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Peter the Great

In the eighteenth century, Muscovy was transformed from a static, somewhat isolated, traditional state into the more dynamic, partially Westernized, and secularized Russian Empire. This transformation was in no small measure a result of the vision, energy, and determination of Peter the Great. Historians disagree about the extent to which Peter himself transformed Russia, but they generally concur that he laid the foundations for empire building over the next two centuries. The era that Peter initiated signaled the advent of Russia as a major European power. But, although the Russian Empire would play a leading political role in the next century, its retention of serfdom precluded economic progress of any significant degree. As West European economic growth accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, which had begun in the second half of the eighteenth century, Russia began to lag ever farther behind, creating new problems for the empire as a great power.

When Alexis died, he left, by his first wife, Feodor, Ivan, and Sophia; by his second, Peter and Natalia. Feodor (III.) succeeded his father, but he soon died, after naming his young half-brother Peter as his successor. The imbecile Ivan nominally reigned with the latter; and their sister Sophia, with her favourite, Prince Galitzin, ruled all. Ultimately, however, Peter subdued all his opponents.

As a child of the second marriage of Tsar Aleksey, Peter at first was relegated to the background of Russian politics as various court factions struggled to control the throne. Aleksey was succeeded by his son from his first marriage, Fedor III, a sickly boy who died in 1682. Peter then was made co-tsar with his half brother, Ivan V, but Peter's half sister, Sofia, held the real power. She ruled as regent while the young Peter was allowed to play war games with his friends and to roam in Moscow's foreign quarters. These early experiences instilled in him an abiding interest in Western military practice and technology, particularly in military engineering, artillery, navigation, and shipbuilding.

At the age of 10, Peter suffered a mental breakdown when the streltsy, the royal guard, killed his uncles and relatives during an uprising. From then on, he suffered seizures all his life. Juel Just, the Danish envoy to Russia, described these seizures: “His face was distinctly pale, distorted and ugly. He made grimaces and motions… spinning his head, rolling his eyes, twitching his arms and shoulders… This happens often, when he’s angry, received bad news, upset or deep in thought.”

Epilepsy causes seizures, but this disease also involves the worsening of memory and intellect – but Peter stayed sane and intelligent until the end of his life. But he was so menacing that even his son Alexey chose to shoot himself in the hand rather than take an exam before his father. On the other hand, Peter’s cruelty was beyond limits: three times his son was placed on a torture rack and tried repeatedly for state treason. Peter personally sanctioned torturing him to death, and he was exceptionally cruel to his first wife, as well as jailed his sisters in a monastery, outdrank several people to death, including Frederick William, Duke of Courland, his niece’s husband.

Some doctors argue that the cause of the seizures was the concussion Peter experienced in his youth while training with his “toy army,” when a real grenade exploded next to him. Anyway, his famed intellectual abilities and tempo of work (he wrote letters even on horseback), as well as his numerous inventions and state reforms, show that he was an exceptionally intelligent man, who, sadly, had a furious and unrestrained temper.

Peter could endure no brother near the throne like Ivan; still less a superior, like Sophia. The first was quietly got rid of ; the latter stood more obstinately in her half-brother's way, supported by the Strelitzes, or guards, who had made of her, virtually, an Empress. In 1689, using troops that he had drilled during childhood games, Peter foiled a plot to have Sofia crowned. He compelled Sophia to shave her head and retire to a monastery; and he destroyed the arrogant soldiery by whom her cause had been espoused. When such of the Strelitzes who had not been assassinated, were being judicially executed, they were called by name, one after the other to the block. At length the turn came of a youthful soldier named Orel. He boldly advanced, and as the heads of his dead comrades impeded his way to the block, he put them aside with his feet, saying, "Make room, comrades, I am coming to join you." His boldness won for him his life; and Peter, ennobling his name of Orel (Eagle) by an additional syllable, subsequently bestowed on him the dignity which is now worn by his descendant, Count Orloff.

Peter the Great reigned alone from the year 1689 to 1725. When Ivan V died in 1696, Peter became the sole tsar of Muscovy. He was the founder of St Petersburg; he raised the country to a position it had never hitherto attained, and he was the first of the Czars who assumed the title of Emperor. War dominated much of Peter's reign. At first Peter attempted to secure the principality's southern borders against the Tatars and the Ottoman Turks. His campaign against a fort on the Sea of Azov failed initially, but after he created Russia's first navy, Peter was able to take the port of Azov in 1696. To continue the war with the Ottoman Empire, Peter traveled to Europe to seek allies.

