Peter the Great

Peter the Great (1672–1725): Son of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich and Natalia Naryshkina, husband of Eudoxia Lopukhina and Catherine Alexeyevna, father of Tsarevich Alexis Petrovich, Anna Petrovna and Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, grandfather of Emperor Peter III. Tsar of Russia (from 1682), emperor of Russia (from 1721). Turned Russia towards the West after visiting Europe (1697–98), founded the city of St Petersburg (1703) and defeated Sweden in the Great Northern War (1700–21).
Born: 1672, Moscow
Died: 1725, St Petersburg
Reign: 1682–1725

Peter the Great is probably the most famous member of the Romanov dynasty. He single-handedly changed the course of Russian history, turning the country into a powerful empire ranking alongside the other European powers. The imperial period of Russian history begins with Peter I.

Peter was the first child and first son of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich and his second wife Natalia Naryshkina. The daughter of a nobleman, Natalia had married the tsar on 22 January 1671. Alexis already had thirteen children from his first marriage to Maria Miloslavskaya, who died in 1669.

Peter was born in Moscow on 30 May 1672 and baptised at the Monastery of the Miracle on 29 June 1672. He began walking at the age of six months. At the age of five, he was introduced to his first tutor, Nikita Zotov, a deacon of the petitions department. Although he learnt to read and write, he did not receive a good education.

After the death of Alexis Mikhailovich in 1676, he was succeeded by his eldest son Feodor III. A hopeless invalid, the sick and feeble Feodor did not rule for long, dying in spring 1682. On 27 April 1682, the boyars decided to pass over the next boy, the sixteen-year-old Ivan, who had mental deficiencies. Their choice fell on Alexis Mikhailovich’s youngest son, Peter, who was an intelligent and boisterous lad of ten. This represented an important victory for the Naryshkins over their rivals, the Miloslavsky family.

The thwarted Miloslavskys hatched a plot against the Naryshkins. They spread rumours that Ivan had been secretly strangled, provoking an angry uprising among the Streltsy Guards. In May 1682, a mob broke into the Kremlin, savagely murdered many of the closest relatives of Natalia Naryshkina, and made Ivan V co-tsar alongside Peter I.

On 29 May 1682, the boys’ elder sister, Sophia, was appointed regent for the juvenile tsars. Ambitious and cunning, it was Sophia who had stirred up the Streltsy revolt. She had long dreamt of supreme power and now her plan had succeeded.

Peter was haunted by the memories of the Streltsy guards breaking into the Kremlin and killing his relatives. The fear that he had experienced back then, as a ten-year-old, stayed with him forever. From that time onwards, he fostered an implacable hatred of the Streltsy, Muscovy and the old Russia, which he intended to destroy one day.

The Naryshkins retired to a suburban palace in the village of Preobrazhenskoe outside Moscow. There, Peter grew up into a lively and inquisitive boy, who showed an early interest in military strategy. He spent most of his time holding mock battles with toy armies. Deprived of experienced tutors or instructors, he did not receive the normal upbringing of a Muscovite tsar?vich. His formal education was full of gaps, and he soon began to display an unruly and uninhibited character.

As there was no force at Preobrazhenskoe capable of defending the Naryshkins should the Streltsy revolt break out again, Peter decided to create his own army. Besides the children of boyars, the young tsar was joined at Preobrazhenskoe by a large number of courtiers. From their ranks he formed a toy (poteshny) brigade, which gradually, under the guise of childhood games, turned into a military unit.

This detachment was known as the Preobrazhenskoe Toy Regiment. When the number of amateur forces grew, a second battalion was formed in the neighbouring village of Semyonovskoe, called the Semyonovsky Toy Regiment.

The forces were trained by foreign officers in the West European manner. They fought mock battles with real weapons, often leading to serious injuries and several deaths. Peter’s steward, Prince Ivan Dolgoruky, was killed during one such battle, while the tsar’s face was badly burnt in an artillery barrage.

