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Peter I
1672 - 1725

Peter I, called Peter the Great, was czar of Russia from 1682 to 1725. His reign was marked by a program of extensive reform known as Westernization and by the establishment of Russia as a major European power.


Contemporaries abroad tended to admire Peter I for his reforms and to fear him because of his country's growing power, but his reforms were generally unpopular with his subjects, not only because they entailed higher taxes and harder work for almost everyone but also because they disturbed ancient religious and cultural traditions. After his death, Russians soon came to realize that Peter had been the country's greatest ruler and that his reign had indeed been a high point in their history. That evaluation is still generally accepted by historians.

Peter was born in Moscow on May 30, 1672, the only son of Czar Alexis and his second wife, Natalia Naryshkin. The 13 children of Alexis' previous marriage included 3 who became prominent during Peter's youth: able and ambitious Sophia, half-blind and half-witted Ivan, and amiable Feodor, who succeeded Alexis in 1676.

Peter's formal education, entrusted to private tutors, began when he was 7 but was interrupted 3 years later, when Czar Feodor died without having named an heir. Sophia and a small group of supporters favoured the frail Ivan, her 15-year-old brother, to succeed Feodor. Another group favoured the robust and intelligent Peter and at once proclaimed him czar, planning that his mother serve as regent. That arrangement was quickly upset, however, when Sophia received the help of the Moscow troops and compelled the installation of Ivan as "First Czar, " Peter as "Second Czar, " and herself as regent.

Formative Years

During the next 7 years little was required of Peter except that he take part in formal ceremonies. Fascinated by military activities, he spent much time at games involving arms practice and battle manoeuvers, at first with young friends and later with two regiments of soldiers that he was permitted to recruit and train. His curiosity and abundant energy led him also to the study and practice of the skills involved in navigation and such crafts as carpentry, stonecutting, and printing. In the course of these pursuits, he came into contact with a number of foreign residents and gained from them knowledge of the world outside Russia.

Disturbed by the trend of his development, Peter's mother mistakenly decided that she could change it by arranging for his marriage; at her direction, he was married to Eudoxia Lopukhin in January 1689. Still, he showed no inclination to forgo his first interests or his unconventional activities.

Political opposition to Sophia's regency came to a head during Peter's 17th year, and, impressed by the assurance of strong support if he would assert himself, Peter declared her office vacant and sent her away to a convent. That done, he returned to his habitual pursuits and continued to neglect personal responsibilities, even after Eudoxia had borne him a son, Alexis, in 1690. By that time he was a striking figure, impressive as a potential ruler but with scant interest in the duties involved.

It was not until 1695, when he had his first taste of actual fighting, against the Turkish forces at Azov, that Peter began to give serious thought to the problems he faced as czar. The death of "First Czar" Ivan during the following year finally brought him close to the full import of his position.

First Steps

Having been impressed at Azov by his country's lack of adequate fighting ships, Peter began with characteristic zeal to plan for an efficient navy. He sent groups of young men to western European countries to study navigation and shipbuilding; then, in 1697, he himself followed - an unprecedented step for a Russian czar - to acquire firsthand information and to hire shipwrights for service in Russia. He visited Holland, England, Germany, and Austria. In those countries he was impressed not only by their technological superiority over Russia but also by what seemed to him a superior style of life. When he returned to Russia in 1698, he was ready to make many changes.

One of Peter's first acts was to order that men shave off their beards, and when he met stubborn resistance, he modified his order only to the extent of imposing a tax on those who chose to keep their beards. He also shattered tradition by requiring that the old Russian calendar (which reckoned time from the creation of the world) be abandoned in favour of the Julian calendar used in the West. At the same time, he was dealing with two other matters, a revolt among the Moscow troops and the annoying presence of his unwanted wife, Eudoxia; he speedily quelled the revolt with savage executions and terminated his marriage by forcing Eudoxia into a convent.

Great Northern War

The handling of some of his problems, Peter soon learned, required more than his usual imperious tactics. During his European tour, he had obtained assurances of Western cooperation in forcing Sweden to cede the territory that Russia needed as an outlet to the Baltic Sea. He began the undertaking by a declaration of war on Sweden in 1700.

