Peter the Great
Modernized Russiaby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
"I see that you go at too lazy a pace in these crucial days to concern yourself with business."1 These words, spoken to his son, symbolized Peter the Great's impatience with dawdling. Dissatisfied with himself and others, Peter the Great spent his life trying to improve his outdated country as quickly as possible. Consequently, his revolutionary ideas modernized Russia into a European nation.
Born on May 30, 1672, Peter Romanov was the youngest son of Czar Alexei Mikhailovich by his second wife, Natalya Naryshkin. Peter had a turbulent childhood, marked by an ongoing struggle for power. His father died in 1676, whereupon Peter's older brother Feodor III assumed the throne. Following Feodor's death in 1682, a bloody revolution ensued over the succession of Peter or his mentally retarded brother Ivan V. A compromise eventually placed both Ivan and Peter on the throne under the regency of their sister, Sophia Alekseyevna.2 Thus the boys were crowned co-Tsars on April 27, 1682. At age ten, Peter was sent to virtual exile in the suburbs of Moscow while his older sister took the reins of authority. For entertainment, the restless young tsar was given barracks, an army of children, uniforms, and real weapons and munitions. (Stanley, 4) Unlike other young kings, Peter did not appoint himself commander. Instead, he gave himself the lowest rank in the pretend army and worked his way up to commander. (Stanley, 7) Even while playing as a boy, Peter showed his talent for leadership and military tactics, which would later serve him well.3
When Peter was about to come of age, the regent Sophia attempted a coup d'etat to place herself on the throne in 1689. Peter and his mother's Naryshkin supporters promptly deposed Sophia and confined her to a convent. Ivan V died in 1696, leaving Peter sole Sovereign of all Russia. Soon Peter left Russia on a two year incognito European tour of discovery and recruitment. While traveling, Peter hired several hundred engineers, shipbuilders, architects, craftsmen and merchants to come to Russia in order to revolutionize his unenlightened country. During his tour, Peter did not simply meet monarchs and attend diplomatic dinners like most dignitaries. Instead, Peter learned dentistry, seamanship, and shipbuilding. Contrary to royal propriety, the burly Peter actually worked menially as a ship's carpenter in Holland! In 1698, the Kremlin Guard again revolted under the instigation of Sophia. Returning from his European tour, Peter firmly put down the rebellion by massacring the rebels, and hanging their gory bodies outside Sophia's convent window.
With the throne secured, Peter began his radical domestic reforms. First of all, he made the Russian army into an impressive force of professional soldiers. Using his experience as a seaman and carpenter, Peter molded the Russian navy into a formidable naval power. He even abolished the hated Streltsy, and instituted his own imperial guard units: the Preobrazhenskii and the Semeovskii.4 Peter also reformed the educational system by establishing new schools specializing in medicine, science, and math. In addition, Peter jumpstarted the Russian economy by importing European goods and implementing western mercantilism.5 Furthermore, Peter ordered his noblemen to wear fashionable Western clothes instead of their archaic long costumes. To add insult to injury, Peter personally cut off the beards of his noblemen. All men except the peasants and priests had to pay Peter's yearly beard tax and wear a medal proclaiming, "Beards are a ridiculous ornament." (Stanley, 20) Another of Peter's reforms was to deprive the Church system of its independence. In 1721, he created the Holy and Supreme Synod, answerable to himself.7 Peter climaxed his reforms with the "Table of Rank" which stated that anyone could hold a high position in the government- even a commoner.8 Peter accomplished these impressive reforms by taxing his people ruthlessly. He implemented taxes on everything imaginable: candles, nuts, boots, hats, horses, beehives, beards, chimneys, and drinking water. In fact, to fund his reforms, Peter appointed a committee whose sole job was to think of new taxes! (Stanley, 26)
In regard to foreign policy, Peter wanted to keep up with Western fashion, science, and politics. Thus he established communication and trade routes with Europe through the Baltic Sea. To secure these routes, he conquered the Ottoman Empire in 1696. In 1699, Russia allied with Poland and Denmark against Sweden.2 Upon concluding peace with the Ottomans in 1700, Peter and his allies began the 21 year long Northern War with Sweden. After a near disastrous defeat at the Battle of Narva, Peter reorganized the Russian military and used his magnificently westernized navy to finally defeat the Swedes. By capturing two Swedish fortresses, Noteburg and Nienchanz, Russia gained control of the Baltic Sea. To maintain Russian ascendancy in the Baltic Sea, Peter established a fort, named the Peter and Paul Fortress.
