Peter the Great
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Peter the Great

Written by Rick Archer
February 2012

Most people say that
Peter the Great was a magnificent visionary.  A typical intro on the career of Peter reads like this:

One of Russia’s greatest statesmen, Peter the Great – the Tsar and first Emperor of Russia - was a man of unwavering willpower, extraordinary energy and supreme vision. Having inherited a vast but backward state, he propelled Russia to the rank of a major European power, while his extraordinary personality and wide scale reforms have been an inspiration to generations of historians, writers and ordinary Russians.

I take a different view.  Although I agree that Peter accomplished great things, he was such a despicable human being that I shudder when I read the phrase "Peter the Great".

Of all the men in history I have studied, few have disgusted me more than Peter of Russia.  This man was a thug and a despot. 
Peter was a vicious brute who was used to getting his way. He had so much power that he soon learned he could do anything he damn well pleased.  He ran ramshod over the Russian people with complete impunity. 

A physically powerful giant at 6' 8", Peter had intellectual gifts to match.  Unfortunately, he also possessed an extremely aggressive nature.  Peter's behavior would make most Mafia Dons seem like Pollyannas in comparison.  Peter wasn't interested in mannerly persuasion.  He would threaten, intimidate, and bully till he got what he wanted. 

No one could resist him.  When someone didn't cooperate, Peter would use force to make them an offer they couldn't refuse. His penchant for cruelty bordered on the barbaric. 

Anyone close to Peter was terrified of the him. Many of the old-guard Russian nobility hated Peter with a passion because of his constant reforms at their expense.

The boyars would do anything to get rid of this guy. 

Because Peter was hated by so many, plots were always being developed against him. 

Unfortunately for them, Peter had an amazing streak of luck.  Someone would always warn Peter at the last minute and allow him to escape assassination by narrow margins.  Once to safety, Peter would then cast a wide net and gather up anyone even remotely associated with the plot and throw them into the dungeon.

Although many of these people caught in the dragnet were innocent, the torture was so brutal and sadistic they would eventually confess to anything just to get it over with.  At this point they were beheaded.  Peter himself often took part in the beheadings himself.  Their heads were impaled on spikes and left up there for public display for months. 



It is said that this curious picture of Peter the Great beating his wife hangs on the wall of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  If that is the case, then it would be interesting to know the reason.

Eudoxia Lopukhin and Peter were both 17 when Peter's mother forced him to marry. His mother hoped to wean him from the wicked ways of the Moscow brothels by wedding him to a lady who was as pious as she was beautiful. 

Although she would bear him a son, the marriage was a total failure. Eudoxia had grown up with her nose in religious books. Since her mental horizons did not extend much further than her religious training, the brilliant Peter was bored beyond reason by her presence.  Peter had the poor woman exiled to a lonely existence at a monastery as swiftly as he possibly could.


The story of Alexei, Peter's son from his marriage to Eudoxia, reads like a Greek Tragedy.  Alexei, Peter's heir, was in direct line to become the next Tsar.  Alexei's story brings up an interesting question.

You are a parent.  You have spent your entire life creating a business or an institution that you are rightfully proud of.  Then you discover your only child intends to tear down your life work.  Everything you have ever achieved is in jeopardy because he or she doesn't like you... and they have the power to do it.

What do you do?  Do you kill the kid?

Nothing better demonstrates Peter's inherent cruelty than his treatment of his first son Alexei.

By all accounts, Alexei was a capable young man.  Unfortunately, due to his father's abuse of Alexei's mother Eudoxia and his father's dictatorial relationship with the boy, the young man grew up hating his powerful father.

Due to their poor relationship, like many sons, Alexei rebelled against his father.  He hated the man's constant criticism and bullying.  Alexei hated the wife Peter had chosen for him.  Alexei resisted the military career his father forced upon him.  Alexei cursed the ground his father walked on.  In private conversations, sometimes he was so mad at his father that he said he wished the man were dead.

That said, Alexei never took a single action to hurt his powerful father.  Alexei just wanted to be left alone to live in peace.  His father would have none of it.  Alexei was his successor and Peter was determined to make his son toe the line.

Unfortunately for Alexei, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Even though he did nothing wrong, Alexei would die simply because he was flesh and blood to a despot.

