Peter I (The Great), Emperor of Russia
Peter I (The Great), Emperor of Russia
PETER I (THE GREAT), EMPEROR OF RUSSIA
The greatest and most controversial of the Russian czars, chiefly responsible for the country's emergence as a great power; b. Moscow, May 30, 1672; d. St. Petersburg, Jan. 28, 1725. Peter, the son of Czar Alexis Mikhailovich and his second wife, Natalia Naryshkina, succeeded to the throne in 1682 as co-czar with his mentally disabled brother, Ivan V. Until Peter came of age, his sister Sophia ruled as regent while Peter lived a largely unsupervised life with his mother at Preobrazhensk, a village away from Moscow and the court. There he first sailed a boat and learned the rudiments of war in games with the local boyar and peasant boys. Sophia's plot to have herself proclaimed czarina brought Peter back to Moscow at 17. He deposed his sister, sent her to a monastery, and put the affairs of state largely into the hands of the Naryshkins, his maternal relatives. The palace guard (Streltsy) was so suspect that Peter built his personal forces around his boyhood regiments, the Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky, and put his trust in non-Russians, Gen. Patrick Gordon, a Scot, and the Swiss Col. Franz Lefort.
Window on the West. Russia's landlocked mass led Peter to attack and finally to overcome the Turkish controlled fortress of Azov. However, Turks still controlled the Black Sea. Therefore, Peter arranged a mission to the Christian West to seek allies against the Turks, but also to learn of western European culture and to hire specialists in various fields to work in Russia. He accompanied his own mission to the various courts, but only as a scarcely disguised Peter Mikhailov, private citizen. Peter's mission did not win allies, but in the shipyards of Holland and England Peter became a master shipbuilder. Even Vienna was not congenial, but there Peter began to think of exploiting the Catholic desire for reunion with the Orthodox, in the hope of a campaign in the Baltic regions against Sweden. Another revolt of the palace guard brought about their liquidation at the cost of more than 2,000 lives. With his position secure at home Peter embarked on his 21-year war with Charles XII of Sweden, a war that, at the Peace of Nystadt (1721), finally secured for Peter his "window on the west" at the east end of the Gulf of Finland. In relief and triumph the senate hailed Peter as Emperor and gave him the epithets Great and Father of His Country.
Program of Reform. Peter's reforms began with the boyars, in whom he had no confidence. The Boyars' Duma (council) was abolished, and in its place Peter created a specially selected senate, which was, after the czar, the highest organ of state and empowered to propose laws, supervise other state organs, and substitute for the absent ruler. A special procurator's office supervised administrative legality and the procurator-general controlled the senate itself. At first nine, then 12, collegia were established with various portfolios, such as foreign affairs and war. Internally, Russia was divided into eight administrative regions (guberniya ) and subdivided into provinces. Each guberniya was ruled by a gubernator appointed by the senate and responsible to the senate. These administrative reforms made for better centralized government. Peter's reforms extended also to the Russian Orthodox Church. Both the Patriarch Joachim and his
successor Adrian opposed Peter and condemned his personal and public actions. Therefore, when Adrian died (1700), Peter abolished the office of patriarch, and replaced it with the Holy Synod, supreme in ecclesiastical affairs, although subordinated to the senate and to the procurator-general in all else.
Further reforms affected public education, economic and agricultural life, and especially the nation's cultural life. Although poorly educated himself, Peter saw the value of an intellectual life for the nation. He opened libraries, schools, and museums; he sent the sons of boyars to Western universities; he introduced a new and more simplified alphabet and writing style, encouraged printing, and even inaugurated the first Russian newspaper, Vedomosti (The Gazette). Never very tactful, he aroused great opposition when he abandoned the old church calendar (from the creation of the world) in favor of the Julian calendar (Old Style). His tax on beards, mustaches, and the old form of Russian dress was especially distasteful. He recognized and used talent where he found it; the Procurator-General Paul Yaguzhinsky was said to have been a swineherd as a boy; his Minister for Foreign Affairs, Peter Shafirov, had been a sales clerk; and "Prince" Alexander D. Menshikov, Peter's First Councilor, had sold meat pies in the Moscow streets. Gordon, Lefort, and the Dutchman Carsten Brandt were his military advisers and friends.
