Peter I, the Great
Born: Moscow - 30 May (9 June) 1672
Died: St. Petersburg - 28 January (8 February) 1725
Reigned: 1682-1725 (1682-1696 as co-regent with his half-brother Ivan)
Peter the Great's significance in Russian history is difficult to overestimate. Books about the "Tsar Reformer" continue to be written to this day, and we will hardly be able to describe here all of his many accomplishments and achievements. Peter the Great (whom the Russians generally call Peter I - Pyotr Pervy) is beloved in Russia, and all the more so in St. Petersburg, where he is rightfully lauded as the Founder of the City, and honored with numerous memorials.
The Bronze Horseman. Monument to Peter the Great on Senatskaya Ploshchad. In the background is the Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral, where Peter is buried
Peter the Great was the youngest son of Alexey I and his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina. Alexey was succeeded by the invalid Fyodor III, Peter's eldest half-brother, who lasted on the throne only six years and died without surviving issue. Although only ten years old, Peter was chosen by the Boyar Duma as heir over his other half-brother, Ivan, as the latter suffered chronic physical and mental disabilities. Ivan's sister, Sofia Alekseyevna, and her relatives in the Miloslavsky family were dissatisfied with the arrangement, however, and with the support of the elite Streltsy Guard fomented the Moscow Uprising. In the subsequent rioting and violence, Peter witnessed the slaughter of several members of his family, including two of his uncles at the hand of the Streltsy. The result of the uprising was that Sofia became regent and Ivan was crowned Ivan V, sharing the throne as a senior partner with Peter.
Tsaritsa Natalya Kirillova shows Ivan V to the Streltsy to prove he is alive and well
by Nikolay Dmitriev-Orenburgskiy
Peter never forgot these bloody events and many historians believe that his complex, brusque but also energetic and decisive character was shaped by these childhood experiences. Peter spent his childhood and early youth in the village of Preobrazhenskoe, not far from Moscow, where he lived with his mother, organized "mock" regiments , learned to sail on sailboats, and only rarely traveled to Moscow for official ceremonies. In 1689, at the age of seventeen, Peter successfully removed Sofia from power, and at the urging of his mother married Eudoxia Lopykhina. The marriage was not a happy one: neither Eudoxia or their son Alexey shared Peter's interests. Many years later, Alexey was arrested, charged with treason, and died in the Peter and Paul Fortress under mysterious circumstances, while Eudoxia was divorced by Peter in 1712 and then forced to enter a convent. In the same year, Peter married Marta Skavronskaya, the future Empress Catherine I.
Peter the Great interrogating Tsarevich Alexey Petrovich at Peterhof
by Nikolay Ge
Peter was the first Russian monarch to receive an education both in Russia and abroad. Even as a boy, the youngest son of Tsar Alexey was naturally curious and drawn to learning, and he received his education not only from palace tutors, but also in German Town, a district of Moscow where many enlightened foreigners lived. There young Peter became interested in the latest developments in science and technology as well as natural science, which until this point had never caught the attention of Russian Tsars.
Peter the Great in foreign costume before his mother, Tsaritsa Natalya, Patriarch Andrian, and his tutor Zotov
by Nikolay Nevrev
Setting off to Europe in 1696 on the so-called Grand Embassy (a large Russian delegation whose purpose was to find allies for the war with Turkey), Peter travelled incognito under the pseudonym of Pyotr Mikhailov. In Prussia, the Tsar studied artillery and received a certificate as a firearms master, and in Holland he learned the craft of shipbuilding by working at the bustling Dutch docks. Then he set off to England to study the latest advances in shipbuilding and industry. In London, the young Tsar visited the Houses of Parliament, and was quite displeased with what he heard as he listened to a session of the House of Commons through an "auditory window": this autocratic Russian monarch could not understand how the common folk could dare to publicly discuss and criticize the policies of their sovereign. As he travelled about Europe, Peter visited factories and libraries, listened to lectures at universities, and caroused with comrades, but this educational and entertaining voyage was cut short after 18 months by news of a Streltsy revolt in Moscow. For the rest of his life, Peter the Great retained his love of knowledge, new technology, and of learned people, as is evidenced by his personal belongings, library and the interiors of his palaces.