Peter led his forces in their first major encounter with the Swedes at Narva in November 1700 and was severely defeated by inferior numbers. Resorting to the means he had used with the navy - remodelling by Western patterns - he began at once to whip into shape a better organized, equipped, and trained army. In 1703 he led it to a redeeming victory and took from Sweden the mouth of the Neva River. He designated the site for a city to be named St. Petersburg and to become the imperial capital. A year later he captured Narva.

Taking advantage of a few years of respite while the Swedes were engaged with other enemies, Peter worked purposefully to strengthen Russian arms and to keep under control the domestic discontent that was breaking into open revolt in many areas, particularly along the Don and the Volga rivers. He was obliged to return to the war in mid-1709, however, to meet a Swedish invasion led by Charles XII. The opposing forces met at Poltava, where the Russians won a decisive victory. The battle did not end the war, but it marked a turning point and vindicated Peter's belief in his methods. Moreover, it had a profound psychological effect on the western European states, who now saw Russia as a formidable power.

Twelve years of indecisive hostilities followed the Poltava victory. In 1711 Peter had to divert some of his troops to the south, where the Turks, encouraged by Sweden, had attacked Russia. After a year of unsuccessful fighting, he had to cede the port of Azov, Russia's only point of access to the Black Sea. Meanwhile, intermittent fighting kept the main war going, and it was not until 1718 that Sweden reluctantly agreed to a consideration of peace terms. By the resulting Treaty of Nystad, signed in September 1721, Sweden ceded Ingria, Estonia, Livonia, and a portion of Karelia, thus giving Russia a firm foothold on the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. Since Peter had already established Russian influence in Courland, his country was now a major Baltic power, having been provided with "a window to Europe" by the new acquisitions. In recognition of what he had achieved, the Russian Senate, a body created by Peter, conferred upon him the titles of "the Great" and "Emperor."

Personal Problems

After he freed himself of Eudoxia, Peter became attracted to Catherine Skavrenska, a Lithuanian girl of humble origin, and married her secretly, delaying until 1712 the public recognition of her as his consort. When Catherine bore a son, the Czar had him christened Peter Petrovich and anticipated his succession to the throne. Alexis, the son by his first marriage, had become a lazy, weak-willed, and hostile young man who resisted being molded to his father's standards. In the belief that Alexis was actually plotting against the throne, Peter ordered that he be taken to prison; and there, after being questioned under torture, Alexis died. Yet the Czar's problem was not solved: in 1719 Peter Petrovich died, leaving him no son as successor. Alexis had left a son, Peter Alekseyevich; but the Czar chose to bypass him and to decree, in 1722, that thereafter each ruler of Russia was free to name his heir. It is probable that Peter intended to name his wife, Catherine, as his heir, but he continued to postpone the formality.

Domestic Reforms

Although Peter carried out many reforms in his early years as czar, his major work as a reformer was done in the last decade of his reign. His goal was to create a powerful and prosperous state, efficiently and honestly administered, to which every subject could contribute. To achieve that goal, he refashioned many existing institutions and initiated new policies, generally guided by what he had learned of western Europe. He reorganized the country's entire administrative structure and promulgated the Table of Ranks, classifying civil service, military, and naval positions and providing for advancement on the basis of merit from lower to higher positions. He encouraged industry and commerce, spurred the development of science, and laid the foundations of the Academy of Sciences, which was established soon after his death. He instituted Russia's secular schools, eliminated the obsolete characters from the Russian alphabet, and established the country's first newspaper.

Even the Church felt the force of Peter's great energy. Although a religious man, he had no respect for the privileges accorded to the Church, was critical of many of its policies, and resented its resistance to his reforms. When Patriarch Adrian, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, died in 1700, Peter did not permit the vacancy to be filled. Finally, in 1721, he abolished the post of patriarch, substituting for it the Holy Synod, a board of prelates who were to direct the affairs of the Church under the supervision of a layman appointed by the czar.

Apparently, Peter found his greatest satisfaction in the development of St. Petersburg. He intended that this modern city become the centre of the new Russia as Moscow had been the centre of the old. He declared it to be the country's new capital and gradually transferred to it the central administrative offices. Built in Western style rather than the traditional Russian, it provided a visible symbol of his reforms.

