Peter the Great | Russia Travel Guide | Travel All Russia

Peter the Great | The Age of Europeanisation

18.08.2019
 

If you ask a Russian to enumerate a couple of prominent historical leaders, you are likely to hear the name of Peter the Great among the first ones. Why? Having become a real legend, Tsar Peter the Great had no contemporaries or successors who’d made such profound changes in the wellbeing of the entire Russian state. Exactly on August 18th, 1682, Peter the Great ascended to the Russian throne, so today we would like to pay tribute to the life and the reign of the first Russian Emperor, as well as to recall his merits in the country’s prosperity.

 

The Youth of the Future Emperor

Pyotr (Peter) Alekseevich Romanov was born on June 9th, 1672, and was the youngest of 13 kids of the Russian tsar Alexei Mikhailovich Romanov. At the age of 4, Peter lost his father, so the young tsarevich was brought up by the tutor Nikita Zotov who was very educated by the standards of then Russia.

In 1682, after the death of Peter’s brother, Tsar Fyodor Alekseevich, the struggle between the two noble clans — the Miloslavsky (relatives of the first wife of Alexei Mikhailovich) and the Naryshkins (relatives of Natalya Naryshkina, Peter’s mother) — intensified.

The first believed that the throne should be taken by the fragile prince Ivan while the Naryshkins, in their turn, were in favor of the healthy and rather inquisitive 10-year-old Peter.

As a result, a neutral option was chosen: both princes obtained power while their older sister Sophia was appointed their regent.

In 1689, a break occurred between Peter and Sophia and he ordered his sister to join the Novodevichy Convent, as by that time Peter and Ivan had already grown to adulthood to rule on their own. From 1689 to 1696, the brothers had been co-rulers until Ivan died.

Peter the Great portrait
 

Peter’s Expeditions and Numerous Reforms

Peter Monument in Moscow

Striving to make the Russian Empire more effective and prominent on the international arena, Peter the Great decided to adapt the knowledge and experience of the Western states. During his life, the Russian leader undertook two long journeys to Europe, first at the age of 25-26 from 1697 to 1698 and later in 1716-1717. During the first trip, Peter traveled incognito as part of the Great Embassy primarily around London and Amsterdam.

Apart from receiving quite extensive knowledge in navigation, artillery, and shipbuilding, the emperor got a personal acquaintance with the monarchs of the leading European countries. Everything he saw and everybody he met inspired him to turn the Russian Empire into a “civilized” society as well as to expand the Russian influence on new territories. After returning from the first trip, Peter had introduced a number of reforms and European traditions into the lifestyle of Russians.

 

Thus, to bring Russia in line with the countries of Western Europe, Peter had presented not only a number of significant social, military, educational, and economic reforms (such as introducing the new Law of Succession, switching to the Julian Calendar, modernizing the alphabet, and establishing the first Russian newspaper) but even creating a beard tax! The new law of 1689 enforced Russian men to shave their beards to have a more “European-like” look. Those who refused to follow the new tendencies were subjected to paying taxes or being publically shaved by the police otherwise.

Moreover, Peter had a negative attitude toward drunkenness and found a way to deal with this problem. In 1714 on Peter’s order, a medal was introduced for alcoholism which weighed about 7 kilos (15 lbs) even without a chain. Of course, it was not an honorable award as it was hung on the neck of a drunkard at a police station and the guilty was obliged to wear this symbol of shame for a week until permitted to remove it.

Peter Expedition
 

Great Peter’s Capital or "the Window to Europe"

One of the most notable of Peter’s merits was the foundation of the gorgeous Northern Capital of Russia, Saint Petersburg, often referred to as the Window to Europe. Having already boasted particular military victories against the Turks in the Azov region, Peter made a decision to marshal all the forces from the south to the north of the country and reach the shores of the Baltic Sea which were to be won back from Sweden, the most powerful state on the Baltic Sea of that time.

