Peter I of Russia was one of the most creative rulers in history. Powerfully built and nearly seven feet in height, he worked on a grand scale, with dynamic energy, and the unlimited power of tsar was his by birthright.
Historians have justly criticized Peter for the brutality of his methods and the heavy human cost involved in his policies. But he was not a cruel man; his were the methods of the age. Moreover, revolutions demand sacrifices, and he devoted himself to making a revolution. His goal was to transform Russia into a great world power, accepted in the comity of European nations, an equal not only in military might but also in trade and industry, government and civilization. He went so far in achieving this vast purpose that he became, in the words of the historian Klyuchevsky, “the central point in our history, combining within himself the results of the past and the trends of the future.” He was, indeed, the founder of modern Russia.
Peter was only three and a half years old when his father, Tsar Alexei, died. During Sofia’s regency, Peter’s mother was uneasy, living in her apartments in the Kremlin. She and Peter spent more and more time at Preobrazhenskoe and other country residences. This suited the boy, who was already rebelling against the ceremonials and restraints of Kremlin life. The tsarevich’s passion was military games. In 1687, when only fifteen, he set up his “military headquarters” in Preobrazhenskoe and began enlisting sons of his father’s retainers; he soon had two regiments at full strength. Sofia and her chief minister, Vasily Golitsyn, were so deeply involved in their Crimean campaigns that they did not interfere.
Young Peter revealed an insatiable curiosity and an eagerness to learn, characteristics that endured all his life. His formal education ceased early, and his practical education began. He quickly mastered the skills of smith, carpenter, stonemason, and printer. When the Russian ambassador returned from Paris, bringing an astrolabe, Peter could not rest until he had found someone to instruct him in its use. None of his own people could, but in the Foreign Quarter, a Dutch merchant named Franz Timmermann explained it to him, and thereupon became his tutor in mathematics and military science.
Shortly after his sixteenth birthday, an incident occurred that would prove momentous for Peter and for Russia. Visiting a village near Moscow, he came upon a kind of boat he had never seen before. Timmermann explained it was an English boat and that with a new mast and sails it could move not only with the wind, but against the wind as well. Peter worked hard until the boat was repaired, and he learned to sail it. Soon afterward, he engaged two Dutch boat builders to teach him their craft, and together they built three yachts and two small frigates on the shores of Lake Pereslavl to the northeast of Moscow.
In January 1689, Peter returned to Moscow on the insistence of his mother. She had found him a bride, Evdokia Lopukhina, amongst the Russian aristocracy and was anxious that the marriage take place without delay. In this way, she was giving notice to Sofia that her regency was no longer legal. Dutifully the tsar married Evdokia on January 27, 1689. Later in the year, Peter returned to the lake for maneuvers with his new vessels. During his absence, Sofia’s power was gradually weakened. With her forced retirement to Novodevichy Nunnery in August, Peter returned to Moscow.
Peter found the city a stifling environment. Moscow and its patriarch, Joachim, were bitterly hostile to all foreigners. Sofia and Golitsyn were believed to have encouraged foreigners to come to Moscow, where they defiled the city, gathered all wealth into their own hands, and kept the Russian people poor. A violent outburst of xenophobia followed Sofia’s fall. A frenzied mob even seized a foreign emissary and burned him alive. In March 1690, Joachim suddenly died. In his testament, the patriarch demanded that the tsar, under sacred obligation, avoid contact with Lutherans, Calvinists, Roman Catholics, Tatars, and other heretics. He also condemned the wearing of foreign clothes and the employment of foreigners in the service of the state.
Joachim had hardly been buried when Peter ordered a suit of German clothes, and a few days later, Peter dined at the house of General Patrick Gordon. To the Muscovites, it was unprecedented and disgraceful for the tsar to eat in the house of a foreigner. Peter’s Western tutelage now began in earnest. He spent days in the Foreign Quarter learning about the countries of Western Europe and making friends that included General Gordon and François Lefort.
