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Peter the Great

Peter the GreatAKA Pyotr Alekseevich Romanov

Born: 9-Jun-1672
Birthplace: Moscow, Russia
Died: 8-Feb-1725
Location of death: St. Petersburg, Russia
Cause of death: Pneumonia
Remains: Buried, Petropavlovskaya Krepost, St. Petersburg, Russia

Gender: Male
Religion: Russian Orthodox
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Royalty

Nationality: Russia
Executive summary: Tsar of Russia, 1689-1725

Tsar Peter I, called Peter the Great, son of the tsar Alexius Mikhailovich and Natalia Naruishkina, was born at Moscow on the 30th of May 1672. His earliest teacher (omitting the legendary Scotsman Menzies) was the dyak, or clerk of the council, Nikita Zotov, subsequently the court fool, who taught his pupil to spell out the liturgical and devotional books on which the children of the tsar were generally brought up. After Zotov's departure on a diplomatic mission, in 1680, the lad had no regular tutor. From his third to his tenth year Peter shared the miseries and perils of his family. His very election (1682) was the signal for a rebellion. He saw one of his uncles dragged from the palace and butchered by a savage mob. He saw his mother's beloved mentor, and his own best friend, Artamon Matvyeev, torn, bruised and bleeding, from his retaining grasp and hacked to pieces. The haunting memories of these horrors played havoc with the nerves of a supersensitive child. The convulsions from which he suffered so much in later years must he partly attributed to this violent shock. During the regency of his half-sister Sophia (1682-89) he occupied the subordinate position of junior tsar, with Tsar Ivan V (physically and mentally disabled) designated "first tsar", and after the revolution of 1689 Peter was still left much to himself. So long as he could indulge freely in his favorite pastimes -- shipbuilding, ship-sailing, drilling and sham fights -- he was quite content that others should rule in his name. He now found a new friend in the Swiss adventurer, Franšois Lefort, a shrewd and jovial rascal, who not only initiated him into all the mysteries of profligacy (at the large house built at Peter's expense in the German settlement), but taught him his true business as a ruler. His mother's attempt to wean her prodigal son from his dangerous and mostly disreputable pastimes, by forcing him to marry the beautiful but stupid Eudoxia Lopukhina (January 27, 1689), was a disastrous failure. The young couple were totally unsuited to each other. Peter practically deserted his unfortunate consort a little more than a year after their union.

The death of his mother (January 25, 1694) left the young tsar absolutely free to follow his natural inclinations. Tiring of the great lake at Pereyaslavl, he had already seen the sea for the first time at Archangel in July 1683, and on the 1st of May 1694 returned there to launch a ship built by himself the year before. Shortly afterwards he nearly perished during a storm in an adventurous voyage to the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. His natural bent was now patent. From the first the lad had taken an extraordinary interest in the technical and mechanical arts, and their application to military and naval science. He was taught the use of the astrolabe (which Prince Yakov Dolgoruki, with intent to please, had brought him from Paris) by a Dutchman, Franz Timmerman, who also instructed him in the rudiments of geometry and fortifications. He had begun to build his own boats at a very early age, and the ultimate result of these pastimes was the creation of the Russian navy. He had already surrounded himself with that characteristically Petrine institution "the jolly company", or "the company", as it was generally called, consisting of all his numerous personal friends and casual acquaintances. "The company" was graduated into a sort of mock hierarchy, political and ecclesiastical, and shared not only the orgies but also the labors of the tsar. Merit was the sole qualification for promotion, and Peter himself set the example to the other learners by gradually rising from the ranks. In 1695 he had only advanced to the post of "skipper" in his own navy and of "bombardier" in his own army. It was, however, the disreputable Lefort who, for the sake of his own interests, diverted the young tsar from mere pleasure to serious enterprises, by persuading him first to undertake the Azov expedition, and then to go abroad to complete his education.

By this time the White Sea had become too narrow for Peter, and he was looking about him for more hospitable waters. The Baltic was a closed door to Muscovy, and the key to it was held by Sweden. The Caspian remained; and it had for long been a common saying with foreign merchants that the best way of tapping the riches of the Orient was to secure possession of this vast inland lake. But so long as the Turks and Tatars made the surrounding steppes uninhabitable the Caspian was a possession of but doubtful value. The first step making for security was to build a fleet strong enough to provide against the anarchical condition of those parts; but this implied a direct attack not only upon the Crimean khan, who was mainly responsible for the conduct of the Volgan hordes, but upon the khan's suzerain, the Turkish sultan. Nevertheless Peter did not hesitate. War against Turkey was resolved upon, and Azov, the chief Turkish fortress in those regions, which could be approached by water from Moscow, became the Russian objective. From the 8th of July to the 22nd of September 1695 the Muscovites attempted in vain to capture Azov. On the 22nd of November Peter re-entered Moscow. His first military expedition had ended in unmitigated disaster, yet from this disaster is to be dated the reign of Peter the Great.

