Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Great Leaders: Who was Peter the Great? (Part 1)

Explore the life and reign of a towering figure in history – Peter the Great.

Name: Peter the Great
Country: Russia
Position: Tsar and Emperor of All Russia
Tenure: 1682 - 1725
  • Opened and westernized Russia
  • Reformed the culture of his people
  • Founded a navy
  • Modernized the military
  • Turned his country into a great power

Peter the Great stood as one of the most puzzling leaders in Russian and world history. Depending in one’s view, Peter the Great inspired many as a great energetic leader that brought glory and reform to his country; or reviled as a ruthless and an insensitive tyrant who brought suffering to the most impoverished. From a child who witnessed terror into a literally tall man whose stature and ambition paralleled one another, Peter the Great delivered an enigma over the ways and means of his life and reign.

Birth and Family Rivalry

Pyotr Alekseyevich Romanov, born on June 9, 1672, grew up as the first son of Russian Tsar Alexei Romanov to his second wife, Nataliya Naryshkina. Nataliya had married Tsar Alexei in 1671 after the ruler’s first wife, Maria Miloslavskaya, passed away two years ago in 1669. As a son in a second marriage, Peter had a slim prospects of becoming Tsar. Tsar Alexei and Maria Miloslavkaya had numerous children, including an heir, Feodor, Ivan (the future Ivan V) and an ambitious intelligent woman, Sophia. Peter received education but his teacher proved to be inefficient and inept due to their drinking habits.

In 1676, Tsar Alexei passed away, leaving the throne to his feeble and sickly son who ruled as Tsar Feodor III. Family rivalry among the two families married to Tsar Alexis intensified. Under the reign of Tsar Feodor III, who came from the Miloslavsky side, weakened their rival, the Naryshkins. A key ally of the Naryshkins, Artamon Matveev, had been exiled to the northern fringes of the Arctic. Luckily for the Naryshkins, the poor state of health of the Tsar led to a short reign of Feodor that ended in 1682.

Succession Crisis

A problem arose in the succession following the demise of the late Tsar. Feodor passed away childless. A makeshift Zemsky Sobor or National Assembly composed of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and prominent Boyars convened to discuss the issue of succession. A problem arose when the heirs to the Tsardom of Muscovy proved to be lacking the needed necessities one way or the other. On one side, Ivan Alexeyevich Romanov from the Miloslavsky, aged 15 was half-blind and mentally-challenged and seemed to be a worrying choice as the next Tsar. On the other side, the young 10 year old Peter Alexeyevich Romanov from the Naryshkins seemed to be promising but his age was very young for a Tsar. They had to choose between a feeble minded Tsarevich and a very young Tsarevich. In the end, the Assembly decided to appoint Peter as the new Tsar with his mother Natalya serving as regent. The choice, however, angered the Miloslavskys that resulted to a bloodbath.
Moscow Uprising of 1682 by Nikolai Orenburgsky
The Moscow Uprising of 1682 erupted from the election of Tsar Peter and the rise of the Naryshkins to power. Sophia, the ambitious, intelligent and cunning half-sister of Peter wanted to grab power for herself and for the Miloslavskys. To do so, she spread rumors and lies about the Naryshkins such as they murdered Feodor and Ivan. She told many that the Naryshkins aimed in imposing liberal policies such as freedom for foreigners to enter and travel Russia, religious tolerance, and the return of their equally open-minded officials like Artamon Matveev. Sophia spread this gossips especially to a group of elite musketeers, known as the Streltsy. The Streltsy had been highly regarded as conservatives, xenophobic, and deeply pious. News of the said aims of the Naryshkins infuriated them to their core. This, along with abuses from their officials such as lack of pay, had been exacerbated by vodka, which Sophia had given them, turned them berserk. Between May 11 and May 17, 20,000 streltsy rioted in Moscow. Some stormed the Kremlin and killed many allies of the Naryshkins. This included Artamom Matveev and Prince Mikhail Dolgoruky and numerous members of the Naryskin family. Many of them suffered a gruesome death. Some got hacked into pieces and some got impaled in pikes held by the streltsy. The blood of the Naryshkins and their allies drenched the grounds of the Kremlin.

Natalya and Peter, fearing for their own lives, witnessed the killings in full detail. The event scared Peter forever. Throughout his life, he viewed the Streltsy with enormous suspicion and mistrust. In his mind, he made the Streltsy synonymous to revolt.

The Moscow uprising ended with another Assembly convening to set up a more acceptable terms of succession. The new Assembly decided that Peter and Ivan would be co-Tsars with Sophia Alexeyevna Romanovna serving as their regent. In an unprecedented event in history of Russia, two Tsar, Ivan V and Peter ruled simultaneously with their half-sister running the state affairs in their name.

