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Forced reforms and atrocities go hand in hand:  Peter “The Great” of Russia (1672-1727)

On March 1697, Tsar Peter “The Great” of Russia (25 years of age) started his 16 months journey visit of western Europe; this was the first time any Tsar ever ventured out of Russia.

A total of 250 people formed the “Great Embassy” and Peter was supposed to be traveling incognito because he had no patience for official ceremonies and he intended to get plenty of hands on the current inventions and state of the arts in shipbuilding and military equipment.

Ambassadors Lefort, Menshikov, and Feodor Golovin were to substitute for Peter in official ceremonies, negotiate, and sign treaties, especially forming an alliance against Turkey so that Russia could acquire a sea port on the Black Sea.

A year ago, the ragtag Russian army managed to take the Turkish Azov Fortress.  The previous year, the Russians failed in the attempt because the Turkish navy shipped to the fortress with supplies and reinforcement. Consequently, Peter built within a year on Voronezh 22 galleys and blocked the river way to the Turkish navy.

Peter loved sailing and building ships and worked alongside the shipbuilder:  he wanted to build a Russian navy.

The first stop was to the Swedish fortress in Riga.  Peter was humiliated by a Swede soldier as he was taking measurements of the fortification.  The governor of Riga replied: “The soldier was doing his job. If your friend wants to travel incognito, incidents like this will occur.

Peter traveled as Peter Mikhailovich with specialty as Bombardier.  He was a giant, almost 2 meter tall and presented an angular athletic strength.  He was afflicted by convulsions, especially in stressful moments: The left side of his face contorted and he looked disfigured; his muscles twisted and his eyes rolled back; the left arm flailing.

The second stop was Konigsburg in Prussia.  King FredericI took Peter hunting and they became friends.  A colonel in the Prussian army was satisfied with Peter’s artillery performance and gave him a certificate as expert in ballistics.

The next stop was Hanover, a small kingdom in northern Germany.  Sophia and lady Charlotte, respectively mother and wife of King Frederick, extended a dinner invitation to Peter and were pleased with his company.  Peter showed the ladies the calluses on his hands for working in the shipyards; they stayed up all night.

Sophia wrote a letter stating: “Peter is a prince, very good and very bad:  His character is exactly that of his country.”

The following destination was Holland (the Netherlands) where peter was to learn shipbuilding from the masters of the seas.  The stay in Zaandam was cut short because kids started throwing rocks on Peter, not knowing his position.  Thus, Peter and his six shipbuilding companions moved to Amsterdam, the greatest port of Europe at the time.

Peter worked on ships for the East India Company as a an apprentice but he was dissatisfied because the Dutch did not use drawings or plans or a written method.

Thus, Peter collected whatever sketches he got his hands on.  Peter was impressed with the open-mindedness of the Dutch; they are a prosperous people and the government focuses on successful trade; they live according to their preferences; they are not afraid of new ideas and their ports are open to ideas and goods.

In January 1698, the party landed in England and Peter received a private visit of King William III in his modest quarters. On a visit to Kensington Palace, Peter was fascinated by an anemometer for predicting the weather.

He visited a cannon factory, the Greenwich Observatory, a coin-making mint, the Academy of Sciences, Oxford University, and acquired new ways of shipbuilding.

The anecdote that Peter met with Issac Newton is not true:  Peter was a hands on person for pragmatic methods. Peter followed a session of the parliament from the roof.

A typical meal for Peter and his 21 companions living in a house consisted of 5 ribs of beef, on sheep, three-quarters of a lamb, a shoulder roasted, a loin of veal, 6 rabbits and ended up destroying the furniture and garden of the host.

The Great Embassy set out to Vienna (Austria) and met the powerful Leopold. Peter had recruited distinguished 640 experts such as Dutch Admiral Cornelius Cruys, Captain John Perry, sailors and craftsmen; 260 chests of technical devices accompanied the return home.

The Embassy was to head to Venice when news that the “streltsy” (the previous army stationed in Moscow) revolted.  Those famished soldiers were banished to keeping the frontiers after the 1697 uprising; the Scottish General Patrick Gordon tamed the revolt and sent 2000 prisoners to Moscow.

As Peter arrived to Russia, he kept a scissor handy to cut and trim the long beard of the nobles and boyars; he also cut short the long oversized sleeves of fur coats.

Within two weeks, invited people arrived clean-shaven:  people were afraid going to hell if they cut their beard.  Noblemen also arrived and wearing comfortable cloths.  He forbade people and nobles from bowing to the ground to him or another nobleman.  The Patriarch was saved from meeting with the two English barbers.

Peter adopted the European calendar, allowed women to attend dinners and parties and instituted a European system of coinage.

