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Sunday, 5 February 2017

Peter the Great


Peter the Great was born on June 9, 1672 in Moscow and given the name Pyotr Alekseyevich.

He was the 14th child of Czar Alexis Mikhailovich and the first of his father's second wife Nataliya Kyrillovna Naryshkina.

Alexis I had previously married Maria Miloslavskaya, having five sons and eight daughters by her, although only two of the sons—Feodor and Ivan—were alive when Peter was born.

Alexis I went on to have two further daughters by Nataliya Naryshkina before dying in 1674, to be succeeded by his eldest surviving son, who became Fyodor III.

Peter's sister Tsarevna Natalya founded the first public theater in Russia, writing a number of its plays herself.

As a boy, Peter liked to play with his toy soldiers in the country near Moscow and developed an interest in technology and science.

Peter the Great as a child

Peter's mother had the benefit of a progressive education and her influence helped develop his natural intelligence and abilities as a leader.


A hopeless invalid, Fyodor III did not rule for long, dying in spring 1682. On April 27, 1682, the  the Boyar Duma (a council of Russian nobles) decided to pass over the next boy, the retarded Ivan, in favor of Peter, who was an intelligent and boisterous lad of ten.

Sophia Alekseyevna, one of Alexis' daughters from his first marriage, led a rebellion of the Streltsy (Russia's elite military corps) in April and May 1682. In the subsequent conflict some of Peter's relatives on his mother's side of the family were murdered, and the 10-year-old tsar witnessed some of these acts of political violence.

After this dissension Peter was demoted to Co- Tsar, along with his mentally-deficient half brother Ivan. Peter's older half-sister, Sophia acted as Regent.

For his first seven years, Peter was not particularly concerned that others ruled in his own name, preferring to engage in such pastimes as ship-building and sailing. The ships he built were used during mock battles.

Though just a regent, Sophia ruled as an autocrat. A large hole was cut in the back of the dual-seated throne used by Ivan and Peter. Sophia would sit behind the throne and listen as Peter conversed with nobles, while feeding him information and giving him responses to questions and problems.

Peter overthrew Sophia in 1689, after she attempted a coup, retiring her to a convent.

In 1696, Peter became sole ruler of Russia on the death of his half brother, Ivan V.

To improve his nation's position on the seas, Peter sought to gain more maritime outlets. His only outlet at the time was the White Sea at Arkhangelsk. Peter attempted to acquire control of the Black Sea; and his primary objective became the capture of the Ottoman fortress of Azov, near the Don River. He launched about thirty ships against the Ottomans in 1696, capturing Azov on July 19 of that year, thus gaining an outlet to the Black Sea. As Captain Peter Alekseevich, he commanded from the Principium, a ship built by his own hand.

Capture of Azov, 1696, by Robert Ker Porter
The creation of the regular Imperial Russian Navy was declared by the Boyar Duma on October 20, 1696. This date is considered to be the birthdate of the Russian Navy. The first shipbuilding program consisted of 52 vessels.

Peter toured Western Europe in 1697-98 to secure allies against the Ottoman Empire where he worked as a ship’s carpenter. Peter's visits to the West impressed upon him the notion that European customs were in several respects superior to Russian traditions. He forbade the wearing of the long Russian coat and instead wear European clothing; anyone seen wearing one had the robe cut to the knee. Peter personally snipped off the massive folds off the sleeves of his chief boyars.

The Russian Czar also commanded all of his courtiers and officials to cut off their long beards. Boyars who sought to retain their facial hair were required to pay an annual tax of one hundred rubles.

In 1700 Peter turned his attention to Russian maritime supremacy. He launched the Great Northern War, fighting Sweden for control of the Baltic Sea. Russia was ill-prepared to fight the Swedes, and their first attempt at seizing the Baltic coast ended in disaster at the Battle of Narva in 1700.

After the battle, Charles XII of Sweden decided to concentrate his forces against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which gave Peter time to reorganize the Russian army.