Gordon was a Scot from Aberdeen who had enlisted in the Russian service as a major in 1661, when Alexei was tsar. He was a brave, learned, and conscientious man who had gained the respect of the Russians, and by distinguished service, especially against the Crimean Tatars, attained the rank of general.
François Lefort was the son of a prosperous Swiss merchant who had rebelled against the joyless Calvinistic life of Geneva and had sought his fortune in Russia. He was pleasure-loving and idle, but his warm companionship appealed to Peter, who found in him the perfect drinking partner. Indeed, it was in the company of Lefort that the tsar acquired the habit of hard drinking.
Besides these men, his inner circle also included Andrew Vinius, a Dutch merchant, and Jacob Bruce, a Scottish adventurer. The remainder of his “company” was composed of a motley society of eighty to 200 members at a time, mainly from the Foreign Quarter. Muscovites were horrified to see their anointed tsar surrounded by this drunken crowd instead of the dignity and magnificence of the traditional court of his fathers.
In the midst of the orgies, however, Peter was planning military maneuvers for the spring of 1690 and a visit to Archangel, then Russia’s principal port for trade with the West. At the first thaw each year, ships from England, Holland, and Germany nosed their way through the ice floes of the White Sea. Archangel stirred in readiness for the furious activity of the brief summer, when goods, piled high in the markets and on wharves, had to be cleared before nine months of winter once again locked the White Sea in ice.
Peter had a new wharf built at Archangel, and he himself laid the keel of a ship to be constructed during the winter months. He also sent instructions to the burgomaster of Amsterdam – who on occasion acted as agent for the tsar – to purchase a forty-four gun frigate to be delivered the following summer. Peter was busy during the winter, turning blocks for the rigging and casting guns for the ship under construction. On January 25, 1694, however, his mother died. Learning of the death of the tsaritsa, Patrick Gordon hastened to Preobrazhenskoe, where he found Peter “exceeding melancholy and troubled.” But five days after her death, the tsar was at work again.
A subsequent visit to Archangel delighted him. On May 20, 1694, he launched the St. Paul, built at Archangel, and on July 21, the frigate he had ordered from Holland arrived. It was a sturdy vessel, richly equipped – as was fitting for the Russian tsar. With the St. Paul and the yacht St. Peter as escorts, he sailed as far as Svyatoy Nos at the entrance of the White Sea before turning back, well satisfied. Now he was restlessly planning ahead. He needed warm-water harbors from which he could trade more readily with the West.
On his return to Moscow, Peter plunged into preparations for large-scale manuevers. His two regiments staged mock battles outside the city, in what was really a test of their readiness for serious warfare against the Ottoman Porte, as the Turkish court was then known.
Russia was still at war with the Turks and the Crimean Tatars since no armistice had been signed after Golitsyn’s second Crimean campaign. The Poles, supported by the Austrians, had been complaining about Russian inaction. Furthermore, Ivan Mazepa, hetman of the Ukraine, was reporting acute unrest among the Zaporozhsky Cossacks and urging Peter to send an army into the Ukraine to reassert the tsar’s authority. All were sound reasons for launching a campaign against the Turks and the Crimean Tatars. Peter was thinking of his navy. He could realize his ambition in the Baltic, which was closed to him by Sweden, or in the Black Sea, dominated by the Turks (against whom he was already committed). He decided to make his objective the capture of the fortress of Azov – commanding access from the north to the Sea of Azov, which would offer numerous harbor sites.
Preparations for the Azov expedition, begun in January 1695, only a few months before the campaign was to be launched, were hasty and inadequate. Peter was overconfident, believing that his troops would readily vanquish the Turks. Patrick Gordon, one of the generals, acted with great courage and distinction. He boldly remonstrated against Peter’s decision to storm the fortress. As Gordon had warned, the assault failed and losses were heavy. But, far from resenting this opposition, Peter acknowledged his error and made no excuses. Defeat and the first experience of real warfare matured him, and at once, he prepared for a new attack.