The hatred of the Moscow nobility towards Peter constantly led them to conceive of ways to kill the dictator.  If Peter were indeed killed, Alexei was next in line to take his place. 

Tsar Peter was quite aware just how much he was disliked.  He also knew how easy it was to kill a man who wasn't looking.  When he was younger, Peter had barely escaped two attempts on his life. 

This picture shows Peter at 16 narrowly escaping an assassin sent by his half-sister Sofia.  After the near-miss, Peter made it a point to look over his shoulder wherever he went for the rest of his life.  You might even say he was paranoid. There is no question that Peter had a right to be worried.

Thanks to his years of excessive brutality, there were definitely plots on his life.  Unfortunately, Peter had gained so many enemies that he had no idea who might send the next assassin.  For his protection, Peter recruited a vast network of spies. Occasionally his son's name was brought to his attention.

Despite the fact that Alexei's name came up from time to time in secret conversations, no historical evidence has ever surfaced that Alexei was directly involved in any plots.  The young man was probably innocent of any involvement in conspiracies. 

It was simply Alexei's misfortune that every plot and every cabal whispered Alexei's name as Peter's replacement.  Alexei's name became the catchword for regime change.  Thus his ultra paranoid father began to hear vague reports that Alexei's name had surfaced in conversations with men who were under suspicion for plots against the throne.

Peter took note of the young man's insolence and rebellion and concluded Alexei's disobedience somehow confirmed the rumors must be true.

Peter confronted the young man directly.  This famous picture shows a meeting where Peter accused Alexei of conspiring against him.  Alexei denied it, but Peter didn't believe him.

Alexei wasn't stupid.  Based on threats made by his father, Alexei could see his father didn't trust a word he said about his innocence.  Alexei began to greatly fear for his life.

With the help of a well-placed Muscovite nobleman, Alexei fled the country, taking his mistress Afrosina with him for companionship.  Alexei eventually made it to Austria where he pleaded to his brother-in-law Emperor Charles VI for sanctuary.

The Emperor sincerely sympathized with Alexei.  He too suspected Peter harbored murderous designs against his son.  In a confidential letter to George I of Great Britain, Charles VI told the king that he agreed Alexei's life was in danger.

Meanwhile Peter felt insulted.  The flight of the tsarevich, Russia's crown prince, to a foreign potentate was a reproach and a scandal.  No one had the right to embarrass him like that.  Peter determined Alexei had to be recovered and brought back to Russia at all costs.

Peter sent an envoy to Austria promising total amnesty for Alexei.  Mind you, Alexei's only "crime" was running away from his abusive father.  Alexei would only consent to return on his father solemnly swearing that if he came back he should not be punished in the least. Alexei asked to be allowed to live quietly on his estates and marry Afrosina.  Alexei said in return he would swear away his birthright and allow Peter to pick a successor of his choosing.  Peter agreed to these terms.

Thus Alexei returned to Russia.  He was immediately imprisoned.  Peter still suspected a Grand Plot in which his son was surely involved.  He ordered his interrogators to spare nothing until they got to the bottom of the threats against him.

Not only did they torture Alexei, they tortured his mistress as well.  Under pressure, Afrosina admitted that Alexei had said many times he wished his father was dead.  This didn't help things, but, oddly enough, it was Alexei's other admission that probably sealed his doom. 

Afrosina reported she had often heard Alexei say, "I shall bring back the old people and choose myself new ones according to my will; when I become sovereign I shall live in Moscow and leave Saint Petersburg simply as any other town; I won't launch any ships; I shall maintain troops only for defense, and won't make war on anyone; I shall be content with the old domains.  In winter I shall live in Moscow, and in summer in Yaroslavl."

This statement caused Peter to go ballistic.  Alexei's refusal to support his father's modernization of Russia was anathema to him.  Peter had spent his entire life turning Russia from a backward nation into an empire.  The thought that his own son was willing to unravel all his work was way beyond anything Peter could tolerate.  This was a betrayal of the highest magnitude. 

The inquisition of Alexei continued until a "confession" was extorted from him.  Breaking down, Alexei was forced to implicate most of his friends against his will.  Alexei then publicly renounced the succession to the throne in favor of the baby grand-duke Peter Petrovich, Tsar Peter's first son by a second wife. 

