Peter the Great was, perhaps, the most important ruler in Russian history. He took a kingdom that was stuck in its old ways and transformed it into a modern and powerful empire. He looked to the West for inspiration. Peter ignored the isolationist policies and traditions of his predecessors, becoming the first tsar to visit other European countries. There, he gained knowledge into the current military and scientific advancements, shipbuilding techniques, diplomatic affairs, even fashion trends, and brought them with him back home.
Peter’s ambition to turn Russia into a great maritime power required expansion which, in turn, required war. In fact, he spent most of his adult years involved in one conflict or another but, in the end, he achieved his goal. Whether it was worth it or not, we cannot say, but it certainly had a major, everlasting impact on the history of Russia, and Europe, as a whole.
He was born Pyotr Alexeyevich on June 9, 1672, or May 30, going by the Old Style calendar. He was part of the influential House of Romanov which ruled over Russia for 300 years until the February Revolution of 1917 when Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, subsequently being executed along with his family by the Bolsheviks.
Peter was the son of Alexey Mikhailovich, better known as Alexis I, Tsar of Russia. He was Alexey’s 14th child, overall, but the first and only son that the tsar had with his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina. This will come into play later when Peter will face challengers to his throne.
When he was born, Peter was a healthy boy of normal size and was described as having “his mother’s black, vaguely Tatar eyes, and a tuft of auburn hair.” In fact, we can give you the precise measurements of the royal infant thanks to a Russian tradition called “taking the measure.” It involved painting an image of the boy’s patron saint (who, unsurprisingly, was Peter the Apostle) on a board with the same dimensions as the baby which were, in this case, nineteen-and-a-quarter inches long and five-and-a-quarter inches wide.
Peter’s good health was considered a blessing on a house that seemed cursed with feeble heirs. Alexey’s first wife, Maria Miloslavskaya, gave the tsar five sons, but only two of them reached adulthood and both were in poor health. The eldest, Feodor Alexeyevich, had been left partially paralyzed by a mysterious childhood illness, while the other son, Ivan Alexeyevich, was described as being “infirm in body and mind.”
As a ruler, Peter the Great would become noted for his westernization of Russia. However, this process was initiated by his mother whose own upbringing had a Western influence and would pass on her interests to her son.
Right from the beginning of their marriage, Tsarina Natalya shared with her new husband her love of music and theater. Prior to this, an edict of Alexey turned the Tsardom of Russia into that town from “Footloose” where music and dancing had been banned, except that in Russia they could get you beaten with rods or even banished. However, at their wedding, Alexey and Natalya had a choir and an orchestra playing music. Soon after, they became patrons of the theater. The tsar’s devotion to his new wife only increased after she had given birth to a healthy baby boy like Peter.
Ascension to the Throne
In 1676, Tsar Alexis fell ill after staying out in the cold winter air and died ten days later. This triggered the beginning of a power struggle between the families of his two wives – the Miloslavsky and the Naryshkin. Alexey’s oldest son, Feodor, was his successor. His father had officially recognized him as his heir. Even so, very few people likely thought he would actually become tsar since nobody expected the feeble Feodor to outlive his father.
And yet, it happened. On June 18, 1676, the sickly 15-year-old was crowned Feodor III, new Tsar of Russia. Allegedly, he had to be carried during his coronation because his legs were so swollen that he could not walk.
At first, there was no outward hostility between the two families. Feodor, especially, never displayed any ill will towards his half-brother or step-mother. It is also worth mentioning that the Naryshkins still had a notable ally in Artamon Matveyev, a statesman who served as Natalya’s foster father and close advisor to Tsar Alexis. He wanted Peter to take the throne, even though he was just four years old at the time of his father’s death. He failed to convince the other noblemen, though, and for his attempted interference he was exiled from Moscow to a remote part of the kingdom.
The relationship between the two families took a drastic turn six years later when Feodor died without an heir. Technically, his other brother, Ivan, was next in line to the throne, but his physical and mental disabilities proved to be a great concern to the Russian nobles aka the boyars. In 1682, they held a special assembly called a duma and selected ten-year-old Peter as Feodor’s successor, with his mother Natalya acting as his regent. One of her first actions was to bring Matveyev back to Moscow to serve as their advisor.
The Moscow Uprising
This arrangement did not sit well with the Miloslavsky family who still wanted Ivan to rule as tsar, with someone else acting as his regent. They managed to get the Russian military corps known as the Streltsy on their side and lead the Moscow Uprising of 1682.
In May, riots erupted on the streets of Moscow, with many Naryshkin allies branded as traitors amid hearsay that Tsar Feodor may have been poisoned. The rumors grew ever greater to a point where there was talk of a Naryshkin conspiracy to kill all the royals on the Miloslavsky side. Of course, the real conspiracy was against the Naryshkins and two of the main perpetrators were Sophia Alekseyevna, daughter of Tsar Alexis and sister to Feodor, and a statesman named Vasily Golitsyn.