Charles XII of Sweden invaded Russia but his Swedish forces were routed at the Battle of Poltava on July 8, 1709. The Swedish king fled to the Ottoman Empire and Peter the Great was established as the dominant force in Northern Europe.

The Battle of Poltava by Denis Martens the Younger (1726)

In 1703 Peter cut two strips of turf on a desolate swamp taken from the Swedes at the mouth of the River Neva, laid them across one another and declared "Here there shall be a city". That city was St Petersburg and the Peter and Paul Fortress, the first brick and stone building of the new city was founded by Peter the Great on May 27, 1703.

During the building of St Petersburg, Peter forbade even the slightest repair on stone buildings in Moscow asserting that every mason was needed in the new city.

Built in record time within nine years St Petersburg was completed and became Russian capital in 1712.

Peter the Great ordered every Moscow family with family of fewer than 30 families of serfs to pack up their belongings and move to the newly created city.

Peter the Great Meditating the Idea of Building St Petersburg at the Shore of the Baltic Sea by Alexandre Benois, 1916

In 1721 the Treaty of Nystad ended what became known as the Great Northern War. Russia acquired Ingria, Estonia, Livonia, and a substantial portion of Karelia. This resulted in Russia controlling the Baltic Eastern shores and consequently becoming a European power.

Because Russia was now a major power, Peter the Great changed its name from the Tsardom of Russia to the Russian Empire in 1721 and he became Emperor of all Russia.

An updated version of the renaissance man, Peter the Great modernized his nation, remodeling the legal systems, centralizing Russian administration and encouraging education.  He also extended Russian territory to the west and south east and made Russia one of the major sea powers of Europe. His reign was the golden age of Russia.


In 1697-98 Peter visited England and the Netherlands to study western techniques. He worked in Dutch and English shipyards.

Thanks to the mediation of the mayor of Amsterdam, Peter was given the opportunity to gain practical experience in the largest shipyard in the world, belonging to the Dutch East India Company, for a period of four months.

Peter was accompanied by a travelling retinue of 250 and was the first Tsar to cross his frontiers except on a military campaign.

William III of England lent Sayes Court to Peter for three months in 1698. The leaseholder diarist, John Evelyn, noted the Rusiian Tsar's drunken antics there which included using the paintings for target practice, the furniture for firewood, and the curtains to wipe his backside.

Portrait of Peter I by Godfrey Kneller, 1698. This portrait was Peter's gift to William III 
What most took Peter's fancy in England was wheelbarrows. The Russian Tsar had never seen a wheelbarrow, so he organised wheelbarrow races, which churned up the lawn of his rented house in Deptford.


Peter was not especially religious and had a low regard for the Church, so he put it under state control.

The Tsar celebrated his victories in battle with a Te Deum and closed his letters with "God's will be done."


His first wife was chosen by his mother when Peter was 17. Eudoxia Lopuizhina was the daughter of an aristocrat and they married on January 27, 1689.

Picture from the matrimonial love book, which was given as a marriage gift for their marriage 

The marriage was a huge failure, and during his prolonged journey to Western Europe, Peter asked his relatives to persuade Eudoxia to enter a monastery. This could not be effected until 1698, when she was finally banished to the Intercession Convent of Suzdal, thus freeing him from the marriage. Eudoxia was incarcerated in the Convent of the Intercession for twenty years

The Tsaritsa bore Peter three children, although only one—the Tsarevich Alexei—survived past his childhood.

In 1718, the Tsarevich Alexei was suspected of leading a conspiracy against his father. Peter had his son arrested in the Kremlin's grand dining room. As a warm-up, the boy received 25 blows of the knout (a whip with a lash of leather thongs) and, under torture, he finally confessed that "I wished for my father's death."

Peter personally visited Alexei in the torture chamber, remaining to watch for some hours.

Simon Sebag Montefiore says in his book The Romanovs that Peter's son died on July 7, 1718 of "shock, blood loss or infection after knouting, which would have flayed and shredded his back to the bone". At Alexei's funeral, Peter is said to have wept and kissed his son's lips in the open coffin.