Last Years

After the war with Sweden, Peter began to think seriously of his country's interests in Asia. At his direction, Russian forces conquered Kamchatka on the Pacific, and a Russian expedition explored the area now known as the Bering Strait. With prospects of more immediate value, he successfully pursued a war against Persia to strengthen Russia's position on the Caspian.

The treaty ending the war with Persia had yet to be ratified in 1724, when Peter's health began to fail rapidly. Characteristically, he continued to drive himself to the very limit of his strength, still postponing the designation of an heir. He died on Jan. 28, 1725, in the city that he had founded.


Peter I (1672 - 1725), known as Peter the Great, tsar and emperor of Russia, 1682 - 1725.

The reign of Peter I is generally regarded as a watershed in Russian history, during which Russia expanded westward, became a leading player in European affairs, and underwent major reforms of its government, economy, religious affairs, and culture. Peter is regarded as a "modernizer" or "westernizer," who forced changes upon his often reluctant subjects. In 1846 the Russian historian Nikolai Pogodin wrote: "The Russia of today, that is to say, European Russia, diplomatic, political, military, commercial, industrial, scholastic, literary - is the creation of Peter the Great. Everywhere we look, we encounter this colossal figure, who casts a long shadow over our entire past." Writers before and after agreed that Peter made a mark on the course of Russian history, although there has always been disagreement about whether his influence was positive or negative.

Childhood and Youth

The only son of the second marriage of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich of Russia (r. 1645 - 1676) to Nathalie Kirillovna Naryshkina, Peter succeeded his half-brother Tsar Fyodor Alexeyevich (1676 - 1682) in May 1682. In June, following the bloody rebellion of the Moscow musketeers, in which members of his mother's family and government officials were massacred, he was crowned second tsar jointly with his elder, but severely handicapped, half-brother Ivan V. Kept out of government during the regency of his half-sister Sophia Alexeyevna (r. 1682 - 1689), Peter pursued personal interests that later fed into his public activities; these included meeting foreigners, learning to sail, and forming "play" troops under the command of foreign officers, which became the Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky guards. On Tsar Ivan's death in 1696, Peter found himself sole ruler and enjoyed his first military victory, the capture of the Turkish fortress at Azov, a success which was facilitated by a newly created fleet on the Don river. From 1697 to 1698 he made an unprecedented tour of Western Europe with the Grand Embassy, the official aim of which was to revive the Holy League against the Ottomans, which Russia had entered in 1686. Peter travelled incognito, devoting much of his time to visiting major sites and institutions in his search for knowledge. He was particularly impressed with the Dutch Republic and England, where he studied shipbuilding. On his return, he forced his boyars to shave off their beards and adopt Western dress. In 1700 he discarded the old Byzantine creation calendar in favour of dating years in the Western manner from the birth of Christ. These symbolic acts set the agenda for cultural change.

The Great Northern War, 1700 - 1721

After making peace with the Ottoman Empire in 1700, Peter declared war on Sweden with the aim of regaining a foothold on the Baltic, in alliance with Denmark and King Augustus II of Poland. After some early defeats, notably at Narva in 1700, and the loss of its allies, Russia eventually gained the upper hand over the Swedes. After Narva, King Charles XII abandoned his Russian campaign to pursue Augustus into Poland and Saxony, allowing Russia to advance in Ingria and Livonia. When he eventually invaded Russia via Ukraine in 1707 - 1708, Charles found his troops overextended, underprovisioned, and confronted by a much improved Russian army. Victory at Poltava in Ukraine in 1709 allowed Peter to stage a successful assault on Sweden's eastern Baltic ports, including Viborg, Riga, and Reval (Tallinn) in 1710. Defeat by the Turks on the river Pruth in 1711 forced him to return Azov (ratified in the 1713 Treaty of Adrianople), but did not prevent him pursuing the Swedish war both at the negotiating table and on campaign, for instance, in Finland in 1713 - 1714 and against Sweden's remaining possessions in northern Germany and the Swedish mainland. The Treaty of Nystadt (1721) ratified Russian possession of Livonia, Estonia, and Ingria. During the celebrations the Senate awarded Peter the titles Emperor, the Great, and Father of the Fatherland. In 1722 - 1723 Peter conducted a campaign against Persia on the Caspian, capturing the ports of Baku and Derbent. Russia's military successes were achieved chiefly by intensive recruitment, which allowed Peter to keep armies in the field over several decades; training by foreign officers; home production of weapons, especially artillery; and well-organized provisioning. The task was made easier by the availability of a servile peasant population and the obstacles which the Russian terrain and climate posed for the invading Swedes. The navy, staffed mainly by foreign officers on both home-built and purchased ships, provided an auxiliary force in the latter stages of the Northern War, although Peter's personal involvement in naval affairs has led some historians to exaggerate the fleet's importance. The galley fleet was particularly effective, as exemplified at Hango in 1714.

