Peter the Great, http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/local/massri/famouspeople.cfm
Peter the Great was born in 1672. However, he was not the next in line for the throne. His father had had children from two wives and Peter’s two half-brothers were first in line. Peter’s half-sister, despite tradition, also wanted to take the throne. As it was, Feodor III took the throne first, but he soon died. Peter was only ten at the time, but the family desperately wanted him to come to the throne. But Sofia, his half-sister, began to spread vicious rumors that Feodor had been poisoned, as was the traditional way to kill people in Russia.

Furious, the army turned on Peter and his family and, before his eyes, his uncles, the chiefs of state, and his father’s friends were killed. Some were thrown on pikes or hacked to pieces in Red Square. Peter and his mother were unsure if they would live through it, but even if Peter or his family had poisoned Feodor, killing the rightful heir would have been worthy of exile.

When the fervor finally died down, Sofia proposed both Peter and her brother, Ivan, take the thrown, with her as crown regent. This was the arrangement until 1689. Peter I and Ivan V would sit in a double throne, while Sophia, through a hole cut into the back of Peter’s throne, would whisper suggestions. At the time Peter was very independent when it came to his empty time. Obsessed with military, at one point he had a wooden fort built and an army of 300 boys attack it. In these battles they used leather cannonballs, but the cannons were real, which is why during one battle 24 of the children were killed.

Peter and Sofia had always hated each other, but in 1689 Peter had two loyal regiments, he was ready to take the throne without a regent, and he had a horrible temper. He wrote a letter to Ivan and Sofia, claiming that it was insulting to have her wielding power over them. She was not long fit to rule, he said. In the following tension, there was very little support for Sophia and much for Peter. Sophia was eventually forced to back down and give up the throne. She spent the rest of her life locked inside a covenant as a nun. Ivan died not too long after.
Capture of Azov 1696, www.wikipedia.org

Russia at the time was backwards, and called Muscovy after the capital Moscow—Peter would eventually rename it: Russia. It had experienced neither the Renaissance nor the Scientific Revolution. Peter adored the West and its modern ways, their clothes, their science, and their technology. In other words, he wanted to completely break tradition and drag Russia, kicking and screaming, into the 17th century.

Peter loved everything from Western Europe, their clothing, science, government, and technology. He focused on the bureaucracy and created an administrative complex much larger than what he had been handed. He used models from the Western Europe, especially Prussia, in that the nobles ran the bureaucracy and army, and Sweden, where a similarly complex government had been created. Peter organized the government into small sections, giving each a specific function. There was a department for finance or geographic area. This created a complex, unified government rising up from local officials to the provincial officials, to staffs, and to governors—which were for eleven large units—and then the leaders of regime who were in the capital.

These policies led to two classes whereas originally there had been many levels in each class. Now all peasants were in one level, forced to pay a poll tax, conscripted, and forced to do public work like building St. Petersburg—the new capital Peter built. Below them were serfs, who were restricted to the area in which they lived and were unable to move much. The serfs worked for noble landowners, working the fields that were the economic base of Russia.

The Bronze Horseman (Peter the Great), http://www.petersburg-lodging.com/st-petersburg-russia-pictures/attractions.htm
There was also a single class of nobles created when Peter issued a table of bureaucratic ranks, which determined the status of each noble. Whereas it had before been determined by family name, it was now based on the job which one held. This created a uniformity not held in most other places.

Unlike many Western monarchies, Peter’s was not one of an alliance with the nobles. In exchange for his subjection of the peasants it was required that the nobility supply him with officials of the bureaucracy and officers of the army. As he began to build St. Petersburg he told the wealthiest nobles to build beautiful mansions in the town. However, Peter did support his nobles. He placed roughly 40,000 more peasants and serfs under them by 1710 and he gave titles rather freely.

Peter eventually became determined to build Russia a navy, something Russia had never had before because it was landlocked—Russia of course extends to several oceans, but to hold and launch a navy Peter needed a warm water port. He adored shipbuilding already and he was finally swayed to do this after attempting to take the warm water port Azon, on the Black Sea, in the Baltic area in 1695. The Turks holding the port crushed his troops and he realized the only way to take the port was by having a navy, which he helped to build. When he attacked again, from both land and sea, he took the port. But now that he had his navy, he wanted a better one. To do this, he believed he needed to find the secrets of shipbuilding in the West.


Russian Strieltsy, www.wikipedia.org

Peter was the first Tsar to ever leave Russia and as he traveled, though he often stayed in rich accommodations provided by local rulers, he attempted to masquerade as a common peasant. This was often difficult because of his party of soldiers and dwarfs and his outlandish height of seven feet. Yet, he learned a lot while out of Russia. He learned about printing, economics, administration, military practices, iron casting, surgery, art, dentistry, medicine, and anatomy and shipbuilding in Holland. He loved to do all these things himself and often practiced on his unfortunate party that traveled with him.