Immediately after his return he sent to Austria and Prussia for as many sappers, miners, engineers and carpenters as money could procure. He meant to build a fleet strong enough to prevent the Turkish fleet from relieving Azov. The guards and all the workmen procurable were driven, forthwith, in bands, to all the places among the forests of the Don to fell timber and work day and night, turning out scores of vessels of all kinds. Peter himself lived among his workmen, himself the most strenuous of them all, in a small two-roomed wooden hut at Voronezh. By the middle of April two warships, twenty-three galleys, four fireships and numerous smaller craft were safely launched. On the 3rd of May "the sea caravan" sailed from Voronezh, "Captain Peter Aleksyeevich" commanding the galley-flotilla from the galley "Principium", built by his own hand. The new Russian fleet did all that was required of it by preventing the Turks from relieving Azov by water; and on the 18th of July the fortress surrendered. Peter now felt able to advance along the path of progress with a quicker and a firmer step. It was resolved to consolidate the victory by establishing a new naval station at the head of the Sea of Azov, to which the name of Taganrog was given. But it was necessary to guarantee the future as well as provide for the present. Turkey was too formidable to be fought single-handed, and it was therefore determined to send a grand embassy to the principal western powers to solicit their cooperation agairst the Porte. On the 10th of March 1697 this embassy, under the leadership of Lefort, set out on its travels. Peter attached himself to it as a volunteer sailorman, "Peter Mikhailov", so as to have greater facility for learning ship-building and other technical sciences. As a political mission it failed utterly, the great powers being at that period far more interested in western than in eastern affairs. But personally Peter learned nearly all that he wanted to know -- gunnery at K÷nigsberg, shipbuilding at Saardam and Deptford, anatomy at Leiden, engraving at Amsterdam -- and was proceeding to Venice to complete his knowledge of navigation when the revolt of the stryeltsy, or musketeers (June 1698), recalled him to Moscow. This revolt has been greatly exaggerated. It was suppressed in an hour's time by the tsar's troops, of whom only one man was mortally wounded; and the horrible vengeance (September to October 1698) which Peter on his return to Russia wreaked upon the captive musketeers was due not to any actual fear of these antiquated warriors, but to his consciousness that behind them stood the reactionary majority of the nation who secretly sympathized with, though they dare not assist, the rebels.

Peter's foreign tour had more than ever convinced him of the inherent superiority of the foreigner. Imitation had necessarily to begin with externals, and Peter at once fell foul of the long beards and Oriental costumes which symbolized the arch-conservatism of old Russia. On the 26th of April 1698 the chief men of the tsardom were assembled round his wooden hut at Preobrazhenskoye, and Peter with his own hand deliberately clipped off the beards and moustaches of his chief boyars. The ukaz of the 1st of September 1698 allowed as a compromise that beards should be worn, but a graduated tax was imposed upon their wearers. The wearing of the ancient costumes was forbidden by the ukaz of the 4th of January 1700; thenceforth Saxon or Magyar jackets and French or German hose were prescribed. That the people themselves did not regard the reform as a trifle is plain from the numerous rebellions against it. By the ukaz of the 20th of December 1699 it was next commanded that henceforth the new year should not be reckoned, as heretofore, from the 1st of September, supposed to be the date of the creation, but from the first day of January, anno domini.