On May 15, the Streltsy stormed the Kremlin, looking to take down all whom they perceived as traitors. They had been convinced not only that the Naryshkins had killed Feodor in order to take the throne, but that they also murdered his brother Ivan. As they poured into the square in front of the palace, they demanded the heads of the Naryshkins and Matveyev. They were met with an unexpected sight when Tsarina Natalya emerged with Peter and Prince Ivan, alive and well. Artamon Matveyev then showed himself and seemingly managed to talk down the angry mob which was now full of doubts regarding their true purpose.
For a while, it seemed like the uprising might end peacefully. The rage of the crowd had been subdued and the Streltsy were ready to head home. However, a commander named Michael Dolgorukov thought that would be the perfect time to enact some strong military discipline and began berating the men for their actions.
To put it mildly, they did not respond well to this. In fact, their anger came back in full force. A group of Streltsy picked up the commander and threw him onto the pikes of their comrades who then proceeded to cut him up into pieces. They then did the same thing to Matveyev who was taken and executed right in front of ten-year-old Peter. The enraged soldiers rushed through the palace and went from room to room, looking for more boyars and Naryshkins to execute. They killed one of Natalya’s brothers, as well as several others statesmen. When they got tired, they sealed the escapes, put guards on the Kremlin and went home.
The next day, the Streltsy returned to continue their ferocious hunt. The main target they wanted was Ivan Naryshkin, another one of Natalya’s brothers whom they believed to be the mastermind behind the alleged conspiracy. On the third day, they gave an ultimatum that, if the royal family did not give up Ivan, they will kill everyone inside the palace. Faced with little choice, they surrendered Ivan to the bellicose mob where he also suffered an agonizing, gruesome death.
Finally, after their thirst for blood was satiated, the Streltsy reached a settlement with the remaining boyars which, unsurprisingly, was greatly in the soldiers’ favor since the noblemen were in no position to negotiate. The Streltsy received back pay, complete amnesty for their murders and even a triumphal column which celebrated their deeds against the traitors. Moreover, Peter’s half-brother, Ivan, was installed as joint tsar with his sister, Sophia, ruling as regent for both of them. The two young rulers even had a special double throne made for them which included a hole in the back where Sophia would sit and listen to dignitaries and other visitors and tell the tsars how to respond.
The Dual Reign
Sophia was now the de facto ruler of Russia but her authority was contested almost immediately by one of her co-conspirators in the Streltsy Uprising – a boyar named Ivan Andreyevich Khovansky.
Khovansky wielded a lot of power because he had the loyalty of the Streltsy. As the boyar kept pushing the boundaries of his influence, Sophia believed it would only be a matter of time before Khovansky’s ambitions and arrogance drove him to attempt to seize complete power.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before rumors of a planned coup started swirling so Sophia took the two tsars and fled Moscow to the royal summer residence at Vozdvizhenskoe. Fortunately for the tsars, Khovansky also managed to anger a lot of the boyars and he was easily found guilty of plotting to assassinate the royal family. On September 17, 1682, Sophia even succeeded in luring Khovansky to her residence outside Moscow and outside the protection of the Streltsy where he was condemned to death and beheaded on the spot, alongside his son. Whether the boyar actually planned to kill the royals or whether he was outmaneuvered by Sophia we cannot say with certainty, but one thing was clear – the tsarina was back in power.
As far as Peter was concerned, he cared very little for his position as tsar while he was young. Due to the events, he witnessed during the uprising, he developed an extreme aversion to Moscow and its palace and preferred to spend his time in the countryside. He took an interest in sailing, shipbuilding, and the military, all passions which will influence not only his reign as tsar but the development of the whole Russian Empire.
During this time, Peter also married Eudoxia Lopukhina, at the insistence of his mother. This was not a happy marriage, though, and Peter later forced his wife to enter a convent. His relationship with his eldest son, Alexei, was even worse, and it was believed, at one point, that the heir plotted against his father, looking to restore the old ways. This was something Peter could not abide by, and he had Alexei and all his acquaintances tortured, banished, and, in some cases, executed. Alexei himself died in 1718 due to wounds from being whipped with a knout.
Peter Takes Power
We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. At this time, Peter was still a boy and Sophia was still in power. Eventually, she lost the support of many boyars after two failed military campaigns against the Crimean Khanate. Influenced by her partner-in-crime and lover, Vasily Golitsyn, who was also an ardent fan of the West, Sophia did something a tsar never did before – she joined a coalition of European powers in a war against the Ottoman Empire and, in exchange, she received Kiev from the Kingdom of Poland.