In 1703, to protect Russia from northern military threats, Peter began building a city around the Peter and Paul Fortress in the strategic Neva River delta.9 Constructing the new city exacted a tremendous human cost due to its swampy location. Thus the city earned the epithet, "the city built on bones." (Stanley, 28) In 1712, after nine years of backbreaking labor, this new city of St. Petersburg replaced Moscow as the capital of Russia. Peter forced many reluctant merchants and noblemen to leave their luxurious Moscow homes and build expensive European homes in St. Petersburg. Because of her importance as a major sea importer of European ideas and merchandise, St. Petersburg was called "the Window to the West." Along with material goods came the Protestant ideas of Europe. Protestant Christianity released the Russian people from the spiritual bondage of the rites of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Thus God used Peter the Great as an instrument to spread Christianity throughout Russia.
Although he believed in God, Peter did not understand or enjoy the pompous religious ceremonies of the Church. Extremely immoral, Peter's idea of fun was wine, women and parties. He also mistreated his family. In 1712, Peter dumped his first wife, Yevdokia, in a convent in order to marry Catherine, his best friend's former mistress. Also, Peter had his firstborn son Alexei tortured to death on a mere suspicion of treason. Unfortunately, Peter never regretted or repented of these sins. 10
Near the end of his life, Peter began to reap the titulary benefits from his hard work. Although officially named Peter I, he proclaimed himself Peter the Great on October 22, 1721. Along with this designation, the Russian Senate accorded him the title Emperor of Russia.11 Three years later, Peter crowned Catherine Empress of Russia. Their imperial co-reign was short lived, because Peter the Great died from a chill on January 28, 1725. On his deathbed, the Emperor whispered, "I hope God will forgive me my many sins, because of the good I have tried to do for my people." (Stanley, 30)
Peter had inherited an uneducated, untrained, uncivilized country which was excluded from European society, economy, and politics. By dint of hard work and constant travel, Peter exchanged tradition in favor of modernization. Not even severe criticism from priests and noblemen hindered the unstoppable Peter. In conclusion, Peter the Great forcibly converted his mediaeval mired Muscovy into a revolutionized Russia.
1History House. "Peter the Great's Family Values." World History. 7 Dec. 2003. <http://www.historyhouse.com/in_history/peter_alexis/ >
2Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. "Peter I." World History. 21 Nov. 2003.< http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/section/Peter1-Rus_EarlyLife.asp >
3Geographia. "The Romanovs." World History. 22 Nov. 2003.< a href="http://www.geographia.com/russia/rushis04.htm >
4NA. "Peter the Great - military reforms." World History. 10 Dec. 2003.< http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/peter_the_great1.htm >
5NA. "Peter the Great - domestic reforms." World History. 10 Dec. 2003. <http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/peter_the_great2.htm>
7 Wikipedia. "Russian Orthodox Church." World History. 8 Dec. 2003. <http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Orthodox_Church>
8World History.com. "Peter the Great." World History. 10 Dec. 2003. <http://www.worldhistory.com/peterthegreat.htm>
9History of St. Petersburg. "Peter the Great (Peter I)." World History. 7 Dec. 2003. <http://www.cityvision2000.com/history/peterthe.htm>
13 NA. "Peter the Great." World History. 13 Dec. 2003. <www.petersburg-russia.co.uk/peter-the-great/peter-czar-son.htm>
11 Wikipedia. "Peter I of Russia." World History. 8 Dec. 2003. <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_the_Great>