Peter the Great (1672-1725) was an influential Russian Tsar who pursued a policy of westernisation and economic development, transforming Russia from a backward agrarian economy to greater openness and western orientation. Through military success, he also increased the boundaries of Russia, making the Russian Empire an important military power.
“Alas! I have civilized my own subjects; I have conquered other nations; yet I have not been able to civilize or to conquer myself. “
Attributed to Peter the Great in Sholto Percy and Reuben Percy, The Percy Anecdotes (1826)
Peter was born in Moscow, the only son of Czar Alex to his father’s second wife, Natalia Narishkina. Peter had 13 half-brothers and sisters to his father’s first wife. When Peter was just four years old, his father Czar Alex died, leaving a power vacuum over who would inherit the throne. From 1682-1696, he ruled as co-monarch with his chronically ill half-brother Ivan V. But there was continued conflict over who would rule and some of Peter’s friends and relatives were murdered in the political violence. His half-sister Sophia served as regent until 1689. However, when she was removed, Peter’s position as heir apparent was secure. In 1694, his mother Natalya Naryshkina died, leaving Peter free to control all aspects of Russian domestic and foreign policy.
Peter became the Tsar at a time when there was little interest in education, science, literature and life beyond Russia. There was also an increasing number of the poor who found themselves in the position of serfdom (a form of economic slavery to the landowners.)
Peter the Great was a very tall, high-spirited and vivacious character. His boisterous spirits were in contrast to the more conservative conventions of the Royal court which encouraged conformity and accepting life as it was. However, as Tsar, he sought to change many aspects of Russian life.
Enamoured of stories about the west, for 18 months between 1697-98, Peter undertook a very significant period of foreign travel. He went on a lengthy tour of western Europe, where he sought to experience life from a western perspective. He took an entourage of 250 people but used a pseudonym to try and disguise who he really was. He didn’t just look at western life from a distance but got himself a job as a ship’s carpenter with the Dutch East India Company in Holland. He also worked in England for the Royal Navy in the docks where they built ships. In England, he met the English king William III, and his inquisitive nature took him to a session of Parliament at Westminster. During his foreign travels, Peter picked up ideas on science, education, the arts and politics. And most importantly he became aware of the different way of doing things, the greater openness, which was leading to the Scientific Enlightenment, epitomised by leading intellectuals, such as Isaac Newton, Galileo and Rene Descartes.
On returning to Russia, Peter accelerated his reforms of Russia. He built a new modern navy, based on the European model. The army was made more professional, with new uniforms. He also encouraged business and commerce, which led to the growth of towns and a new class of merchants. He also invited Western scientists to travel to Russia and teach their knowledge. Russian members of the court were also sent abroad to learn a Western education. In short, Peter sought to reform Russia and speed up its scientific and educational attainments to bridge the gap with its western neighbours.
Russian government had for long been dominated by the principle of patronage – jobs ran in the family – but this meant there was little incentive for administrators to be dynamic or efficient. Peter tried to change the system so officials were promoted on merit and ability. He even encouraged those in the western court to adopt western manners of dress and western habits such as coffee and tobacco. In 1698, he even imposed a tax on beards to try and discourage their growth. He also encouraged a policy of intermarriage between the Russian Royal family and European Royal families. Despite the initial reluctance, it proved to be quite successful and was to have significance for European politics over the next centuries.
On foreign policy, Peter sought to increase the power of Russia through military campaigns. There was a long period of conflict with neighbouring Sweden. After some initial defeats, in 1709, Russia defeated Sweden which at the time was a major power. In a symbolic move, after the defeat of Sweden, he set up a new capital city on the Neva River. This city became St Petersburg and was symbolic of a new era and western orientation of the new Russia.
Russia succeeded in gaining control of the Baltic states, which gave Russia an important access to the Baltic sea and a ‘window to Europe.’ In 1723-23 Peter was also successful in gaining influence over the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea taking advantage of the decline in the Persian Safavid Empire.
These successes in foreign policy helped the power and popularity of Peter. However, they were also costly, leading to higher taxes. This included a poll tax which was payable by not just landowners but serfs too. Some of those bearing the brunt of higher taxes but not seeing the fruits of the western reforms revolted leading to outbreaks of protest against the Tsarist government. Peter didn’t hesitate to crush the many rebellions which occurred through his reign. He was brutal in ordering the torture and execution of rebels who tried to challenge Peter’s rule in any part of the Russian Empire.
In Russian society, the Russian Orthodox church had significant power and influence over both the state and the population. Peter wanted to lessen their power and gain control over church decisions because he saw it as a regressive influence. He himself was deeply religious but was sceptical of the piousness of the church hierarchy who, he considered misused their power. In 1700, he abolished the powerful position of the patriarch and replaced it with a Holy Synod – defusing the power of any individual in the church.
He instituted secular schools and called for compulsory education for all children of the nobility from ages of 10 to 15.
When he was 17, his mother arranged his marriage to Eudoxia Lopukhina, a minor noble, hoping it would encourage his son to be more conventional, but the marriage didn’t work out. Despite bearing Peter three children, he sought to end the marriage in 1698. Peter had her sent to a convent when she was 26 and divorced her later. It also encouraged Peter to end the practice of arranged marriage as he argued it left people with unsuitable partners. His second wife Catherine was from Lithuanian and unusually for the Romanovs a peasant, she had been his mistress for a time. They married in secret around 1707 (the secrecy was due to her peasant stock). They had 11 children, including three sons called Peter who all died in infancy.
His first son Alexis from his first marriage developed bad relations with his father, and he was long-suspected of plotting against this father. In 1718, his own son was arrested on charges of conspiracy against Peter. He was tortured and under torture confessed to a plot. He died in prison, probably from the injuries suffered from torture before his father had signed his death warrant. His first wife was also charged on trumped up charges of adultery.
In 1721, he was proclaimed Emperor of All Russia, which at the time suggested pre-eminence over all kings. It marked the growing confidence and political power of Peter.
Peter died at the age of 52 in St Petersburg from an infected bladder. There were rumours that he was poisoned in a combination of his wife and second son, who wanted to succeed him. After Peter’s death, he was succeeded by his second wife Catherine (not Catherine the Great).
Peter the Great
Peter the Great – his life and work at Amazon – by Robert K.Massie
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