Sophia Romanov’s Regency

Sophia ruled as regent for the two Tsar and she did it with all her might and pleasure. She had a window placed behind the throne of the two Tsars where she gave her advice and sometimes even spoke on behalf of the two. As Sophia enjoyed her rule, Peter and his mother Natalya retreated to the suburbs of Preobrazhenskoe located in the northeast of Moscow. There, Peter devoted his time in learning different skills and crafts, but most importantly build up a model for his future army.

Life in Preobrazhenskoe

Peter grew up and learned a lot in Preobrazhenskoe. He grew up away from the conservatism, traditions and rituals of Moscow. He freely sought things he wanted. He learned skills that no Tsar before him had thought of mastering. The boy proved to be physically energetic and mentally curious. A fresh source of knowledge for the boy Tsar came from the German Suburb, which stood between Moscow and Preobrazhenskoe. The Suburb had been the home of foreigners in Russia since the decree of the Patriarch Nikon in the 1650’s. Peter met and spoke with several foreign experts. Among them, Franz Timmerman, a Dutch merchant, taught Peter his lifelong passion – naval sciences. Timmerman introduced to Peter different navigational instruments like the sextant and the astrolabe. With foreign and local experts, Peter learned carpentry, stone masonry, and printing among others.

But warfare became his lifelong passion in his learning stage in Preobrazhenskoe. He formed his toy regiments made up of sons from both noble and townsmen background. They used real weapons and live ammunitions courtesy of the Tsar’s arsenal. His regiment grew and had to use the nearby suburb of Semenovskoe in order to provide lodgings for his regiments. These toy regiments became the foundations of the two oldest units in the Russian army – the Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky Regiments. His toy regiments trained together. Their training even composed of war games, using real weapons and ammunitions, which in some cases caused the death of some boys. Peter used merit rather than birthright as a basis for promotion. To set an example, he positioned himself as a drummer boy of his regiment.

From this type of military training, Peter met men who played major roles in his reign later on. They included foreigners like Patrick Gordon, who taught Peter about artillery and fortifications, Franz Lefort, who became a close friend of Peter, and most importantly, commoners like Alexander Menshikov, a simple boy from Moscow who later became one of the most influential and powerful men in Russia, started as a member of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.

Peter reached majority in the late 1680’s and became a towering figure literally. Six-foot and seven inches tall, he had a distorted proportion with big head narrow shoulders, long arms, and giant hands. His tall figure matched his energy. Energy he mostly devoted to learning, physical activities and also parties. Peter made a name for himself as a heavy drinker and a party animal. With Lefort, they formed what became notoriously known as the Jolly Company or the Most Drunken Council of Fools and Jesters who drank all night and made fun of the traditions of Catholics as well as Orthodox.

In addition, his mother made him to start his own family. In 1689, Nataliya made Peter marry Eudoxia Lopukhina – a woman that was a complete opposite of Peter. Eudoxia was shy, timid, conservative and extremely pious. With this character, Peter sought the company of other women and took several mistresses, the most famous being Anna Mons, a daughter of a German merchant that Franz Lefort introduced. Nevertheless, Eudoxia served her duty to bore an heir - Alexei. But even with a son, Peter continued his licentiousness.

Fall of Sophia Romanov

Meanwhile, as Peter reached adulthood, time in Sophia’s reign began to run out. After six years in power, Sophia had become unpopular to many. She was authoritarian and assumed powers and duties beyond her capacity as regent. She desired becoming a Tsarina, and as a first step she took the title “the Great Sovereign”. She even had a portrait of herself wearing the clothes of a Tsar and holding the Tsarist regalia. This attracted disgust to some traditional boyars, clerics, and officials. In addition, she also failed to score any military success but rather, she gain military disasters. In the middle of 1689, Sophia authorized a campaign to cement Muscovy rule in Crimea. However, mismanagement of logistics led to hunger and disease causing huge casualties in the Russian army. More men fell to mistreatment and hunger than to battle against the enemy. The military disaster further slipped Sophia’s popularity. Aware of her dropping approval ratings, she sank to paranoia, and Peter became her focus. She saw Peter as the rallying point for the opposition against her. And so in August 7, 1689, she sent out the Streltsy to Preobrazhenskoe to take care of Peter.