The first tsar to make such a trip, Peter visited Brandenburg, Holland, England, and the Holy Roman Empire during his so-called Grand Embassy. Peter learned a great deal and enlisted into his service hundreds of West European technical specialists. The embassy was cut short by the attempt to place Sofia on the throne instead of Peter, a revolt that was crushed by Peter's followers. As a result, Peter had hundreds of the participants tortured and killed, and he publicly displayed their bodies as a warning to others.

Peter was unsuccessful in forging a European coalition against the Ottoman Empire, but during his travels he found interest in waging war against Sweden, then an important power in northern Europe. Seeing an opportunity to break through to the Baltic Sea, Peter made peace with the Ottoman Empire in 1700 and then attacked the Swedes at their port of Narva on the Gulf of Finland. However, Sweden's young king, Charles XII, proved his military acumen by crushing Peter's army. Fortunately for Peter, Charles did not follow up his victory with a counteroffensive, becoming embroiled instead in a series of wars over the Polish throne.

This respite allowed Peter to build a new, Western-style army. When the armies of the two leaders met again at the town of Poltava in 1709, Peter defeated Charles. Charles escaped to Ottoman territory, and Russia subsequently became engaged in another war with the Ottoman Empire. Russia agreed to return the port of Azov to the Ottomans in 1711. The Great Northern War, which in essence was settled at Poltava, continued until 1721, when Sweden agreed to the Treaty of Nystad. The treaty allowed Muscovy to retain the Baltic territories that it had conquered: Livonia, Estonia, and Ingria. Through his victories, Peter acquired a direct link with Western Europe. In celebration, Peter assumed the title of emperor as well as tsar, and Muscovy officially became the Russian Empire in 1721.

Peter achieved Muscovy's expansion into Europe and its transformation into the Russian Empire through several major initiatives. He established Russia's naval forces, reorganized the army according to European models, streamlined the government, and mobilized Russia's financial and human resources. Under Peter, the army drafted soldiers for lifetime terms from the taxpaying population, and it drew officers from the nobility and required them to give lifelong service in either the military or civilian administration. In 1722 Peter introduced the Table of Ranks, which determined a person's position and status according to service to the tsar rather than to birth or seniority. Even commoners who achieved a certain level on the table were ennobled automatically.

Peter's reorganization of the government structure was no less thorough. He replaced the prikazy with colleges or boards and created a senate to coordinate government policy. Peter's reform of local government was less successful, but his changes enabled local governments to collect taxes and maintain order. As part of the government reform, the Orthodox Church was partially incorporated into the country's administrative structure. Peter abolished the patriarchate and replaced it with a collective body, the Holy Synod, led by a lay government official.

Peter tripled the revenues of the state treasury through a variety of taxes. He levied a capitation, or poll tax, on all males except clergy and nobles and imposed a myriad of indirect taxes on alcohol, salt, and even beards. To provide uniforms and weapons for the military, Peter developed metallurgical and textile industries using serf labor.

Peter wanted to equip Russia with modern technology, institutions, and ideas. He required Western-style education for all male nobles, introduced so-called cipher schools to teach the alphabet and basic arithmetic, established a printing house, and funded the Academy of Sciences , which was established just before his death in 1725 and became one of Russia's most important cultural institutions. He demanded that aristocrats acquire the dress, tastes, and social customs of the West. The result was a deepening of the cultural rift between the nobility and the mass of Russian people. The best illustration of Peter's drive for Westernization, his break with traditions, and his coercive methods was his construction in 1703 of a new, architecturally Western capital, St. Petersburg, situated on land newly conquered from Sweden on the Gulf of Finland. Although St. Petersburg faced westward, its Westernization was by coercion, and it could not arouse the individualistic spirit that was an important element in the Western ways Peter so admired.

Peter not merely astonished and bewildered people: he scandalized them. An open, systematic and sometimes brutal attack was made upon the customs, traditions and prejudices of the people. The reformer did not confine himself to the civil institutions: he laid violent hands upon the Church, and forced his way into the family, regulating, as the whim seized him, both public af. fairs and the private life of the citizen. The old-fashioned Russian was a stranger in Peter's new empire. His eyes were shocked by the spectacle of an unaccustomed garb, and novel administrative titles fell strangely on his ear. Names and things, the almanac and the laws, the alphabet and the fashions of dress — everything was transformed. The very elements of civilization were hardly recognizable.

The masculine attire was altered and the chin was shorn of its beard, while the veil no longer might protect the modesty of the women. The impression made by such a succession of shocks upon a nation so bigotedly attached to its ancestral ways was comparable only to an earthquake rocking Old Russia to its foundations. Many of these innovations, as being borrowed from the Romanists or the Lutherans of the West, had a religious significance for the people.