The first mock battles were more like village fistfights. The two regiments would line up against a detachment of Streltsy guards on the bank of the River Yauza. Brawny representatives of each “army” came forward and began insulting one another. The situation became increasingly heated, with the two sides eventually coming to blows.

The foreign instructors gradually began to develop these battles into regular manoeuvres along Western lines. A fortress called Pressburg – a miniature copy of the fort in modern-day Bratislava – was built on the River Yauza to study the art of defending and besieging fortifications. Besides infantry formations, there were also artillery and cavalry detachments and a toy navy on Lake Pereyaslavl.

The toy forces were officially renamed the Preobrazhensky and Semyonovsky regiments in 1687. The four hundred officers were mostly foreigners, although only Russian noblemen could be the sergeants. Both regiments were headed by General Avtamon Golovin. The size of the regiments gradually grew. By the mid-1690s, the Preobrazhensky Regiment counted ten companies, including a bomber squad.

The Preobrazhensky and Semyonovsky regiments gave Peter the means to defend himself from potential enemies and a tool to resolve important matters of state. In August 1689, he learnt that Sophia and her new lover, Fyodor Shaklovity, were preparing a coup d’état. Peter left Preobrazhenskoe for the safety of the St Sergius Monastery of the Trinity, where he was joined by the Preobrazhensky and Semyonovsky regiments. He managed to move aside the handicapped Tsar Ivan V and to isolate Sophia. She was incarcerated in the Novodevichy Convent, while her Streltsy supporters went to the scaffold.

Although the Naryshkins had managed to overthrow Sophia, Peter did not feel ready yet to take control of the government into his own hands. He preferred to engage in his two favourite pastimes – shipbuilding and war games. He entrusted all affairs of state to his mother, who was a shrewd and intelligent woman. She was helped by Prince Vasily Golitsyn (a heavy drinker and a cunning politician) and her brother Lev (a heavy drinker and a poor politician). Her council included Tikhon Streshnev, a master of intrigue whom many believed to be Peter’s real father. The tsar often referred to him as “father” and appointed him minister of war in 1701.

Natalia Naryshkina took many independent decisions, such as a decree banishing the Jesuits from Russia or the burning of Kulman the Mystic at the stake on Red Square. Patrick Gordon, a Scottish general in Russian service, complained in a letter to London in July 1690 that Peter was completely uninterested in governing. He divided his time between drinking sessions and toy battles, leading what Vasily Klyuchevsky called “the life of a homeless, itinerant student.” The Crimean Tatars, meanwhile, defeated Prince Golitsyn and captured a number of Russian provinces. Russia’s prestige in Europe fell. When a new sultan assumed power in Turkey, he informed all the European rulers, with the exception of the Russian tsar.

Peter only really grew into the role of tsar after his mother died in 1694 and he was forced to take over the running of the state himself. In 1695 and 1696, he led two attempts to capture the Turkish fortress of Azov. The second attempt was successful and Peter founded a Russian fleet at Azov.

On 20 October 1696, at Peter’s command, the duma of boyars announced the creation of a high seas fleet. Russia was to be not only a great continental power, but also a great naval power. Construction of a regular Russian navy began on 4 November 1696.

Not having any clear idea as to how to modernise the country, Peter decided to go on a fact-finding mission to Europe. The Great Embassy left Moscow in March 1697, with the tsar travelling incognito as “Peter Mikhailov, sergeant of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.”

Peter I visited Prussia, Holland and England, where he worked as an apprentice shipbuilder and a gunner, learning the customs and habits of Western nations. His plans to visit Italy in 1698 were thwarted when he received news of another revolt of the Streltsy guards in support of Sophia. Although the tsar hurried back to Moscow, by the time he arrived the revolt had already been put down by his toy regiments.

Prince Fyodor Romodanovsky of the Preobrazhensky Office launched an official investigation into the revolt. Streltsy guards were executed en masse, with Peter himself chopping off several heads. In February 1699, the Streltsy detachments were disbanded and any surviving guards were banished to the far reaches of the country. Peter decided to make a clean sweep of his enemies by confining his wife Eudoxia to a convent.

