There has never been a more remarkable national leader in modern history than Peter the Great (1672-1725). He was a giant in every way. In physical stature, willpower, enthusiasm, energy, libertinism, and refusal to accept old conventions, he stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries. He grew up in an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and court rivalries that often assumed violent forms. He only gained power, at the age of seventeen, by ousting his half sister, Sophia, and shutting her up in a nunnery. As a product of the system, Peter was, of necessity, ruthless and tyrannical, personally carrying out the execution of defeated rebels and even effecting the death of his own son.
But there his identification with Russia's past ends. For what has earned Peter his place in history is his tearing his country, kicking and screaming, from its traditional, oriental customs and beliefs and integrating it into the life of Europe. He removed the privileges of the medieval aristocracy, brought the church under state control, and rejected the old Russian calendar in favor of the dating system used in Europe. He even ordered his courtiers and officials to shave their traditional beards and adopt Western dress codes. He avidly studied the latest scientific and technological advances and employed them to build a modern army and to create from scratch a Russian navy. These tools he used to devastating effect by destroying the Swedish Empire and making Russia (with its brand-new capital, St. Petersburg) master of the Baltic.
European leaders did not know what to make of this eccentric, unsophisticated tsar who loathed pomp and ceremony, served as a junior officer in his own armed forces, and indulged in rowdy, boorish behavior. Yet, by the end of his remarkable reign, this man, who had made a servant girl his own wife and empress, had married members of his family into the royal houses of Europe. Thanks to Peter the Great, Russia was profoundly changed. So was Europe.
Derek Wilson tells his extraordinary story with a verve and atmospheric detail that emphasizes vividly the impact this one man made not only in Russia, but in the wider world. Peter the Great created a new Europe in which, for good or ill, Russia was to play a crucial part. His contemporaries were obliged to come to terms with him. And today, it is perhaps even more important for us to understand the historical context and the pivotal role Peter played in the creation of a whole new order.
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St. Martin's Press
January 05, 2010
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Excerpt from PETER THE GREAT by Derek Wilson
PETER THE GREAT
He stood at the top of the Red Staircase between the Cathedral of the Assumption and the Palace of Facets - a dark-haired, wide-eyed ten-year-old, already tall for his age. He huddled close to his mother, who had one arm around him and the other round his half-brother. Ivan. The tension in Tsarevna Natalya's body told him that something was very wrong. She had gathered the two boys hurriedly from their rooms in the palace and rushed them out to face a bewildering scene. Below them, in the square, stood a crowd of soldiers brandishing muskets and shouting. 'Here are Tsar Peter and Tsarevich Ivan,' Natalya cried, and that seemed to calm the angry mob.
Then, three or four soldiers advanced up the steps, intimidating with their calf-length vivid caftans, helmets and vicious pikes. They approached the shrinking Ivan. 'Are you really the Tsarevich?' one of the bearded strel'tsy demanded. 'Yes, yes,' the petrified child stammered. Peter stared at the men and felt his mother's grip tighten on his upper arm. He wondered what would happen next.
Two of his mother's friends advanced down the steps and addressed the soldiers. Young Peter wanted to steal back to the quiet and safety of the palace, behind closed doors. But he was rooted to the spot. He could not understand what was passing between the mutineers and the government leaders; did not know what the men intended to do with those terrible sharp halberds. He soon discovered. With a sudden shout, the mob surged forward. They grabbed the two men on the staircase. The screaming victims were impaled on those hideous spikes. Then their bodies were thrown to the ground, and hacked and slashed to pieces. With a cheer, the soldiers rushedup the steps. Did Peter cry and bury his face in his mother's robes, as some people reported, or did he stand, glaring at the murderers with calm defiance, as others would have us believe? One thing is certain. As the rebellious strel'tsy surged past into the palace in an orgy of looting and destruction, the scene imprinted itself on Peter's mind and never left him. He would grow up to hate Moscow and all it represented.
'We are Europe.' That claim was made in 1814 by Alexander I, Emperor of All the Russias. He spoke on behalf of the crowned heads of Europe. Bearing in mind the major role the Tsar had played in overthrowing Napoleon's attempt to destroy the old order, none of his fellow monarchs demurred. A century earlier, such a claim would have seemed utterly incomprehensible. The apparently endless territory beyond the Dnieper and the Dvina had been, to most Westerners, a mysterious place peopled by semi-barbarians who espoused alien religions - either Islam or a heretical form of Christianity. The few travellers who did venture into the interior - most of them Polish Jesuit missionaries sent to enlighten the benighted Orthodox Slavs -- brought back stories of a brutal land populated by hard people, most of whom were nomads or semi-nomads and knew nothing of broad-streeted cities with elegant palaces and neatly laid-out parks. Cartographers in Amsterdam, Paris and London, struggling to fill the large empty spaces on their maps, thought in terms of 'Russia in Asia' and 'Russia in Europe'. The man who almost single-handedly made his people aware of the world that lay to the west and made the West aware of his people, land and culture was a roaring giant of childlike enthusiasms and psychotic complexity, of whom one English observer recorded, 'I could not but marvel at the depth of the providence of God, that had raised up such a furious man to so absolute an authority over so great a part of the world.'1 That furious man was the remarkable individual known, with good reason, as Peter the Great. He shifted the whole direction of history, and the fact that, twenty years after the superpower struggles of the Cold War, statesmen of the so-called 'free world' still pay anxious court to the men who rule in Moscow is testimony to the altered relationship inaugurated by the fourth Tsar of the Romanov dynasty.
