In the spring of 1699, Peter was under pressure from Frederick Augustus to attack Sweden. The monarchs of Denmark and Poland believed the time was ripe for war. Young Charles XII, who had succeeded to the Swedish throne on the death of his father in 1697, was reportedly wild and unstable. His nation had long been the dominant power in the Baltic, and its enemies now prepared to seize the territories that they claimed as their own.
Peter had, however, consistently refused to engage in war in the north before he had secured peace with the Turks in the south. Since the sultan could not be hurried, it was not until August 1700 that Peter received news that a thirty-year armistice with Turkey had been signed.
The next day, Peter declared war on Sweden, opening the Northern War. He was impatient to recover Ingria and Karelia, but he decided that his first step should be to take Narva, an important trading town on the Narva River, about ten miles from its entry into the Gulf of Finland. He ordered an army of 64,000 into siege positions outside Narva, but delays held the Russian strength to less than 40,000 men. Hopes of early capture of the town were diminished by the sturdy resistance of the Swedish garrison even after two weeks of bombardment.
Meanwhile, Peter was disturbed to learn that Charles had forced the Danes to come to terms and that Frederick Augustus had raised the siege of Riga and retreated. Then he received reports that Charles had landed at the Baltic port of Pärnu and was en route to relieve the Narva garrison. Peter hurriedly entrusted the supreme command of the Russian forces to a Frenchman in his service, the duke of Croy, and he withdrew to meet with Frederick Augustus. Eight hours after his departure, Charles took advantage of a sudden snowstorm to hurl his army of 8,000 men against the Russian positions, gaining a swift and complete victory in late November.
Peter’s hasty departure had the appearance of retreat in the face of the enemy. Many in Western Europe believed him guilty of cowardice. Charles was contemptuous. Driven by pride, and hungry for military glory and the excitement of war, he observed criteria that were remote from Peter’s standards. Peter was a realist. He had declared war on Sweden to gain certain objectives, but he was not prepared to risk himself in battle with Charles when his army was still untrained and untested. He had, moreover, half expected defeat at the hands of the veteran Swedish troops, and he saw it not as a dishonor but as a stage in the development of his army.
The magnitude of the disaster at Narva nevertheless astonished him. He had lost all of his artillery and was forced to recognize that his army was little more than a horde of untrained peasants, incapable of standing against Western troops. But he made no recriminations, and in a fury of activity, he set about creating a new military machine.
Charles did not follow up his victory by marching on Moscow, as expected. In his contempt for the tsar and the Russians, he felt confident that he could deal with Russia when he was ready. He posted small detachments to defend the Baltic states of Livonia and Ingria, and he spent the next six years occupying Poland.
Charles thus gave Peter the respite he needed to train his army in battle. During the years 1702 and 1703, Peter conquered Ingria, and in the following two years, he captured Dorpat and Narva – proving his troops were equal to the Swedes. But the aura of invincibility still surrounded Charles and his army, and Peter’s great duel with him was yet to come.
Civilian prisoners taken in 1702, after the capture of the ancient fortress-town of Marienburg, included a seventeen-year-old Livonian girl called Catherine Skavronskaya. She belonged to the family of the peasant Samuel Skavronsky, but was possibly illegitimate. Her mother died when she was three, and, apparently destitute, the child was taken into the home of the Lutheran pastor of Marienburg, Ernst Gluck. Sometime before the arrival of the Russian army, she had married a Swedish dragoon; but he was at once recalled to his troop, and she never saw him again.
The Russian commander, Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev, sent Gluck, along with his family, to Moscow to act as the tsar’s translator. But Sheremetev kept the comely and full-figured Catherine for himself. She next caught the eye of Alexander Menshikov, the son of a humble pie vendor, whose meteoric career had taken him to the innermost circle of the court. Much to Sheremetev’s annoyance, Menshikov took Catherine into his house. There Peter made her acquaintance, and it was the beginning of an intimate relationship that endured until his death.
