Peter the Great – A Great Emperor Who Engineered the Rise of Russia

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.

Great Wall of China – The Chinese Dragon

When seen from above the Great Wall of China looks like a dragon zigzagging over mountain tops. The Chinese call it “Wan Li Chang Cheng” which means “Wall of 10,000 Li”. (10,000 li= 5,000 km)

Actually, the Great Wall is 7,200 km long. Height wise, it is 4.5m to 9m. Depth wise, it is 4.5m to 8m. The entire structure was built by hand using stone, bricks, soil, sand, straw, wood, clay or whatever was available depending on the terrain.

Three main Chinese dynasties — the Qin (B.C 221-207), Han (B.C 206- A.D 220) and Ming (A.D 1368-1644) — built the Great Wall of China. All had one purpose — to keep out the “barbaric” Huns in the north who frequently invaded Chinese border areas. In all, tens of millions of people labored on the Great Wall. Many died.

Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, is credited with kicking off this massive project 2,200 years ago. By connecting old sections with newly built ones, the Qin Dynasty erected 4,800km of wall in 10 years – more than one km a day!

After the Qin, the Han Dynasty extended the Great Wall through the Gobi Desert. Watchtowers were added to the walls. Smoke spirals produced by burning wood and straw mixed with wolf dung functioned as an alarm system. One smoke column meant a force of 100 men was attacking; two columns signaled that more than 500 men were approaching, and so on.

The Great Wall of China we know today was built by the Ming Dynasty 600 years ago. By then the ancient wall was in ruins. The Ming rulers rebuilt most of it over a period of 200 years. That the wall is still in good condition today is due to an invention of that era, the adding of rice flour to make super strong bricks and mortar!

Darius the Great – Great Persian Ruler, Administrator, Lawgiver and Architect

Darius I of Persia (548-486 BC), commonly known as Darius the Great, was one of the greatest kings of Persia (modern day Iran) and one of the great kings that ruled Persia in the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the Persian Empire (c. 550-330 BC).

He ascended the throne in 521 BC, having killed the previous king, Gaumata the Magian, who he regarded as an usurper. Darius’ version of these events may still be read in the monumental Behistun Inscription, near the city of Kermanshah in western Iran.

Darius ruled the Persian Empire at its peak, when it extended from the Indus River (modern day Pakistan) through Central and Southwest Asia to Egypt and part of Europe. He faced down many revolts throughout the Empire such such a revolt by the Babylonians. He further extended the Empire by conquering the Scythians, Thrace and Macedon.

The Ionian Revolt (499-498) – and associated revolts in Aeolis, Caria, Cyrus, and Doris – rose against the Persian Empire.

Darius sent two punitive expeditions against the Athenians to punish them for supporting the Ionian Revolt but these, unusually, were defeated: the first through the wreck of the Persian naval fleet in a storm off Mt Athos (492) and the second ending a military disaster at the Battle of Marathon (490).

The Athenians had also wrought destruction in Persia during the Ionian Revolt – for example, they destroyed Sardis, political capital of the western province of the Persian Empire.

According to the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, Darius vowed never to forget the destruction of Sardis. In his Histories (Book 5: 105), Herodotus relates the following: “And he [Darius] commanded one of his servants to repeat to him the words, ‘Master, remember the Athenians’, three times whenever he sat down to dinner.”

Darius’ conquests were noted for the humane way in which he treated the peoples he conquered.

Darius reformed the administration and finances of the Persian Empire. He divided his empire into 20 administrative provinces called “satrapies”, each one ruled by a “satrap” (governor). He watched over his Empire’s revenues with an eagle eye: for example, each satrap had a secretary who watched the actions of the satrap and reported back directly to Darius.

He levied a new annual tax and brought in a new standardized currency. He encouraged commerce – for example, by constructing roads and canals, by building a powerful navy, and by sending out expeditions of exploration.

Darius was known as a great lawgiver, who was severe but fair, and he standardized the laws across the whole of the Persian Empire. Even foreigners recognized his great qualities as a lawgiver. In the Bible (Daniel 6:8), is written: “the law of the Medes and Persians which alters not”. Darius created a codification of laws for Egypt.

Darius the Great was a follower of the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda, and under Darius Zoroastrianism became the state religion. But in religious matters Darius was, unusually for his time, noted for his religious tolerance.

Darius the Great was a great architect. He built Susa, a beautiful new capital city (located near Shustar, in modern day Iran). He also built the terrace and the great palaces of the magnificent city of Persepolis (518-516), the Persian Empire’s ceremonial capital whose ruins still amaze modern visitors (in 1979 UNESCO declared the citadel of Persepolis a World Heritage Site)..