Peter the Great: The Modernizer of Modern Russia
Upon the death of Tsar Alexei Mihailovich Romanov in January 1676, Russia again faced a crisis of succession over the next few years. His son Feodor III ascended to the throne, but died without an heir in April 1682. This left one son from Tsar Alexei's first wife (Ivan) and one son from his second wife (Peter) with potential for the rise to the throne and the matriarchal relatives of each boy to continue the power struggle over the crown. In a nutshell, Ivan was considered weak, possibly mentally retarded and unfit for the throne, but was the oldest male (14 years old) and heir from the first wife. Peter was the best match physically and mentally, but was from the second wife and was younger (10 years old). So an agreement was reached between the two families that both Ivan and Peter would rule with an older sister Sophia as acting regent (she was Ivan's full sister from Tsar Alexei's first wife.) During the next few years, Sophia tried to gain more power but when Peter was seventeen years old, the crisis ended, leaving Peter I as tsar and Sophia in a convent. His brother Ivan was still considered co-tzar and kept his title, but he never participated in government for the rest of his life. This paper will discuss the life and achievements of Tsar Peter I.
Peter was born on June 9, 1672 to Tsar Alexei and his second wife Nataliya Naryshkina. It was at 5:00 AM that the bell known to those who lived in Moscow as 'Great Ivan' began to toll proclaiming the birth of Peter- the first child of this union... and while the Tsar celebrated in the Kremlin, other areas of the country including the Solovetsky Monastery were in open defiance of the tsar and his new religious innovations. There is little known about his first three years of life, but it was in Peter's third year of life that his father died and his half brother Fyodor was named czar. Feodor III was frail, pious and loved learning... in short, he left the running of his government to his relatives. At the age of five, Peter was given a tutor who taught him to read from the Bible, sing, some very basic math, and some grammar and spelling- although his handwriting, grammar, and spelling remained erratic throughout his life. Showing an aptitude for 'war games', Peter also passed his days with boys of all classes organizing 'regiments' for mock battles. This would teach him many lessons of a positive nature, but also a few negatives - sometimes people died in these 'sham' battles as real military equipment and ammunition was used in them and in one of these battles at least 24 young men were killed and it was quoted in one source that one five pound rocket “took of the head of a boyar.” It was also during this time that the tsar displayed a great willingness to mix with and work with people of all classes- a principle that seemed to guide Peter throughout his life was that advancement for anyone in any field should be based on merit and not on rank or origin... which helped to promote many people of the lower classes.
Upon the death of Tsar Fyodor in 1682, Peter was proclaimed Tsar (at the age of ten years) and then later that same year after an uprising of the Streltsy and a compromise between the squabbles of the two matriarchal families, Peter was declared co- czar with his brother Ivan. His first public appearance as Tsar was at Fyodor's funeral which caused some scandal when he left half way through the service. In his youth, Peter avoided spending time in the Kremlin and he spent a lot of time in the German Quarter of Moscow- he preferred the company of foreign individuals with whom he was able to learn different occupations including stone-masonry, carpentry, horse shoeing, and how to pull teeth. He was well known for his curiosity and combined with Peter's apparently endless energy and enthusiasm for learning, the future czar learned many different tasks/occupations including those of foreign origin. It is not hard to understand his lack of comfortable feelings in the Kremlin with the political intrigue throughout his childhood as well as the violence and deaths of the Streltsy riots could certainly have formed negative impressions in a young child's mind that would have lasted his whole life. The government was run by his half sister Sophia until he was seventeen years old. (By the age of sixteen, the tsar had been able to do almost whatever he pleased and only attended court ceremony or special church services when his mother requested it of him. To please his mother whom he genuinely loved, Peter was married to Eudoxia Lopukhin in 1689- this was an unhappy marriage- clearly political in nature- and a decade later Peter had her sent to a nunnery.)
At seventeen, Sophia's concern about her security as regent (and autocrat as she had started using and signing her name with that title) and possible plots against Peter in an attempt to keep Sophia on the throne came to a head as both Sophia and Peter began to have conflicts in how they wanted the country to be run. With a possible plot of death for himself and his family hanging over his head, Peter fled to the Trinity Monastery where he stayed safe and was able to muster up his supporters - one source suggests St. Sergius monastery. Having enough supporters, including the Patriarch of the Russian orthodox church, Peter was able to force Sophia into confinement in the Novodevichii Convent and removed her most loyal supporters from high governmental positions. Even then, Peter allowed his mother and other relatives (including his uncle Leo Naryshkin) to rule until he was 22 years old. For the years between the age of seventeen and twenty two, the tsar used the time to travel and with a group of companions he traveled through the Swedish port of Riga, spent some time in Holland, then England as well as Austria- during the tours Peter would try to go incognito and went by the name of Peter Mikhailov which was not very successful because of the Tsar's unusual physical appearance and strength. This tour of continuous travel took about five years and he learned many talents and new tasks including new lifestyles, new ideas and a thorough revulsion and rejection of the 'backward and primitive elements' in Russia. His ambition was to bring the country of Russia into the modern era or as he was quoted- 'to sever the people from their former Asiatic customs and instruct them how all Christian peoples in Europe comport themselves.'
