Peter was the youngest child of Czar Alexis, by Alexis's second wife, Natalya Naryshkin. From Alexis's first marriage (with Maria Miloslavsky) were born Feodor III, Sophia Alekseyevna, and the semi-imbecile Ivan. On Feodor III's death (1682), a struggle broke out for the succession between the Naryshkin and Miloslavsky factions. The Naryshkins at first succeeded in setting Ivan aside in favor of 10-year-old Peter. Shortly afterward, however, the Miloslavsky party incited the streltsi (semi-military formations in Moscow) to rebellion. In the bloody disorder that followed, Peter witnessed the murders of many of his supporters. As a result of the rebellion Ivan, as Ivan V, was made (1682) joint czar with Peter, under the regency of Sophia Alekseyevna.
A virtual exile, Peter spent most of his childhood in a suburb of Moscow, surrounded by playmates drawn both from the nobility and from the roughest social elements. His talent for leadership soon became apparent when he organized military games that became regular maneuvers in siegecraft. In addition, Peter began to experiment with shipbuilding on Lake Pereyaslavl (now Lake Pleshcheyevo). Peter learned the rudiments of Western military science from the European soldiers and adventurers who lived in a foreign settlement near Moscow. His most influential foreign friends, Patrick Gordon of Scotland, François Lefort of Geneva, and Franz Timmermann of Holland, came from this colony. In 1689, Sophia Alekseyevna attempted a coup d'etat against Peter; this time, however, aided by the loyal part of the streltsi, he overthrew the regent. For several years, until Peter assumed personal rule, the Naryshkins ran the government. Ivan V, whose death in 1696 left Peter sole czar, took no part in the government.
Russia was almost continuously at war during Peter's reign. In the 16th and early 17th centuries the country had fought periodically in the northwest against Sweden, in an attempt to gain access to the Baltic Sea, and in the south against the Ottoman Empire. While continuing the policy of his predecessors, Peter drew Russia into European affairs and helped to make it a great power. His earliest venture was the conquest of Azov from the Ottomans in 1696, after an unsuccessful attempt in 1695. Peter then embarked on a European tour (1697–98), traveling partly incognito, to form a grand alliance against the Ottoman Empire and to acquire the Western techniques necessary to modernize Russia's armed forces. He failed to form an anti-Ottoman alliance, but his conversations with the Polish king and others led eventually (1699) to a coalition against Sweden.
Peter also gained considerable knowledge of European industrial techniques (he even spent some time working as a ship's carpenter in Holland) and hired many European craftsmen for service in Russia. In 1698 he returned to Russia, began to modernize the armed forces, and launched domestic reforms. After concluding (1700) peace with the Ottomans, Peter, in alliance with Denmark and the combined Saxony-Poland, began the Northern War (1700–1721) against Charles XII of Sweden. Although disastrously defeated at first, he routed Charles at Poltava in 1709 and by the Treaty of Nystad (1721) retained his conquests of Ingermanland, Karelia, and Livonia.
Peter's conquests in the south were less permanent. Azov was restored to the Ottoman Empire in 1711; Derbent, Baku, and the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, conquered in a war (1722–23) with Persia, were soon lost again. In the east, Russia extended its control over part of Siberia but failed to subjugate either Khiva or Bokhara. Peter's first diplomatic missions to China were unsuccessful but his efforts led to the Treaty of Kyakhta (1727), which fixed the Russo-Chinese border and established commercial relations. Peter's interest in imperial expansion led to the financing of the first voyage of Vitus Bering.
Peter had returned to Russia in 1698 at the news of a military revolt allegedly instigated by Sophia Alekseyevna. He took drastic vengeance on his opponents and forced Sophia into a convent. On the day after his return, Peter personally cut off the beards of his nobles and shortly thereafter ordered them to replace their long robes and conical hats with Western dress. This attack on the symbols of old Muscovy marked the beginning of Peter's attempt to force Russia to adopt European appearance and other features of Western culture. Most of Peter's reforms followed his predecessors' tentative steps, but his demonic pace and brutal methods created an impression of revolutionary change.
