Peter I (1672-1725), 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 favored the frail Ivan, her 15-year-old brother, to succeed Feodor. Another group favored 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.
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 maneuvers, 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.
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 favor 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—remodeling 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."
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.
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 center of the new Russia as Moscow had been the center 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.
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.
Further Reading on Peter I
A study of Peter I is L. Jay Oliva, Russia in the Era of Peter the Great (1969). Ian Grey, Peter the Great (1960), is a comprehensive biography based on recent scholarship. A superb account of Peter's reign is Vasilii O. Klyuchevsky, Peter the Great, translated by Liliana Archibald (1958). Benedict Humphrey Sumner provides a brief, lucid survey of Peter's place in Russian history in Peter the Great and the Emergence of Russia (1950). Sumner also wrote the more specialized Peter the Great and the Ottoman Empire (1949).
Eugene Schuyler, Peter the Great (2 vols., 1884), is the most detailed biography available in English; it is somewhat dated but quite useful. Marc Raeff, ed., Peter the Great: Reformer or Revolutionary? (1963), is a collection of differing views about Peter by his contemporaries and later observers. Raeff's Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth-century Nobility (1966) details the profound changes that Peter made in Russian society. The myth created around the image of Peter is discussed in Michael Cherniavsky, Tsar and People: Studies in Russian Myths (1961). Peter's life was fictionalized in Alexei Tolstoy, Peter the Great (trans. 1936).