We all know that information gained by extreme torture is unreliable.  Despite Afrosina's admission and other hearsay evidence, there were no actual facts to go upon to prove Alexei guilty of a crime.  Peter paid no heed.  In the eyes of Peter, his son was a self-convicted traitor.  His continued existence was a threat to Peter's life work.  By Alexei's own words, his son's life was now forfeit.

A horrible reign of terror ensued.  In short time, the ex-tsaritsa Eudoxia, Alexei's mother, was dragged from her monastery and publicly tried for alleged adultery.  Subsequently, all who had in any way befriended Alexei were racked to death on the wheel, then impaled and left to hang there in public.  All this was done to terrorize the reactionaries into ceasing all talk of rebellion.

Peter understood that as long as Alexei lived, all proclamations renouncing the throne were meaningless if Peter were assassinated.  Alexei's claim to the throne would be immediately reinstated.  Alexei had to go.  Based on information Alexei was coerced to say during his "confessions", Alexei was sentenced to death.  So much for Peter's promises of amnesty. 

The thing to remember is that Peter was not "mad" in the sense of other tyrants like Nero and Caligula.  He was an intelligent, educated man completely capable of reasoning.  But he was definitely "mad" in the other sense.  Peter's temper was so extreme that he couldn't think straight.  Peter's capacity for cruelty was well known, but his son's defiance had turned into a monster.  He was so enraged that Peter came very close to executing his son with his own hands. 

Fortunately, Peter was spared this final ignominy when Alexei died from wounds suffered while being tortured. 

The kid never had a chance.  This story should be all that is necessary to explain why I hold Peter the Great in complete and utter contempt. 

The Man Who Changed the Course of Russia's Destiny

Is it possible for evil men to do good things?  This is after all the man who murdered his own son and quelled any hint of insurrection with mass executions.  Peter was so brutal that sometimes he personally executed his enemies with his own sword. 

His cruelty notwithstanding, Peter was also brilliant. Energetic, highly educated and extremely inquisitive, Peter took his role as monarch seriously.  Peter had a vision of Russia's potential and dedicated his life to reaching those goals.  He personally brought Russia kicking and screaming into modern times through sheer brute force.

In fact, the argument could be made that Russia was so backwards and so stuck in its medieval ways that only a powerful tyrant like Peter could have ever have so profoundly changed the course of Russia's destiny. Peter saw changes that needed to be made and he gave orders that the Russian people had to follow whether they liked it or not.

During Peter's reign (1700-1725), he instigated profound changes.  Peter launched a series of reforms that affected, in the course of 25 years, every area of his nation’s life - administration, industry, commerce, technology and culture. Peter upgraded the army, he created the navy, he changed the church, he changed the laws, he changed the taxes and he reformed the government.  Peter was the first Russian leader to engage in direct contact with the leaders of Europe.  Thanks to his military build-up, he engaged practically every single one of his neighbors in war and expanded the boundaries of Russia dramatically.

No part of Russian life was untouched.  Peter even instigated social changes.  He micro-managed Russia so completely that he dictated fashion changes.  He told people to begin wearing European-style clothing.  He told the men to shave their beards or suffer a penalty.

By the time Peter was finished, he claimed for himself the title of "Emperor" and proclaimed Russia to now be an Empire.  Peter left a mark on Russia so profound that still to this day, Russia divides its history lessons into 'Before Peter' and 'After Peter'.


The Golden Horde

To appreciate the accomplishments of Peter, I think it is important to review "why" Russia was considered to be so backward by the countries of Europe.

As I wrote in my first article, the watershed moment in Russian History was the 13th century invasion of the Golden Horde of the Mongols.

The geography of Russia played a major role in the Mongol Invasions.  The Ural Mountains served as an imposing barrier to any horseback-mounted army.

On the other hand, there was a vast prairie known as the Grand Steppe that extended all the way from Mongolia into the Eastern Europe regions of Romania and Bulgaria.  The Grand Steppe operated essentially as an ancient freeway with few obstacles connecting eastern Asia to western Asia. 

The Grand Steppe was the route taken by the invasion force.

In 1222, the area known as
Kievan Rus', better known today as the Ukraine, faced the unexpected onslaught of an irresistible foe coming from the mysterious regions of the Far East.