Sophia’s main target were the Crimean Tatars, vassals of the Ottoman Empire who conducted frequent raids into Russian lands. However, her forces’ inexperience in large-scale combat became evident and Golitsyn, especially, proved inept at commanding an army. They launched a failed campaign in 1687 where they not only lost battles but were forced to retreat and give up settlements to the advancing Tatars. A second campaign in 1689 was also unsuccessful.
In the summer of 1689, 17-year-old Peter had the support of the boyars and overthrew his half-sister, Sophia, who was forced to enter the Novodevichy Convent and become a nun. Peter had no ill will towards his step-brother, Ivan, who was allowed to stay on as co-ruler, although this was purely in name only. As Peter was still not of age, his mother returned to serve as regent, which she did until she died in 1694. Ivan died two years later and the 24-year-old Peter finally became the sole ruler of Russia.
A New Russia
It took a long time to get here, but now Peter ruled unopposed and was free to enact his vision for a modern Russia based on the models of the Western European powers. He took on foreigners such as Franz Lefort and Patrick Gordon to serve as his close advisors. He enacted sweeping reforms to reorganize the Russian military. He adopted western dress, as did all his courtiers and officials. He instituted the Julian calendar, moving the celebration of New Year on January 1. He began marrying off his relatives to other European royalty, a practice which had been shunned by his predecessors, and he also made a habit of sending young noblemen to study abroad to receive a more worldly education.
In one of his more, let’s say unconventional moments, Peter even enacted a beard tax to encourage Russians to cut their beards because the clean shaven look was in vogue in Western Europe. The tsar introduced this new decree in quite dramatic fashion. In 1698, during a reception in his honor, Peter stunned his guests by coming down to greet them clean shaven, sporting just a moustache. He then took out a razor and proceeded to go around from one male guest to another, cutting off their beards with his own hands. At first, nobody was safe from the razor except for priests and peasants. Everybody else would have been shaved on the spot by police officials if they were caught harboring illegal facial hair. Eventually, though, Peter relaxed on his stance somewhat and introduced the beard tax which was not only more practical, but also beneficial to his coffers.
In 1697, Peter organized a year-long diplomatic mission known as the Grand Embassy. He visited multiple countries in Western Europe, looking to secure various deals and services. He managed to obtain foreign specialists, new technology, and weapons, but failed in his ultimate goal of finding allies for his ongoing conflict with the Ottoman Empire. It was bad timing as the West had its own problem to deal with. Charles II, the inbred, sickly, King of Spain was in poor health and had no heirs and Europe was preparing for the war of succession that his death would trigger.
Peter spent most of his time in the Netherlands and England which, at the time, were both ruled by William III aka William of Orange. He usually went incognito under the pseudonym Peter Mikhailov, but the fact that he was 6 feet 8 inches tall meant that he seldom managed to remain anonymous. He also enjoyed quite a few notorious drinking sessions and, after leaving London, the lord who provided him with accomodations complained that Peter and his retinue completely trashed the house where they were staying, thus setting the bar pretty high for the rock stars that would follow in his footsteps 200 years later.
He also found a drinking buddy in Peregrine Osborne, the Marquis of Carmarthen. A marine architect, Osborne earned the tsar’s friendship when he designed a yacht for him as a gift from King William. The two reportedly drank so frequently at one pub in London that the landlord renamed it to the “Czar of Muscovy.” The pub is gone, but nearby Muscovy Street still exists as a reminder of Peter’s party days in London.
The tsar had to end the Grand Embassy short because, back home, he faced another Streltsy uprising in July 1698. This one, however, went decidedly in his favor and the rebellion was crushed even before Peter returned to Russia. Although dozens were executed and many more sent into exile, this was not good enough for the tsar. When he returned to Moscow, he demanded a major investigation to discover all the accomplices. After a lot of torture and confessions, most of them probably false, well over 1,000 Streltsy were executed and hundreds more sent into exile. Regiments that had nothing to do with the rebellion were disbanded while all the Streltsy and their families were banished from Moscow. Many believe that this new uprising simply gave Peter a pretext to enact his long-awaited revenge on the Streltsy for their previous riot that terrorized him as a child and led to the death of his family members.
Building a Maritime Power
In case it wasn’t clear yet, Peter was a big fan of ships and his greatest ambition was to turn Russia into one of Europe’s maritime powers. He learned a lot about shipbuilding during his Grand Embassy and obtained the knowledge, manpower, and resources needed to construct watercrafts as good as those in Western Europe but, in order to fulfill his goal, there was one more thing he needed: access to water. After all, you can’t really have a navy on land and, at that time, Russia only had access to the North Sea via the port in Arkhangelsk and that was simply not good enough. This necessity would, more or less, shape Peter’s foreign policies during his entire reign.