The year 1700 is memorable in Russian history as the starting point of Peter's long and desperate struggle for the hegemony of the north. He had concluded peace with the Porte (June 13, 1700) on very advantageous terms, in order to devote himself wholly to a war with Sweden to the end that Russia might gain her proper place on the Baltic. The possession of an ice-free seaboard was essential to her natural development; the creation of a fleet would follow inevitably upon the acquisition of such a seaboard; and she could not hope to obtain her due share of the trade and commerce of the world until she possessed both. All the conjunctures seemed favorable to Peter. The Swedish government was in the hands of an untried lad of sixteen; and the fine fleets of Denmark, and the veteran soldiers of Saxony, were on the same side as the myriads of Muscovy. It seemed an easy task for such a coalition to wrest the coveted spoil from the young Charles XII; yet Peter was the only one of the three conspirators who survived the Twenty-one Years' War in which they so confidently embarked during the summer of 1701. He was also the only one of them who got anything by it. Charles's "immersion in the Polish bog" (1702-07), as Peter phrased it, enabled the tsar, not without considerable expense and trouble, to conquer Ingria and lay the foundations of St. Petersburg. In these early days Peter would very willingly have made peace with his formidable rival if he had been allowed to retain these comparatively modest conquests. From 1707 to 1709 the war on his part was purely defensive; Charles would not hear of peace until full restitution had been made and a war indemnity paid, while Peter was fully resolved to perish rather than surrender his "paradise", Petersburg. After Pultava (June 26, 1709), Peter, hitherto commendably cautious even to cowardice, but now puffed up with pride, rashly plunged into as foolhardy an enterprise as ever his rival engaged in. The campaign of the Pruth (March to July 1711) must have been fatal to the tsar but for the incalculable behavior of the omnipotent grand vizier, who let the Russian army go at the very instant when it lay helpless in the hollow of his hand. Even so, Peter, by the peace of the Pruth, had to sacrifice all that he had gained by the Azov expedition fifteen years previously. On receiving the tidings of the conclusion of the peace of Nystad (August 30, 1721), Peter declared, with perfect justice, that it was the most profitable peace Russia had ever concluded. The gain to Russia was, indeed, much more than territorial. In surrendering the pick of her Baltic provinces, Sweden had surrendered along with them the hegemony of the north, and all her pretensions to be considered a great power.

The Great Northern War was primarily a training school for a backward young nation, and in the second place a means of multiplying the material resources of a nation as poor as she was backward. During the whole course of it the process of internal domestic reformation had been slowly but unceasingly proceeding. Brand-new institutions on Western models were gradually growing up among the cumbrous, antiquated, worn-out machinery of old Muscovy; and new men, like Menshikov, Goloykin, Apraksin, Osterman, Kurakin, Tolstoy, Shafirov, Prokopovich, Yaguszhinsky, Yavorsky, all capable, audacious, and brimful of new ideas, were being trained under the eye of the great regenerator to help him to carry on his herculean task. At first the external form of the administration remained much the same as before. The old dignities disappeared of their own accord with the deaths of their holders, for the new men, those nearest to Peter, did not require them. "The Administrative Senate" was not introduced until 1711, and only then because the interminable war, which required Peter's prolonged absence from Russia, made it impossible for him to attend to the details of the domestic administration. Still later came the "Spiritual Department", or "Holy Synod" (January 1721), which superseded the ancient patriarchate. It was established, we are told, "because simple folks cannot distinguish the spiritual power from the sovereign power, and suppose that a supreme spiritual pastor is a second sovereign, the spiritual authority being regarded as higher and better than the temporal." From the first the regenerator in his ukazes was careful to make everything quite plain. He was always explaining why he did this or that, why the new was better than the old, and so on; and we must recollect that these were the first lessons of the kind the nation had ever received. The whole system of Peter was deliberately directed against the chief evils from which old Muscovy had always suffered, such as dissipation of energy, dislike of cooperation, absence of responsibility, lack of initiative, the tyranny of the family, the insignificance of the individual. The low social morality of all classes, even when morality was present at all, necessitated the regeneration of the nation against its will, and the process could therefore only be a violent one. Yet the most enlightened of Peter's contemporaries approved of and applauded his violence; some of them firmly believed that his most energetic measures were not violent enough. Thus Ivan Poroshkov, Peter's contemporary, the father of Russian political economy, writes as follows: "If any land be over-much encumbered with weeds, corn cannot be sown thereon unless the weeds first be burned with fire. In the same way, our ancient inveterate evils should also be burnt with fire." Peter himself carried this principle to its ultimate limits in dealing with his unfortunate son the Tsarevich Alexius. From an ethical and religious point of view the deliberate removal of Alexius was an abominable, an inhuman crime: Peter justified it as necessary for the welfare of the new Russia which he had called into existence.

The official birthday of the Russian empire was the 22nd of October 1721, when, after a solemn thanksgiving service in the Troitsa Cathedral for the peace of Nystad, the tsar proceeded to the senate and was there acclaimed: "Father of the Fatherland, Peter the Great, and Emperor of All Russia." Some Russians would have preferred to proclaim Peter as emperor of the East; but Peter himself adopted the more patriotic title.

