Peter’s policy of dynastic marriages with the ruling families in the German duchies of Courland, Mecklenburg, and Holstein also led to disappointments, as did his efforts to strengthen ties with France. In 1717, he visited France to personally negotiate the second marriage of his son, Tsarevich Alexei, to the daughter of the duke of Orleans or, failing that, between his daughter, Tsarevna Elizabeth, and the boy-king Louis XV. Both proposals came to nothing, though Peter made a strong and favorable impression on the French court. The duke of Villeroi wrote to Madame de Maintenon that “this prince, said to be barbarous, is not so at all; he displayed sentiments of grandeur, generosity, and politeness which we by no means expected.”
In Paris for six weeks, Peter devoted much of his time to visiting royal buildings, bridges, and industries. The Gobelin tapestry workshops fascinated him, and he engaged skilled workmen to establish similar workshops in Russia. He made repeated visits to Versailles, Fontainebleau, and St. Cloud to study the architecture and decorations of the palaces and gardens. He made notes and enlisted artisans of every kind to take back to St. Petersburg.
Peter finally recognized that his ventures into diplomacy had merely aroused suspicion and antagonism, and had probably delayed the peace with Sweden. He subscribed to a plan, proposed by the Holstein minister Baron George Henry von Goertz, to open direct negotiations with Sweden. Charles was receptive to the idea, although he probably did not fully grasp its implications, which involved the political cession to Russia of most of the territories that Peter had conquered.
In December 1718, while Russian and Swedish ministers were debating peace on one of the Aland Islands, Charles was killed in an action against Norway. His sister, Ulrica Eleonora, ascended the throne, and England, Denmark, Prussia, and Saxony hastened to make alliances with the new Swedish government in attempts to halt the expansion of Russian power in the north. George I even sent an English squadron into the Baltic to support the Swedish fleet and to force Peter to accept English mediation. Peter responded by breaking off diplomatic relations with England and launching new attacks on Sweden. Destructive raids on the Swedish mainland were carried out in 1719, 1720, and 1721. The Swedish government was powerless to halt the Russian attacks, and none of Sweden’s allies was prepared to risk war with Russia. At last, in April 1721, through the intercession of the French ambassador in St. Petersburg, Russians and Swedes reopened negotiations at Nystadt.
Disappointed so many times in his efforts to conclude a treaty with the Swedes, Peter was prepared for the negotiations to break down yet again. He was traveling north to inspect the frontier near Vyborg in September 1721, when couriers overtook him. They brought him the news that, on August 30, his envoys had signed a treaty of peace with Sweden on his terms. The Swedes had ceded in perpetuity the Baltic states of Livonia, Estonia, Ingria, a part of Karelia, and the Vyborg district. For his part, Peter was committed to returning Finland to Sweden, to paying compensation for Livonia, and to making certain minor trading concessions.
The tsar wrote in excitement to Prince Vasily Dolgoruky of his triumphs: “All students of science normally finish their course in seven years: our schooling has lasted three times as long, but, praise God, it had all ended so well that it could not be better.” He hurried toward St. Petersburg and sailed into the Neva – with drums beating, trumpets sounding, and cannons firing. The people of the city crowded to greet their tsar, and then all attended thanksgiving services in the Church of the Holy Trinity and other churches. He next set in motion a three-part celebration throughout the country.
As the date of the second celebration approached, government and religious leaders met and unanimously decided to petition the tsar to take the title of Emperor Peter the Great. With some reluctance, for this curiously modest man was more concerned with the glorification of Russia than of himself, he finally agreed.
At the victory service in St. Petersburg on October 22, the treaty was read and ratified. Lastly, a chancellor, Count Gabriel Golovkin, recounted the tsar’s heroic endeavors:
Through which alone and by your tireless labors and leadership, we, your loyal subjects have stepped from the darkness of ignorance onto the theatre of fame of the whole world and, so to speak, have moved from non-existence to existence, and have joined in the society of political peoples – for that and for winning a peace so renowned and so rewarding, how can we render our proper gratitude? And so that we may not be with shame before the whole world, we take it upon ourselves in the name of the All-Russian nation and of all ranks of the subjects of Your Majesty, humbly to pray you to be gracious to us and to agree, as a small mark of our acknowledgment of the blessings that you have brought to us and to the whole nation, to take the title – Father of the Fatherland, Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia.