Portrait of Peter the Great
by Godfrey Kneller
Many volumes have been written about the reforms undertaken in Russia on the initiative of Peter the Great, and discussion about them continues to this day. Some believe that these reforms allowed Russia (and thereafter the Russian Empire) to attain status as one of the leading powers in Europe. Others lament the loss of the unique cultural and spiritual traditions that had existed in Russia in the pre-Petrine period. Peter the Great introduced the Julian calendar in Russia with its celebration of the New Year on 1 January, and the tradition of decorating Christmas trees. He also forced the upper classes to dress in a European style and to shave their mustaches and beards. In order to create his own pool of broadly educated experts, Peter sent young noblemen to study abroad at the state's expense and personally kept track of their progress.
Assembly before Peter the Great
by Stanisław Chlebowski
Peter the Great founded the Russian navy and formed a regular army based on compulsory military service for all nobles and on recruitments from the peasantry and regular citizens (communities delegated a specific number of young men to army service). Foreigners familiar with the newest developments in military science were actively sought for positions as senior officers and generals, and the Tsar diligently recruited Russian experts in all fields, including shipbuilding, military affairs, the sciences, and the arts. Starting with Peter, for the next two centuries, one of the duties of Russian ambassadors serving abroad was to recruit foreign specialists to work in Russia.
Peter the Great created a system of civil service in Russia by introducing the Table of Ranks: a document defining the classification of all military, naval, court and civilian officials into fourteen classes, from fourteen as the lowest up to the first. The Table of Ranks was designed to create a "social elevator" for hardworking military and government officials and to reduce the abuse of appointments and promotions in service.
Battle of Poltava
by Pierre-Denis Martin
The Northern War with Sweden (1700-1721) finally brought Peter access to the Baltic Sea and the trading possibilities in the region, and in 1703, the city of St. Petersburg was founded. In 1712, Petersburg was made the capital of Russia, and in 1721 Russia was declared an Empire, with Peter assuming the title of the Emperor of All Russia.
Peter the Great died in St. Petersburg in early 1724 in his small Winter Palace on the banks of the Winter Canal. He was the first Tsar to be buried in the Imperial crypt in the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
Peter the Great is one of the controversial leaders in the history of the world. He is acclaimed as the founder of modern Russia because of his technological advancement that he brought to Russia during his 42 year reign. Peter who became Czar in 1683 had the task of modernizing a crude nation which was hugely behind Western Europe in education, political organization and technology and economy. Peter as a young man became fascinated by Western way of living and begun to mix with people from Western Europe living in Russia mainly for business. Peters reforms in Russia as a Czar was mainly opposed by conservatives and many Russians who were mostly serfs because it contradicted with the traditions of Russia which was backward. Upon assumption on the throne, Peter personally visited Vienna, London and other Western European countries to learn about the technological advancement of Western Europe. The achievements of Peter the Great to be discussed this work will be divided into political, social and economic achievements.
Firstly, the political achievements of Peter begins with the making of Russia as a dominant power in Europe. Through wars and diplomacy, Peter was able to gain about one million square kilometres new territories. He allied himself with western European nations in order to ensure his security from the Turks and her allies. The new territories were economically advanced than main Russia and Peter used this opportunity to build modern cities such as St. Petersburg, Omsk, Petrozavodsk etc. Peter also was able to defeat Sweden in 1709 which was a dominant force in Europe at that time and had initially defeated Russia in 1700. Peter was able to able to organise and establish Russia’s first standing army and navy. Peter departed from the tradition of raising an army from the nobility in times of war and established an army made up of people from the lower classed and commanded by foreign officers and some members of the nobility. This helped to raise the army of Russia by 1925 with 200,000 soldiers, 48 battleships, 800 galleys and 28,000 sailors. This advancement in the army and navy coupled with the defeat of Sweden was the beginning of Russia’s power in European history and still runs to today.