Towards the end of the reign the question of the succession to the throne caused the emperor some anxiety. The rightful heir, in the natural order of primogeniture, was the little grand duke Peter, son of the Tsarevich Alexius, a child of six; but Peter decided to pass him over in favor of his own beloved consort Catherine. The ustav, or ordinance of 1722, heralded this unheard-of innovation. Time-honored custom had hitherto reckoned primogeniture in the male line as the best title to the Russian crown; in the ustav of 1722 Peter denounced primogeniture in general as a stupid, dangerous, and even unscriptural practice of dubious origin. The ustav was but a preliminary step to a still more sensational novelty. Peter had resolved to crown his consort empress, and on the 15th of November 1723 he issued a second manifesto explaining at some length why he was taking such an unusual step. That he should have considered any explanation necessary demonstrates that he felt himself to be treading on dangerous ground. The whole nation listened aghast to the manifesto. The coronation of a woman was in the eyes of the Russian people a scandalous innovation in any case, and the proposed coronation was doubly scandalous in view of the base and disreputable origin of Catherine herself. But Peter had his way, and the ceremony took place at Moscow with extraordinary pomp and splendor on the 7th of May 1724.

During the last four years of his reign Peter's policy was predominantly Oriental. He had got all he wanted in Europe, but the anarchical state of Persia at the beginning of 1722 opened up fresh vistas of conquest. The war which lasted from May 1722 to September 1723 was altogether successful, resulting in the acquisition of the towns of Baku and Derbent and the Caspian provinces of Gilan, Mazandaran and Astarabad. The Persian campaigns wore out the feeble health of Peter, who had been ailing for some time. A long and fatiguing tour of inspection over the latest of his great public works, the Ladoga Canal, during the autumn of 1724, brought back another attack of his paroxysms, and he reached Petersburg too ill to rally again, though he showed himself in public as late as the 16th of January 1725. He expired in the arms of his consort, after terrible suffering, on the 28th of January 1725.

Peter's claim to greatness rests mainly on the fact that from first to last he clearly recognized the requirements of the Russian nation and his own obligations as its ruler. It would have materially lightened his task had he placed intelligent foreigners at the head of every department of state, allowing them gradually to train up a native bureaucracy. But for the sake of the independence of the Russian nation he resisted the temptation of taking this inviting but perilous shortcut to greatness. He was determined that, at whatever cost, hardship and inconvenience, Russia should be ruled by Russians, not by foreigners; and before his death he had the satisfaction of seeing every important place in his empire in the hands of capable natives of his own training. But even in his most sweeping reforms he never lost sight of the idiosyncrasies of the people. He never destroyed anything which he was not able to replace by something better. He possessed, too, something of the heroic nature of the old Russian bogatuirs, or demigods, as we see them in the skazki and the builinui. His expansive nature loved width and space. No doubt this last of the bogatuirs possessed the violent passions as well as the wide views of his prototypes, All his qualities, indeed, were on a colossal scale. His rage was cyclonic: his hatred rarely stopped short of extermination. His banquets were orgies, his pastimes convulsions. He lived and he loved like one of the giants of old. There are deeds of his which make humanity shudder, and no man equally great has ever descended to such depths of cruelty and treachery. Yet it may generally be allowed that a strain of nobility, of which we occasionally catch illuminating glimpses, extorts from time to time an all-forgiving admiration. Strange, too, as it may sound, Peter the Great was at heart profoundly religious. Few men have ever had a more intimate persuasion that they were but instruments for good in the hands of God.

Father: Tsar Alexis (Tsar of Russia, b. 19-Mar-1629, d. 8-Feb-1676)
Mother: Natalia Kirilovna Narishkin (b. 22-Aug-1651, d. 25-Jan-1694)
Brother: Tsar Fyodor III (half-; b. 30-May-1661, d. 27-Apr-1682)
Sister: Theodora Alexiovna Romanov (b. 11-Sep-1673, d. 1676)
Sister: Natalie Alexiovna Romanov (b. 4-Sep-1674, d. 29-Jan-1716)
Wife: Yevdokiya Theodorovna Lopukhin (b. 1672, m. 6-Feb-1789, div. 1698, d. 1731)
Son: Alexis (b. 18-Feb-1690, d. 7-Jul-1718, executed)
Wife: Catherine I (b. 1683, m. 1711, until his death, d. 17-May-1727)
Daughter: Anna (mother of Tsar Peter III, b. 7-Feb-1708, d. 15-May-1728)
Daughter: Elizabeth (Tsarina of Russia, b. 29-Dec-1709, d. 5-Jan-1762)

    Tsar of Russia (1689-1725)


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