Though the West came to know – and admire – Peter as a military and political figure, his internal assault on old Muscovy was equally impressive. The great achievements against Russia’s enemies had not distracted Peter from his reforms at home. In his energy, he was like an elemental force, bewildering to his people, and he left no aspect of their lives untouched.
The change in the calendar, effective from January 1, 1700, marked the beginning of the new age. Russians had always calculated their calendar from the date, accepted in the Orthodox Church, of the creation of the world, and their new year began on September 1. Peter adopted the Protestants’ Julian calendar (ten days later in its calculations than the Gregorian reform calendar, which Roman Catholics had long since accepted).
For some years, Peter’s efforts at national reform were dictated mainly by the Northern War. The creation of the army and the navy had priority, and with the prosecution of the war, the demands on Russia’s financial resources became heavier. He adopted numerous expedients to increase revenues. He created a new class of officials, the pribylshchiki, whose function was to discover new means of raising revenues. (A servant, Alexei Kurbatov, became director of a municipal department as a reward for proposing a new stamp duty on legal documents.) Taxes and the trading monopolies of the state multiplied. Watermelons, beehives, cucumbers, boots, hats, and leather were a few of the objects that became subject to tax. In 1710, Peter began a review of the established system of direct taxation, whereby the main tax was levied on peasant households. In due course, he ordered a new census and then introduced a personal tax, which fell chiefly on peasants and yielded even better fiscal results.
Peter recognized, however, that he could only increase revenues substantially by strengthening and expanding the economy. He promoted prospecting and the utilization of Russia’s rich mineral resources, mostly iron and coal, and he encouraged the establishment of heavy industry. About twenty small foundries existed at the time of his accession; he developed seventy-five new iron and brass foundries, far larger in scale and several of them in the industrial region of the Urals. He was also active in establishing light industries, including textile mills, leather works, gunpowder mills, glass and china works. Though his plans suffered delays and setbacks, mainly because of the lack of experienced workmen, about 220 new industries were in production, and many articles, previously imported, were being manufactured in Russia by the end of his reign.
The visits to Archangel and then to Amsterdam and London had made him realize the importance of foreign commerce. He was tireless in encouraging and compelling merchants to greater activity. During his reign, the volume of Russia’s foreign trade quadrupled, with St. Petersburg gradually taking precedence over Archangel as the leading center of trade with Western Europe.
Government administration was cumbersome, corrupt, and incompetent, and over the years, Peter labored to make it more efficient. He was only partially successful, but the system he introduced was to endure in all its main aspects until 1917.
One of his first administrative reforms, introduced in 1707, divided the country into eight provinces. The immediate purpose was to improve financial management and to lessen the crippling overcentralization. But it soon had to be modified, since it all but left the country without a central government. On the eve of his departure for the disastrous Pruth campaign, he established a senate of nine favorites; they were to hold legislative powers, especially in his absence. The new institution functioned ineffectively, so Peter created the office of inspector-general of ukazy, and even posted officers of the guard to ensure that the Senators behaved with dignity and carried out their duties. In 1722, he appointed a procurator-general, responsible to him alone, to supervise the work of the Senate, which gradually began to function more effectively.
The old prikazy, or central administrative offices, were another weakness. They were not capable of dealing with the greatly increased volume and complexity of government business. The collegiate system, found in many countries of northern Europe and in England – by which the functions of a minister were carried out by a board – impressed Peter. The advantage of the collegiate board over the ministerial system was that rule by committee reduced the possibilities of corruption and restricted the arbitrary power of a single minister. In 1717, after five years of study and preparation, Peter established nine colleges to run the empire’s foreign, judicial, economic, military, commercial, and industrial affairs. As with the Senate, the colleges were beset with problems in their first years, but eventually they settled down with some improvement in the administration.
In all of his reforms, Peter was hampered not only by the conservatism of his people but also by their inexperience and ignorance. He introduced numerous schemes for training and educating young people, and strove to inculcate upon them a sense of service. He felt strongly that he served the nation, and he exacted the same duty from his people. He abolished the privileged position the nobility had always enjoyed, substituting the Table of Ranks, which created, in effect, a bureaucratic hierarchy open not only to the land-owning class but to talented and ambitious persons of humble birth. The Table classified all officers and officials in fourteen parallel grades. Without exception, all had to start in the lowest grade and work their way up by service. On reaching a specific grade in the hierarchy, all persons acquired the titles and rights of the old nobility, and such status could only be acquired through service.