Sophia Romanov after her
fall from power by Ilya Repin
A showdown between Peter and Sophia followed. In the late night of August 7, Peter woke up and received news from his subordinates that a detachment of Streltsy was marching towards Preobrazhenskoe to execute a number traitors in the suburbs. Fearing for his security and life, Peter rode out the suburb and into the fortified monastery of St. Sergius. From there he rallied his supporters. Within a month, Peter gained significant support from the clergy, military and the nobility. Some streltsy units joined Peter and abandoned Sophia. Patriarch Joachim also joined Peter. Boyars who opposed Sophia also made their way to Peter. In addition, Peter had his two regiments, the Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky, gather in the monastery. One by one, Sophia lose her supporters to Peter. Finally, by September, Sophia fell. Peter’s troops arrested her and confined her to the Novodevichy Convent, where she stayed for the rest of her life. Peter also had her allies either executed or exile. Sophia’s lover, Vasily Golitsyn was sent to exile in the Arctic, while the commander of her guards, Feodor Shaklovity, and her adviser Silvester Medvedev were executed.

Even though Peter ousted Sophia, he respected Ivan’s right as his co-Tsar. Both men officially shared the crown until Ivan’s death in 1696.

Early Reign of Tsar Peter

Tsar Peter’s early rule had been characterized by continuing pursuit of his passion rather than personally handling the state affairs. Tsar Ivan V remained in the Kremlin to handle the ceremonial duties of a Tsar. Meanwhile, Peter’s uncle, Leo Naryshkin took over the daily state affairs of the Tsardom of Muscovy. Peter, on the other hand, continued to live outside Moscow.

Dream of a Navy

Outside, he continued to do whatever he saw interesting. One day, he found a boat made by an Englishman during the time of Tsar Alexei kept in a shed. Remembering the stories of naval voyages by his foreign friends, he became inspired, repaired boat, and used it in Lake Plescheevo. In Lake Plescheevo, Peter dreamt the creation of a Russian navy. From that single ship, he ordered the construction of replicas with the help from craftsmen of the German Suburbs. He along with his regiment practiced naval engagement in the lake. When the lake did not satisfied Peter, he sought to sail into the seas. In 1693, Peter went to Archangel, the only major Russian port city, and planned to sail in the White Sea. However, his mother Nataliya feared for the danger of sailing in open waters and begged his son not to press on. Peter only had the chance in the following year, in 1694, when Nataliya Naryshkina passed away. When the frozen White Sea melted in February, Peter returned and sailed with his ship. After the trip he ordered the construction of an ocean going ship in Amsterdam, named the Holy Prophecy, which was completed in 1697. From that point on, he decided to give Russia a navy.

Azov Campaign

The Azov Campaign of 1695 to 1696 became a stepping stone for Peter’s dream navy. The Turkish held Azov was a fortified port city in the mouth of the Don River where it drains to the warm waters of the Sea of Azov and ultimately, the Black Sea. Peter saw Azov as a perfect base to launch his navy for its warm waters rather than the frozen seas of Archangel. On the other hand, Azov also laid critical for Russian commerce and defense. It could provide Russia a base to control Tartar raids in the south. It could also provide access for Russian trade ships to the Black Sea. Politically, the situation had been ripe to attack the Turks in Azov because the bulk of the Ottoman Army had been engaging the Austrians in the west.

Peter exploited the absence of substantial Turkish force in the region and marched his army to Azov in the middle of 1695. His forces surrounded the city and besieged it for several months. Peter, however, failed to completely encircle the port. It continued to receive supplies through the sea and Peter cannot prevent it because he lacked a naval fleet. When winter set in, Peter had no choice but to withdraw.

After the failure of his first siege, he then re-planned his attack of the city throughout winter. He stayed in the town of Voronezh in the northern section of the Don River. There, he ordered the construction of a small flotilla of ships capable of blockading Azov. Throughout winter, his navy began to take shape. When spring blossomed in 1696, so as Peter’s fleet. The Muscovite army marched back south to Azov and encircled it in land, while Peter’s navy blockaded the city by sea. For months the city held but by July, however, lack supplies and soldiers forced it to surrender. With the fall of Azov, Peter gained access to the waters of the Sea of Azov. He consolidated Russian control over the region, and established the town of Taganrog that would serve as a naval base for the small Russian fleet.

After the victory. Peter returned to Moscow with a grand procession complete with all magnificence and glory of a conquering hero. Nevertheless, Azov did not satisfied Peter. He wanted the Black Sea to become a Russian lake. But in order to do so, he needed to strengthen Russia and gain allies.

Grand Embassy

Peter set out in a Grand Embassy in 1697. The embassy brought Peter to Europe in hopes of getting allies for his goal of controlling the Black Sea. Nevertheless, Peter also had other motives for the embassy.

The embassy offered him a chance to see and learn from Europe herself. He wanted to learn the latest European science and technology, which he could apply to his country. It also gave him the chance to see the cities that his foreign friends had fascinated him with during in his childhood. He wanted to visit the cities of Berlin, Amsterdam, and London.

