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Peter the Great – a visionary Tsar who modernised mediaeval Russia

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Saturday, 31 December 2011

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This edited article about Russia originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 889 published on 3 February 1979.

Peter the Great, picture, image, illustration

Peter the Great visiting a shipyard by Richard Hook

Michael Romanov was only 16 when he was elected tsar of Russia in the year 1613 a.d., and he was not strong enough in either health or character to measure up to the job.

So – why was he chosen? Because the men of power in Russia were up to their old tricks again, distracting attention with a figurehead while they steered the ship.

This was the way things were for the first six years of Michael’s reign. Then his patriotic father, whose enemies had banished him to Poland, was permitted to return, and it was he that now became the man at the wheel, directing Russia’s course until his death in 1633.

By the middle of the 17th century Russia had increased greatly in size and population, which now stood at around 10 million, and Moscow had become as fine a city as any of the capitals of Europe. But the country was still mainly agricultural, still backward compared with most of her neighbours.

Michael died in 1645 and was succeeded by another 16-year-old, Alexis, who again was no more than a figurehead. The control of the ship of state now rested in the hands of his tutor, Morozov, a man from the rich landowning class. It is a measure of how mediaeval Russia still was that at the height of his power Morozov owned over 30,000 serfs, which is merely another word for slaves.

But Morozov went too far. His rule became so harsh that in the year 1648 the people of Moscow rose against him and he had to take refuge in a monastery.

Moscow was a troubled city at this time. In the mid-1650s it suffered a crisis of a different kind when it was ravaged by an epidemic of smallpox. A few years later, in 1662, a mob of some thousands protesting against injustices besieged the tsar’s palace.

Alexis promptly called upon his courtiers and guards to protect him. The result was indiscriminate slaughter of the populace by a spate of executions and the permanent exile of whole families to Siberia.

Throughout all this confusion one thing remained constant, and that was the basic cause of it, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. The great families of the land were granted more and more rights and privileges while those of the poor people were steadily reduced.

Alexis died suddenly, and Russia’s next tsar was even younger – Alexis’s 14-year-old son Fedor. Fedor was a sickly boy who ruled for only six years, occupying himself largely with reading and writing in his bedroom while a free-for-all for power went on outside.

Fedor’s death in 1682 was the starting gun for a bitter and bloody struggle for the throne, which finally found itself with two occupants as joint tsars. These two were Fedor’s younger brother Ivan and his half-brother Peter. Ivan was of little account, but Peter was a different proposition altogether.

Tsar Peter, known as ‘the Great’ because of what he did for his country, was a formidable individual in more ways than one. He was a giant of a man, well over two metres tall, with a strong personality and boundless energy. He was also decidedly unpleasant, with a markedly cruel streak and a habit of playing practical jokes which very few people found funny.

Peter spent his early years on a country estate near Moscow where he developed an insatiable interest in all sorts of things of a practical nature – how machines were constructed and worked, how ships navigated when out of sight of land, how armies were organised and how they fought. He set up “play regiments” recruited from the sons of the local gentry which later became the backbone of his palace guards.

To start with, Peter was quite willing to let his half-brother occupy the throne. Such a life was too dull for him. His taste was for adventure, and in the years 1695 and 1696 he led two expeditions against the Turks which resulted in the capture of the Turkish fortress of Azov, on the Black Sea.

Later in 1696, Peter went abroad to find out how the people of other countries lived. He visited Holland and England, where he worked in shipyards, inspected factories, toured museums, and so on. He engaged a large number of craftsmen and technicians for work in Russia.

Then Ivan disappeared from the scene, leaving Peter sole ruler of Russia, and Peter proceeded to show that he meant to be just that by cutting off a number of dangerous heads. He also chopped off his courtiers’ traditionally long beards. This was not just one of his jokes, but an indication of his determination to modernise his country.

To do that, he had to develop contacts with the civilised world. Russia lacked seaports, and the obvious place for them was on the Baltic, which was dominated by Sweden.

Inevitably, Russia had to go to war with Sweden. It began in 1720, lasted 21 years, and ended with Sweden conceding a lot of territory around the Baltic.

Peter consolidated his victory by building a great seaport at the mouth of the river Neva – the city now called Leningrad but first named St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg assumed such importance that by 1713 it had displaced Moscow as Russia’s capital.

The successful conclusion of the war with Sweden and the founding of St. Petersburg would have been enough for most rulers to achieve in a lifetime, but for Peter the Great it was only a step along the road he had set himself to follow. His energy and drive continued unchecked.

He was constantly on the move, either abroad on some diplomatic mission or other, or travelling around inside Russia, always at top speed. He inspected factories, farms, met local officials – and woe betide anything or anyone that did not come up to scratch. He reorganised the Russian army and greatly expanded the navy.

He was a tremendous initiator. He founded schools and Russia’s first museum, introduced a new, simplified alphabet for printing in Russian, and personally edited his country’s first newspaper. He established Russia’s first effective central governmental body, which was called the senate, and replaced the old muddle of little government offices with specialist departments.

Peter the Great was never popular in Russia, not least because his many enterprises demanded a great deal of money, which he ruthlessly extracted by taxation old and new. His self-appointed task was to drive an unwilling, mediaeval-minded country on towards its destiny as a great power. And drive it he did, until it took giant strides that almost matched his own.

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