, the so-called Northern War. Mobilizing all of Russia’s vast resources, the Russian tsar personally involved himself in key planning and operations, often seen aboard warships or on the battlefield.
Peter probably never imagined that the campaign would last for 21 years.
As it turned out, Russia proved ill-prepared to fight the Swedes, the most advanced army of the time. Thus, at the Battle of Narva, Russia’s first attempt at seizing the Baltic coast ended in disaster. But Peter later described the defeat as a blessing in disguise that compelled him to work even harder.
In 1704, Russian troops captured Tartu and Narva. This victory was followed by the Battle of Poltava (1709), which represents one of the key victories in Russian military history. The military plan of operations was of Peter’s own design. But despite the success of Russian forces, Peter had to wait until 1721 for the eastern shores of the Baltic to be at last ceded to Russia.
In November 1721, to celebrate the long-coveted conquest, Peter assumed the title of Emperor as Russia officially became the Russian Empire. The end of the Northern war left Peter free to resume a more active policy on the southeastern border. In 1722, he invaded Persian territory and a year later Persia ceded parts of the Caspian Sea to Russia.
Peter also waged a war of sorts at home. His first target became the traditional look of his courtiers: beards were out, Western fashions in. Peter went on to modernize Russia’s military and administrative structure, simplify the alphabet, and change the calendar to make it correspond to European standards, as well as myriad other sweeping changes.
Under the ambitious rule of Peter the Great, industrial development was boosted in an unprecedented way. European know-how was studied and foreign experts were invited; plants and factories sprang up across the country and trade flourished. While Russia had no warships when Peter came to power, he went on to create a strong Baltic fleet and a modern regular army. Drills were introduced; obsolete cannons were replaced with new guns designed by Russian specialists or even by Peter himself. Officers were taught to take initiative instead of blindly sticking to the rules. Valuing talent above social origin, Peter would often propel low-born people to high positions. The grip of the boyars on the reigns of power ended.
Peter was the first Russian ruler to promote secular education, while the Church was subjected to the state. Numerous secular schools were opened, with the children of soldiers, officials and churchmen allowed to attend. Russians were encouraged to study abroad and were often compelled to do so at the state’s expense. Books were translated from western European languages, while the first Russian newspaper, Vedomosti (“Records”), appeared in 1703.
Also in 1703 Peter set upon his most dramatic project. Having disliked Moscow since childhood, he longed for a brand new city, his European paradise, to be built from scratch on the Gulf of Finland. Over the next nine years, at tremendous human and financial cost, St. Petersburg sprang up, becoming Russia’s new capital in 1712.
To gather more details and enjoy the story of this majestic yet contradictory venture of Peter, check the following RT's documentary.
Some of Peter’s reforms were introduced quite brutally, sometimes literally. Peter personally cut off the beards of his courtiers and chopped off parts of their clothes for a European make-over. Those who insisted on keeping their beards had to pay a special tax. Economic progress came at a high cost too, with the peasant serfs and the poorer urban workers suffering the biggest strain. Harsh working conditions combined with heavy taxation provoked a number of revolts. But uprisings were mercilessly put down.
Peter’s personal life turned out to be no less turbulent than his public life. His oldest son Aleksey, who was born by his cloistered wife Evdokiya, grew up to loathe his father and all of his reforms. Peter, meanwhile, had fallen for a low-born woman, the future empress Catherine I, who bore him other children and whom he married in 1712. Aleksey, suspected of plotting to overthrow his father and undo his undertakings, fled Russia. But he was tricked into returning in 1718, and charged with high treason, tortured and condemned to death, dying in prison before the execution.
Meanwhile, Peter’s health began to deteriorate. In the autumn of 1724, upon seeing some soldiers in danger of drowning in the Gulf of Finland, he plunged into the icy water in an effort to help save them. After this brave incident, and despite becoming seriously ill, Peter continued to work. But the strain ultimately proved too much. When Peter died early the following year, he left an empire that stretched from the White to the Caspian Sea and from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Peter never declared an heir and was succeeded by his widow, Catherine I.
Described as handsome and of unusual physical strength, and standing at some two meters in height, Peter was literally head and shoulders above his contemporaries both in Russia and Europe. Unlike all earlier Russian tsars, he didn’t shy away from hard physical labor and enjoyed a simple lifestyle. He liked conversations over a mug of beer and a good party, although he sometimes drank heavily, forcing his guests to follow his example. Valuing honesty above all, Peter was ruthless in crushing all opposition and terrible in anger, lashing out with his stick even at his highest officials and closest advisors.
Peter’s personality and legacy have been the source of much debate. He has left his large imprint on Russian history, science, culture and foreign policy. But critics believe the changes were too brutal and costly to the Russian people. Moreover, the critics argue, Russia was exposed to too much foreign influence, which replaced ancient ways and traditions. Yet, as the Russians speak of “cutting a window through to Europe,” which is synonymous with ‘breakthrough’ or ‘reforms,’ they are repeating Peter’s mantra.