The Great and Not So Great Deeds of Peter the Great
Peter I (more commonly known as Peter the Great) was a ruler of the Tsardom of Russia (the Russian Empire from 1721) who lived between the 17th and 18th centuries. He is often considered to be one of most successful rulers in Russian history and accomplished much during his reign. It was thanks to Peter that Russia was transformed into major European power.
This was achieved through Peter’s efforts to modernize and expand his country. Russia continued to exert its influence on the world stage long after Peter’s reign. Nevertheless, Peter made some mistakes as a ruler, the most notable of which was the role he played in the death of his son and heir.
Peter the Great’s Early Struggle for Power
Peter the Great was born as Peter Alexeyevich Romanov in Moscow on the 9th of June 1672. Peter’s father was Alexei I of Russia, the second Russian tsar from the House of Romanov, while his mother was Nataliya Kyrillovna Naryshkina, his father’s second wife.
In 1676, when Peter was only four years old, his father died, and the throne was inherited by Alexei’s eldest surviving son, Fyodor III, who was also Peter’s half-brother. Fyodor ruled Russia for six years and died without leaving an heir.
Young Peter the Great of Russia. (Ras67 / Public Domain)
Fyodor’s death caused a succession crisis and a powerful struggle followed. There were two factions vying for power. On the one hand were the relatives of the late Marina Miloslavskaya, the first wife of Alexei, and on the other were the supporters of Naryshkina.
The Naryshkins managed to persuade the Patriarch to proclaim Peter as tsar. In retaliation, the Miloslavkys began spreading rumors that the Naryshkins had strangled Peter’s elder half-brother, Ivan V, to death in the Moscow Kremlin. They also stirred up riots in the streets of Moscow and instigated the streltsy regiments, who were discontent with the government. The streltsy, by the way, were Russian military corps garrisoned in Moscow, and in border towns, where they performed police and security duties.
On the 11th of May 1682, the streltsy stormed the Kremlin, and the leading boyars (Russian nobles) and military commanders whom they suspected of corruption were lynched. On the 17th of May, the streltsy attacked the Kremlin again. This time they killed a number of Naryshkina’s supporters including two of her brothers, Kirill and Ivan.
The two men were murdered in front of Peter, which resulted in the young boy suffering a mental breakdown. This traumatic experience may have been the cause of the seizures Peter suffered from for the rest of his life.
A scene from the uprising: The streltsy take away Natalia Naryshkina's brother; young Peter I tries to console his mother, while Sophia watches the whole scene in satisfaction.(Vissarion / Public Domain)
Alternatively, it has been suggested that the seizures were caused by a concussion Peter experienced as a youth, when a real grenade exploded next to his head while he was training with his ‘toy army’. This toy army was unlike any played with by normal children and was made up of his playmates, sons of noblemen, and some of his father’s court attendants.
In any case, as a result of the Moscow Uprising of 1682 (known also as the Streltsy Uprising of 1682), Peter was forced to share the throne with Ivan, his half-brother. Although Ivan was the ‘first’ tsar, and Peter the ‘second’, real power laid in the hands of the regent, Sophia Alekseyevna, Ivan’s sister. Sophia ruled Russia (quite literally) as the power behind the throne for the next seven years.
According to one story, a large hole was cut into the back of the dual-seated throne used by Ivan and Peter. When the tsars held their audiences, Sophia would sit behind the throne and listened to what the nobles and officials had to say.
She would then give her instructions to them via Peter. Therefore, Peter was essentially Sophia’s mouthpiece, while Ivan, being physically and mentally disabled, was in no shape to rule.
Apart from such audiences, Peter was largely left out of public affairs and was expected to do little in the governance of the country. As a consequence, he grew up away from the stifling environment of the court. For one reason or another, Sophia did not (or could not) control Peter completely and the tsar enjoyed a high degree of freedom.
Peter was allowed to play war games with the local boys, who served as mock troops, and to roam Moscow’s foreign quarters. These activities nurtured Peter’s lifelong interest in military matters, as well as in the Western world. In addition, the tsar kept himself busy with such pastimes as ship-building, sailing, carpentry, joinery, printing, and blacksmithing.
