More than in any other period of Russian history, or the history of any other country of 17-18th centuries, was an era of great events and changes for which a single man was mostly responsible. Peter the Great inherited an uneducated, uncivilized, superstitious, huge but landlocked country that excluded itself from European society, economy, and politics and turned Russia into a great world power. For that he was virtually unconditionally admired and glorified in his native country by the educated public. Peter the Great seems like a superhuman colossus bestriding half a continent. He is indeed a unique personality in history.
Childhood and Youth
Peter the Great was the fourteenth child of Tsar Alexei from his second marriage to Natalia Naryshkina. There were already two older semi-invalid sons, named Feodor and Ivan, from the first marriage. On May 30, 1672, Peter was born in the royal residence within the Kremlin in Moscow, and happy parents called him after the apostle. Peter’s world changed suddenly when he was not quite four years old. His father had caught a chill standing on the cold winter air at the annual event of blessing the waters of the Moscow River and died on February 8, 1676. From his third to his tenth year Peter shared the miseries and perils of his family. Tsar Alexei’s successor was Feodor who ruled until his own death six years later. The ten year old Peter was proclaimed tsar. But his half-sister Sophia, wanting power for herself and her side of the family, instigated a palace revolution by the streltsy (the Kremlin guards). Peter was forced to see one of his uncles dragged from the palace and butchered by a savage mob. He saw his mother’s beloved mentor, and his own best friend, torn, bruised and bleeding, from his retaining grasp and hacked to pieces. The memories of these horrors played havoc with the nerves of a sensitive child. By the time he was twenty he began to suffer from a nervous twitch of the head. When he was lost in thought, or during moments of emotional stress, his round, handsome face became distorted with convulsions, from which he suffered so much in later years. As a result of this revolt, Ivan was proclaimed co-Ruler with Sophia as Regent. Peter’s mother, afraid to stay on in the Kremlin, moved with Peter and his younger sister to a modest estate in the village of Preobrazhensky near Moscow. There, Peter spent the rest of his childhood and early youth, returning to Moscow only on state occasions.
While at Preobrazhenskoye, for entertainment, the restless young tsar was given an army of children, uniforms, and real weapons. He had formed two disciplined mock regiments of soldiers from among his friends, grooms and boys from the next village. Even 24 people were killed during one of his ‘play’ battles! Unlike other young kings, Peter did not appoint himself commander. Instead, he gave himself the lowest rank in the pretend army and worked his way up to commander. The war games of Peter’s childhood developed over a period of years into a serious military undertaking. The guards would later become the elite core of a new, modernized army. Similarly, the young tsar began building small vessels on a nearby lake, and in 1694, he established a dockyard in Arkhangelsk at White See and personally constructed a large ship there. A Russian navy was being created literally from scratch. Even while playing as a boy, Peter showed his talent for leadership and military tactics. So long as he could indulge freely in his favorite pastimes, he was quite content that others should rule in his name. In August 1689, a new rebellion of the streltsy inspired a final confrontation between two families. Sofia capitulated to her brother and was sent to live in a convent. Still, at 17, Peter left state affairs to his mother.
Very tall, tremendously strong, fantastically energetic, and an intellectually precocious child, Peter received no extensive systematic education, barely being taught to read and write. Instead, from an early age he began to absorb information on his own and to pursue a variety of interests. The German Quarter in Moscow became his favorite location. He found a new friend, Frank Lefort, a shrewd and jovial rascal, who not only initiated him into all the mysteries of profligacy (at the large house built at Peter’s expense in the German settlement), but taught him his true business as a ruler.
There Peter learned from a variety of specialists what he wanted to know most about military and naval matters, geometry, and the erection of fortifications. He would always judge people not by their background, but by what they knew and were able to do. As a result, throughout his reign his assistants constituted a remarkably diverse group, ranging socially from the old, established Russian aristocracy to able newcomers from lower classes and including a great variety of foreigners. In a busy, informal, and unrestrained atmosphere, the Tsar apparently felt much more at ease than in the conservative, tradition-bound palace environment, which he never accepted as his own. The smoking, drinking, lovemaking, rough good humor, and conglomeration of languages that he first discovered there became an enduring part of Peter’s life. There too, Peter met his first true love – Anna Mons.