Building of St. Petersburg. On an island in the Neva River, Peter built the Fortress of Peter and Paul (1703). With a few surrounding houses this fortress constituted the beginning of Peter's city. The larger city Peter called St. Petersburg and proclaimed it the new capital of Russia. History says it was constructed on the bones of the 40,000 peasants and serfs who died building Peter's dream. The swamps were filled, the forests were felled. While surveyors laid out the broad, straight prospekts and boulevards, foreign architects planned the great stone buildings and the numerous parks with their varied fountains. Nowhere, perhaps, is Peter's love of water better illustrated than in the planning and building of his summer palace, Peterhof, overlooking the Gulf of Finland—the estate is replete with fountains of all sorts for adornment, recreation, and irrigation.
Family Life. Peter endured only what family life he could not escape. As a boy he had witnessed family feuds and blood baths. He ended his first marriage with Eudokia Federovna Lopukhina by forcing her to enter a monastery. His son, Alexis, with whom Peter never troubled himself, was accused of plotting against the throne and on his father's orders was imprisoned and died under torture (1718) in the Peter and Paul Fortress. A commoner, Martha Skavronska, lived with Peter for several years before she embraced the Orthodox faith and took the name of Catherine. In 1712 Peter wed her officially, and she bore him 11 children, of whom only two, Anna and Elizabeth, survived. When Peter abolished the traditional succession of inheritance to the throne (1722), he made Catherine an empress and proclaimed her his successor. He died during the night of Jan. 27–28, 1725, as a result of an illness contracted while trying to save some soldiers caught in a storm at sea off Petersburg.
Czar Peter and Catholicism. Although the Roman Catholic Church could not be said to possess any great strength in Russia, it was ever interested in bringing back the Russian Orthodox to Christian unity and, in Peter's time, desirous of using the Russian land route to China. Peter tried to use this interest to his own advantage. During Sophia's regency, Leopold I of Austria had sent an embassy to Moscow to enlist aid against the Turks and to safeguard the precarious position of the few Catholics in Moscow. The two Jesuit priests in that mission discussed reunion with Boris Galitsyn, the regent's councilor. Nothing came of the mission or of the talks, but John Schmidt was allowed to remain in Moscow as chaplain to the Catholics. Later Albert de Boye joined him, and until 1689 two Jesuits served some 100 Catholic families in Moscow. General Gordon, a Catholic and a confidant of Peter, even helped them to open a small school. When a few boyar families became Catholics, Orthodox opposition increased. In 1689 Boris Galitsyn fell into disfavor and was exiled by Peter to Siberia. The Jesuits were also ordered to leave Moscow. A Dominican and later two secular priests also served for a while in Moscow. However, Peter was offended when he learned that the Jesuit Philippe avril had mentioned his epilepsy in a book on the Catholic missions to Russia, and even the intercession of Gordon was unable to check the Emperor's growing hostility to Catholicism.
Two other Jesuits, John Milan and John Berula, and a Veronese missioner, Casagrande, accompanied another mission from Leopold I in 1698. Casagrande was allowed to attend to the spiritual needs of the Venetians in Voronezh; the two Jesuits remained in Moscow. There they reopened the school and even made some converts among the boyars. Since the Jesuits in their school were doing what Peter felt was needed, he did not hinder their work, despite the opposition of the Orthodox, even after the death of their protector, Gordon (1699). But when the friendship between Austria and Russia cooled, the Jesuits again were unwanted in Russia. When they departed in April 1719, they left behind some 2,000 Catholics, including some Russians, a bishop, three priests, and about 25 boyars. Rome replaced the Jesuits with Franciscans, Conventuals, and Capuchins, who, in turn, were expelled in 1724. Dominicans were planned for the Moscow mission, but after Peter's death they were never sent.
Peter was not a religious liberal. Although Catholics of the Latin rite were generally left in peace, such was not the case with the Eastern Catholics in the western regions of Russia. Although promised protection by Peter, they were constantly harassed by Russian troops. Some priests even died at the hands of the soldiers. Peter's tolerance for Catholics came from his desire for Vatican support against Charles XII of Sweden. He protested concern for reunion, but Pope Clement XI recognized his aims as political and refused to endorse the campaign against Sweden. After the battle at Poltava (1709), Peter had no further use for the Vatican and all talk of reunion ceased.
It was Peter the Great who catapulted Russia, for a time, into the mainstream of the West. This is recognized even by the Soviets, who claim that the spirit of Peter was that of a "first Bolshevik," despite the fact that it was Peter who was responsible for autocracy in Russia.
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[w. c. jaskievicz]