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Peter the Great

Peter the Great
(1672-1725)
Russian Czar

Peter the Great, the most influential czar and military leader in Russian history, transformed his country from an almost medieval backwater region into one of the world’s great powers at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Peter combined Western ideas with Russian tradition to modernize his country and to create a powerful army and navy.

Born the only child of Czar Alexis and his second wife, Natalya Naryshkin, on June 9, 1672, in Moscow, Peter struggled with his half brothers and sisters for power after the czar’s death. In 1689, following a series of political and military movements, Peter, at age seventeen, became the sole Russian authority. While celebrated mostly for his “Westernization” of Russia, Peter put most of his energy into achievements that related directly to the military and warfare. His reign of more than thirty-five years saw peace prevail for only a single year.

During his first decade of rule, Peter grew from a gangly teenager into a formidable, robust figure at six and a half feet tall – a physical -development prelude of the growth and presence he would bring to Russia. Possessing a keen interest in military history and theories, Peter established two personal guard regiments to experiment with drills and to develop war games, enabling him to better understand his studies. The young Peter realized that land power alone could not establish Russian military might, and so he began an upgrade of his navy. In 1696, Peter, at only twenty-four years of age, launched an offensive against the Turks at Azov. That victory provided Russia access to the Black Sea.

Despite this success, Peter knew that neither his armed forces nor his country as a whole compared favorable with the other European powers. Having assumed the throne of a country that had missed both the Renaissance and the Reformation, which left it nearly a century behind the rest of Europe in cultural and scientific developments, Peter was determined to understand how and why the Russians lagged behind their neighbors.

In 1697-98, Peter traveled throughout Europe under a pseudonym and without his courtly trappings. He studied shipbuilding in Holland and England and observed gunnery practice in Prussia. Along the way he visited military and civilian schools, factories, and museums as well as military arsenals and installations. When Peter returned to Russia, he brought along Western educators, businessmen, and military personnel to serve as advisers.

Before Peter could institute his version of modernization, he first had to put down an internal rebellion. He did so in a bloodbath that signaled to his people that, despite his modern ideas, his rule would be absolute. Peter’s harsh treatment of his opponents – he subordinated the nobility and the church to the throne – squelched any major resistance to the radical changes he instituted. Peter demanded that education, trade, and industry incorporate Western ideas and methods, and he established an Academy of Sciences. He also simplified the Russian alphabet, introduced Arabic numerals, and provided for the publication of the first newspaper in his country. In his efforts to Westernize Russia, Peter went so far as to demand that all men shave their beards and that the court wear Western clothing. He even encouraged the heretofore unknown habits in Russia of smoking tobacco and drinking coffee.

Along with civil modernization, Peter set out to form a navy and an army that could maintain Russian security and expand its borders. Beginning with a sea force of next to nothing. Peter began a shipbuilding campaign that launched more than fifty modern warships and seven hundred support craft. The Russian navy soon ruled the Baltic and rivaled the European powers for dominance in the Atlantic.

Within the army Peter began a conscription system that made every twenty households responsible for providing one soldier. Peter was so dedicated to the growth of the Russian army that he greeted the birth of one of his sons as “another recruit.” As the Russian army grew to more than a quarter million men, Peter’s Western advisers reorganized his force and introduced modern drills. Peter provided new uniforms and the most modern flintlock muskets and artillery produced in his own factories. He introduced training for officers and based promotions on merit rather than social standing.

Peter spent much time in the field with his army and returned to Moscow only when absolutely necessary. He often marched side by side with his soldiers and assisted gun crews during firing aboard his warships. That he recognized his own lack of combat experience proved that Peter was a great leader. He wisely allowed military professionals to take the lead in battle.

Peter declared war on Sweden in 1700, resulting in the Great Northern War, which lasted twenty-one years. His new army suffered an initial defeat at Narva but matured to gain a decisive victory at Poltava in 1708. After additional land victories and the defeat of the Swedish navy at Hango, the war slowed until Sweden sued for peace in 1721 and ceded Estonia, Livonia, and the Baltic coast north to Vyborg to Russia.

During the long war Peter continued to modernize his military and to make advances at home. In 1712 he moved his capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, a better “window to Europe.” He published several books, including Rules of Combat of 1708 and Military Code of the Year 1716, to standardize his vision of training and operations. To ensure a unified command structure, Peter established the Military College in 1718.

These innovations and all the other advances were, of course, extremely costly, and Peter heavily taxied his people. Several uprisings occurred, but Peter ruthlessly put them down and executed opposing leaders. In 1718 he arrested and tortured his own son, who subsequently died in prison, for plotting against him.

Early in 1725, Peter, in his customary devotion to his men, plunged into an icy Finnish river to rescue several drowning soldiers. As a result, he suffered hypothermia and never recovered. He died in St. Petersburg on February 8, in his fifty-third year.

Peter succeeded in modernizing all of Russia, and his advances in the military made his country into a major power. More importantly, while Peter ensured that the very best of weapons and equipment were available for his army and navy, he chose those more qualified than he for combat command. Thus, Peter projected his military influence by increasing the numbers in the army and navy and in producing an economy to support the military with arms and supplies. He also greatly increased his soldiers’ and sailors’ morale with his constant presence at the front in battle and in garrison training. Peters organizational and administrative skills, supported by his enthusiastic leadership, produced a military that vaulted Russia to the status of world power.

The czarist Russia Peter left in place survived as a European leader for the next two centuries. Its ultimate demise came not from an external attack but from the internal Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Without the direct reforms instituted by Peter and the stage he set for future advancements, Russia would never have taken its place as an equal to Britain, France, and Prussia, and it is doubtful if the Soviet Union would ever have become a twentieth-century power able to exert its influence in World War II and the cold war that followed.