The reforms were sporadic and uncoordinated; many of them grew out of the needs of Peter's almost continuous warfare. He introduced conscription on a territorial basis, enlarged and modernized the army, founded and expanded the navy, and established technical schools to train men for military service. To finance this huge military establishment, he created state monopolies, introduced the first poll tax, and placed levies on every conceivable item. Peter encouraged and subsidized private industry and established state mines and factories to provide adequate supplies of war materials. Peter reformed the administrative machinery of the state. He introduced a supervisory senate and a new system of central administration and tried to reform provincial and local government.
Peter also attempted to subordinate all classes of Russian society to the needs of the state. He enlarged the service nobility (the body of nobles who owed service to the state), imposed further duties on it, and forced the sons of nobles to attend technical schools. To control the nobles he introduced the Table of Ranks, which established a bureaucratic hierarchy in which promotion was based on merit rather than on birth. The nobility's economic position was strengthened by changes in the laws of land tenure. The serfs (who paid the bulk of taxes and made up most of the soldiery) were bound more securely to their masters and to the land. Peter subordinated the church to the state by replacing the patriarchate with a holy synod, headed by a lay procurator appointed by the czar.
Peter introduced changes in manners and mores. The ban on beards and Muscovite dress was extended to the entire male population, women were released from their servile position, and attempts were made to improve the manners of the court and administration. Peter sent many Russians to be schooled in the West and was responsible for the foundation (1725) of the Academy of Sciences. He reformed the calendar and simplified the alphabet. The transfer of the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, built on the swamps of Ingermanland at tremendous human cost, was a dramatic symbol of Peter's reforms. Although Peter sought to enforce all his reforms with equal severity, he was unable to eradicate the traditional corruption of officials or to impose Western ways on the peasantry.
His reforms were often considered whimsical and sacrilegious and met widespread opposition. The conservatives among the clergy accused him of being the antichrist. The discontented looked to Peter's son, Alexis, who was eventually tried for treason on flimsy evidence and was tortured to death (1718). In 1721, Peter had himself proclaimed “emperor of all Russia.” In 1722 he declared the choice of a successor to be dependent on the sovereign's will; this decree (valid until the reign of Paul I) preceded the coronation (1724) of his second wife as Empress Catherine I. She was a Livonian peasant girl whom Peter had made his mistress, then his wife (1712) after repudiating his first consort. Her accession on Peter's death was largely engineered by Peter's chief lieutenant and favorite, A. D. Menshikov. Although many of Peter's innovations were too hasty and arbitrary to be successful, his reign was decisive in the long process of transforming medieval Muscovy into modern Russia.
Personality and Achievements
Peter's personal traits ranged from bestial cruelty and vice to the most selfless devotion to Russia; his order to his troops at Poltava read, “Remember that you are fighting not for Peter but for the state.” Despite the convulsive fits that plagued him, he had a bearlike constitution, was of gigantic stature, and possessed herculean physical prowess. He drank himself into stupors and indulged in all conceivable vices but could rouse himself at a moment's notice, and he was willing to undergo all the physical exertions and privations that he exacted from his subjects.
Peter subordinated the lives and liberties of his subjects to his own conception of the welfare of the state. Like many of his successors, he concluded that ruthless reform was necessary to overcome Russia's backwardness. Peter remains one of the most controversial figures in Russian history. Those who regard Russia as essentially European praise him for his policy of Westernization, and others who consider Russia a unique civilization attack him for turning Russia from its special path of development. Those impressed by imperial expansion and state and social reforms tend to regard Peter's arbitrary and brutal methods as necessary, while others appalled by his disregard of human life conclude that the cost outweighed any gains.
The first biographer of Peter the Great was Voltaire. See later biographies by R. K. Massie (1986) and H. Troyat (1987); study by N. V. Riasanovsky (1985).
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