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The Romanov family ruled Russia from 1613 to 1855 and during this time, Russia became a major European power. The first rulers of this dynasty struggled to end internal disorder, foreign invasion and financial collapse.

For the first few generations, the Romanovs were happy to maintain the statusquo in Russia. They continued to centralize power, but they did very little to bring Russia up to speed with the rapid changes in economic and political life that were taking place elsewhere in Europe. Peter the Great decided to change all of that.

Peter the Great.Peter I "the Great", Romanov (1672 - 1725) was proclaimed Tzar at the age of 10, but due to a power struggle had to rule under the patronage of his sister Sofia. He seized control from her when he was just 17.

Peter was his father's youngest son and the child of his second wife, neither of which promised great things.

Tsar Alexis, his father, also had three children by his first wife: Feodor, Sophia and Ivan, a semi-imbecile. When Alexis died in 1676 Feodor became Tsar, but his poor constitution brought an early death in 1682. The family of Peter's mother succeeded in having him chosen over Ivan to be Tsar, and the ten year-old boy was brought from his childhood home at the country estate of Kolomenskoe to the Kremlin. No sooner was he established, however, than the Ivan's family struck back. Gaining the support of the Kremlin Guard, they launched a coup d'etat, and Peter was forced to endure the horrible sight of his supporters and family members being thrown from the top of the grand Red Stair of the Faceted Palace onto the raised pikes of the Guard. The outcome of the coup was a joint Tsar-ship, with both Peter and Ivan placed under the regency of Ivan's elder and not exactly impartial sister Sophia. Peter had not enjoyed his stay in Moscow, a city he would dislike for the rest of his life.

Tsarevna Sofia Alekseevna, Peter's sister.With Sophia in control, Peter was sent back to Kolomenskoe. It was soon noticed that he possessed a penchant for war games, including especially military drill and siegecraft. He became acquainted with a small community of European soldiers, from whom he learned Western European tactics and strategy. Remarkably, neither Sophia nor the Kremlin Guard found this suggestive. In 1689, just as Peter was to come of age, Sophia attempted another coup--this time, however, she was defeated and confined to Novodevichiy Convent. Six years later Ivan died, leaving Peter in sole possession of the throne.

Rather than taking up residence and rule in Moscow, his response was to embark on a Grand Tour of Europe. He amassed a considerable body of knowledge on western European industrial techniques and state administration, and became determined to modernize the Russian state and to westernize its society. He spent about two years there, not only meeting monarchs and conducting diplomacy but also travelling incognito and even working as a ship's carpenter in Holland.

Peter believed in starting from the bottom and working his way up. He learned ship building from the Europeans he invited to Russia, and built a ship himself. In 1697, he accompanied an embassy to European courts as a carpenter named Peter Mikhailov. He also served as seaman, soldier, barber and, to the discomfort of his courtiers, as dentist.. Those of his companions who fell ill and needed a doctor were filled with terror that the Tsar will hear of their illness and appear with his instruments to offer his services.

In 1698, still on tour, Peter received news of yet another rebellion by the Kremlin Guard, instigated by Sophia despite her confinement to Novodevichiy. He returned without any sense of humor, decisively defeating the guard with his own European-drilled units, ordering a mass execution of the surviving rebels, and then hanging the bodies outside Sophia's convent window. She apparently went mad. The following day Peter began his program to recreate Russia in the image of Western Europe by personally clipping off the beards of his nobles. He even taxed Russians wearing beards!!!

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. Peter the Great in Holland. Amsterdam, the Wharf of the East India Company. Sketch. 1910. Oil on paper mounted on cardbord. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. Peter the Great in Holland. Amsterdam, the Wharf of the East India Company. Sketch. 1910. Oil on paper mounted on cardbord. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Peter's return to Russia and assumption of personal rule hit the country like a hurricane.
He banned traditional Muscovite dress for all men, introduced military conscription, established technical schools, replaced the church patriarchy with a holy synod answerable to himself, simplified the alphabet, tried to improve the manners of the court, changed the calendar, changed his title from Tsar to Emperor, and introduced a hundred other reforms, restrictions, and novelties (all of which convinced the conservative clergy that he was the antichrist).