Education was, however, the basic need, if the people were to serve efficiently and if the quality of Russian life was to be raised. Peter persevered with his early policy of sending chosen young men to study abroad. But he also engaged hundreds of foreign officers and experts to serve in Russia, directing them to “teach the Russian people without reserve and diligently.” In 1701, he established the first secular school in Russia, the School of Mathematics and Navigation, under Henry Farquharson, a young mathematician from Aberdeen University. In 1714, he made it compulsory for the sons of nobles to attend the naval, the engineering, the artillery, or the medical academies in St. Petersburg. But the majority of the people remained illiterate.
The range of Peter’s innovations and reforms was astonishing. He had the old Church Slavonic alphabet and orthography replaced with a simpler “civil Russian” system, and Arabic numbers substituted for the less workable Slavic ones. He encouraged the printing of books of all kinds, commissioning new works as well as the translation of foreign-language books. His reign marked the beginning of Russia’s secular literature. (Peter’s personal library was to provide the nucleus of the library of the Academy of Sciences, which he planned in detail and which was inaugurated shortly after his death.) He actively promoted projects to establish hospitals and institutions for the care of unwanted children and the elderly, town planning and the laying out of gardens, and to organize fire-fighting services. He also drafted rules of good citizenship and even insisted on the social emancipation of women of the upper classes.
The Orthodox clergy, the bulwark of conservatism, stood in opposition to many of the reforms, and Peter acted cautiously in dealing with them. On the death of Joachim, the old patriarch, in March 1690, Peter appointed a mild, saintly old man named Adrian as his successor. But after Adrian’s death in 1700, the patriarchate was allowed to remain vacant. Peter was always on guard to ensure that the patriarch did not use the authority of his office to rally popular opinion against the reforms. Finally, in 1721, at Peter’s instigation, the Spiritual Regulation was proclaimed and, applying the collegiate system, it established the Holy Governing Synod in place of the patriarchate. The Synod had the special responsibility of cleansing the Church of abuses and encouraging it to play a more positive role in improving the lives of the people and in serving the welfare of the nation.
At the personal and the national level, the great tragedy in Peter’s life arose from his conflict with his son. Tsarevich Alexei, born in 1690 to Peter’s first wife, had grown into a weak and cowardly individual, with the outlook of a conservative Muscovite. His childhood had been difficult. He had spent the first eight years of his life in his mother’s care, surrounded by her family and supporters, who were strongly critical of his father’s way of life and policies. Entrusted to Peter’s sister Natalya after his mother’s banishment, Alexei began to be trained for the responsibilities of the throne. Peter ordered that his heir should be present at the storming of fortresses and gave him tasks – such as supervising the mobilization of recruits and the organization of supplies – that exceeded his abilities. He expected the same dedicated service from his son that he himself gave, and instead of encouragement and understanding, he treated the youth with Spartan firmness. Alexei, overawed by his father, was increasingly obsessed with feelings of inadequacy.
In the summer of 1709, the nineteen-year-old prince was sent to Dresden to study, and then, when drink began to undermine his health, to therapeutic waters of Karlsbad. In Karlsbad, he was introduced to Princess Charlotte of Wolfenbuttel, the charming and dutiful girl who had been chosen to become his wife. Alexei was appalled by the idea of marriage with a foreigner, worse still a Protestant. But Peter was fond of Charlotte, and Alexei did not dare to oppose his father’s will. They were married on October 14, 1711. She bore him a daughter, Natalya, and then on October 12, 1715, a son named Peter Alexeevich. She was just twenty-one years old when, seven days after giving birth, she died.
Disgusted by his son’s lax way of life and callous treatment of his wife, Peter sent Alexei an ultimatum shortly after the funeral. In this letter, he threatened to cut him off from the succession “like a gangrenous growth.” “And do not imagine,” he continued, “that because you are my only son I write this merely to frighten; in truth by the will of God I will do it, for as I have not spared and do not spare myself for my country and my people, how should I spare you who are useless? Better a worthy stranger than an unworthy son!”
Alexei was terrified by his father’s anger, and he hastened to reply in abject humility, asking to be allowed to renounce the succession. Peter considered the request mere subterfuge. He knew that after his death, the tsarevich would be called on to rule and that his renunciation would be set aside. Peter sent a further warning, after which Alexei requested permission to become a monk. Calling on him unexpectedly, Peter spoke kindly and asked him to reconsider his decision to take holy orders. “That’s not easy for a young man,” Peter said. “Think again without haste, then write to me what you want to do . . . I’ll wait another six months.”