"For our sins", writes the Rus' chronicler of the time, "unknown nations arrived. No one knew their origin or whence they came, or what religion they practiced, or the name of their tribe.  They were upon us before we could scarcely muster a defense.  Vast armies descended as a plague of locusts would attack our fields.  These barbarians were so skilled at war and so ruthless that our resistance proved futile."

Students of history might be surprised to learn that Genghis Khan did not actually participate in the conquests of Russian territory.  

Genghis Khan's main accomplishment was conquering and uniting the people of Eastern Asia.  However, at the time of the western invasions, Genghis Khan was an old man. 

Instead, the leader of the invasions was Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. 

The Mongols invaded the west many times.  They would conquer, then go home and recharge.  A few years later, they would be back to conquer more.

Batu Khan was a brilliant strategist.  He had all sorts of clever ideas.  One trick was to use the Russian winter to his advantage... the easiest time to cross the rivers was to wait till they iced over.

Batu Khan's army was unstoppable.  In all his battles, he was only defeated once.  His armies penetrated deep into Hungary and Poland.  Europe seemed to have no answer for these invaders.

Then Batu Khan's father died back in the homeland.  Batu Khan was honor-bound to return home to anoint a new chief.

There are historians who suggest Batu Khan's cessation of attacks in 1242 actually saved Christianity.

Thanks to his father's death, the invasion of 1242 that threatened the heart of Europe was over.  But the misery continued. Batu Khan would return several times in later years to continue the marauding.  However the Mongols never attacked the Republic of Novgorod, the predecessor to the Grand Duchy of Moscow. 

The Novgorod Republic managed to escape the horrors of the Mongol invasion because the commanders did not want to get bogged down  in the snow of the thick forests, the soupy marshlands and the bitter cold.  The harsh forests made heading south much preferable.   Novgorod was just 60 miles away when the Mongols changed direction.  Northern Russia was spared.

Nevertheless this area remained under Mongol subjugation for 250 years!  So how did that happen?  In 1259, Mongol tax-collectors and census-takers arrived in Novgorod.   In spite of never being formally conquered, the Republic was ordered to begin to pay tribute to the khans of the Golden Horde. 

Of course the people refused to do so at first.  However, a Russian leader acting as a Mongol liaison named Alexander Nevsky punished a number of town officials by cutting off their noses for defying his authority as Grand Prince of Vladimir.  After this show of force, Nevsky pointed out that his action was nothing compared to what the Mongols would do.  He made it clear that the Mongols would inflict far greater damage if the resistance continued. 

In the end, the threat of Mongol invasion inspired so much fear that the officials knuckled under and accepted the Mongol yoke. 

Over the next two centuries, Moscow outmaneuvered its rivals in Novgorod, Vladimir, and Tver to become the ascendant power in the region. 

It can be argued that without the Mongol destruction of Kievan Rus' (Ukraine) that Moscow would never have risen to the forefront. In short, the Mongol influence, while destructive in the extreme to their enemies, dictated who would eventually become the new rulers of modern Russia. 

When Moscow under Ivan the Great finally told the Mongols to get lost in 1480, the city and Ivan stood supreme as the single greatest power in the land. 

(Note: I wrote about the Grand Duchy of Moscow at length in my previous chapter if you wish to read more.)

Long Term Effects of Mongol Yoke

The Mongol Yoke kept Russia looking eastward for 200 years. 

Historians consider the oppression of Rus' by the Mongols to be the major cause of what is sometimes called "the East-West Gap".  Thanks to the Mongol subjugation, there was a 200 year delay in introducing major social, political and economical reforms and scientific innovations in Russia compared to Western Europe.  Russia was so focused on the Mongols that they failed to significantly interact with Europe.  The isolation from the West caused Russia's non-involvement in the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and failure to develop a middle class.

The Mongol occupation created not one, but two profoundly dark influences on Russian society.  The Mongols have been blamed for the introduction of "oriental despotism" into Russia.  In this system, the majority of the people are kept in a servile state looking to the despot for direction.  There was little encouragement intellectual curiosity and certainly no education.  The peasants simply looked to the masters to tell them what to do. 

With the people kept in a state of near-slavery, there was little incentive for anyone to think in imaginative ways and innovate.  Not free to think and not free to seek their own prosperity, an atmosphere of listlessness and apathy set in. 