In Russia the conflict between popular obstinacy and modern propagandism found the rallying-sign of the Old Believers, and the emblem of the champions of nationality and conservatism, was the beard. The national chin was the centre of a conflict less puerile than might be fancied. Long before Peter the Great imitators of Western ways had begun to shave, thus setting at defiance the Oriental custom which everywhere prevailed in Russia. Up to the time of Nikon the patriarchs had laid hardly less stress on forms and on the exclusion of foreign ways than their future opponents of the Raskol, and had condemned shaving as “an heretical practice which disfigures the image of God, and makes men look like dogs and cats.” This is the main theological argument of the foes of the barber, and their current interpretation of the verse of Genesis, “God created man in His own image.” The living work of God is to them as sacred as the text of the divine word. Every word and letter of the sacred office must have its separate significance; and they cannot admit that the hair with which the Almighty has covered a man's face is without a meaning. It was to them the distinctive mark of the male countenance; to remove it is to change, and therefore to disfigure, the divine handiwork: it is, in short, hardly less than mutilation. The beard, like the single repetition of the Hallelujah and the cross with eight branches, had its martyrs. The Raskolniks could see but one interpretation of the overturning of public and private order under Peter the Great, and for what they regarded as the triumph of darkness: to them it was the coming end of the world and the advent of Antichrist. The old customs, it seemed, must carry with them in their fall the Church, society and all mankind. For centuries the extremity of agony or of wonder has wrung this cry from Christendom. After political revolutions and disastrous wars, in the most enlightened countries of Europe, in France and elsewhere, religious persons, in the panic of calamity, have been seen to take refuge in this last solution for the woes of Church or of State, and proclaim with the Raskolniks that the end-time was at hand.

With the accession of Peter the Great, while he was reducing everything to confusion before their bewildered eyes, and trampling under foot the old customs, along with morality itself at times, the Raskolniks were at no loss to recognize in him the coming Antichrist. Nations are not always clear-sighted: the creator of modern Russia was regarded by a considerable portion of his subjects as an envoy or representative of hell; and his empire has never ceased to hold the unexampled position of a government cursed by a part of its own people as the dominion of Antichrist. This Satanic apotheosis derived no little support from some of the reformer's idiosyncrasies.

The story of the usurpers and the false Dmitri had not faded from the popular memory; and thus there grew up amidst the unlettered and bewildered Russian people a string of legends in which were harmonized their belief in the reign of Antichrist and the popular respect for the czar. In this way the Raskolniks have created a fantastic history which has been handed down to our own days, according to one version of which, as has been said, Peter the Great is the impious bastard of the patriarch Nikon (and from such a parentage only a devil's offspring could be looked for).

Another asserts that Peter Alexovitch was a pious prince, like his forefathers, but that he had perished at sea, and in his stead had been substituted a Jew of the race of Danof, or Satan. On gaining possession of the throne, continues the legend, the false czar immured the czarina in a convent, slew the czarovitch, espoused a German adventuress and filled Russia with foreigners. Such was the Old Believers' explanation of the portentous phenomenon of a Russian czar engaged in destroying the institutions of Holy Russia. In the midst of the nineteenth century the incidents of Peter's career, whether insignificant or important — his vices not less than his glory — are used as proofs of his infernal mission.

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.

By one account he dove in the water to help rescue some drowning sailors; he ended up with a bad cold and died a short time later. Peter was attacked suddenly by a very painful disease, and, after suffering great distress and anguish for many days, he at length expired. His death took place on the 28th of January, 1725. Peter died in great pain from a stone in his bladder. The cause of death was gangrene of urinary tract spreading throughout his body.

One of his daughters, the Princess Natalia Petrowna, the third of Catharine's children, died a short time after her father, and the bodies of both parent and child were interred together at the same funeral ceremony, which was conducted with the utmost possible pomp and parade. The obsequies were so protracted that it was more than six weeks from the death of the Czar before the bodies were finally committed to the tomb; and a volume might be filled with an account of the processions and ceremonies.

Peter's reign raised questions about Russia's backwardness, its relationship to the West, the appropriateness of reform from above, and other fundamental problems that have confronted many of Russia's subsequent rulers. In the nineteenth century, Russians debated whether Peter was correct in pointing Russia toward the West or whether his reforms had been a violation of Russia's natural traditions.

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Page last modified: 16-01-2019 13:13:17 ZULU