Peter’s mother wanted to wean her son from his dangerous and mostly disreputable pastimes. In 1689, being 17 years old, Peter followed her wishes and married a girl she had selected for him. Evdokia Lopukhina was young, reasonable pretty, but lack of spirit and imagination. She didn’t understand Peter’s ideas and they had little in common. Peter practically deserted his unfortunate consort a little more than a year after their union.
Convent of the Intercession where Eudoxia was incarcerated for twenty years
Peter’s mother death in 1694 marked the true beginning of his reign and left the young Tsar absolutely free to follow his natural inclinations. In 1696 Ivan V died, and Peter became the sole occupant of the Russian throne.
The first years of Peter’s effective rule brought more military surprises. To improve Russia’s position on the seas, Peter sought to gain more maritime outlets. At the time the only one was the White Sea at Arkhangelsk. The Baltic Sea was controlled by Sweden in the north, while the Black Sea – by the Ottoman Empire in the south. Peter declared war against the Ottoman Empire in 1695. After failing to capture the key fortress of Azov near the mouth of the Don River by land, Peter built in one winter a fleet. Working indefatigably himself and ruthlessly driving everyone around him, from foreign experts to Russian peasants, he managed to bring 30 seagoing vessels and about 1000 transport barges to Azov in May 1696. Besieged by sea as well as by land, the Ottomans surrendered Azov in July.
Capture of Azov
Next, Peter organized a large delegation – the so-called Grand Embassy – to visit a number of European countries. He was spurred by the desire to form a mighty coalition against the Ottoman Empire, but also by his intense interest in the West. The party of approximately 250 men set out in March 1697. Although officially meant to be travelling incognito, most people seemed to know Peter’s identity. At a height of 2.04m (6′ 8”), it would have been hard for him to blend into a crowd! Being literally head above others, Peter however, lacked the overall proportional heft and bulk generally found in a man that size: his hands and feet were small, and his shoulders narrow for his height; likewise, his head was also small for his tall body. Habitual use of ax and hammer had developed his strength and manual dexterity to such an extent that he was able to twist a silver platter into a scroll; or if a piece of cloth was thrown into the air he could cut it in half with his knife before it landed.
During 18 months of travel that took the Tsar through the Swedish Baltic provinces, Prussia and other north German states, England, Austria and Saxony, his interest remained insatiable. He stayed four months in Holland working as a carpenter at a wharf and going through the whole process of shipbuilding. He seemed most concerned with navigation, but he also tried to absorb other technical skills and crafts, together with the ways, manners, and entire way of life of Europe as he saw it.
In England Peter met King William III who was very much surprised at such “un-royal” interests, but nevertheless presented Peter with a yacht and ordered naval maneuvers in his honor. Peter was so delighted that he said, “If I were not the Russian Tsar, I would have wished to be an English admiral!” By impressing the Tsar, the King hoped to win back some of the privileges English merchants had enjoyed in earlier times, especially to sell tobacco, grown in the British colony of Virginia, to Russia.
While in England, Peter stayed at a large and beautifully furnished house in Deptford belonging to John Evelyn. But Peter and his companions were far from good tenants. During their stay they caused a great deal of damage: carpets were left filthy with grease and ink; many paintings looked as if they had been used for shooting targets; locks and windows were broken, and every one of the fifty chairs in the house had vanished, probably burned on fires! The King’s Surveyor was ordered to report on the damage, and recommended that Evelyn be paid £350 in compensation, a huge sum in the 17th century.
Peter was preparing to move on to Venice, when a courier arrived with the message that four regiments of the streltsy had revolted and were marching on Moscow. Peter left hurriedly for home.
Although failed of creating an anti-Ottoman alliance, the “Grand Embassy” was very successful. When Peter returned to Russia, a large shipbuilding industry was established. In 1703, a fleet was founded in the Baltic Sea, and by the end of Peter’s reign 28,000 men were serving there, on 49 ships and 800 smaller vessels. Peter recruited more than 750 foreigners (including master shipbuilders, engineers, doctors, architects, and artisans) to serve in Russia. (Many of them found it difficult to get permission to return home once they were in Russia!)