The first Azov campaign had failed largely due to the lack of a fleet to blockade Turkish supplies. Peter decided to create a galley fleet during the winter months of 1695-96. It was a formidable undertaking; the Russians, familiar only with the primitive barges that plied the Volga and Don, had no experience in building seagoing ships. But Peter did not recognize obstacles of this kind. He chose the town of Voronezh, which had direct access to the Don, as the site of the shipyards. Using a galley brought from Holland as a model, he supervised and encouraged the workmen, who had been hurriedly assembled. He called for a fleet of twenty-five armed galleys, thirty smaller warships, 1,300 river barges, fire ships, and other vessels. More than 30,000 carpenters and workmen labored day and night.
By mid-June, twenty-two Russian galleys were anchored off the mouth of the Don, where they effectively blockaded Azov. The Russian army had taken up siege positions. At the same time, 15,000 shovel-wielding troops were building up a massive earth rampart, which they moved forward until they were close enough to fire over the walls into the fortress. Soon the mountain of earth was rolling over the walls. The Turks tried to clamber up the rampart to counterattack, but were promptly repelled. On July 19, 1696, the Turks surrendered.
Peter and his victorious army entered Moscow to celebrations that bewildered the Muscovites. Instead of the traditional holy icons, the procession of Church dignitaries, and the magnificent thanksgiving services in all the cathedrals, Peter had ordered the construction of a triumphal arch supported by massive figures of Hercules and Mars, through which secular processions passed. Again the tsar was emphasizing the break with the Muscovite past.
He now inaugurated a plan to send young Russians abroad to learn seamanship, shipbuilding, and navigation – not just by observation but by application. Since Peter could not lag behind his own people, he, too, would study in Western Europe. Russians were horrified when the first sixty-one young noblemen received their orders to go to England, Holland, and Italy. They believed the countries to the west were sinister, and that the tsar was condemning their sons to be corrupted by seducing them from the Orthodox way of life. Worse yet was Peter’s decision to go abroad himself; a tsar had never ventured beyond his own frontiers except on rare occasions in wartime. They feared that he would disappear in the West or undergo some evil transformation.
Peter’s tremendous energies were in full spate. By the end of 1696, 6,000 troops, with their families, were colonizing Azov; a labor force of 20,000 men was being recruited in the Ukraine to build a town and a harbor at Taganrog, thirty-five miles to the west on the Sea of Azov; and a program was underway for creating the Russian fleet. Responsibility was firmly laid upon the landowners, who, singly or in groups, had to build and maintain one warship for every 10,000 serf households they possessed.
By March 1697, Peter was ready to leave Moscow. He was anxious to travel informally in order to avoid the time-consuming ceremonial of state visits. He appointed an embassy to the courts of Western Europe, whose ostensible purpose was to negotiate a grand alliance against the Ottoman Porte. The entourage of more than 250 persons included twenty nobles and thirty-five other “volunteers;” the tsar, having enrolled under the pseudonym of Peter Mikhailov, was in the latter group.
Traveling through Prussia, Peter was impatient of every delay that kept him from reaching Holland. On the advice of Dutchmen in the Russian service, he made straight for Zaandam, where he was plagued by crowds of people curious to set eyes on the Russian tsar. (He was so distinctive in appearance that his disguise was easily penetrated.) The crowds, and the fact that Zaandam offered only limited facilities to study shipbuilding, caused him to move to Amsterdam. Driven by insatiable curiosity, he inspected the buildings, scientific collections, and institutions of that city. But he was excited most of all by the proposal of the East India Company to build a new frigate according to his specifications. Soon Peter was settled in the house of a ropemaker in the Company’s yards and hard at work on the new ship, which was launched on November 16. But he had already become restless; Dutch methods disappointed him, for the shipwrights worked by rule of thumb and had no systematized basic principles they could transmit.