Peter I interrogating his son Alexei, a painting by Nikolai Ge (1871)

Alexei's mother Eudoxia was also punished; she was dragged from her home and tried on false charges of adultery. The Tsarevich 's friends were also tortured.

When still married to Eudoxia, Peter had taken a mistress Catherine Skavronskaya, the daughter of a Livonian peasant, who was a prisoner in the war against Sweden. They married at Saint Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg on February 9, 1712. Upon their wedding, Catherine took the style of her husband and became Tsarina.

Catherine was a strong character with the capacity of soothing Peter when caught up in a temper, nursing his head on her lap and stroking his brow.

Catherine I of Russia by Nattier

When Peter elevated the Russian Tsardom to Empire in 1724, Catherine became Empress, although he continued to remain Russia's actual ruler. By this stage, all of Peter's male children had died.

Peter the Great had an African godson, Abram Gannibal.


Peter was extraordinarily tall at six foot seven inches (2 meters) and a powerful man, although his gangly legs and arms were said to have limited his handsomeness.

Peter the Great Paul Delaroche 1838

He had a permanent nervous facial twitch.

Peter was renowned for his great strength. Supposedly he could snap a horseshoe with his bare hands.

Peter dressed simply and was renowned throughout Europe for his lack of personal hygiene. He was incredibly dirty and smelly with lice dropping off him as he walked.


Peter the Great generally ate simple food and had lousy table manners, The energetic Czar regularly trampled across the banquet table, treading on dishes and cutlery with his unwashed feet.

Despite his simple personal culinary tastes, Peter laid on lavish banquets, modeled on the splendor of Versailles. The embroidered cloths, caviar from the Caspian Sea and oysters from the Baltic all matched the sumptuous feasts of Louis XIV of France. However, the Tsar preferred to be seated near the door so he could slip away early.

Lisette, a small Italian Greyhound, constantly followed the Russian Tsar whenever he was at home. During Peter's afternoon nap, Lisette always slept at his feet.


Peter was a keen craftsman and carpenter, and as well as building ships, he enjoyed cabinet making.

The first skating boots were made for Peter while he was travelling in Holland in 1698.

Peter was simple though sometimes coarse in his tastes in the arts. He bought many western European artists to Russia.

Portrait of Peter I by Carel de Moor

He was greatly interested in dentistry and often assisted dentists in their operations. Peter's retinue of 250 courtiers were unwilling accomplices to his hobby. He carried out spot-checks on the mouths of anyone who happened to be passing and if any tooth looked suspect he whipped it out. The Tsar kept the teeth in a little bag and would often show them off to visitors.

Peter had a fascination with freaks of nature and established a bizarre private collection known as the Museum of Curiosities. They included a two-headed child and a five-footed sheep.

The caretaker of Peter’s museum was a dwarf who only had two fingers on each hand and two toes on each foot. He knew when he died he’d be stuffed and put on display in the gallery.


Peter hated the Kremlin where as a child he had witnessed the brutal torture and murder of his mother's family by the Miloslavskys. He ordered a new palace to be built, on the Gulf of Finland.

In 1725, construction of Peterhof (Dutch for "Peter's Court"), a palace near St Petersburg, was completed. Peterhof was a grand residence, which became known as the "Russian Versailles" after the great French Palace of Versailles on which it was modeled on.


From the winter of 1723, Peter had problems with his urinary tract and bladder. A team of doctors released upwards of four pounds of blocked urine, but the condition was exacerbated by a heroic act a year later, when the Russian Tsar jumped into icy water in the Finnish Gulf to help rescue some sailors from a sinking ship.

From early January 1725, Peter was bedridden with uremia. He died aged 52 between four and five in the morning of February 8, 1725.

Peter the Great on his deathbed, by Nikitin

An autopsy revealed his bladder to be infected with gangrene.

Sources 100 Great Kings, Queens and Rulers of the World by John Canning, Food For Thought by Ed Pearce

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