Peter the Great Becomes Sole Ruler
In 1689, Naryshkina arranged Peter’s marriage to Eudoxia Feodorovna Lopukhina. This was meant to be a signal to the regent that Peter was now a grown man and was ready to rule in his own right. In the same year, Peter made plans to seize power from his half-sister.
Sophia was not willing to relinquish power and began plotting with the streltsy to carry out a coup d’état against the tsars. Sophia’s position, however, had been weakened, as a result of her failed campaigns in the Crimea. Therefore, she did not receive the full support of the streltsy.
In fact, a rival faction plotted against her, and in the end, Sophia was overthrown. The former regent was banished by Peter to the Novodevichy Convent, although she was not forced to become a nun. Although Sophia had been deposed, Peter was still not really an independent ruler, as his mother was now running the show.
Peter the Great sent Sophia to the Novodevichy Convent. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain)
Only when she died in 1694 was Peter finally able to rule independently. At the same time, Peter retained his half-brother as his co-tsar. When Ivan died in 1696, Peter became the sole ruler of Russia.
Once he had a firm grip on power, Peter wasted no time in modernizing Russia. One of his primary goals at this point of his reign was to turn his country into a maritime power. Although Russia was a huge state, its only maritime outlet in the west at that time was the White Sea.
The Baltic Sea was controlled by Sweden, while the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea were controlled by the Ottomans and Safavids respectively. Therefore, the tsar’s first move was to launch a military campaign against the Crimean Tatars, who were vassals of the Ottoman Empire. His target was the town of Azov, on the banks of the Don River.
The capture of this town would give the Russians access to the Black Sea via the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. In addition, this was an opportunity for Peter to secure his country’s southern border against Tatar raids.
Furthermore, the campaign could be regarded as the fulfilment of Russia’s commitment to the Holy League of 1684. This anti-Ottoman alliance included the Papal States, the Holy Roman Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Republic of Venice. Russia joined the League in 1686 during Sophia’s regency.
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Peter the Great on board of his ship. (Kweniston / Public Domain)
Peter the Great Flexes His Military Might
Peter launched his first campaign against the Crimean Tatars in 1695. Although the campaign ended in failure, the tsar returned the following year. This time, he was victorious and Azov was captured. Two years later, Peter founded Taganrog, Russia’s first naval base.
Between the fall of Azov and the establishment of Taganrog Peter was traveling in Europe. The tsar’s Grand Embassy consisted of around 250 people and lasted from 1697 to 1698. Peter traveled incognito under the name of Sergeant Pyotr Mikhaylov.
This disguise allowed the tsar to study shipbuilding without attracting too much attention. He worked as a ship’s carpenter at the yard of the Dutch East India Company at Saardam for four months and then at the Royal Navy’s dockyard at Deptford.
In addition, the Grand Embassy was intended to gather information regarding the cultural and economic life in Europe, and to recruit foreign experts for work in Russia. The Russians, however, failed in their attempt to convince the rulers of Europe to join them in their war against the Ottomans.
The Grand Embassy came to an abrupt end in 1698. In that year the streltsy revolted once again. The troops were hoping to use Peter’s absence from Russia to depose him and to restore Sophia. When Peter received the news he returned to Moscow and the revolt was easily crushed.
Although Sophia was probably not involved in the plot, she was nevertheless put on trial and forced to become a nun. As for the streltsy, Peter dealt with them severely. Over 1200 of them were tortured and executed, Peter allegedly carrying out the executions with his own hands.
Peter the Great Strives to Modernize Russia
Having traveled around Europe, Peter realized that Russia was rather antiquated and sought to modernize the country along western lines. This is evident, for instance, in the disbandment of the streltsy, after their failed 1698 revolt, and the creation of a new regular army. Of course, Peter’s modernization program affected other aspects of life in Russia as well, including the economy, government, culture, and religious affairs.
Peter the Great meditating on the modernization his country. (Butko / Public Domain)
As an example, in 1699, Peter abolished the traditional Russian calendar. This calendar, in which the year began in September, was replaced by the Julian calendar, which began the year on the 1st of January.