In every way, Catherine proved to be the ideal mate. She was a woman of opulent charms, generous, and good-natured, who provided the stability and affection to which Peter could return for renewal. She possessed the amazing physical stamina needed to keep up with him, common sense, and a simple honesty, which kept her from being carried away by her exalted position, first as mistress, then as his tsaritsa and empress.
About the time of their first meeting, Peter chose the site of a new fortress and port, called St. Petersburg after his patron saint. The foundation was laid on May 16, 1703. Peter’s choice was extraordinary. The estuary of the Neva River, at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, was desolate, marshy, and unhealthy. The winters were long, dark, and bitterly cold; the summers were short and hot. Although his decision appeared hasty and impetuous, Peter was confident that he would ultimately defeat Sweden and secure Russia’s access to the Baltic. He was equally sure, in spite of the opposition of his people, that the Neva estuary was the true site for his city.
History has endorsed his decision. Peter was, in effect, transplanting Novgorod, which had been, with Kiev, an early center of Russian trade and kinship with the West. St. Petersburg was to become the capital of a reformed and reorientated Russia. Its rivalry with Moscow symbolized the conflicting currents of Russian life: Moscow stood for the old traditions and the sanctity of Orthodoxy; St. Petersburg represented the new, Westernized Russia.
Peter became obsessed with St. Petersburg. The obstacles to building a new city were enormous. Labor and materials had to be brought hundreds of miles overland to the marshy estuary. Hundreds of thousands of carpenters, peasants, and even troops were drafted, but the hostile climate killed them off at an alarming rate. Shovels, picks, and other tools needed to build the canals and raise the level of the land were lacking, and men often had to scrape earth with their hands and carry it great distances.
The fortress of Saints Peter and Paul, designed with six bastions, was the first major building that Peter started and supervised. Then, his ambitions growing, he looked west to Kotlin Island, about eight miles from the city and dominating the approach to the estuary. He decided to make this island a channel redoubt. A fortress, renamed Kronstadt and armed with a battery of fourteen cannons, was quickly erected. He posted a garrison there and wrote out their orders, which began with the uncompromising instructions: “Hold the citadel, with God’s help, and if necessary to the last man.”
Peter continued to rebuild his army, recognizing that the trial of arms with Charles could not be held off indefinitely. He was under constant strain, and he suffered bouts of illness, but nothing diminished his working tempo or his tremendous energy. The new army barely resembled the hastily trained and ill-equipped forces with which he had tried to besiege Narva. The infantry of 40,000 men and the 20,000-man cavalry were now experienced, and well-equipped with small arms and artillery manufactured in the foundries that he had established in the Urals and the armament works that he had greatly expanded at Tula. New methods of recruiting and training also ensured adequate reserves.
Peter had been playing for time and avoiding head-on conflicts with the Swedes. He was constantly on guard against one of Charles’s famed lightning attacks. Indeed, Charles almost caught up with the Russian army at their winter quarters at Grodno in March 1706, and only the breaking of the ice on the Neman River – delaying the Swedes and allowing the Russian army to withdraw – prevented a decisive battle being fought then.
At this critical stage, Peter was distracted by internal rebellions, which forced him to detach troops from his main army. In July 1705, uprisings against the tsar’s officials broke out in Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga. Many Old Believers, men from disbanded Streltsy regiments, and other malcontents had settled there, and they had been incensed by the extortions of the tsar’s governor. Peter did not underestimate the seriousness of this outbreak. Astrakhan was more than 1,000 miles from the Polish front, but rebellion could spread swiftly to Azov, to the Cossacks of the Terek and the Don, and sweeping northward, it might threaten Moscow. At once, he set aside his plans to drive the Swedes from Courland and sent troops to quell the rebellion in the south.