As the British were the masters of shipbuilding at the time he traveled there and stayed for several months. As was common, he was presented a manor to live in. The British were, however, appalled by his and his men’s behavior as they became raving drunk, ripped up paving stones, shot priceless paintings, and altogether destroyed the house. When their welcome was spent because of their behavior, they moved on to the next country.

Vienna was the last place Peter traveled to during his exploration from 1697 to 1698. He received a letter there that, emboldened by his absence, the peasants had begun to revolt and the Tsar immediately returned. Upon returning he realized the truly sorry state Russia was in. Moscow was primitive, the Boyars—the nobles—were medieval, the Church had too much power, and the army was rebellious. Peter would eventually disband and execute over a thousand of the Russian guardsmen, the streltsy.

Peter, like many monarchs of the day, then attempted to create an absolute monarchy. He made a huge dent in Church independence when he refused to replace officials of the Russian Church and practically made it a government branch by controlling the monasteries, using the income for the government, and appointed a procurator—at first an army officer. He ignored the traditional advisory to the Tsar, the Duma.

He wanted Russia to be redone. He decided the traditional beards and long clothing were no longer the style. Supposedly, any Boyar seen in the street with a their traditional garb or beard would have it cut off on the spot.

To Russia he imported court rituals, an Academy of Sciences, Italian art, Scandinavian army officers, German engineers, and Dutch shipbuilders to teach and create. St. Petersburg was mainly Italian based in the Classical style. Eventually Russia began to manage its own affairs and use outside ideas and people less.

Battle of Poltava, http://www.battlefieldanomalies.com/poltava/index.htm

After recreating his empire, he wanted to expand it. He decided to do this by attacking the areas held by Sweden on the Baltic Coast. Throughout the war thousands died. In the first battle, the Battle of Narva, in 1700 Sweden, and its king Charles XII, was, without question, victorious. But, seeing Russia as ultimately weak, Sweden turned to Poland and left Russia to recuperate.

Peter returned home, drafted thousands of new troops who had to serve 25 years and melted down church bells for ammunition and weaponry. He won some territory along the Gulf of Finland and began to build in new city: St. Petersburg, where he forced the merchants to build luxurious homes in specific locations. He built his own log house and decided he needed a fortress and battle ships before Sweden returned. Peter built Peterholf, a palace outside of St. Petersburg that did no rival Versailles despite Peter’s attempts.

Eventually, after defeating Poland, Sweden did come back. They attacked Moscow while Peter burned village after village until Sweden’s troops were stuck in the middle of Russia in the middle of winter. When spring arrived, Peter attacked the weary and starving troops and finally, Peter was victorious in the Battle of Poltava and vaulted Russia into the position of a European power.

Peter_the_Great_and_Alexei.jpgTHE NEXT GENERATION

In his reign, Peter managed to create a standing army of 300,000, set the foundation for an aristocratic society that would last for 200 years, import the latest in military techniques, and create a navy, though it was limited. He extended Russia’s frontier south and west, began to destroy the empire Sweden had held for many years at the battle of Poltava in 1709, and pushed into Estonia, Livonia, and Poland. By the end of his reign Russia had become a dominant power in the Baltic and an influence in Europe. He set up a newspaper, a navy school, and greater education in astronomy and math. For the Tsars he created a new, Western looking, crown and the title of emperor.

However, he knew that all his accomplishments could be destroyed by his predecessor.

His son, Alexei, was a disappointment. While Peter was energetic, decisive, and strong willed his son was lazy, sluggish, short, not clever, and preferred an easy life of luxury to the difficulty of ruling. When his father threatened to refuse him the crown, his son was happy to oblige.

Peter managed to find a second wife and married, first in private and then before the court, a peasant girl, who changed her name to the more regal one of Catherine. She bore him a son. Convinced Alexei was plotting against him, Peter attempted to have imprisoned, but Alexei fled to Austria. However, he was eventually led back to Russia, tortured, and eventually killed in 1718. During his years of imprisonment he admitted to betrayal, conspiracy, and named several individuals who had also supposedly conspired against the Tsar.

But to Peter the Great’s dismay, his young son, also named Peter, died. Peter’s reign finally came to end after numerous illnesses and finally, during a storm, he waded out into the sea to save sailors in a shipwreck, he fell sick. On his deathbed, with only a wife and two daughters, he began to write his will. He wrote “Give it all to…” and never finished, but died while writing in 1723.
Peter the Great on his Deathbed, www.wikipedia.org

Works Referenced

Chambers, Mortimer; Grew, Raymond; Herlihy, David; Rabb, Theodore K.; Woloch, Isser. The Western Experience: Sixth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991

Campbell, Don, prod. Russia Land Of The Tsars. History Channel, Partisan Pictures, A&E Television Networks. 2003.