Upon Peter’s return, the streltsy were already defeated but the Tsar acted with exceptional violence. After investigation and torture, more than 1000 men were executed, with Peter himself performing as one of the executioners. Their mangled bodies were displayed publicly as a lesson. Sofia was forced to become a nun. The following day Peter began his program to recreate Russia in the image of Western Europe by personally clipping off the beards of his nobles, which they were very proud of. Those who sought to retain their beards were required to pay an annual huge beard tax.
Peter’s return to Russia and assumption of personal rule hit the country like a hurricane. He banned traditional dress for all men, introduced military conscription, established technical schools, replaced the church patriarchy with a Holy Synod answerable to himself, simplified the alphabet, tried to improve the manners of the court, and introduced a hundred other reforms, restrictions, and novelties. He also tried to end arranged marriages, because he thought such a practice was not only barbaric but also led to domestic violence since the partners usually resented each other in this forced union. With the beginning of the new century, Peter changed the Old Russian calendar to the Julian one used in the West; henceforth years were to be counted from the birth of Christ, not the creation of the world, and they were to commence on January 1, not September 1.
Peter also ended his unhappy marriage divorcing Evdoxia Lopukhina, who had sympathized with the rebels. She also went into a convent. There were 3 children in that family, although only one, Alexei, had survived.
In 1699, Russia allied with Poland and Denmark against Sweden. At the time, Sweden was considered to have the best army in Europe and was led by the most famous commander, the youthful King Charles XII. Upon concluding peace with the Ottomans in 1700, Peter and his allies began the 21 year long Northern War with Sweden. After a near disastrous crush by the Swedes at Narva in 1700, Peter reorganized the Russian army and used his magnificently westernized navy to finally defeat the Swedes. By capturing two Swedish fortresses, Russia gained control of the Baltic Sea.
To protect Russia from northern military threats, Peter began building a city around the Peter and Paul Fortress in the Neva River delta. The area was considered unhealthy for a town, but it had tremendous strategic importance. The original clay walls and bastions of the fortress were completed by the end of summer 1703 under the careful supervision of the Tsar. The builders of the fortress worked from dawn to dusk. The climate was very damp, good housing nonexistent and food in very short supply, so, they died in great numbers. Thus the city earned the epithet, “the city built on bones.” In 1712, after nine years of backbreaking labor, this new city of St. Petersburg replaced Moscow as the capital of Russia. Peter forced many merchants and noblemen to leave their luxurious Moscow homes and build new ones in St. Petersburg. Because of its importance St. Petersburg was called “the Window to Europe.”
Russia destroyed invading Swedish forces at Poltava on July 8, 1709. By 1714 Russian troops occupied most of Finland. The new Russian Baltic navy, under Peter’s direct command, joined the army to defeat the Swedish fleet off Hangö and to carry the war into Sweden itself. The Treaty of Nystad, concluded on August 30, 1721, gave Russia more territories. At a solemn celebration of the peace settlement, the Senate, which had been recently created to assist the Tsar in governing the country, prevailed upon Peter to accept the titles of Great, Father of the Fatherland, and Emperor. His acceptance of the last title marked the official inauguration of the Russian Empire.
Peter’s war endeavors provided a strong stimulus to the Russian economy, from mining and metallurgy to the new textile industry. But perhaps his most significant impact was in the broad field of education and culture. The Academy of Sciences, planned by the emperor and inaugurated shortly after his death, remained his most appropriate monument. The climax of Peter’s reforms was the “Table of Rank” which stated that anyone could hold a high position in the government – even a commoner. Table of Ranks continued to remain in effect until the Russian monarchy was overthrown in 1917. Peter accomplished these impressive reforms by taxing his people ruthlessly. He implemented taxes on everything imaginable: candles, nuts, boots, hats, horses, beehives, beards, chimneys, and drinking water. In fact, to fund his reforms, Peter appointed a committee whose sole job was to think of new taxes! But even in his most sweeping reforms he never destroyed anything which he was not able to replace by something better.
