Peter I of Russia (1672-1725), commonly known as Peter the Great, was one of the greatest czars (rulers) of Russia. He is famous for introducing Western civilization and technology to Russia and for making Russia, till then regarded as a weak and backward country, into one of the great European powers.
Early in his life Peter reigned Russia jointly with his sickly half-brother Ivan and then, after Ivan’s death, he ruled alone. Peter was a supremely energetic man but harsh, even brutal, in his ways, even to family members. He forced his first wife to enter a convent (the equivalent of a divorce) and sent his son, Alexis, to jail where he died of torture.
During his youth Peter studied practical skills, such as carpentry, stone masonry, blacksmithing and printing, along with military science and sailing.
In 1697 Peter went to see the countries of western Europe. He traveled incognito and spent 13 months in Belgium where he studied shipbuilding.
Peter decided to undertake a massive development program to increase Russia’s economic, technological and military strength. So while overseas, he hired over 700 foreign technical specialists – in such fields as manufacturing, shipping, mining and gunnery – to come to Russia and teach their skills there.
He modernized Russia’s army and founded a navy on Western lines. He then:
- crushed a rebellion in 1698
- fought wars against the Ottoman Turks
- launched a long war against Sweden (1699-1721), which first resulted in a disastrous defeat at Narva (1700) for Russia but then won a memorable victory for Russia at Poltava (1709)
- signed the Treaty of Nystadt (1721) in which gained Baltic territories and access to the Baltic Sea.
As a result of all these wars, Russia gained vital access to both the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea and became the dominant power in northern Europe.
Peter undertook a series of administrative, financial and cultural reforms, partly with the aim of producing better trained personnel and better equipment for his army and navy.
He also introduced a large range of taxes in order to increase the revenue required to maintain his armed forces.
Under Peter government enterprises became greatly involved in the fields of mining, smelting and textiles – again to supply the needs of his army and navy. The labor force for these enterprises came from the peasantry with whole villages being “inscribed” (conscripted) to work in nearby mines or factories.
Administration was improved with the assistance of foreign experts. The civil and military services were reorganized, with personnel being promoted through a series of grades and becoming members of the hereditary nobility when they reached the eighth grade.
Education was improved under Peter with schools for the training of military officers and civil servants being established. The Russian Academy of Sciences was set up in 1752 to promote science and higher learning. The Russian alphabet was reformed and Arabic numbers were introduced.
The Russian Orthodox Church, formerly a powerful player on the political scene, was brought to heel. Peter left the office of the Patriarch vacant for over 20 years and then abolished it, substituting for it the Holy Synod which was led by a layman chosen by the czar.
In 1703 Peter founded a new city, St Petersburg. This city replaced Moscow as the capital of Russia.
Under Peter the Great, Russia was raised from a weak and backward state to one of the great European powers. The nobility was partially reformed but the serfs continued to live a hard life – in fact, a harder life than before as they now had to pay capitation taxes. Education was developed but mostly for the nobility. The harsh measures that Peter used to force through his reforms were to encourage discontent and revolts among the population.