In 1703 he embarked on the most dramatic of his reforms - the decision to transfer the capital from Moscow to a new city to be built from scratch on the Gulf of Finland. Over the next nine years, at tremendous human and material cost, St. Petersburg was created.

Winter Palace, St. Petersburg.
From the 1760s the Winter Palace was the main residence of the Russian Tzars.

Peter also required all men to serve the state. Further changes included abolishing hereditary positions with the creation of the Table of Ranks that gave people privileges based on their ability and position within the Table of Ranks. Along with changes to the church, Peter increased the education that Russians received. He created the first universities in Russia. Peter sent Russians to be educated in the West, and imported skilled labour, military and administrative experts from abroad. He encouraged smoking, but taxed tobacco.

Perhaps the most important step that Peter took to ensure the continuation of Western influence in Russia was to introduce the practice of marrying royal princes to Western princesses.

Thereafter, nearly every tsar had a German wife, and thus the German influence became strong in upper-class circles. Peter himself had been married to the daughter of a Russian nobleman in his youth in accordance with the earlier practice, but he put her in a convent soon after he began to govern personally. Perhaps realizing that under the circumstances he could not hope to find a suitable Western princess for himself, he eventually married his mistress Martha Scavronsky (later changed name to Catherine).

Empress Catherine I, second wife of Peter IA servant girl, Martha Scavronsky, made a great career in the Russian court. In her native Lithuania during the war she was taken by the Russian soldier. Then she caught the eye of Prince Boris Sheremetyev, who purchased her for one ruble and made her one of his many mistresses. Prince Alexander Menshikov, tsar's favorite 'borrowed' her for himself. Peter I saw Martha in Menshikov's house and ordered, "When I go to bed, you, beauty, take a candle and light the way." According to the "etiquette" that meant she was obliged to sleep with the tsar. In the morning Peter paid her with a copper coin. Peter had granted himself this modest sum for love expenses when still a young man and all his life he strictly followed the tariff. Later, though, the tsar married Martha and she became Catherine I, Empress of Russia. She gave Peter three children and proved a fit companion for the restless monarch.

Interesting Episode

The Frenchman Vilbois was Peter's favorite and aide-de-camp. He was a drunkard, brawler and womanizer. Once Peter sent this officer with an errand to his wife Catherine from St. Petersburg to Kronstadt, where the tsarina lived in winter. While traveling, Vilbois drank a bottle of vodka and came to the place absolutely drunk. The ladies-in-waiting refused to admit him to tsarina, saying that Her Majesty was sleeping. “Wake her up immediately!” roared the officer. The frightened ladies brought him to the tsarina’s bedroom and left him before her bed for him to wake her up himself. The drunk officer was so excited by the sleeping woman that he completely forgot she was the tsarina. Catherine cried for help, but unfortunately it came too late.

Empress Catherine I, second wife of Peter IThe most interesting part in the story is the reaction of Peter.

The tsar grinned and said, ‘Vilbois, the brute, was drunk and did not understand what he was doing. I bet, when he is sober he'll not remember anything.” Peter sentenced the Frenchman for exile for 2 years. However he returned him in a couple of months with the following excuse: “benefits from his knowledge and experience considerably exceed the damage he had caused.”

Peter could excuse “accidents”, but never deliberate unfaithfulness. When Peter found that William Mons became Catherine's lover, he had the man beheaded. Then he ordered the head of the unfortunate lover to be put in a jar with alcohol. The jar stood in Catherine's bedroom till Peter's death.

Peter the Great.

Portrait of Peter the Great. B. Koffr. 1713 or 1716 .Peter was free and easy in his relationship with people, but his social manners were a mixture of the habits of a powerful aristocrat and those of an artisan. Whenever he went visiting he would sit down in the first vacant seat, if he was hot he would take off his shirt in front of everybody. It was this habit of dispensing with knives and forks at table that had so shocked the princesses of Germany. He had no manners whatsoever and did hot consider them necessary.

Physically Peter was a giant of just under seven feet, and at any gathering he towered a full head above everybody else. Not only was Peter a natural athlete, but habitual use of ax and hammer had developed his strength and 'manual dexterity to such an extent that he was able to twist a silver platter into a scroll.