Domestic Reforms

Many historians have argued that the demands of war were the driving force behind all Peter's reforms. He created the Senate in 1711, for example, to rule in his absence during the Turkish campaign. Among the ten new Swedish-inspired government departments, created between 1717 and 1720 and known as Colleges or collegiate boards, the Colleges of War, Admiralty, and Foreign Affairs consumed the bulk of state revenues, while the Colleges of Mines and Manufacturing concentrated on production for the war effort, operating iron works and manufacture of weapons, rope, canvas, uniforms, powder, and other products. The state remained the chief producer and customer, but Peter attempted to encourage individual enterprise by offering subsidies and exemptions. Free manpower was short, however, and in 1721 industrialists were allowed to purchase serfs for their factories. New provincial institutions, based on Swedish models and created in several restructuring programs, notably in 1708 - 1709 and 1718 - 1719, were intended to rationalize recruitment and tax collection, but were among the least successful of Peter's projects. As he said, money was the "artery of war." A number of piecemeal fiscal measures culminated in 1724 with the introduction of the poll tax (initially 74 kopecks per annum), which replaced direct taxation based on households with assessment of individual males. Peter also encouraged foreign trade and diversified indirect taxes, which were attached to such items and services as official paper for contracts, private bathhouses, oak coffins, and beards (the 1705 beard tax). Duties from liquor, customs, and salt were profitable.

The Table of Ranks (1722) consolidated earlier legislation by dividing the service elite - army and navy officers, government and court officials - into three columns of fourteen ranks, each containing a variable number of posts. No post was supposed to be allocated to any candidate who was unqualified for the duties involved, but birth and marriage continued to confer privilege at court. The Table was intended to encourage the existing nobility to perform more efficiently, while endorsing the concept of nobles as natural leaders of society: Any commoner who attained the lowest military rank - grade 14 - or civil grade 8 was granted noble status, including the right to pass it to his children.

Peter's educational reforms, too, were utilitarian in focus, as was his publishing program, which focused on such topics as shipbuilding, navigation, architecture, warfare, geography, and history. He introduced a new simplified alphabet, the so-called civil script, for printing secular works. The best-known and most successful of Peter's technical schools was the Moscow School of Mathematics and Navigation (1701; from 1715, the St. Petersburg Naval Academy), which was run by British teachers. Its graduates were sent to teach in the so-called cipher or arithmetic schools (1714), but these failed to attract pupils. Priests and church schools continued to be the main suppliers of primary education, and religious books continued to sell better than secular ones. The Academy of Sciences is generally regarded as the major achievement, although it did not open until 1726 and was initially staffed entirely by foreigners. In Russia, as elsewhere, children in rural communities, where child labour was vital to the economy, remained uneducated.

The Church

The desire to deploy scarce resources as rationally as possible guided Peter's treatment of the Orthodox Church. He abolished the patriarchate, which was left vacant when the last Patriarch died in 1700, and in 1721 replaced it with the Holy Synod, which was based on the collegiate principle and later overseen by a secular official, the Over-Procurator. The Synod's rationale and program were set out in the Spiritual Regulation (1721). Peter siphoned off church funds as required, but he stopped short of secularizing church lands. He slimmed down the priesthood by redeploying superfluous clergymen into state service and restricting entry into monasteries, which he regarded as refuges for shirkers. Remaining churchmen accumulated various civic duties, such as keeping registers of births and deaths, running schools and hospitals, and publicizing government decrees. These measures continued seventeenth-century trends in reducing the church's independent power, but Peter went farther by reducing its role in cultural life. Himself a dutiful Orthodox Christian who attended church regularly, he was happy for the Church to take responsibility for the saving of men's souls, but not for it to rule their lives. His reforms were supported by educated churchmen imported from Ukraine.

