Friday, January 22, 2016

Great Leaders: Who was Peter the Great? (Part 7): Opposition and Last Years

Peter I Interrogating his Son Alexei
With his huge wave of reforms and his new gained prestige, Peter the Great also had detractors who opposed his ways and views. Explore how the Russians opposed their Tsars and how did Peter the Great lived his last years of rule.

Peter the Great brought Russia to the modern world. He gave it a status of great power in international politics. He aligned its culture, education, administration, and even religion to Europe. With his energy and his power, he forged a new Russia. But his ways and the pace of his reforms shocked many to their core. Many priest, nobles, and even within his own family felt anxious and terrified over their Tsar’s actions.

Opposition to Peter the Great

Many Russian opposed Peter the Great’s policies. For instance, the peasantry and the serfs reached their breaking point over the burden of taxation and obligation demanded by Peter to finance his projects and war. The clergy of the Russia Orthodox Church also felt distant to their Tsar. Other nobles became shock over the preference of Peter to anything European and being forced to them as well. They were horrified that their Tsar mingled with foreigners who did not follow the same faith as they were. Some opposition also came from Peter’s own family. Worst, he had to face his own son Alexei’s dissatisfaction over him.


Rebellions rose up against Peter because of the obligation he demanded to his people. In 1705, the Bashkirs rebelled against Peter for the exorbitant taxes he imposed. The rebellion became deeply rooted and took over six years before being quelled. At the same time, the Streltsy that Peter so loathed rebelled once again in the city of Astrakhan in the south. The Streltsy disagreed to Peter’s policy of increasing taxes as well as Peter’s liberality towards western culture. Eventually, the rebellion ended a year later. In 1707, Cossacks in the Don River rebelled as well over the policy of bringing back runaway serfs, who composed most of them. Kondrati Bulavin led the revolt and it lasted in a year. But even with several insurrections, Peter did not stop or reverse his policies.

Opposition of the Nobility

Nobles also complained over their Tsar’s policies. For instance female nobles felt exposed and violated by the open and vulgar western dresses that the Tsar prescribed for them. Even though the Tsar had banned the wearing of their previously long and thick clothing, many continued to wear them privately. In fact, the long traditional Russian clothing had practical uses, it protected them from the harsh cold Russian climate. In addition to complaints about the Tsar's clothing preferences, many conservative nobles also did not welcome Peter’s openness to foreigners and abandonment of old tradition. Many even resisted and protested by not moving to St. Petersburg and only did due to the fact that the Tsar decreed it and fear of death, imprisonment or dispossession. However, their opposition stood futile against Peter’s energetic pursuit of change in Russian culture and traditions.

Opposition of the Church

The Church opposed Peter’s westernization, modernization and secularization and stood as the old guard of Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church had the belief that followers of the Russian Orthodox Church should not mingle with foreigners who did not practice a religion like theirs, which they considered the one and only true faith. Hence they viewed foreigners and anything foreign with suspicion.

The conservative church then disliked Peter’s policy of openness to foreign culture, science, and technology. It also became the reason why Peter surprised them when he interacted with foreigner and even travel to abroad. But another cause of rip between the church and Peter had been the issue of control. Previously the church held a strong position over the Tsars. The Tsars took the advice of the Patriarchs seriously and the Russian Orthodox religion itself became part of the essence of being a Russian. But Peter’s western belief of secularization and toleration caused the influence of the church to wane. The clerics became horrified when Peter tolerated and open to Christians, Protestants, and even the marginalized Old Believers of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Peter also wanted to control the Church in order to change the narrow-mindedness of his people. He also believed that the Tsar’s power should be the highest in the land, which meant that he should control the church. In 1700, he prevented the election of a new Patriarch and placed Stefan Iavorsky in charge of the Church. But even with his candidate leading the Church, Peter yearned for more. But Iavorsky refused to surrender any more authority over the church to the Tsar. A conflict began between the two. Iavorksy began to call Peter the Anti-Christ and supported any nobles who opposed the Tsar’s policy. The conflict between the Tsar and the Church inspired opposition within the Tsar’s imperial family.