Peter was now waiting with his army in Kiev in readiness for Charles’s invasion. He was astonished to learn that the Swedes had turned westward against Saxony. Menshikov was sent with troops to harry the Swedes in Poland, and on October 18, 1706, near Kalisz, the Russians severely defeated a large Swedish force. Peter was en route to Narva when he was informed that Frederick Augustus, whom he had supported for so long, had just signed a secret agreement with Charles, renouncing his alliance with Russia. Peter now stood alone against Charles.
Discontent and rebellion again threatened. Peter’s projects, so numerous and on such a vast scale, had imposed intolerable burdens on the nation. The army had taken more than 300,000 men in the first nine years of the Northern War. The fortification of Azov and the naval base at Taganrog required 30,000 laborers a year in the period from 1704 to 1706. The building of the Volga-Don canal – Peter’s attempt to link St. Petersburg with the Caspian Sea – needed 30,000 men, and the English engineer in charge complained that he could obtain only 10,000 men for the work.
Taxes multiplied, and peasants escaped conscription and taxation by fleeing to the open lands beyond the Urals and to the south. Rumors spread that Peter was a changeling or the Antichrist, not the true tsar. Most Russians continued to labor and to obey, but threats of uprisings in the frontier settlements were ever present.
Peter had issued strict orders that Cossack leaders must surrender all runaway peasants and deserters who had joined them after 1695. His orders were ignored, and Cossack settlements expanded greatly in size. Finally, he sent Prince Yury Dolgoruky with troops to the Don, where the threat seemed greatest, to enforce obedience. The Cossacks regarded this as a denial of their traditional liberties.
On the night of October 9, 1707, Kondraty Bulavin, the hetman from the Ukraine, led a rebel Cossack force against Dolgoruky’s camp, killing him and his men. The victorious Bulavin declared that he would capture Azov and Taganrog, freeing the labor force, and that he would then march on Voronezh and Moscow. But loyal Don Cossacks attacked and scattered Bulavin’s army. Bulavin took refuge among the Zaporozhsky Cossacks, whose territory served as the southern buffer between Russia and the Crimean khanate. The Zaporozhsky Cossacks, as a whole, were not prepared to declare war against the tsar, but individually Bulavin was allowed to recruit volunteers. Leading his new army, he defeated a detachment of the tsar’s troops from Azov and also the loyal Don Cossacks, who had forced him to flee earlier.
The rebellion surged dangerously. Voronezh and the vast region of the upper Don were threatened. Peter sent a strong force under the command of Vasily Dolgoruky, brother of the prince killed by rebels in the previous year, and ordered him “to extinguish this fire once and for all.” Briefly, the tsar even considered rushing to the Don to conduct operations personally. In April 1708, Bulavin captured Cherkassk; but by this time, many Cossacks had grown dissatisfied with his leadership and were plotting against him. Moreover, he made the mistake of dividing his army into three parts, dispersing them in different directions. Vasily Dolgoruky crushed one of the rebel forces in the north, and a second, advancing to attack Azov, was turned back. Bulavin lost heart and shot himself. The revolt was at an end, and the Cossacks hurried to reaffirm their loyalty.
Charles, unpredictable to his own generals and to his enemies, had been expected to invade Russia in the spring of 1707. His army, rested and brought to full strength, comprised 19,200 infantry, 16,000 dragoons, and 8,450 cavalry. In August 1707, however, when Charles at last marched, he moved slowly, reaching the Vistula River at Christmas, and then turned northeast.
In January 1708, Charles suddenly rushed to the Neman River with a small detachment of troops. He nearly overtook Peter at Grodno, but had to give up his pursuit because the country through which he was passing had been scourged by the retreating Russians. Charles now established his headquarters near Minsk. All assumed that his bold plan would be to advance by way of Smolensk and, hurling his army into the heart of Russia, dictate his terms in the tsar’s capital.
From Minsk, however, Charles advanced to the Berezina River, and then to the Dnieper. At Golovchina, he found the Russian army drawn up in strong positions. He attacked at once, and after bitter fighting, the Russians withdrew. Again he had won a victory, but it had been costly in men and equipment, and indecisive, for the Russians had fallen back in good order. In August, Charles crossed the Dnieper and marched eastward, harried by Russian light-horsemen.
