Peter I, Russian in full Pyotr Alekseyevich, byname Peter the Great, Russian Pyotr Veliky, (born June 9 (May 30, Old Style), 1672, Moscow, Russia — died February 8 (January 28), 1725, St. Petersburg), tsar of Russia who reigned jointly with his half-brother Ivan V (1682–96) and alone thereafter (1696–1725) and who in 1721 was proclaimed emperor (imperator). He was one of his country’s greatest statesmen, organizers, and reformers.
Peter was of enormous height, more than six and one-half feet (two metres) tall; he was handsome and of unusual physical strength. Unlike all earlier Russian tsars, whose Byzantine splendours he repudiated, he was very simple in his manners; for example, he enjoyed conversation over a mug of beer with shipwrights and sailors from the foreign ships visiting St. Petersburg. Restless, energetic, and impulsive, he did not like splendid clothes that hindered his movements; often he appeared in worn-out shoes and an old hat, still more often in military or naval uniform. He was fond of merrymaking and knew how to conduct it, though his jokes were frequently crude, and he sometimes drank heavily and forced his guests to do so too. A just man who did not tolerate dishonesty, he was terrible in his anger and could be cruel when he encountered opposition: in such moments only his intimates could soothe him—best of all his beloved second wife, Catherine, whom people frequently asked to intercede with him for them. Sometimes Peter would beat his high officials with his stick, from which even Prince A.D. Menshikov, his closest friend, received many a stroke. One of Peter’s great gifts of statesmanship was the ability to pick talented collaborators for the highest appointments, whether from the foremost families of the nobility or from far lower levels of society.
As a ruler, Peter often used the methods of a despotic landlord—the whip and arbitrary rule. He always acted as an autocrat, convinced of the wonder-working power of compulsion by the state. Yet with his insatiable capacity for work he saw himself as the state’s servant, and whenever he put himself in a subordinate position he would perform his duties with the same conscientiousness that he demanded of others. He began his own army service in the lowest rank and required others likewise to master their profession from its elements upward and to expect promotion only for services of real value.
Peter’s personality left its imprint on the whole history of Russia. A man of original and shrewd intellect, exuberant, courageous, industrious, and iron-willed, he could soberly appraise complex and changeable situations so as to uphold consistently the general interests of Russia and his own particular designs. He did not completely bridge the gulf between Russia and the Western countries, but he achieved considerable progress in development of the national economy and trade, education, science and culture, and foreign policy. Russia became a great power, without whose concurrence no important European problem could thenceforth be settled. His internal reforms achieved progress to an extent that no earlier innovator could have envisaged.