Opposition within the Imperial Family

The Royal Family of Russia faced serious problems. Peter married Eudoxia Lopukhina in 1689 under the wishes of his mother, Natalya Naryshkina. But the confident and enthusiastic Tsar felt bored by his pious, conservative, and quiet wife. He then looked for other women as company, and found one in form of Anna Mons. Eudoxia, nevertheless, did her duty by giving birth to Peter’s son Alexei.

Alexei grew up like his mother - pious and conservative. And because of his upbringing, Alexei feared his father. But it turned into hatred when Peter sent Eudoxia away from him and sent to a monastery to take her vows. After which, Peter’s relation with Anna Mons ended and he found another more trusted companion in a Lithuanian peasant woman introduced by his friend Alexander Menshikov.

The Lithuanian peasant girl named Marta Skavronskaya converted to the Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Catherine Alexseyevna. Peter and Catherine lived well to the horrors of Alexei. In 1707, Peter secretly married Catherine but married her again openly in 1712. Catherine proved to be a good wife to Peter, and bore him children. She also had the talent to calm down the notoriously raging Tsar during meetings, after which the Tsar slept and woke up fresh. His mother being exile and his father marrying another women, made Alexei a troubled child.

Alexei proved to be the greatest opposition to Peter. For Peter, his own flesh and blood opposing him was unacceptable and humiliating. Peter tried many times to shape up his son to become like him, but all in vain. The Russian Orthodox Church made the father and son split worst. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church Stefan Iavorsky instigated Alexei to go against his father. Iavorsky once remarked that Alexei was their hope from Peter the Great. In the middle of the second decade of the 1700’s, Peter discovered Alexei’s desire, once ascending as Tsar, to abandon St. Petersburg along with other radical reforms.

Peter then sent him an ultimatum to shape up or be a monk. In 1716, Alexei chose otherwise. Upon the instigation of some conservative nobles and Stefan Iavorsky, Alexei escaped his domineering father. Alexei went to Austria and met with his brother-in-law the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Alexei asked for an army from Charles VI to invade Russia and overthrow his father. But the Holy Roman Emperor feared an escapade if he entrusted an army to the feeble minded Tsarevitch. Instead of giving an army, the Emperor sent him in hiding in Tirol and then in Naples.

Peter, meanwhile, looked far and wide for his son. In 1717, he sent his trusted diplomat, Peter Tolstoi, to search for Alexei in Europe. Soon afterwards, in late 1717, Tolstoi succeeded and found Alexei in Naples. He convinced Alexei to return home under a false hope that Peter had already forgave him. And so in January 1718, Prince Alexei returned home to St. Petersburg. To the terror of the Tsarevitch, His father had him arrested, tortured, and interrogated in the Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress. Peter wanted to know who made his son to oppose him directly. Under intense torturing and beating, he revealed names of influential men like Vasily Dolgoruky and Stefan Iavorsky. Peter had them exiled and imprisoned. Even Eudoxia did not escaped Peter’s investigation found herself under arrest. Many more nobles and clerics who had conservative beliefs also found themselves under arrest. In June 26, 1718, a death warrant for Alexei Romanov laid in the Tsar’s table. But before he signed it, news from the prison reported that Tsarevitch Alexei passed away, most probably due to the immense pain he received from his torture. The death of Alexei did not stop Peter from pursuing reform. But it brought grief as well as a dilemma for Peter.

Succession and Later Years

Problem of succession followed after the death of Alexei. Peter loss his heir to the throne. To solve the problem of dynastic succession, in 1722, he issued a decree giving him and future Tsars the right to choose their successors, deviating from the traditional primogeniture and also giving a chance for a woman to rule the newly declared Russian Empire.

Peter lived for four years as Emperor of the new Russian Empire. In 1721, after the signing of the Treaty of Nystad, the Great Northern War ended. To celebrate Russia’s victory and new found glory, Peter proclaimed the foundation of the Russian Empire, with him as its first Emperor. For the next few years he enjoyed his triumphs.