St. Petersburg and the New Culture

The city of St. Petersburg began as an island fort at the mouth of the Neva river on land captured from the Swedes in 1703. From about 1712 it came to be regarded as the capital. In Russia's battle for international recognition, St. Petersburg was much more than a useful naval base and port. It was a clean sheet on which Peter could construct a microcosm of his New Russia. The Western designs and decoration of palaces, government buildings, and churches, built in stone by hired foreign architects according to a rational plan, and the European fashions that all Russian townspeople were forced to wear, were calculated to make foreigners feel that they were in Europe rather than in Asia. The city became a "great window recently opened in the north through which Russia looks on Europe" (Francesco Algarotti, 1739). Peter often referred to it as his "paradise," playing on the associations with St. Peter as well as expressing his personal delight in a city built on water. The central public spaces enjoyed amenities such as street lighting and paving and public welfare was supervised by the Chief of Police, although conditions were less salubrious in the backstreets. Nobles resented being uprooted from Moscow to this glorified building site. Noblewomen were not exempt. They were wrenched from their previously sheltered lives in the semi-secluded women's quarters or terem and ordered to abandon their modest, loose robes and veils in favour of Western low cut gowns and corsets and to socialize and drink with men. Some historians have referred to the "emancipation" of women under Peter, but it is doubtful whether this was the view of those involved.

Peter's Vision and Methods

Peter was an absolute ruler, whose great height (six foot seven inches) and explosive temper must have intimidated those close to him. His portraits, the first thoroughly Westernized Russian images painted or sculpted from life, were embellished with Imperial Roman, allegorical, military, and naval motifs to underline his power. Yet he sought to deflect his subjects' loyalty from himself to the state, exhorting them to work for the common good. A doer rather than a thinker, he lacked formal education and the patience for theorizing. Soviet historians favoured the image of the Tsar-Carpenter, emphasizing the fourteen trades that Peter mastered, of which his favourites were shipbuilding and wood turning. He also occasionally practiced dentistry and surgery. Ironically, Peter often behaved in a manner that confirmed foreign prejudices that Russia was a barbaric country. Abroad he frequently offended his hosts with his appalling manners, while Western visitors to Russia were perplexed by his court, which featured dwarfs, giants, and human "monsters" (from his Cabinet of Curiosities), compulsory drinking sessions, which armed guards prevented guests prevented from leaving, and weird ceremonies staged by the "All-Mad, All-Jesting, All-Drunken Assembly," which, headed by the Prince-Pope, parodied religious rituals. Throughout his life Peter maintained a mock court headed by a mock tsar known as Prince Caesar, who conferred promotions on "Peter Mikhailov" or "Peter Alexeyev," as Peter liked to be known as he worked his way through the ranks of the army and navy.

One of the functions of Peter's mock institutions was to ridicule the old ways. Peter constantly lamented his subjects' reluctance to improve themselves on their own initiative. As he wrote in an edict of 1721 to replace sickles with more efficient scythes: "Even though something may be good, if it is new our people will not do it." He therefore resorted to force. In Russia, where serfdom was made law as recently as 1649, the idea of a servile population was not new, but under Peter servitude was extended and intensified. The army and navy swallowed up tens of thousands of men. State peasants were increasingly requisitioned to work on major projects. Previously free persons were transferred to the status of serfs during the introduction of the poll tax. Peter also believed in the power of rules, regulations, and statutes, devised "in order that everyone knows his duties and no one excuses himself on the grounds of ignorance." In 1720, for example, he issued the General Regulation, a "regulation of regulations" for the new government apparatus. Not only the peasants, but also the nobles, found life burdensome. They were forced to serve for life and to educate their sons for service.

