Peter I was born near Moscow on June 9 (May 30, Old Style), 1672. Не was the son of Tsar Alexis by his second wife, Natalya Kirillovna Naryshkina. Unlike his half-brothers, sons of his father’s first wife, Mariya Ilinichna Miloslavskaya, Peter proved a healthy child, lively and inquisitive. It is probably significant to his development that his mother’s former guardian, Artamon Sergeyevich Matveyev, had raised her in an atmosphere open to progressive influences from the West.
Youth and accession
When Alexis died in 1676, Peter was only four years old. His elder half-brother, a sickly youth, then succeeded to the throne as Fyodor III, but, in fact, power fell into the hands of the Miloslavskys, relatives of Fyodor’s mother, who deliberately pushed Peter and the Naryshkin circle aside. When Fyodor died childless in 1682, a fierce struggle for power ensued between the Miloslavskys and the Naryshkins: the former wanted to put Fyodor’s brother, the delicate and feebleminded Ivan V, on the throne; the Naryshkins stood for the healthy and intelligent Peter. Representatives of the various orders of society, assembled in the Kremlin, declared themselves for Peter, who was then proclaimed tsar, but the Miloslavsky faction exploited a revolt of the Moscow streltsy, or musketeers of the sovereign’s bodyguard, who killed some of Peter’s adherents, including Matveyev. Ivan and Peter were then proclaimed joint tsars, and eventually, because of Ivan’s precarious health and Peter’s youth, Ivan’s 25-year-old sister Sophia was made regent. Clever and influential, Sophia took control of the government; excluded from public affairs, Peter lived with his mother in the village of Preobrazhenskoye, near Moscow, often fearing for his safety. All this left an ineradicable impression on the young tsar and determined his negative attitude toward the streltsy.
One result of Sophia’s overt exclusion of Peter from the government was that he did not receive the usual education of a Russian tsar; he grew up in a free atmosphere instead of being confined within the narrow bounds of a palace. While his first tutor, the former church clerk Nikita Zotov, could give little to satisfy Peter’s curiosity, the boy enjoyed noisy outdoor games and took especial interest in military matters, his favourite toys being arms of one sort or another. He also occupied himself with carpentry, joinery, blacksmith’s work, and printing.
Near Preobrazhenskoye there was a nemetskaya sloboda (“German colony”) where foreigners were allowed to reside. Acquaintance with its inhabitants aroused Peter’s interest in the life of other nations, and an English sailboat, found derelict in a shed, whetted his passion for seafaring. Mathematics, fortification, and navigation were the sciences that appealed most strongly to Peter. A model fortress was built for his amusement, and he organized his first “play” troops, from which, in 1687, the Preobrazhensky and Semyonovsky Guards regiments were formed—to become the nucleus of a new Russian Army.
Early in 1689 Natalya Naryshkina arranged Peter’s marriage to the beautiful Eudoxia (Yevdokiya Fyodorovna Lopukhina). This was obviously a political act, intended to demonstrate the fact that the 17-year-old Peter was now a grown man, with a right to rule in his own name. The marriage did not last long: Peter soon began to ignore his wife, and in 1698 he relegated her to a convent.
In August 1689 a new revolt of the streltsy took place. Sophia and her faction tried to use it to their own advantage for another coup d’état, but events this time turned decisively in Peter’s favour. He removed Sophia from power and banished her to the Novodevichy convent; she was forced to become a nun after a streltsy rebellion in 1698. Though Ivan V remained nominally joint tsar with Peter, the administration was now largely given over to Peter’s kinsmen, the Naryshkins, until Ivan’s death in 1696. Peter, meanwhile continuing his military and nautical amusements, sailed the first seaworthy ships to be built in Russia. His games proved to be good training for the tasks ahead.
At the beginning of Peter’s reign, Russia was territorially a huge power, but with no access to the Black Sea, the Caspian, or the Baltic, and to win such an outlet became the main goal of Peter’s foreign policy.