When, in 1696, Peter became de jure sole master of the world's largest land empire, few people within his territory and fewer outside it understood just how extensive it was. It was bounded by the White Sea in the north and the Caspian in the south, but from east to west it extended more than ten thousand kilometres, from the frontier with Poland to the northern Pacific coast. The exploration and colonisation of Siberia is a story that, for adventurousness, courage, savagery, missionary endeavour and commercial exploitation matches and even exceeds the opening up of the DarkContinent and the European settlement of North America. It was fired by the religious impulse to convert pagan tribes and by the quest for furs, which took the place in the Russian economy that spices and precious metals had held for the expansionist Iberian nations of the sixteenth century. But it was the consolidation of Russia's position west of the Urals that preoccupied rulers in Moscow throughout the two hundred years following Ivan Ill's successful emancipation from the Mongols in 1480.
The principality of Muscovy was one of several landlocked Russian farming/mercantile states periodically harassed by nomadic tribesmen from the steppes. It never knew a period of sustained peace. Even after 1480, its rulers constantly struggled with neighbouring chieftains in order to secure their frontiers or improve their trading positions. Muscovy extended its rule over other Russian principalities only to find itself hemmed in by Sweden, Poland and Turkey, who were determined to keep the alien nation out of their markets. Periodic wars imposed financial burdens on Muscovites and contributed to political instability. Between 1598 and 1613, Muscovy experienced the 'Time of Troubles', an era of turmoil and bloodshed remarkably similar to England's Wars of the Roses. Rival noble houses competed for the crown. Legitimate claimants vied with pretenders. Military leaders changed sides with an eye to their own advantage rather than the good of the people. Rulers even hired Polish mercenaries. The conflicts only ended when the exhausted magnates called an assembly of nobles, gentry, clergy and leading townsmen to elect a new tsar. Their choice fell on Michael Romanov, distantly connected with the already legendary Ivan the Terrible (1547--84). The Russians had found a dynasty that would rule them for almost exactly 300 years.
The comparatively stable period that followed did not dispel the basic problems faced by the state. Muscovy was a country driven in on itself. Powerful neighbours blocked any intercourse with western European nations and denied it direct contact with the commercial highways of the Baltic and the Mediterranean. In the political claustrophobia of Moscow, aristocratic and dynastic intrigues festered. They came close to destroying in infancy the child born to Tsar Alexis and his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina, in 1672.
The Tsar was in theory an autocrat and in reality dependent on the support of the boyars. These were the top noble families, normally around thirty in number. Their ranks were augmented, usually annually, when the Tsar conferred the title on favoured individuals. Their loyalty was a matter of personal and religious adherence to the divinely anointed Tsar; there were no legal or constitutional ties. It was a loose arrangement that inevitably lent itself to the forming of factions and obliged the ruler to be negotiating constantly for support. Naturally he turned first to his own family and the families with which he was connected by marriage. In his need for men he felt he could trust, he might also raise up favourites and place them in positions of power. It was a system, if such it can be called, that encouraged jealousy, corruption and court intrigue. Weak tsars were manipulated by those around them. Strong tsars had to be ruthless.
Alexis Mikhailovich enjoyed a long reign (1645--76) thanks to his ability to balance the leading boyar families. However, in his later years, desiring to give the crown greater independence, he raised up a low-born favourite, Artamon Matveev, and it was this man who more than any other created the circumstances that coloured the early years of Peter's life. Matveev was the son of a clerk who rose up the ranks in the diplomatic service. Artamon chose a military career, and by the 1660s he had his own regiment of musketeers, whose duties included guarding the Tsar. Alexis was impressed with the young man and entrusted to him various administrative and diplomatic tasks, which he performed with both efficiency and flair. Thereafter his rise was rapid, and by 1670, Matveev was the Tsar's right-hand man. This coincided with important developments in the royal family. Alexis' first wife, Maria Miloslavskaya, had recently died. She had presented him with thirteen children, but only three had survived infancy: a girl, Sophia, and two boys, Fedor and Ivan. Both sons had weak constitutions, and in the hope of providing Russia with a healthy heir, Alexis decided to marry again. A shortlist of suitable high-born maidens was drawn up and, inevitably, the leading boyar families fell to scheming and manoeuvring over the rival candidates for the royal bed.
Matveev favoured the seventeen-year-old Natalya Naryshkina, who came from a family of moderately wealthy landowners to whom he was distantly related. Natalya's father, Kirill Naryshkin, was a member of Matveev's regiment of musketeers. The favourite could thus count on the support of the Naryshkins as he made his plans to safeguard his position in the event of Alexis' death. Everyone knew that the two Russian princes were unlikely to be long-lived. Fedor was described as 'very unhealthy and melancholic', while Ivan was 'humpbacked and nearly blind'. Matveev intended to put in place a strong-minded tsaritsa who would underpin his own position and,God willing, provide Russia with another heir who would come into his own as soon as his stepbrothers were no more. The situation was quite plain to Matveev's enemies, and they immediately swung into action. Poison-pen letters accused Natalya of having an affair with a Polish nobleman, and rumours were spread that Matveev was using drugs to influence the Tsar. Their schemes came to nothing. In February 1671, Alexis and Natalya were married. Fifteen months later, the new Tsaritsa gave birth to a healthy son.