Peter I the Great
(One of my favorite heroes)
Peter the Great or Peter I (1672-1725), Tsar of Russia (1682-1725), Emperor from 1721, whose reign marked a watershed in the modernization of Russia and accelerated its rise as a major European power.
Peter was born in Moscow on June 9, 1672 (May 30 in the Julian, or Old Style, calendar, then in use in Russia), the only son from the second marriage of Tsar Alexis I Mikhailovich (to the Russian noblewoman Natalia Naryshkina).
After Tsar Alexis’s successor, Tsar Fyodor III Alekseyevich, died childless, rivalries between the clans of Alexis’s first (Maria Miloslavsky) and second wives led to a dynastic crisis.
Following bloody clashes in Moscow, Peter was crowned in June 1682 as “second tsar” jointly with his elder, but severely handicapped, half-brother Ivan V.
His half-sister Sophia Alekseyevna (1657-1704) acted as regent.
During the regency Peter undertook an informal programme of self-education that later inspired his public activities.
This included consulting Western European mentors, learning to sail, and forming “play” regiments under the command of foreign officers, which later became Russia’s elite guards.
In 1686 Russia joined the Holy League against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire in alliance with Austria, Poland, and the Venetian Republic.
Peter’s party overthrew Sophia in 1689 on the grounds that she had overstepped her authority. When Tsar Ivan V died in 1696, Peter became sole ruler. In the same year he achieved his first military victory, the capture of the Turkish fortress at Azov, at the mouth of the River Don, on the Sea of Azov, with the help of a newly created fleet. In 1697-1698 Peter made an unprecedented European tour, the first time a Russian ruler had visited the West.
The official aim of this “Grand Embassy” was to seek military and financial support against the Turks, but Peter, travelling incognito, devoted much of his time to inspecting Western institutions, arts, and technology.
He was particularly impressed with the Dutch Republic and England, where he studied shipbuilding. On his return to Russia, he forced his boyars (nobles) to conform with Western fashion by shaving off their long beards and adopting Western dress.
From 1700 he rejected the old Byzantine calendar that dated years from the creation of the world in favour of the Western system of dating from the birth of Jesus Christ.
These and other symbolic acts set the agenda for the programme of cultural changes which accompanied his subsequent reforms of government, Church, army, industry, education, and technology.
The Great Northern War (1700-1721)
In 1700 Peter made peace with the Turks, then immediately declared war on Sweden, in alliance with the kings of Denmark and Poland. After losing his allies and suffering several defeats, including a disaster at Narva, on the Baltic Sea, in 1700, Peter strove to increase conscription, improve army provisioning, update his artillery, and develop a fleet on the Baltic.
This was achieved by hiring more foreign mercenaries and technical experts, purchasing ships and weapons abroad, developing home industries, and training Russians in new skills. In 1703 Peter founded a fort on territory captured from the Swedes on the Baltic at the mouth of the River Neva, which became St Petersburg, his “window on Europe”.
Peter eventually gained the upper hand over his rival, King Charles XII of Sweden, who became bogged down on campaigns in Poland and Germany. Peter’s resounding military victory over the Swedes at Poltava in the Ukraine in 1709, allowed Russia in 1710 to capture Sweden’s major eastern Baltic ports, including Vyborg, Riga, and Reval (Tallinn).
Russia’s defeat by the Turks in 1711 was a setback, but Peter restored alliances, continued to press upon Sweden’s remaining possessions in northern Germany, and attacked Finland and the Swedish mainland.
The Treaty of Nystad in 1721 ratified Russian possession of the captured Baltic ports and provinces (parts of present-day Estonia and Latvia). Peter adopted the titles emperor, the Great, and Father of the Fatherland.
In 1722-1723 he waged a successful war against Persia (now Iran) on the Caspian Sea, but the captured territory had to be abandoned in the 1730s.
The Great Northern War - Epic Movie 1/3
The Great Northern War - Epic Movie 2/3
The Great Northern War - Epic Movie 3/3
Russian Movie. Release Date: 20 February 2007 (Russia)
English title: The Sovereign's Servant, Russian title: Sluga Gosudarev
War inspired many of Peter’s domestic measures. In 1711, for example, he formed a senate of ten men to rule during his absences on military campaign and to act as the highest court of the realm. In 1717-1720 he created new government departments known as colleges (collegiate boards), which included the colleges of war, admiralty, and foreign affairs, and several fiscal departments. The College of Mines and Manufacturing concentrated on production for the war effort.
Although the State remained the chief producer and customer, Peter attempted to encourage individual enterprise. In 1721, for example, he allowed industrialists to purchase serfs for their factories to compensate for the shortage of free labour. Peter’s new Swedish-inspired provincial institutions, created in restructuring programmes carried out in 1708-1709 and 1718-1719, were intended to rationalize tax gathering and recruitment. In 1722-1724 the poll tax (individual head tax) was introduced to replace assessment based on households, in the hope of increasing revenues. Peter also encouraged foreign trade and diversified indirect taxes on such items as private bathhouses, oak coffins, and beards.
One of Peter’s most enduring institutions was the Table of Ranks (1722), which divided the service elite of army and naval officers and government and court officials into 14 grades. No post was supposed to be allocated to any unqualified candidate. The table was intended to encourage the existing nobility, who occupied most leading positions, to perform more efficiently, but commoners who attained the lowest officer grade (14), or civil service grade 8, were granted hereditary noble status.
A few newcomers made their fortunes, of whom the most famous was Peter’s low-born favourite Aleksandr Menshikov, who became a prince, but men from the traditional hereditary elite, such as Chancellor Gavrila Golovkin and Admiral Fyodor Apraksin, continued to enjoy prominence. Noble birth and good marriage still conferred privilege at court, as they did everywhere in Europe.