Charles had expected that the tsar would not dare lay waste to his own subjects’ lands as he had done in Poland, but the Swedish army found the same vista of smoldering grass and burning villages beyond the frontier. Peter’s scorched-earth policy was yielding results. Charles summoned a war council. His generals were united in urging him to fall back to the Dnieper, but the king rejected such tactics as tantamount to retreat. He moved farther south. He sent orders to General Adam Lewenhaupt to join him with reinforcements and enough supplies to sustain the entire army for three months. Lewenhaupt was appalled. He knew that a large force of the Russian army stood between them. Loyally, he set out to obey orders. He crossed the Dnieper, and then, on September 28, at the village of Lesnaya, he met Peter. In the ensuing battle, Lewenhaupt suffered complete defeat and lost the supply train.
Charles’s advance was predicated on the support of Mazepa, who had negotiated secretly to betray the tsar. Peter was worried that the old hetman would persuade the Cossacks – whose rebellions had just been quelled – to follow him, and that the Crimean Tatars would join with them. But Swedish expectations were not realized. When at the end of October 1708, Mazepa entered the Swedish camp, he was followed by only about 2,000 Cossacks, instead of his usual complement of 20,000 to 30,000 men. Loyalty to the tsar and fear of reprisals had dissuaded most Zaporozhsky and Don Cossacks from going over to the enemy.
The climax of the Northern War was yet to come. The winter of 1708 was exceptionally severe. The rivers of Europe were frozen, and in the Ukrainian steppes, the cold was even more intense. In spite of the savage conditions, Charles marched his army farther to the south. The bravery and endurance of the Swedes were heroic. Then, in mid-February, freak thunderstorms and heavy rains melted snow and ice, turning the ground into a quagmire. Charles decided to take Poltava, a small but important trading town on the Vorskla River. He began the siege early in May 1709. The Russian army gathered on the opposite bank of the river, and Menshikov sent word to Peter that battle was imminent.
Peter rejoined his army early in June and assumed supreme command. Two weeks later, he crossed the army over the river and took up positions within a quarter of a mile of the Swedes. On the morning of June 27, the two armies clashed in general battle. The Swedes fought with great spirit, but they were now opposed by a sturdier enemy. Throughout the battle, Peter showed terrific courage, his tall figure conspicuous among the Russian troops as he drove them to greater efforts. Charles, who had suffered a severe wound in the foot, was carried on a litter wherever the fighting was most fierce so that he could encourage his men. But the Swedes were near the end of their strength and yielding ground. Charles, weak from fatigue and loss of blood, was hoisted onto a horse to order the retreat. On the battlefields, 3,000 Swedes lay dead; 2,800 were taken prisoners. The remnants of the Swedish army retreated southward toward the Dnieper, but, overtaken by the Russian cavalry, they surrendered. Charles, Mazepa, and a small band of survivors made their escape in boats across the river and found refuge in Turkish territory.
Peter was jubilant. He attended a thanksgiving service on the field of battle, and then he celebrated. The Swedish generals and officers were brought to his tent, where he showed them courtesy and praised their bravery. He stood up and gave a tribute to his mentors in the art of war. “Who are your teachers?” a Swedish general asked. “You are, Gentlemen,” the tsar replied. “Then well have the pupils returned thanks to their teachers,” the Swede commented.
Peter wrote at once to all who were close to him, giving them the news. He asked Catherine to come to him in Poltava. In his letter to General-Admiral Fedor Apraksin, he expressed concisely what he believed to be the chief outcome of the battle: “Now, with the help of God, the final stone in the foundation of St. Petersburg has been laid.”