Peter suffered another disappointment in Holland. The Russians had hoped to form a grand military alliance against the Turks, but they soon learned that the rest of Europe sought peace with Turkey, since war over the Spanish succession was already threatening. Nor was the Russian embassy able to obtain financial aid or equipment from the Dutch States-General.
The embassy had failed completely in its political purpose. Peter, however, concentrated on his studies in shipbuilding. He was delighted with the unexpected gift from William III of a magnificent yacht, the Royal Transport. On January 8, 1698, he sailed for London.
By the close of the seventeenth century, London was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe. The Great Fire of 1666 had destroyed the area between the Temple and the Tower, but new mansions of brick and stone had quickly risen from the ashes. Acclaimed English architect Sir Christopher Wren ingeniously had directed the design and construction of fifty-one churches; his masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral, towered over all. But Peter was most impressed by the forest of masts of the ships loading and unloading along the docks of the Thames, which to him were the greatest evidence of London’s vitality and wealth.
Peter was lodged in a small house on Norfolk Street off the Strand. Here William III called on him informally, and Peter visited Kensington Palace to return the call. But he had come to England to study shipbuilding, and in February, he moved to Deptford, then the center of important docks and building yards. The host government had rented for him the house of John Evelyn, the diarist. Sayes Court was a fine house with magnificent gardens, but Evelyn’s bailiff was soon reporting that the house was “full of people and right nasty.” Indeed, the damage done by Peter and his entourage was so extensive that Sir Christopher Wren was called in to make a report, and Evelyn subsequently received a large sum in compensation.
Peter spent many hours in the shipyards. A journeyman-shipwright commented that “the tsar of Muscovy worked with his own hands as hard as any man in the yard.” This was the crucial stage in his apprenticeship, for he was mastering the principles that underlay what he had learned in practice in Russia and Holland. Yet he found time to discuss theology with a group of Anglican churchmen, and to negotiate an agreement for the export of Virginian tobacco to Russia. Earlier, traffic in the “ungodly herb” had been sternly forbidden. Since 1634, its use had been punishable by death, though the usual penalties were flogging with the knout, slitting of the nostrils, and chopping off noses. Tobacco had, nevertheless, been smuggled into the country, and smoking was becoming popular. Peter took the opportunity to legalize it, both to stress the break with the past and also to create a new source of taxation. The deal provided him with ready funds to pay for the equipment he needed.
William III was a generous host. Besides the gift of the Royal Transport, he allowed Peter full access to naval, military, and other establishments. Peter spent hours at Greenwich Observatory, Woolwich Arsenal, and the Tower of London, which then housed the zoo, the city museum, the Royal Society, and the mint. He closely studied the English currency and methods of coining, then the most advanced in Europe. (Two years after his return to Russia, he would completely reform Russia’s monetary system on the English model, issuing coins of several denominations, all at weights close to the real value of the metal.) A highlight of the visit was the fleet maneuvers in the Solent, which the king ordered for Peter’s benefit toward the end of March. The tsar was very impressed.
On April 25, Peter sailed for Amsterdam, where more than 700 officers, seamen, engineers, and craftsmen – engaged in Holland and England to serve in Russia – were assembled. Vast quantities of arms and equipment lay piled high on the docks. Ten ships had to be chartered to transport men and materials to Archangel.
Peter himself was in no hurry to return to Russia. He planned leisurely stopovers in several other European capitals. His visit to Vienna proved disappointing. He became enmeshed in imperial etiquette and, moreover, was thwarted in his efforts to dissuade the imperial government from continuing its unilateral peace negotiations with Turkey.
On July 15, however, as he was about to set out from Vienna for Venice, dispatches came from Moscow telling of another Streltsy rebellion. He had disregarded the earlier reports of mutiny that had reached him in Amsterdam, but the latest dispatch, which had taken a month to arrive, told of four regiments marching on Moscow. He hurried preparations for the return journey to Russia. Soon after departing Vienna, a courier brought the news that his general, Boyar Shein, had put down the revolt, executing 130 Streltsy and holding 1,860 in custody. But Peter was resolved to deal personally with the Streltsy, and he did not turn back to visit the much-admired naval power of Venice.