In 17th-century Russia even nobles had little formal education. Peter’s efforts to expand education concentrated on technical schools such as the Moscow School of Mathematics and Navigation (1701) and institutes for medicine, engineering, and artillery. New provincial elementary schools (1714) generally failed to attract pupils, and priests continued to be the main suppliers of primary education.
Peter’s publishing programme focused on such useful topics as shipbuilding, warfare, and geography, as well as Russia’s first newspaper—he introduced a new simplified alphabet, the so-called “civil script”, for printing such works. The Academy of Sciences (1725) is generally regarded as Peter’s major educational achievement, although initially it was staffed entirely by foreign scholars.
During Peter’s reign, the Russian Orthodox Church lost much of its remaining independence. When the last head of the Church, Patriarch Adrian, died in 1700, Peter did not replace him, and in 1721 he created a committee of clergymen called the Holy Synod to run the Church.
The Holy Synod was answerable to the emperor and was monitored by a secular official known as the over-procurator. Peter made free use of church funds to support his military efforts. He redeployed clergymen into state service, and restricted entry into monasteries. Priests were required to perform civic duties, such as keeping registers of births and deaths, and running schools and hospitals.
Himself a dutiful Christian who attended church regularly, Peter was happy for the Church to conduct worship and do good works, but he would not allow it to rule his subjects’ lives or waste resources. Religious traditionalists were especially offended by Peter’s “all-mad, all-jesting, all-drunken assembly”, which parodied religious rituals. They also hated St Petersburg as a symbol of alien traditions.
St Petersburg and the New Culture
From about 1712 St Petersburg replaced Moscow as Russia’s capital. Peter regarded his new Baltic city as much more than a base for his fleet and a port for foreign trade. In his battle for international recognition, it represented Russia’s Western face. The main buildings were constructed in stone by foreign architects following the latest European designs, and the rationally planned central public spaces had amenities such as street lighting and paving.
The inhabitants had to follow European fashions in clothing, furnishings, and entertainments. Peter forced upper-class women to abandon their previously sheltered lives in the semi-secluded women’s quarters to socialize with men at assemblies and balls, and made them exchange their modest traditional robes for low-cut French gowns.
Both men and women had their portraits painted, a recent innovation in Russia. Such changes were calculated to make foreigner visitors and residents feel that they were in the midst of European civilization. Many Russians, however, resented being uprooted from Moscow to these new surroundings, where the climate was harsh and everything was expensive.
Peter’s Vision and Methods
Peter was a doer rather than a thinker. The “tsar-carpenter”, as he was known, studied 14 crafts, including shipbuilding, wood turning, engraving, and dentistry. Sailing was his passion. Using the pseudonyms Peter Mikhailov or Peter Alekseev, he progressed through the ranks of his own army and navy as an example to others. He especially enjoyed the company of fellow shipwrights and of dwarfs and giants.
Personally, he was indifferent to fashion and preferred modest accommodation to palaces. But this man with a common touch remained an absolute ruler, whose powers were not limited by any elected or representative bodies. With his great height (2.04 m/6 ft 7 in) and fiery temper he could be intimidating. During his compulsory drinking sessions, for example, guests were sometimes prevented from leaving by armed guards.
Peter’s goal was to make Russia the equal of other European nations and he constantly expressed his frustration at his subjects’ reluctance to accept the necessary changes. “Even though something may be good, if it is new our people will not do it,” he wrote in 1721. More than 90 per cent of Peter’s subjects were peasants, of whom half were serfs.
Serfdom was made law in Russia only in 1649, and Peter extended and intensified the institution to meet the demands of war and reform. Some previously free persons were transferred to the status of serfs during the introduction of the poll tax. Others were requisitioned to work on major projects, such as St Petersburg.
It was not only the peasants, but also the nobles who found life burdensome. Peter believed firmly in the power of published regulations and statutes, devised “in order that everyone knows his duties and no one excuses himself on the grounds of ignorance”.
Death, Succession and Legacy
Peter was married in 1689 to the Russian noblewoman Evdokia Lopukhina, whom he banished to a convent in 1699. He had a troubled relationship with their only surviving son, Alexis (1690-1718), who was antagonistic to many of his father’s ideas. In 1716 Alexis fled abroad, but was tricked into returning to Russia, where he was tried and condemned to death for treason with Peter’s approval. Alexis died before sentence could be carried out, but many of his associates were executed.
Alerted to the dangers of allowing an “unworthy son” to inherit, Peter issued a Law of Succession in 1722 that required the reigning monarch to nominate his own heir. This measure was prompted partly by the fact that he had no surviving sons from his marriage to Catherine, a former serving girl from the Baltic whom he married in 1712 and crowned as his empress-consort in 1724. Of their many children, only two girls, Anna and Elizabeth (later to reign as empress as Elizabeth Petrovna), reached maturity.
Peter failed to record his choice of successor before his premature death on February 8, 1725 (January 28 in Old Style calendar). Menshikov and other leading courtiers backed the claim of Peter’s widow, who subsequently became empress as Catherine I.
Under Peter the Great, Russia expanded westward, became a leading player in European affairs, and underwent major reforms. His reign is regarded as a landmark in Russian history, although opinion is divided about whether his reforms were beneficial or detrimental. The official view in the 18th century and much of the 19th century was that Peter had transformed Russia from a fringe nation into a major power.
Even during his lifetime, however, critics raised questions about the heavy cost of his schemes and the dangers of imitating foreigners too much. In fact, many of Peter’s policies, such as hiring foreigners, reforming the army, and borrowing Western culture, originated with his predecessors, but were accelerated by him. His successors—the rulers of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia—have all admired selected aspects of Peter’s achievements, and he remains a popular and controversial figure.