Russia was still at war with the Ottoman Empire from the time Sophia launched her ill-fated campaigns in Crimea. With that in mind, in 1695 and 1696 Peter renewed hostilities against the Turks with two new military campaigns focused on capturing the fortress of Azov. Ultimately, the Russians were successful, scoring not only an important victory against their enemy, but also gaining access to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. The war ended in 1699 with the signing of the Treaty of Karlowitz.
Peter’s next target was the Baltic Sea which, back then, was almost entirely under the control of the Swedish Empire led by the 18-year-old King Charles XII. Therefore, in 1700, Russia went to war in a conflict that would rage on for over 21 years but would, ultimately, lead to the birth of the Russian Empire and secure its position as a new global power.
The Great Northern War
This conflict became known as the Great Northern War. Going into the fight, Peter formed an alliance with Frederick IV, King of Denmark and Norway, and Augustus II the Strong who ruled over the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, as well as the Electorate of Saxony. Over the years, many other nations would come in and out of the fight as the war engulfed most of Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe.
It might be fair to say that Peter and his comrades-in-arms were hoping for a quick victory by overwhelming Sweden with a three-pronged attack. That did not happen as the first battles were all in Sweden’s favor.
Just a few months after it declared war, Denmark-Norway had to call peace with the Swedish Empire after being defeated at Travendal. Due to a previous treaty, Sweden had the maritime support of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. As we mentioned previously, though, they were busy with the War of Spanish Succession so, although they helped fight off the attackers, they would not assist Sweden in conquering Denmark.
A similar situation occurred in Poland, although it took a bit longer. King Charles XII mounted a successful counter-offensive and conquered Warsaw and Krakow. The two sides signed the Treaty of Altranstädt in 1706 where Augustus II had to abdicate the throne, recognize Stanislaus I as the new Polish king and renounce his alliance with Russia.
Speaking of Russia, their first attempt at gaining a foothold in the Baltic ended in disaster. The Battle of Narva on November 30, 1700, concluded with a decisive Swedish victory as they caused up to 8,000 Russian casualties while losing less than a tenth that and captured almost 200 artillery pieces.
Because King Charles XII elected to concentrate his efforts on Poland, Peter had years to build up a new, modern, better trained and better equipped army. In 1703, he also founded Saint Petersburg which would serve as the new capital for his empire.
In 1708, with Poland taken care of, Charles redirected his attention to Russia. Although initially successful, he soon learned a very harsh lesson, one that other future commanders would learn at their own cost – you don’t invade Russia in winter. It didn’t help that that season, later dubbed the Great Frost, happened to be the coldest European winter of the past 500 years. After suffering heavy losses to the cold and starvation, Charles routed his forces to Russian-owned Ukraine, culminating in the Battle of Poltava on July 8, 1709.
This was a huge victory for Peter. Consequently, Charles had to retreat into the Ottoman Empire which was his ally and Poland and Denmark cancelled their peace treaties and joined the war again. The tide had turned in Peter’s favor, but he got a bit too cocky. He demanded that the Ottoman Sultan surrender Charles to him and, when the latter refused, Peter invaded and was soundly defeated during the Pruth River Campaign between 1710 and 1711. He had to make multiple concessions, including giving back Azov, but, fortunately for him, the sultan wasn’t interested in a protracted war and he eventually kicked Charles out of his empire in 1714.
The conflict lasted for another seven years. Sweden still had occasional military victories, but it never regained the dominant position it had at the outset of the war. Other nations like Prussia and Hanover smelled the blood in the water and also declared war on the Swedish Empire. On November 30, 1718, Charles XII was killed by a bullet to the side of the head during the Siege of Fredriksten.
The Great Northern War ended on September 10, 1721, with the Treaty of Nystad. Russia kept Estonia, Livonia, Ingria, and part of Finland, and now it had its much-coveted entry into the Baltic. This represented an important shift in the power balance of Europe – the Swedish Empire was gone and the Russian Empire had risen.
Peter’s later years were mostly marked by continued reform inside his new empire. However, when the Safavid Dynasty began crumbling in modern-day Iran, Peter couldn’t resist gaining entry to the Caspian Sea. He launched the Russo-Persian War in 1722 which ended a year later with a victory for Russia. The empire gained many new territories, although it would only manage to keep them for a decade.
Shortly after the war, Peter fell ill with bladder problems. He died on February 8, 1725, and was buried at Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. He was succeeded by his second wife, Catherine I, who became the first woman to rule Imperial Russia, setting the stage for future rulers such as Catherine the Great who, by the way, we already covered and you can check out that video right here.