The Azov campaigns (1695–96)
The first steps taken in this direction were the campaigns of 1695 and 1696, with the object of capturing Azov from the Crimean Tatar vassals of Turkey. On the one hand, these Azov campaigns could be seen as fulfilling Russia’s commitments, undertaken during Sophia’s regency, to the anti-Turkish “Holy League” of 1684 (Austria, Poland, and Venice); on the other hand, they were intended to secure the southern frontier against Tatar raids, as well as to approach the Black Sea. The first campaign ended in failure (1695), but this did not discourage Peter: he promptly built a fleet at Voronezh to sail down the Don River and in 1696 Azov was captured. To consolidate this success Taganrog was founded on the northern shore of the Don estuary, and the building of a large navy was started.
The Grand Embassy (1697–98)
Having already sent some young nobles abroad to study nautical matters, Peter, in 1697, went with the so-called Grand Embassy to western Europe. The embassy comprised about 250 people, with the “grand ambassadors” Franz Lefort, Fyodor Alekseyevich Golovin, and Prokopy Voznitsyn at its head. Its chief purposes were to examine the international situation and to strengthen the anti-Turkish coalition, but it was also intended to gather information on the economic and cultural life of Europe. Travelling incognito under the name of Sgt. Pyotr Mikhaylov, Peter familiarized himself with conditions in the advanced countries of the West. For four months he studied shipbuilding, working as a ship’s carpenter in the yard of the Dutch East India Company at Saardam; after that he went to Great Britain, where he continued his study of shipbuilding, working in the Royal Navy’s dockyard at Deptford, and he also visited factories, arsenals, schools, and museums and even attended a session of Parliament. Meanwhile, the services of foreign experts were engaged for work in Russia.
On the diplomatic side of the Grand Embassy, Peter conducted negotiations with the Dutch and British governments for alliances against Turkey, but the Maritime Powers did not wish to involve themselves with him because they were preoccupied with the problems that were soon to come to a crisis, for them, in the War of the Spanish Succession.
The destruction of the streltsy (1698)
From England, Peter went on to Austria, but, while he was negotiating in Vienna for a continuance of the anti-Turkish alliance, he received news of a fresh revolt of the streltsy in Moscow. In the summer of 1698 he was back in Moscow, where he suppressed the revolt. Hundreds of the streltsy were executed, the rest of the rebels were exiled to distant towns, and the corps of the streltsy was disbanded.
The Northern War (1700–21)
When it became clear that Austria, no less than the Maritime Powers, was preparing to fight for the Spanish Succession and to make peace with Turkey, Peter saw that Russia could not contemplate a war without allies against the Turks, and he abandoned his plans for pushing forward from the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. By the Russo-Turkish Peace of Constantinople (Istanbul, 1700) he retained possession of Azov. He was now turning his attention to the Baltic instead, following the tradition of his predecessors.
The Swedes occupied Karelia, Ingria, Estonia, and Livonia and blocked Russia’s way to the Baltic coast. To dislodge them, Peter took an active part in forming the great alliance, comprising Russia, Saxony, and Denmark–Norway, which started the Northern War in 1700. This war lasted for 21 years and was Peter’s main military enterprise. In planning it and in sustaining it he displayed iron willpower, extraordinary energy, and outstanding gifts of statesmanship, generalship, and diplomacy. Mobilizing all the resources of Russia for the triumph of his cause, constantly keeping himself abreast of events, and actively concerning himself with all important undertakings, often at his personal risk, he could be seen sometimes in a sailor’s jacket on a warship, sometimes in an officer’s uniform on the battlefield, and sometimes in a labourer’s apron and gloves with an axe in a shipyard.
The defeat of the Russians at Narva (1700), very early in the war, did not deter Peter and, in fact, he later described it as a blessing: “Necessity drove away sloth and forced me to work night and day.” He subsequently took part in the siege that led to the Russian capture of Narva (1704) and in the battles of Lesnaya (1708) and of Poltava (1709). At Poltava, where Charles XII of Sweden suffered a catastrophic defeat, the plan of operations was Peter’s own: it was his idea to transform the battlefield by works of his military engineers—the redoubts erected in the path of the Swedish troops to break their combat order, to split them into little groups, and to halt their onslaught. Peter also took part in the naval battle of Gangut (Hanko, or Hangö) in 1714, the first major Russian victory at sea.