Incidentally, by this time, the Protestant states of Europe were switching form the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. The Russians would continue to use the Julian calendar until the October Revolution of 1918, after which the Gregorian calendar was adopted.
Another change made by Peter was the introduction of a ‘beard tax’. Peter declared that all men in Russia had to be beardless and to adopt Western costume, so as to be more like the ‘modern’ Europeans he had encountered during his Grand Embassy.
At a reception held in Peter’s honor, not long after his return from Europe, the tsar is alleged to have personally shaved the beards from his horrified guests. Peter soon realized that this policy was extremely unpopular, especially among the Russian Orthodox Church, which said that it was blasphemous for a man to go around without facial hair.
Therefore, instead of forcing his subjects to shave their beards, Peter decided that those who wished to keep their beards had to pay a ‘beard tax’. For nobles, this tax could be as high as 100 rubles, while for commoners, it could be as low as a kopek. A token (silver for nobles, and copper for commoners) was given as proof of the payment.
Having failed to gain allies in Europe for a war with the Ottomans, Peter made peace with them by signing the Treaty of Constantinople in 1700. He then turned his attention to the Baltic region, which was dominated by Sweden. As the Swedes were blocking Russia’s way to the Baltic coast, Peter formed an alliance with Saxony-Poland-Lithuania and Denmark-Norway.
In 1700, the allies attacked Sweden. This was the start of the Great Northern War, which only ended in 1721. Peter’s Russia emerged victorious from this conflict. Sweden lost its status as a superpower and was replaced by Russia.
Peter the Great at battle. (Alex Bakharev / Public Domain)
In addition, the Russians gained direct access to the Baltic with the founding of St. Petersburg (in 1703). Moreover, Peter changed his title from ‘tsar’ to ‘emperor’, though it was acknowledged only by some European monarchs.
While the Great Northern War was Peter’s main military undertaking, he also had to conduct several other smaller military campaigns while that war was going on. Between 1705 and 1708, for instance, Peter was forced to put down popular revolts in Russia, while between 1710 and 1713, Peter was at war with the Ottomans again.
Peter the Great Kills His Heir
During the period of the Great Northern War, Peter lost his heir, Alexei. The tsarevich was Peter’s son by his wife Eudoxia. Incidentally, 10 years after they were married, Peter forced Eudoxia to become a nun, so as to free himself from the marriage. Alexei did not share Peter’s vision of a Westernized Russia and favored a return to the traditional.
Peter is partly to blame for this, as Alexei did not see his father much as he was growing up. The tsar, as we have already seen, was often abroad fighting wars. Instead, Alexei was surrounded by people who supported the return of power to the Russian Orthodox Church and to the aristocracy.
Eventually, Peter gave his son two choices – mend his ways or renounce his claim to the throne and become a monk. Although Alexei agreed to become a monk he fled Russia in disguise and found refuge in the Holy Roman Empire.
Peter managed to track Alexei down and sent messengers in 1717 to persuade him to come home. When Alexei returned to Russia in 1718 he was put on trial for treason, imprisoned, and tortured. He died of wounds sustained during the torture in that same year.
Peter ruled for another seven years after the death of his heir. He died in early 1725 as a result of bladder problems. While Peter had the right to name his heir, he did not manage to do so at the time of his death.
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Peter the Great on his deathbed. (Stolengood / Public Domain)
As a consequence, the succession of the Russian throne was a somewhat messy affair in the years that followed. Nevertheless, Russia’s status as a superpower was not threatened by this chaos, thanks in part to the solid foundation Peter had laid.
It is without doubt that Peter the Great was one of the most successful rulers of Russia. His policy of Westernizing the country and his expansionist policy contributed to its rise as a European power, and subsequently an international power. At the same time, however, these policies caused discontent among the traditionalists in Russia.
Peter, however, succeeded in overcoming these forces and pushed his reforms through. Nevertheless, Peter’s heir came under the influence of the traditionalists and ultimately lost his life because of that.
Top image: Portrait of Peter the Great. Source: Themadchopper / Public Domain.
By Wu Mingren
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