Peter I, the Great
Born: Moscow – 30 May (9 June) 1672
Died: St. Petersburg – 28 January (8 February) 1725
Peter the Great’s significance in Russian history is difficult to overestimate. Books about the “Tsar Reformer” continue to be written to this day, and we will hardly be able to describe here all of his many accomplishments and achievements. Peter the Great (whom the Russians generally call Peter I – Pyotr Pervy) is beloved in Russia, and all the more so in St. Petersburg, where he is rightfully lauded as the Founder of the City, and honored with numerous memorials.
Peter the Great was the youngest son of Alexey I and his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina. Alexey was succeeded by the invalid Fyodor III, Peter’s eldest half-brother, who lasted on the throne only six years and died without surviving issue. Although only ten years old, Peter was chosen by the Boyar Duma as heir over his other half-brother, Ivan, as the latter suffered chronic physical and mental disabilities. Ivan’s sister, Sofia Alekseyevna, and her relatives in the Miloslavsky family were dissatisfied with the arrangement, however, and with the support of the elite Streltsy Guard fomented the Moscow Uprising. In the subsequent rioting and violence, Peter witnessed the slaughter of several members of his family, including two of his uncles at the hand of the Streltsy. The result of the uprising was that Sofia became regent and Ivan was crowned Ivan V, sharing the throne as a senior partner with Peter.
Many volumes have been written about the reforms undertaken in Russia on the initiative of Peter the Great, and discussion about them continues to this day. Some believe that these reforms allowed Russia (and thereafter the Russian Empire) to attain status as one of the leading powers in Europe. Others lament the loss of the unique cultural and spiritual traditions that had existed in Russia in the pre-Petrine period. Peter the Great introduced the Julian calendar in Russia with its celebration of the New Year on 1 January, and the tradition of decorating Christmas trees. He also forced the upper classes to dress in a European style and to shave their mustaches and beards. In order to create his own pool of broadly educated experts, Peter sent young noblemen to study abroad at the state’s expense and personally kept track of their progress.
Peter the Great founded the Russian navy and formed a regular army based on compulsory military service for all nobles and on recruitments from the peasantry and regular citizens (communities delegated a specific number of young men to army service). Foreigners familiar with the newest developments in military science were actively sought for positions as senior officers and generals, and the Tsar diligently recruited Russian experts in all fields, including shipbuilding, military affairs, the sciences, and the arts. Starting with Peter, for the next two centuries, one of the duties of Russian ambassadors serving abroad was to recruit foreign specialists to work in Russia.
Peter the Great created a system of civil service in Russia by introducing the Table of Ranks: a document defining the classification of all military, naval, court and civilian officials into fourteen classes, from fourteen as the lowest up to the first. The Table of Ranks was designed to create a “social elevator” for hardworking military and government officials and to reduce the abuse of appointments and promotions in service.
The Northern War with Sweden (1700-1721) finally brought Peter access to the Baltic Sea and the trading possibilities in the region, and in 1703, the city of St. Petersburg was founded. In 1712, Petersburg was made the capital of Russia, and in 1721 Russia was declared an Empire, with Peter assuming the title of the Emperor of All Russia.
Peter the Great died in St. Petersburg in early 1724 in his small Winter Palace on the banks of the Winter Canal. He was the first Tsar to be buried in the Imperial crypt in the Peter and Paul Cathedral.