When his mother died, Tsar Peter took up the reins of his autocracy. Peter was quoted as writing in a textbook: “For learning is good and fundamental, and as it were the root, the seed, and first principle of all that is good and useful in church and state.” He had already built a ship on his own and soon he began to modernize the army and to create the navy. These modernizations were bitterly resented by the Streltsy and the Streltsy were to 'revolt' several times during his reign -they were tortured, killed and disbanded early in his reign. He was also sorry and grieved at the death of his brother and co-tzar in February 1696, but continued with running the country in very short order... and cared for Ivan's window and children throughout the rest of his life. Peter was considered a very 'secular' tsar and his court was filled with 'drink and debauchery'- his belief that the church had it's place and that place was to teach obedience was very much part of his overall dealings with the Orthodox church. (When once asked about his lifestyle, Peter I was known to have said that if he were not the ruler of Russia, he would want to be an English admiral... which says something about the lifestyle of an English admiral.) During his reign Peter fought a war with Turkey, Sweden, Estonia, Livonia and had some skirmishes with Poland as well as some of his own subjects (between the Cossacks and the Streltsy and other rebellions). He reorganized the military and emphasized that the military's interests should be in the interests of the state... and not his (the Tsar's) own needs- when he was working on his reorganization of the military, he crossed off the lines “the interests of his Tsarist majesty” as the object of military usefulness and devotion and substituted the words 'the interests of the state.' He also can be quoted from his address to the troops immediately preceding the battle of Poltava: 'Let the Russian host know that that hour has come to place the fortunes of our entire Fatherland in their hands; either to perish utterly or for Russia to be reborn in a better condition. And let them not think that they were armed and put forth for Peter, but for the state entrusted to Peter, for their kin, for the Russian people....' He also met Catherine Skavronsky in 1702 who was later to become his second wife on November 8, 1707 in a private ceremony- she had been Tsar Peter's mistress for a few years already and also had married her in a official and formal ceremony later on. His son from his first marriage (Alexei) was not considered a success and eventually the disagreements between the Tsar and his son ended with the death of Alexei of a seizure- there is no evidence that Alexei died at his father's hand although Alexei had already been sentenced to death presumably for treason against his father. In 1721, after the Treaty of Nystad was signed with Sweden, Peter I was offered the titles of “Emperor”, “Great”, and “Father of the Fatherland” by the state chancellor Count Gabriel Golovkin and in the name of the senate... and this honor was accepted by the Tsar. (One source suggests that these titles were the initiative of Bishop Thephan Prokopovich.)
One of Tsar Peter's great achievements was the building of the city of St Petersburg- named after his patron saint. The site was chosen on May 27, 1703 by the tsar and construction began almost immediately. (The site is located at the mouth of the Neva River where the river enters the Gulf of Finland.) The chosen site was, for all intents and purposes, impractical as it was described as a swamp, marshy, and prone to flooding. However, this was the site chosen and a fortress was built without delay for the towns protection. Peter then commenced to reconquer the land around it to keep the town safe as well. One important point that must be noted is that the building of St Petersburg was a great drain in resources- both physical and human. Some historians have estimated that over half a million people lost their lives in the building of the city due to poor living and working conditions as well as the diseases that come with working the marshy areas such as fevers and malaria. The financial burdens of the extra taxation fell especially hard on the peasantry and laws set to push construction along also fell hard on the most impoverished. The tsar and his family moved to St Petersburg in 1710 and it was designated as the capital of Russia in 1712.