Even worse, the people became too accepting of a totalitarian system.  Unused to having any freedom of their own, everyone became far too accepting of authority. 

It is said that the Mongol influence made the Russian people brutal.  The Slavs were not inherently a violent people.  However, thanks to the Mongols, the use of capital punishment became widespread.  Worse, the use of torture became a regular part of criminal procedure. Specific punishments introduced in Moscow included beheading for alleged traitors and branding of thieves. 

There is an old saying that all revolution does is change the foot on your neck.  The Mongol influence made the Russian puppets taking orders from them brutal and cruel towards their own people.  After spending 250 taking orders from the Mongols and observing how they ruled with cruelty, even after the Mongols were gone, the Russian leaders continued to rule in much the same despotic way.  I suppose the cruelty displayed by Peter the Great would be a prime example.

Ultimately, the years of Mongol subjugation made daily life in Russia difficult to bear.  Long after their departure, the culture ingrained by two centuries of Mongol rule guaranteed the people would continue to lead desperate lives marked by suffering and oppression.


Ivan the Terrible

After the overthrow of the Mongols in 1480, Russia spent the next two centuries spinning its wheels. 

A cursory review of the events of the 16th and 17th century show that Russia was engaged in constant turf wars with its neighbors.  Borderlands were constantly swapped back and forth in battles with Turkey (the Ottoman Empire), Poland, and with Sweden, the local bully. 

There was a notable absence of talented rulers.  One of the better ones was Ivan the Terrible.

This particular Ivan oversaw Russia's expansion into Siberia.  From all accounts, when Ivan wasn't having one of his frequent unstable spells, he was a fairly good ruler.

Ivan's biggest mistake was killing his own son Ivan in a fit of insanity. 

In 1581 Ivan beat his pregnant daughter-in-law for wearing immodest clothing.  This caused a miscarriage. 

His son, also named Ivan, was understandably furious.  He engaged in a heated argument with his father. 

Ivan the Terrible lost his temper and struck the young man in the head with his pointed staff, killing him.  Bad move. 

By all accounts, the son who died was competent.  Since Ivan's only other son Feodor was mentally defective, Ivan's lunacy had just cost Russia any chance of having a decent ruler to succeed Ivan the Terrible.

Sure enough, Russia fell into a colossal tailspin following Ivan's death in 1584.


The Time of Troubles

Killing his son was an especially stupid move because Ivan's other son Feodor was mentally defective.  Ivan's mistake meant Russia was doomed for the next generation.

The Time of Troubles came at the end of the 16th century when Russia was leaderless.  Russia's neighbors plundered large pieces of territory during this rudderless period. 

Famine and plague swept the country.  The serfs were miserable, sick and hungry.  Not surprising, there were many uprisings.  Many people died in battles to suppress the serfs.  Things got so bad that Russia lost a third of its population.

This was one of the darkest period's in Russian history, which is notable in itself because between the Russian Revolution, the Mongol invasion, Napoleon's invasion, Hitler's invasion and Stalin's purges, Russia has a long history of suffering and misery. 

Some even suggest there must be a curse at work.


The Start of the Romanov Dynasty

Michael Romanov took the throne in 1613.  His rule was a welcome relief to Russia as he put an end to the Time of Troubles.  The murder of Ivan the Terrible's son had caused Russia to be ruled by a series of miserable pretenders to the throne known as the False Dmitris.

Michael's ascension is a strange story. The boyars were so despondent at the latest fool that they basically picked the next Emperor the same way the Cardinals might select a Pope... they conducted a talent search!!   The quest for a new czar began with letters being sent throughout the land for elected representatives to make suggestions.

Deputies came to Moscow to select the new czar.  It was decided that 16 year old Michael Romanov was the best choice for czar. His ancestor had been the wife of another czar, and both his parents had been very influential until Boris Godunov sent them to the monasteries to break their power.

There was one problem. Michael was no where to be found. He was finally found in a monastery hiding with his mother.  Messengers were sent to tell him of the decision made in Moscow.

Now there was another problem.  His mother said absolutely not.  Her son was too young and tender for so difficult an office, especially in such a troublesome time.  Michael wasn't particularly keen himself. He was definitely aware of the hardships of being czar of Russia.  He told the messengers that he did not want to become czar.

