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An enduring view in world history of Peter I, czar of Russia from 1682 to 1725, sees him single-handedly transforming Russia from a backward fringe nation into a major modern power, even though some of his policies originated with his predecessors. The epithet “the Great” comes in part from his height; he was 201 centimeters (about 6 feet 7 inches) tall.
Peter I (czar of Russia 1682–1725) was a modernizer who inspired Russia’s rise as a major world power. The son of Czar Alexis I (reigned 1645–1676), Peter ruled jointly with his elder half-brother Ivan until the latter’s death in 1696. During the regency of their sister Sophia (1682–1689), Peter pursued hobbies that informed his later reforms, learning to sail and drilling his “play” regiments. In 1686 Russia joined the Holy League against Turkey and in 1697–1698, seeking aid for that war, Peter became the first Russian ruler to visit western Europe. For Peter it was also a voyage of self-education. His experience of Western cultures prompted him to force his nobles to shave off their beards (attributes of piety for Orthodox Christians) and adopt Western dress.
Following peace with the Turks, in 1700 Peter embarked upon the Great Northern War with Sweden. After early defeats, victory at Poltava in Ukraine in 1709 freed him to capture Sweden’s eastern Baltic ports. In 1711 Russia was defeated by the Turks, but a lenient settlement allowed Peter to pursue the Swedish war to a successful conclusion in the Treaty of Nystad (1721). He accepted the titles Emperor, the Great, and Father of the Fatherland.
War was a determining factor in Peter’s reforms. He improved the army and founded a fleet, using foreign technical expertise. His goal was to train Russians in new skills and develop private enterprise, but the state remained the chief producer and customer. Peter’s government reforms aimed to improve administrative efficiency. In 1711 he founded the senate, in 1717–1720 new government departments known as colleges, and in the 1700s–1710s organs of provincial government based on Swedish models. To rationalize and improve the military and civil service he created the Table of Ranks (1722), comprising a ladder of fourteen grades. Men from the hereditary elite continued to enjoy prominence, although some newcomers made their fortunes, most famously Peter’s favorite, Aleksandr Menshikov (c. 1670–1729).
Peter successfully established technical schools, such as the Moscow School of Mathematics and Navigation (1701), but new elementary schools (1714) generally failed to attract pupils. The Academy of Sciences (founded 1725), initially staffed entirely by foreigners, was his major achievement in this field. The Orthodox Church also ran schools. In 1721 Peter replaced the patriarchate (the last patriarch died in 1700) with a state-monitored committee of clergymen called the Holy Synod to run the church. He restricted entry into monasteries and requisitioned church funds for the war effort.
In 1703 Peter founded Saint Petersburg on former Swedish territory, as a base for the Baltic fleet and a port for foreign trade. From about 1712 it replaced Moscow as the capital. Saint Petersburg became Russia’s “window on Europe.” Its main buildings were designed by foreign architects and its inhabitants had to follow European fashions. In the seventeenth century upper-class Russian women had lived in semi-seclusion; Peter now forced them to socialize with men. Many Russians, however, resented being uprooted from Moscow to these alien surroundings.
Peter was a practical man. He studied many crafts, including ship building, woodturning, and dentistry. He began his army and naval careers from the lowest ranks as an example to others. But this man with a common touch remained an absolute ruler with an ambitious vision: to make Russia the equal of other European nations and to win their respect. He faced serious problems. More than 90 percent of his subjects were peasants and half of these were serfs. Peter had to extend and intensify serfdom to meet the demand for army recruits, labor, and tax revenues. The nobles, too, found lifelong service burdensome. They had no corporate rights or institutions and they were subject to Peter’s numerous regulations, devised “in order that everyone knows his duties and no-one excuses himself on the grounds of ignorance”—as it was stated in many edicts. These principles extended to Peter’s heir, Alexis Petrovich (1690–1718), the son from his first marriage. Alexis opposed many of his father’s ideas and in 1718 he was condemned to death for treason. In 1722 Peter duly issued a law that required the reigning monarch to nominate an heir, to reduce the risk of an “unworthy” successor. But Peter failed to make a nomination. He was succeeded by his widow, Catherine I (reigned 1725–1727), a Livonian peasant whom he married in 1712.
An enduring view of Peter the Great is that he single-handedly transformed Russia from a backward fringe nation into a major modern power, even though some of his policies originated with his predecessors. At 201 centimeters tall, he was larger than life. Both Lenin and Stalin admired Peter for “accelerating” Russia’s economic and military development. Opinions are divided about the “balance sheet” of his activities, however. Critics question the heavy cost of his schemes, his use of force, the dangers of excessive imitation, and the split he created between a westernized elite and the peasant masses. He remains a controversial figure in Russia today.
- Anderson, M. S. (1995). Peter the Great. London: Longman.
- Anisimov, E. V. (1993). Progress through coercion: The reforms of Peter the Great. New York: M. E. Sharpe.
- Bushkovitch, P. (2001). Peter the Great: The struggle for power, 1671–1725. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Cracraft, J. (2003). The revolution of Peter the Great. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Hughes, L. A. J. (1998). Russia in the age of Peter the Great. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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