There were many changes that happened during the reign of Peter the Great. The largest change was that the tsar challenged custom and in some ways began a cultural revolution as well as 'modernization'- in the past the tzars rarely interfered in the private lives of the constituency and if they did it was usually to reinforce customs and traditions. Another change was the firm reorganization that Peter I performed with the orthodox church which concentration all the powers of church leadership into his hands... and not those of the church- this included the creation of the Holy Synod and the decree of 1722 which required that priests disregard confidentiality in the confessional for certain government matters or concerns. Another religious change was that Peter I was fairly tolerant of religious differences; he even passed a law allowing Orthodox Christians to marry Western Christians. Another occurrence was in the calling of the zemsky sobor- these gatherings of the different class groups to discuss matters of special importance had already started to dwindle over time, but Tsar Peter abandoned the practice. He insisted on the boyars forgoing beards and wearing more Western attire and to encourage other constituents a beard tax was instituted. (One quote about this process was written by John Perry: 'Nothing but the absolute authority of the Tzar could ever have prevailed with the Russes to have parted with their beards.') He changed the military by incorporating new styles, making sure that the armies were better equipped and instituting lifelong draftees. He also created and developed a Russian Navy. He made Russia into an empire and gave Russia its first empress in his second wife Catherine. Russia under his tutelage 'invaded' Europe- diplomatically and commercially- making Russia a power to be reckoned with . The Tsar's obsessive pursuit of western knowledge led to an expansion of books in Russia- before 1700, there were around 500 books that were mostly devotional and religious works... by 1725, there were over 1300 books and most were on secular subjects. Another outcome that is steeped in irony was that in his attempts to create freedom, progress and to improve the life of his people, he further suppressed the serfs and some of his ambitions led more to slavery and oppression for them and in a word- despotism. Also, the Tsar was able to foster more trade with other nations by building more canals, roads and bridges which included the canals that completed the water passage from the Baltic sea to the Caspian sea. Lastly, the creation of the Table of Ranks allowed the Tsar to 'force' education of the noble classes and allowed people from all classes of life the option to become a noble or to change their class... it was even possible to make that hereditary. Hard work and intelligence, not birth became the key.
Peter was a man of extraordinary physical attributes. He was almost seven feet tall and quite powerful and energetic... and not afraid of physical labor. Few individuals could keep up with the occupations and energy level of the tsar. The Bishop of Burnet stated that “the providence of God... has raised up such a furious man to so absolute authority over so great a part of the world”. One source states: 'He was one of his country’s greatest statesmen, organizers, and reformers.' Peter was determined and didn’t give up readily- for example, after learning of a disastrous defeat by Sweden, the tsar remarked: 'I know very well, the Swedes will for some time beat us, but at length, we may learn to beat them.' It should also be noted that while the wars fought by Peter I were very destructive, Tsar Peter didn't see war as an end in itself and preferred to have less destruction and death. In one instance, the tsar berated a Swedish commander for his 'stubborn' defiance that had caused extra bloodshed and destruction. He was also known to be generous in victory and one example was the victory by Russia against Sweden on July 8th, 1709. Czar Peter invited the captured officers to banquet on the battlefield and even offered them a toast: ' Our teachers in the art of war'... the Swedish General Rehnskold is then said to have replied 'It is well that you have paid us for our lesson'.
He had a few difficult or negative traits that were easily seen in some situations. His savage temper and belief in his absolute power made it easy for him to overreact.... and over react he did in so many instances. One example of this would be at a banquet held soon after his return to Russia from Europe. Before a large group of people, he accused a man of selling commissions in the army and attacked him with a sword. A few people were injured, but a few minutes later Peter was cheerful and acted as if nothing had happened. During a banquet his lieutenant Mishokov told the tsar that his son Alexei was 'an idiot and [he] will undo all your [Peter's] work'- the Tsar then gave the lieutenant a blow to his head (even though the tsar himself was very much concerned about that as well.) Peter always acted as the autocrat and it was not unheard of for him to beat his high officials with a stick... to which even his closest friend was not ignored. Peter has been described as a man who could use 'bestial cruelty' to a man of selfless devotion. One source suggests that the 'very magnitude of his ambition' might have been Peter the Great's largest flaw as his ambition allowed him to not see the present costs and in the end it was the Russian people who paid the costs for his ambition... even though his ambition was to help them rise above all.
If the tsar did have one fault that contributed to his death, it was that he would not rest. In the summer of 1724 his health took a turn for the worse and Peter found if necessary to have an operation on his bladder. He continued to have difficulties and on January 27, 1725 an infection forced him to be bedridden and he was never able to leave it. In February of 1725, Peter I died at the age of 53 in St Petersburg and is believed to have died of pneumonia with his wife Catherine at his side. (other sources suggest complications of his urinary ailment.) Some of his former subjects enjoyed repeating the caption of a famous cartoon that came out after the tzar’s death: “The Mice Bury the Cat.”... in a metaphor of Peter I and his life and ambition. There is still discussion between historians about the elements of his reign and what positive and negative aspects his decisions left behind. If nothing else, Peter the great has cemented himself in our memories as a ruler that was almost 'larger than life' with an ambition and energy to match it.