Peter had other sides to his character. He spent time and money generously in obtaining paintings and statues from Italy and Germany which formed the foundations for the Hermitage Collection at St. Petersburg. The many pleasure palaces which he had built round his new capital indicate his taste in architecture. At enormous cost he hired the best European architects.

Valentin Serov. Peter the Great. Detail. 1907. Tempera on cardboard. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.Peter was never more than a guest in his own home. During his reign he had traveled the length of Russia. He was also the first Russian ruler to travel outside of Russia. As a result of this perpetual mobility, Peter became so restless that he was constitutionally incapable of staying in one place for any length of time. He had such a long stride and used to walk so quickly that his companions had to run to keep up with him.

Johann Gottfried Tannauer. Peter the Great During the Battle of Poltava. 1710s. Oil on canvas. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.If Peter was not sleeping, traveling, feasting, or inspecting, he was busy making something. When he was young and still inexperienced he could never be shown over a factory or workshop without trying his hand at whatever work was in progress. He found it impossible to remain a mere spectator, particularly if he saw something new going on.

Louis Caravaque. Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava. Detail. 1718. Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.His favorite occupation was shipbuilding, and no affairs of state could detain him if there was an opportunity to work on the wharves. He was such a competent marine architect that his contemporaries said that he was the best shipwright in Russia, since he not only could design a ship, but knew every detail of its construction. Peter took a particular pride in this ability and he stinted neither money nor effort in extending and improving Russia's shipbuilding industry.

After his death, it was found that nearly every place in which he had lived for any length of time was full of the model boats, chairs, crockery, and snuff-boxes he had made himself. It is surprising that Peter ever found enough leisure to make so many things.

Peter generated considerable opposition during his reign, not only from the conservative clergy but also from the nobility, who were understandably rather attached to the status quo. His reforms were not always popular. Some of them led to revolts which Peter the Great had to suppress.

Tsarevch Alexis, Peter's son. 1710. Oil on canvas. J.Tannauer. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. One of the most notable critics of his policies was his own son Alexis, who naturally enough became the focus of oppositional intrigue.
In fact, Alexis seemed to desire no such position, and in 1716 he fled to Vienna after renouncing his right to the succession. Having never had much occasion to trust in others, Peter suspected that Alexis had in fact fled in order to rally foreign backing. After persuading him to return, Peter had his son arrested and tried for treason. In 1718 he was sentenced to death, but died before the execution from wounds sustained during torture.

Peter the Great with his son Alexis

Peter the Great decided that the ruler should nominate his successor. The tsarship would no longer be a hereditary position

However, Peter died without nominating an heir and at his death the question of ascension to the throne was left unanswered. There was no obvious choice either, as Peter had been married twice and had 11 children, many of whom died in infancy and the eldest son from his first marriage, Tzarevich Alexei died from torture.

Peter himself died in 1725. Unlike previous monarchs, he was not afraid of physical labour. In November 1724, he dived into the cold northern ocean to assist in a ship rescue. It led to his illness and death.

Peter the Great still remains one of the most controversial figures in Russian history.

More than in any other period of Russian history, the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries was an era of great events and changes for which a single man was mostly responsible.

Peter the Great's reign transformed Russia. He strengthened the rule of the tsar and westernized Russia while at the same time making Russia a power in Europe and greatly expanding Russia's borders. During his reign, Russia became an empire and Peter became the first emperor of Russia.

Peter the GreatIt is difficult to evaluate Peter's work. By his energy and ruthlessness he modernized Russia to the extent that it was strong enough to escape the fate of Poland and the Ottoman Empire, but the deeper aspects of Western culture never penetrated below the aristocracy, and the masses of the Russian people were forced down lower than ever. They remained in ignorance, now separated culturally as well as economically and socially from their superiors.

Although he was deeply committed to making Russia a powerful new member of modern Europe, it is questionable whether his reforms resulted in significant improvements to the lives of his subjects.

After Peter's death Russia went through a great number of rulers in a distressingly short time, none of whom had much of an opportunity to leave a lasting impression.

ivan the terrible peter the great  |  nicholas the second  |  anastasia  |  imperial style  |  regalia  |  jewellery

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