Secondly, the re-organization of the structures of governors helped in the development of Russia. Before Peter’s reforms, government officials who helped in the governance of the state were mainly from the nobility (Boyar) and this people were mainly conservatives who resisted change. Peter abolished the ‘Boyar’ system and made appointment to civil service by merit and not by birth and formed a centralised government with a civil service and a senate (replaced the old council of nobles) appointed by him. This form of government made people appointed to civil service work by giving out their best since their appointment was based on merit and could be dismissed if the service rendered is unsatisfactory. Peter also made town to elect their own officials in the local administration and reported to him. Apart from all these systems created for governance, Peter also added the ‘Oberfiscal’ which was secretly created to check the honesty and integrity of government officials. Although there was absolute monarchy, the systems the Peter put in place to check the activities of government officials help promote accountability and honesty in the governance of Russia.
The major social achievement of Peter the Great in Russia is the introduction of western form of education. Before Peter the Great, Russian education was backward as compared to that of Western Europe with less emphasis on the sciences, mathematics and social science. Peter therefore made it his ambition to make sure that Russia have the right form of education needed for industrial and cultural development and did well by introducing subjects such as mathematics, science, engineering, social science and humanities. He established the School of Navigation, School of Medicine, School of Engineering and Mathematic and School of Social Science and Humanities. To ensure the efficiency of these schools, Peter brought in various academic experts from Western Europe to teach the subjects introduced in those schools. Apart from establishing schools teaching modern courses in Russia, Russian students were sent to the West to learn western education, technology and way of life. He also introduced mandatory education for male children of landowners. He gave Russia it’s first hospital, museum and first newspaper. These educational reforms laid the foundation for future Russian scholars in the 20th century.
Also, Peter’s introduction of western culture into Russia helped to improve the living conditions of the Russian. Before, Russian style of dressing was considered primitive as compared to that of Europe. His city that he built St. Petersburg was modelled after the city of Versailles in France and forced the nobles and their families to live in the newly built city. He forbade Russian men to leave their beard unshaven and introduced western dressing for both male and female. Also western tea parties which a served as a time for socialisation and entertainment was introduced. Also the introduction of the first Russian newspaper under Peter the Great helped improve communication in Russia. Thus, Russians were able to know of government policies even before they were implemented through the newspapers. Since Russia was behind Western Europe socially, these social reforms helped to improve the living conditions of the people and ‘enlightened’ them to the western culture.
At the economic level, Peter made great reforms that helped in the economic development of Russia. Peter through the western education and way of life introduced in Russia helped to educate farmers on the new methods of farming and this helped to increase the amount of land under cultivation. This thus helped in the production of raw materials to feed the newly established industries by the Czar. He established mines and factories that helped in the industrialisation of Russia and this can be said to the foundation of Russia’s manufacturing and mining industries up to today. He was able to balance Russia’s central budget after many years of deficit and was able to build a strong financial basis for his successors. Also by creating about 300 mines, mills and factories, large groups of the people were employed and this helped the people to earn an honest income and a lot of capital was created for other investments as the people employed had to pay income tax.
Lastly, the various form of taxation introduced by Peter which helped to finance his various developmental projects. Even though sometimes the taxes were too great for the people and there have been instances were a whole village would flee to avoid government officials collecting the various taxes, the accumulation of taxes meant more capital to establish factories. Also the confiscation of the church property which brought tension in Russia help the government to accumulate more capital for investment. All these helped Czar Peter to balance the central budget and pay long standing debts making Russia rich and debt free.
In conclusion, the reign of Czar Peter the Great is considered a turning point in Russian history and he is considered as the founder of modern and greatest leader in Russia of all time. He is thus acknowledge because of his political, economic and social reforms that he brought to Russia during his 42 year reign. Despite his remarkable achievements, the human costs involved is very great as people mainly serfs were worked out in the building of factories and cities and his huge taxes were too great for most of the serfs. He also tortured a lot of people who disagreed with his policies and conspired to overthrow him including his son who he tortured and executed and his sister who he immured. Despite his flaws, his achievements cannot be downplayed as he helped make Russia dominant power in Europe, re-organise the central government, introduced and improved education, brought western culture to Russia, established factories and balanced the central budget by clearing Russia out of debt.
Florinky Michael, A History and an Interpretation, pp 307-431.
Shirley D. M, A Short History of Russia, pp 71-179.
Sowards J. Kelly, Makers of the Western Tradition, 5th edition, St. Martins: New York (1991), pp 28-48.