On March 19, 1697, the Grand Embassy, lead by Tsar Peter the Great, left Moscow to travel to Western Europe. He was the first Tsar to leave his country in peacetime and ‘opened a window into Europe’. On his return Russia would never be the same and the West would become a model for changes to come.
The Embassy comprised of around 250 people and its first aim was to strengthen and expand the union between Russia and Europe in the fight against Turkey. Peter I also intended to learn about the cultural and economic life of Europe. Officially the embassy was headed by the ‘grand ambassadors’ Frants Lefort, Fyodor Golovin and Pyotr Voznitsyn. Peter I himself was incognito under the name of Peter Mikhaylov.
They traveled through Germany, Holland and Austria. Throughout this journey Peter I collected knowledge of western technology and hired thousands of craftsmen, engineers, military personnel, architects and painters to take back to Russia. Peter I met King William III of England and visited Oxford University and the Greenwich Observatory. As well as English royals at the Royal Mint, he met Isaac Newton. He attended sessions of the English parliament and talked with church bishops and politicians. Peter I sought technological innovations and inventions, especially in shipbuilding. He observed and even worked in dockyards and visited cannon foundries, factories and medical practices. But his diplomatic mission was unsuccessful as Europe was too preoccupied with the Spanish and French wars to worry about problems further east and Turkey.
On his return to Moscow, Peter I demanded western standards of appearance and that beards be shaved off at court and more European dresses be worn. Many were appalled by his actions but were harshly punished for any criticism. The tsar chose a more western way of development for his country and many reforms followed. One of them being a change from the old Russian calendar to the Julian calendar used in the West, where years were counted from the birth of Christ, rather than the creation of the world. Many later praised Peter I for his reforms, but others felt he betrayed his country’s traditions.