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Peter the Great loved Russia more than his subjects

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty, Ships on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about Peter the Great first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Peter the Great,  picture, image, illustration

The First Fleet built by Peter the Great at Voronej by Maurice Randall

Peter the Great was brutal and barbaric, a man without scruples, who was incapable of committing an act of kindness. His cruelty was exceeded only by his ability to commit murder without a qualm. He was, in short, a typical tyrant.

Yet it was this man, who in a generation, lifted the land of Russia, which had been sunk in the mire of mediaeval ignorance, to the level of the great European nations. He taught her to build ships and to operate a powerful navy. He founded St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and he banned marriages which were not by mutual consent, and tried to bring women out of their traditional isolation.

Anxious to bring the civilising influence of Western manners to his country he ordered a book to be published on etiquette, which gently broke the news to the Russian people that it was not quite the thing to pick one’s nose or to spit in public. This did not prevent him, however, from spitting into the face of an officer who had bored him with his conversation.

From all this it must be fairly clear that Peter’s character was full of contradictions. He established orphanages and hospitals and tried to control the worst excesses of the landowners who treated their serfs like cattle. On the other hand, he allowed thousands of workers to die of disease, exposure and malnutrition during the building of St. Petersburg. Always in search of new ideas which he could use to strengthen Russia’s position in the world, he visited Prussia, Hanover, Holland and England, where he was quite happy to listen while workmen explained their craft to him. In other matters he could be insufferably arrogant. Deciding that the male population of Russia would be far better clean shaven, he ordered everyone who had a beard to remove it or be fined, which was in direct defiance of the Russian Orthodox Church’s ruling that shaving was a sin. To make his position even more clear his courtiers were forcibly shaved – by no less a person than their royal master. He professed to love his sons but when his first son became involved in a treason plot, he was able to watch him being tortured to death.

Peter, who was born in 1672, spent most of his early life within the walls of the Kremlin in the company of the court fool, making only rare public appearances in a little gold coach manned by dwarfs. This seemingly sheltered, if somewhat bizarre upbringing, which could have done nothing but harm to the sensitive child, was even more violently marred when he was made Czar on his tenth birthday, an event that started a rebellion which brought an unruly mob of Moscow’s privileged soldier caste, known as the Streltsy, storming into the Kremlin. In front of the boy’s horrified eyes they butchered his uncle and some of the ministers – an act which he was to avenge in later years.

Packed off into the country, Peter grew up quietly into a giant of seven foot, who spent most of his time building boats and creating his own army of real soldiers whom he recruited from the servants’ quarters and dressed in bottle green uniforms. When he became old enough to rule as emperor his first act was to shut up in a convent his half sister, who had been acting as regent. The revolt of the Streltsy had long since been crushed, but Peter had not forgotten what he had been forced to witness as a child. He had 800 of them executed and the rest of them dispersed. Ignoring a feeble minded half brother, who was supposed to be joint ruler with him, Peter settled himself down in earnest to the task of ruling Russia.

His first major action was to go to war.

Determined to secure for Russia ice free outlets to the sea, which he called “windows toward Europe,” he declared war on Turkey, hoping in this way to obtain a foothold in the Black Sea. To begin with the campaign was a dismal failure. After an abortive attack on the citadel of Azov at the mouth of the river Don, he decided it had to be blockaded by sea as well as land. All the available workmen were taken immediately to the forests of the Don, where they toiled day and night felling trees and building vessels of all kinds in order to prevent the Turkish fleet from relieving Azov. Peter himself lived amongst his workmen, working side by side with them, and six months later, no less than two warships, 23 galleys, four fireships and numerous other smaller craft had been safely launched against Azov. Two months later it fell.

Next, Peter challenged Sweden, the greatest military power of the North which in that day controlled much of the Baltic, Russia’s other possible outlet.

It was a war which lasted for 21 years, and it was a war which Peter finally won. But it was also a war which almost ruined the country. Yet within a year, Peter was at war once again. This time with Persia – a campaign which eventually secured for Russia the southern and eastern shores of the Caspian Sea. Now free to concentrate his energies on stabilizing Russia’s failing economy, he increased the household tax, which made him even more unpopular. It nevertheless boosted the revenue to such a degree that it took the budget out of deficit. But by now Peter was 52 years old and an ailing man permanently in pain from a gall stone. Characteristically he refused to rest, and within weeks of an unsuccessful operation he was busy touring the country, inspecting iron works and canals.

His end came suddenly in 1725, when he was ill advised enough to plunge into an icy sea while organizing the rescue of a number of sailors who had been shipwrecked off-shore. As a result he developed a serious chill which quickly carried him away.

Probably no ruler has ever left a greater impression on a land over which he ruled than did this brutal barbarian who loved his country above his people.

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