Associates and Opponents

Despite his harsh methods, Peter was supported by a number of men, drawn from both the old Muscovite elite and from outside it. The most prominent of the newcomers were his favourite, the talented and corrupt Alexander Menshikov (1673 - 1729), whom he made a prince, and Paul Yaguzhinsky, who became the first Procurator-General. Top men from the traditional elite included General Boris Sheremetev, Chancellor Gavrila Golovkin, Admiral Fyodor Apraksin and Prince Fyodor Romodanovsky. The chief publicist was the Ukrainian churchman Feofan Prokopovich. It is a misconception that Peter relied on foreigners and commoners.

Religious traditionalists abhorred Peter, identifying him as the Antichrist. The several revolts of his reign all included some elements of antagonism toward foreigners and foreign innovations such as shaving and Western dress, along with more standard and substantive complaints about the encroachment of central authority, high taxes, poor conditions of service, and remuneration. The most serious were the musketeer revolt of 1698, the Astrakhan revolt of 1705, and the rebellion led by the Don Cossack Ivan Bulavin in 1707 - 1708. The disruption that worried Peter most, however, affected his inner circle. Peter was married twice: in 1689 to the noblewoman Yevdokia Lopukhina, whom he banished to a convent in 1699, and in 1712 to Catherine, a former servant girl from Livonia whom he met around 1703. He groomed the surviving son of his first marriage, Alexei Petrovich (1690 - 1718), as his successor, but they had a troubled relationship. In 1716 Alexei fled abroad. Lured back to Russia in 1718, he was tried and condemned to death for treason, based on unfounded charges of a plot to assassinate his father. Many of Alexei's associates were executed, and people in leading circles were suspected of sympathy for him. Peter and Catherine had at least ten children (the precise number is unknown), but only two girls reached maturity: Anna and Elizabeth (who reigned as empress from 1741 to 1761). In 1722 Peter issued a new Law of Succession by which the reigning monarch nominated his own successor, but he failed to record his choice before his death (from a bladder infection) in February (January O.S.) 1725. Immediately after Peter's death, Menshikov and some leading courtiers with guards' support backed Peter's widow, who reigned as Catherine I (1725 - 1727).

Views of Peter and His Reforms

The official view in the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth was that Peter had "given birth" to Russia, transforming it from "nonexistence" into "being." Poets represented him as Godlike. The man and his methods were easily accommodated in later eighteenth-century discourses of Enlightened Absolutism. Even during Peter's lifetime, however, questions were raised about the heavy cost of his schemes and the dangers of abandoning native culture and institutions. As the Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin commented in 1810: "Truly, St. Petersburg is founded on tears and corpses." He believed that Peter had made Russians citizens of the world, but prevented them from being Russians. Hatred of St. Petersburg as a symbol of alien traditions was an important element in the attitude of nineteenth-century Slavophiles, who believed that only the peasants had retained Russian cultural values. To their Westernizer opponents, however, Peter's reforms, stopping short of Western freedoms, had not gone far enough. In the later nineteenth century, serious studies of seventeenth-century Muscovy questioned the revolutionary nature of Peter's reign, underlining that many of Peter's reforms and policies, such as hiring foreigners, reforming the army, and borrowing Western culture, originated with his predecessors. The last tsars, especially Nicholas II, took a nostalgic view of pre-Petrine Russia, but Petrine values were revered by the imperial court until its demise.

Soviet historians generally took a bipolar view of Peter's reign. On the one hand, they believed that Russia had to catch up with the West, whatever the cost; hence they regarded institutional and cultural reforms, the new army, navy, factories, and so on as "progressive." Territorial expansion was approved. On the other hand, Soviet historians were bound to denounce Peter's exploitation of the peasantry and to praise popular rebels such as Bulavin; moreover, under Stalin, Peter's cosmopolitanism was treated with suspicion. Cultural historians in particular stressed native achievements over foreign borrowings. In the 1980s - 1990s some began to take a more negative view still, characterizing Peter as "the creator of the administrative-command system and the true ancestor of Stalin" (Anisimov, 1993). After the collapse of the USSR, the secession of parts of the former Empire and Union, and the decline of the armed forces and navy, many people looked back to Peter's reign as a time when Russia was strong and to Peter as an ideal example of a strong leader. The debate continues.










This web page was last updated on: 20 December, 2008