Fortress

Due to the achieved success in the Great Northern War, in 1703 Russians managed to reach the shores of the Baltic Sea and take one of the most strategically important Swedish fortresses in the area.

Having explored the territory, Peter the Great ordered to start the building of a navy fortress (known as the Peter and Paul Fortress today) which actually became a basis for a future port city.

The new city was developing very quickly, and shortly after the construction of the fortress, the works on several nearby islands have started.

From the very beginning, the emperor considered Saint Petersburg (which he named after his patron saint, the apostle Saint Peter) a future capital that’s why the city we initially designed in the manner of European capitals.

 

Thus, inspired by the winding water canals of Amsterdam and Venice, Peter turned the delta of the Neva River in a beautiful network of waterways as well while the palatial and pompous style of many buildings was replicated from the best examples of Italian architecture.

Till this day, a boat ride along the canals is among the top highlights of any St. Petersburg sightseeing tours.

Amazed at the ennoblement of European gardens during his Euro trips, Peter brought home gardening books and began creating European-style gardens himself. Obviously, Peter began his experiments from recently constructed St. Petersburg.

During that period, the famous Summer Garden appeared which is traditionally planted with tulips even now (one more Peter’s finding which he brought to Russia from Amsterdam).

Summer House
 

The Summer Garden, set not too far from the Winter Palace that’s home to the famous Hermitage Museum today, featured a beautiful Coffee House as well as the petite Summer Palace of Peter the Great, which was designed by an Italian architect.

Peterhof

Seeing the grandeur of the growing city, the Emperor soon planned to build Peterhof and, inspired by what he saw at Versailles, even drew up a plan for the future residence himself. The grand opening of the pompous residence took place in 1723 and, as Peter intended, Peterhof even surpassed Versailles in terms of splendor and richness of its decoration, becoming the most striking palatial ensemble in Europe.

Nowadays, the UNESCO-listed Peterhof is an unmissable part of any St. Petersburg travel itinerary and thousands of visitors come here every year to immerse in the beauty of its magnificent parks and fountains, marble statues and breathtaking interiors, demonstrating the glory of Russia at its best.

As a result, in 1712 the tsar’s court moved to St. Petersburg from Moscow, this year is believed to be the moment when the capital of Russia moved to the city on the Neva River.

 

Royal Personal Life

Peter the Great was attracted to women but not really deeply as he was convinced that it was unforgivable to overlook the military service and his throne for a woman. He first got married at the age of 16 at his mother's insistence, she believed that marriage would be able to enforce Peter’s position among the other candidates for the tsardom. Tsarina Natalya Narishkina herself found her son the beauty Evdokia Lopukhina who was Peter’s lawful wife from 1689 to 1698 until she was forced to join a convent.

Just a few years after the divorce, Peter the Great married again to one of his mistresses, Martha Skavronskaya. Later she converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and took another name, Catherine.

This marriage, indeed, was happier than the previous one as the Emperor even took Catherine to some of his trips and treated her with respect.

Apart from the two wives, Peter had numerous mistresses and favorites, including the representatives of noble families like Maria Cantemir and Mary Hamilton. As for the kids, there were about 10 children born in two of Peter’s official marriages but very few of them survived till adulthood.

That’s why there were no obvious successors to name when the Emperor unexpectedly died on February 8, 1725, as a result of pneumonia which he caught saving sailors during the flood in the Gulf of Finland.

Peter and His Son
 

To sum up, the 43-year reign of Peter the Great has remained deeply rooted in people’s memory as one of the brightest pages in Russia’s history. This outstanding leader made a radical revolution in the life and mentality of all Russians and gave birth to the marvelous city of St. Petersburg, despite the hardships of building the town in the swampy marshlands and severe climate. Even today the legacy of that time greatly permeates Russian culture and society, being embodied in many monuments and works of art which should surely be seen during tours to Russia at least once.

 
 

Related Content