Michael was now subjected to a serious guilt trip.  He was reminded that if he did not become czar, Moscow and the whole country would fall apart by the struggle for power. The weeping boyars solemnly declared that if he persisted in his refusal, they would hold him responsible to God for the destruction of Russia. Michael's allegiance for his country made him agree and decided to go to the capital.

On the surface, the choice of Michael didn't make much sense.  At 16, he was hardly the seasoned man ready to rescue a country from its devastating problems.  Fortunately, he had two things going for him.  First, Michael was very gentle and didn't make enemies.

Second, Michael had an ace in the hole.  Once he ascended to power, Michael recalled his father Feodor Nikitich Romanov (also known as Patriarch Filaret) from political exile.  For the next twenty years, it was actually his father who ruled Russia and restored it to stability. 

Not that Filaret was perfect.  He was the man who passed the rule obligating the peasants to become virtual slaves to the land they were born on.  This short-sighted move at the very beginning of the Romanov dynasty would ironically plant the seed that would lead to their destruction during the brutal 1917 Russian Revolution.  The brutal cold-blooded execution of Tsar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and five of their six children to this day remains one of the most chilling images of the Bolshevik takeover.


The Reign of Peter the Great

Say what you will about the character of Peter, one of the greatest thugs in history, but no one can deny he was the most effective ruler Russia ever had. 

Peter the Great was a grandson of Michael Romanov, the first of the Romanov line.  Michael had been succeeded by his son Alexei I. 

Alexei had four children.  Alexei's death in 1676 was followed by 13 years of dynastic struggles between his three children by his first wife (Feodor III, Sofia Alexeevna, Ivan V) and his son by his second wife, the future Peter the Great.

Feodor III was an effective leader, but very sickly.  He died in 1682 after only six years of reign.  Peter and his half brother Ivan V were then named co-tsar (women weren't allowed to be Tsar).

There were two problems with this arrangement.  Peter was only 9 and Ivan was mentally incompetent.  Into the breach stepped half sister Sophia to become the de facto leader of Russia. 

Peter was just a kid. He was more than content to let Sofia run the show while he pursued his own interests.  Unfortunately, Sofia enjoyed her time in the sun a bit too much and didn't want to stop.  She began to plot against her younger half-brother. 

In 1689 Peter narrowly missed being assassinated in a coup attempt conceived by Sofia.  Peter was 16 at this point.  He permanently confined Sophia to a form of imprisonment at a convent.  However, Peter still wasn't interested quite yet in assuming full control of the government.  Peter preferred to let his mother run the show for the next few years while he continued his education.


So long as he could indulge freely in his favorite pastimes -- shipbuilding, ship-sailing, war drills, sham fights -- he was quite content that others should rule in his name.  Another explanation was that Peter had just discovered women.  Peter was like the young kid who doesn't want to grow up because he is having too much fun.

If there was one feature of Peter's childhood that stands out, it would be his innate enthusiasm for learning.  Without any real prodding, Peter showed a keen interest in military strategy right from the start.  His childhood enthusiasm for war games would eventually lead him to become a very effective military leader. 

Peter was very interested in the sea right from the start.  He spent summers at a lake house.  A seemingly insignificant event in his life was the time he found an old sailboat in a shed; this discovery provided his initial passion for sailing.  Peter soon developed a love for ships and the sea, the overriding hobby of his life.  He became fascinated with ship building and sailing at an early age.  His interest was actually closer to an obsession.  During the years of his training period, Peter deeply lamented the fact that Russia had no navy.  When the time came, he vowed to do something about it. 

Peter also enjoyed studying mathematics, fortification and artillery.  As it turned out, the young Peter’s interest in military and nautical games provided a sound training for the challenges ahead.

Like many born leaders, Peter simply sought out the knowledge.  No one forced Peter to study so hard.  He found great pleasure in learning and pursued it naturally.  In many ways, Peter's self-determination to learn is reminiscent of Alexander the Great.  Alexander, of course, benefitted greatly from years of study under his brilliant instructor Aristotle. 

Like Alexander, Peter used both his education and his late start as ruler to meditate on Russia's position in the grand scheme of things.  It is obvious to anyone who studies Peter's early years that the dominant passion of his life was his desire to extend his empire and consolidate its power.