Peter was abroad during these months, and Alexei spent the time in idleness. A reminder was sent from Copenhagen that the day of decision was approaching. The prospect of facing his father was more than he could endure. On September 26, 1716, he set out from St. Petersburg, accompanied by his mistress, a peasant girl named Yefrosinia, and four servants. On the way, he adopted a disguise and made secretly for Vienna, where he begged the emperor to hide him, saying that his father was bent on his murder. His presence was an acute embarrassment to the imperial government; but the emperor felt that he could not deny asylum, especially as he believed the tsarevich’s story. Attempts to hide him in the Tyrol and then in Naples were, however, unsuccessful. Peter’s trusted officers tracked him down, and the exiled prince, upon promises of the tsar’s pardon, finally agreed to return to Russia.
Alexei arrived in Moscow toward the end of January 1718. He was summoned to the Kremlin a few days later, and there, in the presence of his father, the Senate, the Church hierarchy, and the nobility, he solemnly renounced the succession and swore to acknowledge as heir to the throne his half-brother, the new tsarevich, Peter Petrovich, born to Catherine on October 29, 1715. He was then allowed to live in freedom in St. Petersburg and there await the return of Yefrosinia, who was en route from Naples at a more leisurely pace because she was pregnant. On her arrival, she gave birth to her baby. Four weeks later, she was interrogated.
Alexei’s formal renunciation of the succession had not eliminated Peter’s suspicions that he would claim the throne and then work to destroy all that had been achieved. Peter himself questioned Yefrosinia, and she spoke readily of Alexei’s frequently expressed hatred of his father’s policies. She confirmed that he intended to claim the throne, to abandon St. Petersburg and live in Moscow, to leave the navy to rot, and to eliminate from the national life all innovations based on foreign ideas. Alexei was confronted by his mistress; breaking down, he confessed that she had told the truth. He was then questioned further, this time under severe torture.
Determined not to try his son himself, Peter convened a court, comprising 127 of the most eminent men in the land, and he ordered them to try the tsarevich impartially and without fear – even to the extent of treating Alexei leniently if they considered it justified. However, the evidence of his treason was conclusive, and the court was unanimous in passing the death sentence. But Alexei had been so savagely flayed during the interrogations that he died before the sentence could be carried out.
This personal tragedy did not, however, distract Peter from his goals. In 1719, he sent an embassy to the Chinese emperor, with the purpose of establishing commercial relations with China. His initiative came to nothing, however, because the Chinese had no interest in trade with Russia. Peter was disappointed, but he was active in promoting exploration of the Pacific coast; he annexed Kamchatka Peninsula and the Kurile Islands. He also sent an expedition by land to chart the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk and to ascertain whether Asia and America were joined. The expedition failed to resolve this problem, and in 1725, he sent Captain Vitus Bering on his first voyage east – a search that led to the discovery of the Bering Straits.
The first attempts to open up trade with Persia and India were also unsuccessful. In 1722, impressed by reports that Persia was near collapse and afraid that Turkey might occupy the Persian provinces adjoining the Caspian Sea, Peter took command of his army in Astrakhan and embarked on the Persian campaign. He was uneasy, perhaps fearing a repetition of the Pruth campaign, especially during the following spring when war with Turkey threatened to break out. But in June 1723, to his great relief, his envoy signed the Treaty of Partition in Constantinople, peace returned, and Russia gained land along the west coast of the Caspian Sea.
Now over fifty, Peter still worked with the same dynamic energy. John Bell, a Scot who was a member of his staff during the Persian campaign, observed that “he could dispatch more affairs in a morning than a house full of Senators can do in a month.” But his health was deteriorating. He suffered from chronic strangury and stone, which soon caused his death. In these years, he drew comfort from the companionship of Catherine, whom he had married privately in 1707. She had earned his deep gratitude, especially for her staunch support during the Pruth and Persian campaigns. On February 19, 1712, he publicly celebrated their marriage, and on May 7, 1724, in a magnificent ceremony with full regalia, he crowned her empress.
The problem of the succession was unresolved. Peter Petrovich, his son by Catherine, had died. Peter the Great feared that the elevation of his grandson, Alexei’s son, would lead to a resurgence of Muscovite conservatism. On February 5, 1722, he issued an ukaz in which, following the precedent of Ivan III, he decreed that the sovereign should appoint whomsoever he chose to succeed to the throne. But, on January 26, 1725, still unable to make a choice, he died.