In 1697, Peter's journey began. He left state affairs to his confidant, Feodor Romodanovsky. He travelled incognito under the name Peter Mikhailov in order to avoid formalities during his visits. He made Franz Lefort and Feodor Golovin to act as if they headed the embassy. Along with 200 members of the Grand Embassy, Peter set off and made a stop in Riga then Berlin. They then proceed to the city that amazed him throughout his life – Amsterdam. From there he learned various skills. From dentistry, to printing, he learned the in the workshops, schools, and hospitals of the Dutch city.
Shipyard of the Dutch East India Company in 1726 by Joseph Mulder
But his real passion laid in naval sciences. Peter had admired Dutch shipbuilding skills and went to the shipyards of the Dutch East India Company in Zaandam to learn it firsthand. He also bought numerous items that interested him in Amsterdam, which he later displayed in Russia’s first museum in St. Petersburg, known as the Kunstkamera. But from his interactions with the Dutch, he discovered the waves were no longer dominated by the Dutch, but by the English who made shipbuilding a science.

And so he left Amsterdam and went to London. He then continued to learn more about shipbuilding and navigation. He also learned the newest discoveries in sciences. He visited the Greenwich Observatory, the Royal Mint, and the Arsenal of the King, among others. They stayed in a home of a noble who showed them great hospitality. Hospitality, which Peter and his companions never repaid. Peter and his wild Russian friends destroyed the interior of the house, breaking windows, glasses, and paintings. By the time they left, the house was a mess. His host regretted their decision.

In 1698, the embassy passed France and then went to Vienna, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. He sought the Holy Roman Empire’s commitment to a Holy League against the Turks. Peter’s trip, however, was cut short when news that the Streltsy mutinied again and threatened Moscow and his government. He had to abandon his itinerary and rushed home. By the time he reached Poland, he received news that Romonadovsky and Patrick Gordon had quelled the rebellion.

In the end of the Grand Embassy, he manage to recruit 750 European experts to go to Russia and teach their expertise to the Russians. He also ordered 50 nobles to study in Europe. However, the political goals of Russia to gain allies against the Ottoman Turks failed. He had no choice but to settle peace with the Turks.

Streltsy Mutiny/Rebellion of 1698

Execution in Red Square by Vasily Surikov
Upon his return, Peter reopened the investigation on the recent Streltsy revolt that cut his Grand Embassy short. The Streltsy revolted against Peter during his stay in Vienna. The military unit had complained over the lack of attention of Peter and his government over their needs. They also protested against being sent to the south to fight the Turks. But most importantly, they felt disgusted over the unorthodox ways of Tsar Peter. They hated his closeness to the foreigners, his decision to leave Russia to travel abroad and his preference to the new model army that he had created during his childhood instead of them as the traditional bodyguards of the Tsar. They saw Peter going against their conservative and pious views.

The Streltsy rose up in revolt and planned to march to Moscow to overthrow the presiding government, destroy the German Suburb, and kill all foreigners. But outside the New Jerusalem Monastery, they faced Peter’s modern army, led by the Preobrazensky and Semenovsky Regiments under the command of Feodor Romonadovsky and Patrick Gordon. After the battle, 150 ringleaders faced execution. News of the defeat of the rebels reached Peter when he arrived in Poland. Although the rebellion had been quelled, Peter returned quickly to Moscow to restart an investigation. He had personal distrust of the Streltsy since their riot in 1682 that scarred him as a boy and caused the death of his relatives. He also suspected his half-sister Sophia of inciting the rebellion in order to reestablish her control. Peter ordered the interrogation and torture of numerous streltsy to find evidence of such connection. He planned to squish any single signs of a larger conspiracy, either plotted by other nobles or by his half-sister. In the end, 1,100 faced execution in the Red Square, some of which Peter beheaded personally. Meanwhile, Sophia did not evaded Peter’s wrath. The Tsar hanged three streltsy over her window in the Novodevichy Convent. Peter then forced Sophia to become a nun. The rest of the Streltsy were sent to the south to fight the Tartars, and as years passed by, their numbers and significance dwindled until they disappeared by 1720.
The Streltsy Rebellion of 1698 was not Peter’s last and greatest opposition. After the Streltsy Rebellion, Peter embarked in his dream to westernize and modernize Russia and turn it into a great power. His dream faced tough opposition from a foreign power that led Russia to a war that brought it to the limelight of European politics. Russia and Peter marched into a two decade long Great Northern War. 

Explore also:

Boterbloem, Kess. A History of Russia and Its Empire: From Mikhail Romanov to Vladimir Putin. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2014.

Bucher, Greta. Daily Life in Imperial Russia. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Buskovitch, Paul. A Concise History of Russia. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Kort, Michael. A Brief History of Russia. New York, New York: Facts On File, 2008. 

Moss, Walter. A History of Russia Volume I: To 1917. London: Anthem Press, 2005.

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