Eager also to raise Russia’s prestige, Peter sent a stream of battle reports to Russian ministers abroad. In the chancelleries of Europe, the significance of this decisive victory was readily understood. A new power had arisen, displacing Sweden and changing the balance of Europe. Fear and suspicion of the new colossus began to condition the policies of Western European countries toward Russia.
However, Peter realized that Charles would not capitulate or come to any terms but his own; he might succeed in persuading the Turks to declare war on Russia and in invading the Ukraine with Turkish and Tatar support. Charles, supported by France and by the Crimean Tatars, was, in fact, bringing every pressure to bear in Constantinople. Through Peter Tolstoy, his ambassador to the Ottoman Porte, Peter demanded that Turkey expel Charles, still in refuge there. The demand was rejected, and on November 20, 1710, the Turks formally declared war on Russia. Tolstoy was then imprisoned in Constantinople’s Tower of the Seven Bastions. The following February, the Russians declared war against the enemies of the Cross. A few days later, Peter, accompanied by Catherine, went south to join his army at the river Pruth.
This campaign against the Turks was another chastening experience for Peter. He embarked on it hastily and in a mood of overconfidence. He planned to strike deep into Turkish territory, and with the support of the Orthodox Christian peoples of Wallachia, Moldavia, and the Balkans, take command of the Black Sea. However, when the campaign opened, the Christians did not rise against the Turks.
Early in July, beyond the Pruth, the Turks attacked the Russian army, but were repelled with heavy losses. The Russians then began to withdraw, only to be engaged in further desperate fighting. Peter’s army of 38,000 men was now surrounded by the Turkish army of 120,000 troops, supported by 70,000 Tatars. The Russians were exhausted by the heavy fighting in sultry heat. Fortunately, the vizier commanding the Turkish army did not appreciate the strength of his position. He, too, was eager to come to terms, especially since the Janizaries, the palace guards, who had suffered most in the fighting, refused to attack the Russian positions again. Finally, to Peter’s great relief, peace conditions were agreed to on July 12. The vizier had demanded far less than the tsar had been prepared to concede. Though Peter gave up all that he had won in his campaign of 1696 – including the strongholds of Azov and Taganrog on the Sea of Azov – he was spared the humiliation of being imprisoned, along with Catherine, by the Turks. Peter and Catherine returned to St. Petersburg; he was determined now to force an early peace with Sweden that would ensure Russia’s position in the Baltic. He needed such a treaty to compensate for the losses in the south and to erase the bungled Pruth campaign.
However, peace with Charles would evade Peter for ten more years. He might have succeeded earlier if he had concentrated all his forces against Sweden. But he was more cautious after the Pruth campaign. Peter nevertheless achieved some positive results. In 1713, he dispatched a fleet of ninety-three galleys, sixty brigantines, and fifty large boats – carrying in all 16,000 troops – to capture Finland. The expedition succeeded brilliantly. Naval supremacy was achieved in a major victory the following year. Toward the end of June 1714, the Russian fleet anchored about six miles to the east of Cape Hango, where a small Swedish fleet of sixteen warships, five frigates, and other smaller vessels barred the approaches to the Aland Islands and the Swedish mainland. On July 26, the Russian fleet outmaneuvered the Swedes off Cape Hango and then pursued them into Rilaks Fjord. Peter called on the Swedish admiral to surrender his outnumbered forces on honorable terms. The offer was rejected, and the Russians attacked. Fierce fighting raged for hours, but the Swedes were beaten; Russians now held the Aland Islands, a mere twenty-four miles from Sweden.
Peter regarded this naval victory as equal in importance to his land victory at Poltava. But this further proof of the emergence of Russia disturbed the rest of Europe. England and Holland, in particular, were alarmed that Russia would challenge and even take over their Baltic trade. Rivalries were further complicated by the fact that France had become the ally of England and Holland at the end of the Spanish Succession War. In 1714, when the elector of Hanover became King George I of England, he set out to drive the Swedes from northern Germany. Peter assumed that he would welcome alliance with Russia, but George refused.