Returning to Russia, Peter launched an ambitious programme of reforms, which transformed the country beyond recognition over the course of two decades. He reorganised the system of government, finance and trade, created a new army, and built a navy and heavy industry. The changes affected virtually every aspect of Russian life, from how people worked to the way they looked and dressed.

For a long time, the tsar was unhappy in his personal life. On 27 May 1689, he married a boyar’s daughter called Eudoxia Lopukhina, largely at the insistence of his mother. Peter and Eudoxia were badly mismatched and the marriage was not a success. They had three children, but only the eldest son, Alexis, survived. In August 1698, Peter finally divorced Eudoxia. She was forced to become a nun and banished to the Convent of the Intercession of the Virgin in Suzdal.

In 1703, Peter began living with Martha Skowronska, who had been among a group of inhabitants captured when Russian troops took the town of Marienburg in Lifland during the war against Sweden. The soldier who had captured Martha presented her to an officer, who gave her to Fieldmarshal Boris Sheremetev. Prince Alexander Menshikov took her away from the fieldmarshal and gave her to the tsar as a present.

Martha converted to Orthodoxy as Catherine Alexeyevna (the tsar’s son, Alexis, was her godfather). Gradually, she became Peter’s closest friend and confidante. In 1712, he officially married Catherine, transforming the former Livonian washerwoman into the tsarina of Russia. She gave birth to ten children, but only two daughters survived childhood – Anna and Elizabeth. The long-awaited heir, Tsarevich Peter Petrovich, was finally born in 1715.

In 1703, Peter I not only acquired a new wife, but also a new capital when he found himself on the shores of the Baltic Sea. In the course of the Great Northern War against Sweden (1700–21), the Russian army besieged and captured the small fortress of Nyenskans on the River Neva. The tsar sailed down the river to the place where it flowed into the Gulf of Finland and surveyed the nearby countryside. Standing on the wild seashore, Peter dreamt of creating a naval base, a commercial port, a centre of shipbuilding and the capital of a new state. On 16 May 1703, he laid the foundations of a new fortress on Zayachy (Hare) Island. This was the beginning of the new capital of the Russian Empire – St Petersburg.

Much has been written about Peter’s physical appearance, particularly his great height. The closest physical likeness to the tsar is Mihail Chemiakine’s famous statue in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Valentin Serov, who painted a series of works dedicated to Peter the Great, a figure he admired, compiled his own image of the tsar: “It is regretful that a man who did not have a single jot of sweetness about him is always portrayed as some operatic hero or beauty. He was frightening to look at – a long body on thin, scrawny legs, with such a small head in comparison to the rest of the body that he must have looked more like a scarecrow with a badly fitting head than a living person. He was forever grimacing, winking, twitching his mouth and slapping his chin. He took enormous strides and his companions were forced to run to keep up with him. I can imagine what a monster he must have seemed to foreigners and how frightening he was to the people of St Petersburg. A freak with a constantly twitching head ... a terrible person.”

Peter was quick to fly into a rage, when his face would begin to twitch – possibly a nervous reaction brought on by the shock of the Streltsy revolt in his childhood. Vasily Klyuchevsky noted another of his traits: “In keeping with Old Russian habits, Peter did not like wide rooms or high ceilings. He always avoided magnificent royal palaces whenever he was abroad. A son of the endless Russian steppe, he felt suffocated among the hills of a narrow German valley. Strangely enough, growing up in the open air and accustomed to wide spaces, he could not live in a room with a high ceiling. Whenever he found himself in one, he would order a special canvas ceiling to be hung low. Perhaps the cramped conditions of his childhood had left its mark on him.”

Peter the Great had an iron will and boundless energy. He was ambitious, intuitive, despotic, courageous, cruel and self-assured. The tsar could be decisive, forceful, convulsive and fidgety. He combined an amazing capacity for work with an equally unquenchable thirst for amusement. His curious and lively mind led him to acquire knowledge in many different crafts and sciences, including shipbuilding, artillery, fortifications, diplomacy, military tactics, mechanics, medicine and astronomy. The tsar held audiences with such leading scientists as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz and Sir Isaac Newton and was elected an honorary member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1717.