Then Peter turned his attention to punishing the streltsy.  These 2,000 captured Russian soldiers who revolted were interrogated and sentenced to death by hanging or dismemberment. Must “giving example” be meted out with utmost savagery and cruelty?

Forced changes and reforms in any society and consequent atrocities and brutalities go hand in hand as a determined monarch holds supreme power.

The representative of the boyyars (feudals) decided to give Peter, a couple of years before he died at the young age of 52, the title “Peter The Great”.

Peter did not believe in his divine  power but the Russian Orthodox Church made the citizens believe that the Tsar is the delegate of God.

Actually, at the death of the Empress Regent the church was faced with two options: 1. Electing the most legitimate but mentally handicapped heir Ivan from Tsar Alexis’ first wife or

2. the 10 year-old, robust, and tall Peter.

The Patriarch demanded a Zemsky Sebor (the people gathered in front of the Kremlin will vote) and the people wanted Peter. Peter was a hand-on monarch and worked with his hands along side the workers building the first Russian navy.

Sofia, the eldest half-sister of Peter initiated a revolt by the streltsy; they invaded the Kremlin and ransacked this fortress for three days.  Peter was deeply traumatized and hid in the Kremlin until the revolt subsided.

Sofia ruled as regent for 7 years, with her brother Ivan and Peter as co-Tsar.  Peter lived with his mother Natalya in Preobrazhensky, 7 miles north of Moscow.

Peter spent his time playing war games with recruited makeshift army of boys in the neighborhood and practiced carpentry.  One day, Peter heard that the streltsy are “on the move” and he jumped from his bed and fled in his nightgown to the Troitsky Monastery, 45 miles Northeast of Moscow.

Soon, General Gordon joined Peter with his army and the streltsy failed to back Sofia who was sent to live in a monastery.

In 1695, Peter advanced with an army of 30,000 to capture the fortress of Azov from the Ottoman Empire. It is a total failure and Peter said: “We did not go wrong anywhere.  We have begun our schooling in the real art of war“.

The next year, Peter tried again reinforced with 22 navy galleys and entered Azov. Peter decided to have a port in the north and had to take lands from Sweden.   Thus, he set siege to the fortress of Narva on the River Neva.

The even younger King Charles XII of Sweden forced-marched with 10,000 veteran soldiers and engaged the 30,000 Russian army at dusk.  Peter was not in the camp during the attack. The Russian army retreated in fear and disarray and drowned in the river.

While King Charles XII was finishing conquering Poland, thinking that his army will inevitably crush the Russians anytime he wished, Peter re-organized his army and attacked the Baltic river towns and cities and conquered the strategic citadel of Noteborg on the Neva.

The Russians captured Narva in 1704 and started building a seaport on swampy lands; the city will be called St. Petersburg.  Ships and land carriages, trading in St. Petersburg were to carry stones for stone constructions.

King Charles XII advanced in June 1908 to punish Peter and capture Moscow as winter was setting in.  That was the first time that an army ventured in the heart of Russia.  (A century later, Napoleon Bonaparte must have studied this calamitous defeat of the Swedish army but he opted to wait for Tsar Alexander to negotiate while in Moscow).

The Russian army avoided major frontal attacks and disturbed the Swedish supply lines and burned the fields and cities (Baturin in Ukraine where the cossacks were to join the Swedes) that could be used for resting location to the Swedish army during winter.  Peter engaged the major attack in Poltava and crushed the Swedish army.

Peter had to return the Azov fortress to the Turks as he tried to reach the Black Sea and concentrated his attention on building and enlarging St. Petersburg; the town counted 34,000 in 1714 and became the capital of Russia during Peter and during Empress Catherine “the Great” who managed to have access to the Black Sea (half a century later) .

Peter had hard times with his son Alexis who asked for asylum in Vienna.   Alexis was lured back to Russia and confined in prison and then died in prison.

In 1719, the second young boy of Peter, Peter Petrovich, from his second wife Catherine died at the age of 4.  Peter was left with no male heir and was devastated.

From then on, Peter focused on internal matters in reforming the government structure, the finances, the management, and the legal system. He confronted the endemic problem of corruption and divided the administration into nine colleges, emulated from the Prussian and Swedish examples: War, Foreign Affairs, Admiralty, Justice, Financial Control, Commerce, Mining and Manufacturing, Revenue Collection, and Expenditure.

Peter built the Winter Palace and ordered all high ranking officials to residing in St.Petersburg. He was frequently sick from many ailments related to “rich food”.  He tried to save sailors on the river in winter and dived in the cold water and died the next day.

The sailors watched the giant stone stature of Peter astride a wild, rearing stallion as the bells toll in St. Petersburg.

Catherine ruled as regent for 2 years and died.  Peter II, son of Alexis, succeeded as Tsar at the age of 12.

Note:  This story and biography was taken from Joe Foleno in the SABIS series




June 2023

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