The treaties concluded by Russia in the course of the war were made under Peter’s personal direction. He also travelled abroad again for diplomatic reasons—e.g., to Pomerania in 1712 and to Denmark, northern Germany, Holland, and France in 1716–17.
In 1703, on the banks of the Neva River, where it flows into the Gulf of Finland, Peter began construction of the city of St. Petersburg and established it as the new capital of Russia in 1712. By the Treaty of Nystad (September 10 [August 30, O.S.], 1721) the eastern shores of the Baltic were at last ceded to Russia, Sweden was reduced to a secondary power, and the way was opened for Russian domination over Poland.
In celebration of his triumph, the Senate on November 2 (October 22, O.S.), 1721, changed Peter’s title from tsar to emperor (imperator) of all the Russias.
The popular revolts (1705–08)
The peasant serfs and the poorer urban workers had to bear the greatest hardships in wartime and moreover were intensively exploited in the course of Peter’s great work for the modernization and development of Russia (see below Internal reforms). Their sufferings, combined with onerous taxation, provoked a number of revolts, the most important of which were that of Astrakhan (1705–06) and that led by Kondraty Afanasyevich Bulavin in the Don basin (1707–08). These revolts were cruelly put down.
The Turkish War (1710–13)
In the middle of the Northern War, when Peter might have pressed further the advantage won at Poltava, Turkey declared war on Russia. In the summer of 1711 Peter marched against the Turks through Bessarabia into Moldavia, but he was surrounded, with all his forces, on the Prut River. Obliged to sue for peace, he was fortunate to obtain very light terms from the inept Turkish negotiators, who allowed him to retire with no greater sacrifice than the retrocession of Azov. The Turkish government soon decided to renew hostilities, but the Peace of Adrianople (Edirne) was concluded in 1713, leaving Azov to the Turks. From that time on Peter’s military effort was concentrated on winning his war against Sweden.
The tsarevich Alexis and Catherine (to 1718)
Peter had a son, the tsarevich Alexis, by his discarded wife Eudoxia. Alexis was his natural heir, but he grew up antipathetic to Peter and receptive to reactionary influences working against Peter’s reforms. Peter, meanwhile, had formed a lasting liaison with a lowborn woman, the future empress Catherine I, who bore him other children and whom he married in 1712. Pressed finally to mend his ways or to become a monk in renunciation of his hereditary rights (1716), Alexis took refuge in the dominions of the Holy Roman emperor Charles VI, but he was induced to return to Russia in 1718. Thereupon proceedings were brought against him on charges of high treason, and after torture he was condemned to death. He died in prison, presumably by violence, before the formal execution of the sentence.
The Persian campaign (1722–23)
Even during the second half of the Northern War, Peter had sent exploratory missions to the East—to the Central Asian steppes in 1714, to the Caspian region in 1715, and to Khiva in 1717. The end of the war left him free to resume a more active policy on his southeastern frontier. In 1722, hearing that the Ottoman Turks would take advantage of Persia’s weakness and invade the Caspian region, Peter himself invaded Persian territory. In 1723 Persia ceded the western and southern shores of the Caspian to Russia in return for military aid.
The campaign along the parched shores of the Caspian obviously put a great strain on Peter’s health, already undermined by enormous exertions and also by the excesses in which he occasionally indulged himself. In the autumn of 1724, seeing some soldiers in danger of drowning from a ship aground on a sandbank in the Gulf of Finland, he reportedly plunged himself into the icy water to help them. He became seriously ill in the winter, suffering from bladder and urinary tract problems. However, he continued to work, and it was at this time that he drew up the instructions for the expedition of Vitus Bering to Kamchatka.
In January 1725 Peter began having trouble urinating. Doctors removed a litre of “putrid” urine, and a fever ensued. Days later he died, at age 52. An autopsy allegedly found that gangrene had developed around his bladder. Peter left an empire that stretched from Arkhangelsk (Archangel) on the White Sea to Mazanderan on the Caspian and from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Though he had in 1722 issued a decree reserving to himself the right to nominate his successor, he did not in fact nominate anyone. His widow, Catherine, whom he had crowned empress in 1724, succeeded him to the temporary exclusion of his grandson, the future Peter II.