However, unlike Alexander who was born to wander and conquer everything in his path, Peter was more like Julius Caesar who did his conquering first, then spent the rest of his life trying to make Rome great. 

Besides his keen interest in knowledge, Peter had another trait that separated him from all previous Russian rulers.  From the start, Peter was keenly interested in European politics and European advances in science. 

He took special note of how England ruled the waves.  He concluded that in certain situations naval power could be just as important as having an army.   Naval power could be used for protection against invasion.  Naval power could be used to promote valuable trade and the exchange of information between nations.  He was determined to get a navy for Russia.

Shortly after the death of his mother in 1694, Peter decided it was time to embark on his career.  His first action was to attack the fortress of Azov at the mouth of the Don River and the Sea of Azov.  Control would provide naval access to the Mediterranean Sea. 

That is when Peter built a crude "first-ever" Russian navy.  He began work on simple ships upstream on the Don River.  When the time came, he used his ships to surprise the defenders at Fort Azov.  Peter managed to take the fortress.  However, Peter noted his hold on the fort was flimsy at best.

Although the campaign was a success, it was evident to Peter that he had achieved only partial results since his flock of boats was bottled up in the Sea of Azov due to Ottoman control of the Strait of Kerch.

Peter's Navy

This naval vulnerability rankled Peter no end.  He had learned during this fight that Russia would never accomplish much if it remained simply a land power.  Peter determined that he would learn everything there was about building a navy so that someday he could come back and defend this fort properly with modern warships.

A regular navy was necessary for resisting the Ottoman attacks. He needed specialists who could build and navigate military ships. So he returned to Moscow and ordered his assembly to get to work.  On October 20, 1696, the Boyar Duma decreed the creation of the regular Imperial Russian Navy. This date is considered to be the birthday of the Russian Navy. The first shipbuilding program consisted of 52 vessels. 

Peter's fears of losing the fortress of Azov led him to another fateful decision. Peter decided the Ottoman Empire was too strong for Russia to take on alone. 

Peter's aim was to form a grand alliance against the Ottoman Empire and to acquire Western techniques to modernize Russia's armed forces.  Peter decided it was time to visit Western Europe and see things for himself. 

He left trusted people in charge back home and began his world tour in 1697 accompanied by a group of one hundred nobles.  One peculiarity was that Peter traveled incognito much of the time.  His ambassadors would meet with heads of state while he pretended to be an aide in the background.  Peter was "different" in ways that few of us understand.

At one point during his journey, Peter actually worked for several months in a Holland ship yard as a ship carpenter's apprentice.  He didn't just observe; Peter did the actual work and loved every minute of it.

Having gained considerable knowledge of European industrial techniques, Peter hired many European artisans to return to Russia with him. With their skill, he could build a navy that might accomplish something not just in Black Sea, but the Baltic Sea as well. 

In 1698 Peter returned to Russia in an agitated state of mind.  The European visit had made a powerful and lasting impression on Peter.

Peter's journey had revealed his own country lagged far behind the European states in education, science, military, and trade.  

Now that Peter had seen how the leading European powers went about their business, the Russian tsar decided it was time to get serious. He embarked on an ambitious program to transform Russia into an advanced European country.  Peter immediately began to modernize the armed forces and launch domestic reforms. 

Peter's foreign tour had convinced him of the inherent superiority of the foreigner in the world of fashion as well.  Upon his return, Peter at once ordered the men to get rid of their long beards and to stop wearing the Oriental costumes which symbolized the arch-conservatism of old Russia. Peter dictated it was time for Russians to start looking more like the people from Western Europe.

It was a test of willpower.  The Russian people wanted to cling to their traditions.  Peter wanted things done a different way. 

Naturally the Russian people and the boyars resisted mightily and protested behind Peter's back.  Peter would have none of it.

Peter didn't bother with persuasion. If getting things done his way required breaking the resistance of the land-owning nobility, then Peter would shove it down the boyar's throats.  He severely punished all opposition to his projects. Knowing Peter, this meant making lots of offers no one could refuse.  To refuse meant torture or beheading.

The boyars didn't like it one bit, but they cooperated.  Or else...

By coincidence, Peter embarked on his life project right as the new century began.  1700 is a famous date in Russian history. 

1700 is the year that Peter began to shove Russia kicking and screaming towards its destiny. 


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