En route, Peter had a meeting with Frederick Augustus, elector of Saxony and Poland’s king. Both monarchs agreed that Sweden was their chief enemy. Frederick Augustus was anxious to win popular Polish acclaim by recovering the province of Livonia, which the Poles had surrendered to Sweden under the Treaty of Olivia; Peter was eager to regain Russia’s access to the Baltic. The tsar now adopted the policy of a northern league against Sweden, which Ordin-Nashchokin had promoted during his father’s reign.
The western tour had broadened Peter’s knowledge and understanding, and had hardened his will to transform his country. Everything in the West – the technical superiority, the intellectual vitality, and the culture and dignity of the way of life – contrasted with the spirit and conditions in Russia. As he traveled toward Moscow, Peter translated his ideas into practical plans.
On the evening of August 25, 1698, Peter slipped quietly into the capital, without the usual ceremonies. He remained there briefly and then rode off to Preobrazhenskoe, where he spent the night among his trusted regiments. The news of his return spread swiftly, however, and by dawn next morning, crowds of people had gathered to pay homage. When they prostrated themselves before the tsar, he lifted them up; he wanted obedience, but not the old servility. Then he surprised everyone by producing scissors and cutting off the long beards of those present. Only the patriarch and two very old boyars were spared. Orthodox Russians cherished their beards as part of their faith, believing that salvation was impossible without them. The patriarch had thundered from the pulpit, “God did not create men beardless, only cats and dogs. The shaving of beards is not only foolishness and a dishonor, it is a mortal sin.” The beard was, indeed, a powerful symbol of old Muscovy, and with this assault on beards and then on the cumbersome national costume, Peter launched a new campaign for the modernization of Russia.
Three days after his return, Peter divorced his much-neglected wife, Evdokia. Staunchly Orthodox and conservative, she was wholly out of sympathy with his plans and activities. Evdokia was carried off to the Suzdal-Pokrovsky Nunnery, where in the following year, she became a nun under the name Helen. Their seven-and-a-half-year-old son, Tsarevich Alexei, was given into the care of Peter’s sister, Tsarevna Natalya.
Next Peter dealt with the Streltsy. He was angry to find that the generals, whom he had left in command of the army, had been perfunctory in investigating the reasons for the rebellion and that they had executed the ringleaders, thereby destroying important testimony. He intended to prove that Sofia, locked away in Novodevichy Nunnery, and the Miloslavsky had somehow instigated the uprisings. He recalled with cold, savage anger the Streltsy terror that had been visited upon the royal family when he was a child. Fourteen torture chambers were prepared in Preobrazhenskoe, and interrogations – accompanied by the usual flogging and flaying, breaking of arms and legs, and application of fire – continued for several weeks. More than 900 of the Streltsy lost their lives by beheading, hanging, or breaking on the wheel. For nearly five months, Moscow resembled a charnel house. No conclusive evidence was found to confirm that Sofia and her faction had been complicit in the rebellion; interrogations continued into the following year. Finally, in June 1699, Peter disbanded Moscow’s remaining regiments, dispersing the men and their families to distant parts of the country.
While the Streltsy purge was under way, but after the main executions, Peter went south to the shipyards at Voronezh on the river Don. The building of the fleet was progressing, but the extensive new shipyards were beset with problems. Shortage of labor was acute, and not even harsh punishments deterred the peasant-laborers from fleeing. Corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency also hindered the work. For once, Peter was despondent, writing: “A cloud of doubt covers my mind, whether I shall ever taste these fruits or whether they will be like dates which those who plant them never gather.” But putting these worries behind him, he laid the keel for a sixty-gun ship, the Predestination, and the work continued.