In 1724, however, during his patrol of the cold icy fringes of the Arctic, they found a Russian ship sinking. Peter and his ship came to the rescue and the Emperor himself jump off the ship to rescue sailors. But upon doing so, he caught a chill. By December he contracted pneumonia. On January 28, 1725 in the Russian calendar and February 8, 1725 in the Gregorian calendar, Peter Alexeyevich Romanov, Tsar and Emperor of All Russia, passed away. Before doing so, he named his successor in vain. His last word were: “Leave it all to…”

Summing Up

Peter the Great is one of the world’s renowned leaders. But his reign is without controversy. He succeeded in achieving his vision of a modern and westernized Russia at the cost of thousands of lives. Depending on perspective, Peter had been viewed as a great leader and as a tyrant.

For some he ruled without consideration to the masses. For them Peter was a mad ruler who wanted to fulfill his ambitions at the expense of poor peasants and serfs. This how the Soviets viewed him an oppressor and a self-serving ruler. For the Peredvizhniki, a group of painters who looked back to traditional Russian culture, saw Peter as a tyrant and a traitor to his homeland and his own roots. They opposed his westernization that dispelled the weakening of the traditional Russian culture.

But there were those who admired Peter the Great’s rule and looked to him as a model and a champion of reform. Catherine the Great looked to Peter with magnanimity. She saw him as a strong role model that brought greatness to Russia. So much so, Catherine used Peter’s legacy as a backbone of her reign and ordered the erection of a bronze statue of the Tsar (dubbed as the Bronze Horseman) in St. Petersburg.

In the end, greatness of a rule will always be subjective. Some viewed greatness if a ruler cared towards the masses and the marginalized. Some saw greatness in a ruler’s open-mindedness and tolerance. But greatness could also be seen in a leader’s will to take a risk or to do something he believed in would be better for his country.

Looking at Peter the Great’s reign, there are some characteristics of a great leader. He took the risk of initiating reforms to the horrors of the most powerful and influential. He took the risk of bringing his country to war in order to strengthen his position as well as that of Russia’s. His greatness also laid of having a vision and having the energy to pursuit it.

However, anyone who should looked to Peter should also have caution. Looking at how different parties saw Peter, the Tsar did have his own misgivings. His war dragged most of the impoverished into further poverty and hardship. His ambitions cost the lived of hundreds of thousands of Russians.

As a conclusion, Peter’s legacy to Russia remains an enigma. If he deserves the title “the Great” depends on perspective. He made a strong modern country. On that he did well. But to the cost, he can be criticized. For his desire to achieve his goal, millions suffered and thousands died, including his own son. He drained money from state coffers and refilled it with the burden brunt from neediest. His reign created an impact in Russia and directed its direction for the next century or more. Peter the Great remains a controversial leader that everyone looks upon both with admiration as well as reservations.

Documentaries on Peter the Great

Peter the Great is one of the most towering figures in world history. His life and reign is a fascination and interest to many of his achievements. For this, numerous documentaries were made that discussed his epic life and reign.

Discovery Channel had a series titled Conquerors with one of their topic was Peter the Great. Produced in 1997, this documentary was all made up of reenactments and narration and no commentaries, which meant people who appeared sharing their comments and opinions. I myself learned first about Tsar Peter from this documentary.

Another documentary was produced by National Geographic Channel. It was part of the series titled Icons of Power and Peter the Great was featured under the title Icons of Power: Wrath of the Tsar Peter the Great. Its documentary started with the imprisonment of Peter’s son Alexei in the Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress. Each part of the life and reign of Peter the Great was shown in episodic flashbacks. It had good experts and writers who commented for documentary and it offered good reenactments as well.  

Explore also:

“Great Northern War.” In Wars of the Age of Louis XIV: 1650 – 1750. Edited by Cathal Nolan. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.

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.

Gilbert, Adrian. Encyclopedia of Warfare: From Earliest Time to the Present Day. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000.

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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