Whether he deserved the sobriquet “the Great” or not, Pyotr Alexeyevich certainly managed some impressive achievements during his four-decade reign over Russia. By his death, Russia had been modernized, westernized, enlightened and revolutionized (at least in terms of culture and science). In a series of successful wars, Peter had gained ports on the Black and Baltic seas and made Russia a “player” in European politics. All-in-all, his legacy still resonates in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Peter avoided the limitations of his elder half-brothers, Feodor III and Ivan V, both physically weak and sickly, and the latter of “infirm mind.” Consequently, when Feodor died childless in May 1682, the Boyar Duma chose the ten-year-old Peter to become tsar, with his mother Natalya Naryshkina to serve as regent. But a revolt of the Streltsy (the Russian palace guard), engineered by the ambitious Sophia Alekseyevna, Ivan’s sister and Peter’s half-sister, forced the boyars to proclaim Ivan and Peter to be “co-rulers” with primacy given to Ivan. In the turmoil, some of Peter’s family and friends were killed by the Streltsy on Sophia’s orders … and Peter had a long memory.
Sophia was made regent, not that that bothered the young Peter (much) for he was more interested in such pastimes as model shipbuilding, sailing and waging mock wars with his extensive collection of toy soldiers. And his studies. Peter was smart (could say “brilliant”) and his father had installed some of the greatest minds of the Russian Enlightenment – the “learned druzhina” – as his tutors. They indoctrinated him with all those messy concepts popular in Europe at the time: benevolent absolutism, equality (for the non-royal, of course), scientific progress, freedom of speech, the “Republic of Letters,” and a whole host of European customs.
In the midst of all this learning, his mother sought to distract him with an arranged marriage to Eudoxia Lopukhina in 1689, but that didn’t work out and ten years later Peter forced Eudoxia to become a nun, banished to the convent at Suzdal. Rather more of a distraction was Peter’s plot to seize power from his half-sister. Getting wind of his plans, Sophia moved first. As the Streltsy revolted, Peter fled to an impregnable Orthodox monastery, there to gather his own forces. In the end, Sophia was overthrown and forced to enter a convent (Peter seemed to have some scruples about killing females). The co-rule with the senile and virtually blind Ivan continued, but now with Peter having the real power.
Drawing on all that enlightened thinking he’d absorbed, Peter almost immediately implemented sweeping reforms aimed at modernizing Russia in the European manner. He faced a bit of opposition – uprisings by the Streltsy, boyars, Bashkirs and Bulavin Cossacks – but his response was invariably swift and brutal. He implemented his “social modernization” with equal single-mindedness; as an outward sign of the progress Russia was making in becoming civilized (ever an uphill struggle), Peter required his courtiers, officials and officers to shave their beards and adopt modern dress. In fact, he placed a tax on beards and robes in September 1698.
But to keep all this progress rolling, Russia needed an easier way to connect with Europe: maritime ports that would open Peter’s realm to the ready exchange of goods and knowledge with the West. To the north, the Baltic was dominated by stiff-necked Swedes; to the south the Ottomans held the Black Sea and the Persian Safavids the Caspian. To even contemplate war with such powerful neighbors, Peter needed allies and supporters among the European monarchs. He set out on his “Grand Embassy” in 1697 to gain them.
While he didn’t succeed in his plans – forcing Russia to go it alone with the heavyweights – Peter did get to see Europe firsthand, from Amsterdam to London to Leipzig to Vienna, and was enamored. He studied shipbuilding with the Dutch East India Company, and hired shipwrights and seamen to go to Russia. He paid a visit to the famed Frederik Ruysch, who taught him how to draw teeth and collect butterflies. In England, he met with the king and learned about “modern” city planning in Manchester. Unfortunately, a revolt by the Streltsy caused Peter to cut his European vacation short. Arriving home, Peter had some 1200 of them tortured and executed, and finally disbanded the irritating Streltsy and created a new Imperial Guard.
Even without allies, Peter got Russia embroiled in war with the Turks. But the outbreak of the Great Northern War forced him to come to a temporary accord with them, although he did manage to hang onto captured Azov, a strategic fortress where the Don River empties into the Black Sea. While the Poles and Lithuanians kept the Swedish king and military genius Charles XII busy by dying a lot, Peter took Ingermanland on the Baltic from the Swedes in 1703 and founded the city of St. Petersburg, destined to be the new Russian capital. By the time Charles got done smashing the Poles, Peter was ready for the Swedish invasion. Skillfully retreating southward, getting defeated periodically, the Russians finally won their great victory at Poltava, effectively ending the war. In the end, in 1721, Peter acquired some nice new additions to his empire: Livonia, Estonia, Ingria and a substantial portion of Karelia.
Peter the Great spent the end of his days reforming again. He took a hand in reorganizing the Russian Orthodox Church; when the traditional head of the church, the Patriarch of Moscow died, the tsar refused to name a replacement as usual and instead created a Holy Synod to govern it. And he created an act that forbade any man to enter a monastery before the age of 50, believing that their productive years were being wasted. He issued a decree establishing compulsory education, abolished the land and household taxes (although, no fiscal fool, he did institute a poll tax), and began the Peterhof Palace for his descendants to enjoy. He never got to see it himself, dying in February 1725 at the age of 52.