Contemporaries were struck by Peter’s great height, simple manners, sloppy attire and modest lifestyle. A man of exemplary diligence, he had an excellent command of many professions. The tsar had an unusually wide range of interests. He preferred exact knowledge and the natural sciences, disliking anything abstract that did not seem to have any practical value. Peter loved to converse with sailors, blacksmiths and inventors. He learnt many different crafts and could spend hours studying collections of foreign curiosities. But most of all he loved to build and sail ships, testing his own knowledge and skills as a man of the sea.

Personal contact with the tsar was both difficult and dangerous. Restless and unpredictable, he experienced wild mood swings, suddenly veering from joviality to anger or brutality. He was suspicious and distrustful. His cudgel frequently came down, often without reason, on the backs of dignitaries, servants or anyone unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Foreigners were astonished at Peter’s bad manners, crude ways, repulsive habits and cruel treatment of his courtiers. People were particularly unnerved by the spasmodic twitching of his face and arms – a sure sign of an imminent outbreak of unrestrained fury.

Despite the unfortunate immediate impression created by this tall, fidgeting man in crushed boots, many were instantly won over by his profound thoughts, subtle opinions, genuine wisdom and political talent. Normally unruly and explosive, he was a patient and cool diplomat round the negotiating table. The tsar’s aggressive foreign policy extended the borders of his empire, laying the foundations for its future prosperity, securing Peter’s own place in world history.

Peter I developed Russian industry, opening many new factories, mills and mines and building the Vyshny Volochek and Ladoga Canals. The merchant class was divided into guilds, while craftsmen were grouped in corporations. Medical institutes, a public theatre and schools of translators were opened. New forms of clothing, assemblies, taxes and letterhead notepaper were introduced. New silver coins were minted. The reforms of Peter the Great affected virtually every aspect of Russian life.

Peter created a pyramidal form of state structure. The peasantry served the nobility, the nobility served the monarch and the monarch served the state. After conquering Ingria from Sweden in the Great Northern War (1700–21), Peter founded the town of St Petersburg in 1703, making it his capital in 1712. Here, after the victorious conclusion of the war, he proclaimed himself emperor on 22 October 1721. Many, however, believed that he was the Antichrist, sent to punish Russia for her sins. Public opinion was sharply divided over the merits of his reign.

Peter tried to show, by his own personal example, how to assiduously and honestly serve the state. He made a point of pursuing a naval career – the most dangerous, yet highly esteemed, profession at that time. For twenty-five years, from 1696 to 1721, he diligently rose from the rank of captain to admiral of the fleet. He applied for the post of vice admiral when it became vacant, following the exile of Dutchman Cornelius Cruys in early 1714, but was turned down in favour of another officer who had served in the navy longer than he had. Peter congratulated the officials on their impartiality, noting that he would have punished them if they had promoted him merely because he was tsar. On 9 September 1714, he was finally promoted from the rank of watch-by-night (or rear admiral) to vice admiral after the victory over Sweden at the Battle of Hangö on 27 July 1714.

In 1724 on a stormy, rainy and cold night in October, Peter was sailing from Kronstadt to the capital. Not far from the village of Lakhta, in the gulf were heard cries for help. A warship sat on the sandbank and was sinking. The tsar immediately set off in their direction and, standing up to the waist in icy water, helped to save the sailors.

The following month, Peter learnt that Catherine had slept with the imperial chamberlain, Willem Mons. The remarkable love affair between the Russian emperor and the Livonian washerwoman was over. Peter took to his bed on 16 January 1725 and never recovered.

The pains grew worse and worse and his groans and cries could be heard throughout the palace. Under the terms of his own manifesto changing the rules of inheritance, the emperor was obliged to name his own successor. He spent his final hours anxiously praying and angrily waving away anyone approaching his bedside: “Later! Later! I will decide everything later!”

That night, on 28 January 1725, Peter I died in great pain from a stone in his bladder. He was buried in the still unfinished St Peter and St Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg.

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