Peter’s Second Marriage
Around the year 1703 Peter met his future second wife Catherine. During the Northern War, 17 years old beautiful Lithuanian servant girl, Martha Skavronskaya, was taken by a Russian soldier. Then she caught the eye of the Field Marshal Boris Sheremetiev, who purchased her for one ruble and made her one of his many mistresses. Then Alexander Menshikov, Tsar’s favorite, ‘borrowed’ her for himself. Peter saw Martha in Menshikov’s house and ordered, “When I go to bed, you, beauty, take a candle and light the way.” According to the “etiquette” that meant she was obliged to sleep with the Tsar. In the morning Peter paid her with a copper coin. Peter had granted himself this modest sum for love expenses when still a young man and all his life he strictly followed the tariff. As a result of those “a copper coin” relationships, over 400 women had children from him.
Catherine went with him on his military campaigns, showed remarkable courage and was the only one who could calm Peter down when he had one of his rages. When Peter built a winter Palace and a summer Palace, they were for Catherine. After bearing his first child, she was received into the Orthodox Church and formally christened Catherine. In 1707 they married in a private ceremony.
Peter could never deliberate unfaithfulness. William Mons, the younger brother of Peter’s first official mistress Anna Mons (what an irony!), became Catherine’s lover. When Peter found that out, he had the man beheaded. Then he ordered the head of the unfortunate lover to be put in a jar with alcohol. The jar stood in Catherine’s bedroom till Peter’s death.
The Tsarevich Alexei
Peter generated considerable opposition during his reign, not only from the conservative clergy but also from the nobility, who were understandably rather attached to the status quo. One of the most notable critics of his policies was his own son Alexei, who naturally enough became the focus of oppositional intrigue. In fact, Alexei seemed to desire no such position, and in 1716 he fled to Vienna after renouncing his right to the succession. Having never had much occasion to trust in others, Peter suspected that Alexei had in fact fled in order to rally foreign backing. After persuading him to return, Peter had his son arrested and tried for treason. In 1718 he was sentenced to death, but died before the execution from wounds sustained during torture.
The legend says that in November 1724, Peter leapt into freezing water and worked throughout the night to assist in the rescue of twenty sailors whose ship had been grounded. The resulting fever caused his death. He died in Catherine’s arms on January 28, 1725. He was fifty-two years, seven months old when he died, having reigned forty-two years and leaving no specific instructions about an heir. In the last hour of his life, he asked for a pen and paper. He started to write, “Give all to …” The next word could not be read.
The Personality of Peter
Peter did everything with the haste. He used to walk so quickly that his companions had to run to keep up with him. He could not sit still for long, and at banquets he would jump out of his chair and run into the next room in order to stretch his legs. He had no manners whatsoever and did not consider them necessary. If Peter was not sleeping, traveling, feasting, or inspecting, he was busy making something. In fact, Peter was a master-craftsman in fourteen different trades. After his death, it was found that nearly every place in which he had lived for any length of time was full of the model boats, chairs, crockery, and snuff-boxes he had made himself. It is surprising that Peter ever found enough leisure to make so many knick-knacks. He was so proud of his own skills that he believed himself to be a good surgeon and dentist as well. Those of his companions who fell ill and needed a doctor were filled with terror lest the Tsar hear of their illness and appear with his instruments to offer his services. It is said that after his death a sackful of teeth was found – a memorial to his dental practice!
But his favorite occupation was shipbuilding, and no affairs of state could detain him if there was an opportunity to work on the wharves: the smell of the sea was as necessary as water is to a fish. Peter always said that sea-air and constant hard physical labor helped to keep him in good health in spite of his over-indulgent way of living. His idea of fun was wine, women and parties.
In his private life Peter lived simply and frugally, and the Tsar who was considered to be most powerful and the richest in the world used to walk about in worn-out shoes and in stockings that had often darned by his wife or daughters. He hardly knew his own family and home, where he was never more than a guest. His devotion to his people led him to overstrain their resources and waste their lives recklessly. He himself was honest and sincere, and just and kind to others. All his qualities, indeed, were on a colossal scale.
After Peter’s death Russia went through a great number of rulers none of whom left a lasting impression. It would take thirty-seven years before the work of Peter the Great would be carried on by the Princess who became Catherine the Great; and finally Peter’s desire to make Russia into a grand European power was in fact achieved.
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