The Great Westernizer: How Peter the Great Earned His Name

Peter the Great is one of the most iconic figures of Russian imperialism. How did he become so “great?” What did he do for Russia?

Apr 4, 2021By Alexander Standjofski, BA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian Ideology
peter the great tsar of russia
Detail of Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672-1725) by Godfrey Kneller, 1698, via The Royal Collection; with The Emperor’s Palace “Peterhof” (Dutch for Peter’s Court) in Saint Petersburg, Russia

 

Innovative, intelligent, and physically imposing: these are a few adjectives that describe Russia’s great Emperor Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725). Known as the Great Westernizer, Peter famously imported European culture into his country – making the Russian state a part of the modern western world. A keen observer and a fast learner, the Petrin reforms made Imperial Russia a European state: something it was never considered before.

 

The Early Life Of Peter The Great 

peter the great childhood
Peter the Great in Childhood

 

In June 9, 1672, Peter was born in Moscow as the fourteenth child of then-Tsar Alexis of Russia (r. 1645-1676). He was the first child of his mother, Natalya Naryshkina – a noblewoman from a Russian notable family of Turkic/Tatar descent. Peter’s father died when he was four leaving an unstable line of succession to the Russian throne.

 

Peter had a rough childhood. The throne was succeeded by his sickly older half-brother Feodor III, who required a regency to rule. The family of Peter’s half-siblings (the Miloslavsky family) and Peter’s own mother’s family (the Naryshkin family) fought over which line possessed the legitimacy to reign after the early death of Feodor III.

 

Peter’s half-sister Sophia (of the Miloslavsky family) violently offered a compromise. Sophia had the support and loyalty of the Streltsy – the most elite infantry units in the Imperial Russian army – and used them to issue her deal. Peter and his half-brother Ivan V would rule as co-Tsars with Sophia as acting regent.

 

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Despite the optimal compromise, many of Peter’s relatives were murdered by Sophia in the process: events witnessed by Peter as a child. The education Peter received was also very limited. Peter was a very curious child with many interests (mostly playing army with his buddies), yet formal education was never one of them. Sophia’s paranoia shut Russia off from outside influence, so Peter could not get the worldly education a prince deserved – something he would fix in his sweeping Petrine reforms as Tsar.

 

The Petrine Grand Embassy: 1697-1698

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Portrait of Peter I (1672-1725) by Jean-Marc Nattier, 17th century, via the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

 

When Peter obtained full custody of the Russian state, he embarked on his Grand Embassy of 1697-98 – the first foreign visits of any Russian ruler. Inspired by his desire to completely modernize Imperial Russia and transform it into a westernized state, he visited Western Europe to observe their culture and practice. He traveled incognito, but his height (which was an estimated 6’8”) and his Russian entourage likely were not very covert.

 

Peter had a deep interest in naval warfare. He wanted to employ the practice to combat the Ottomans on his southern borders. He observed shipbuilding from the Dutch and the British (and participated in it while there) and studied artillery in Prussia.

 

Despite the expedition being an embassy, Peter the Great was much more interested in observing and participating in manual labor than any political or diplomatic affair. Peter observed and participated in (and would master) many different Europe trades, from shipbuilding to dentistry. His plan was to take all of his observations and issue them as Petrine reforms within his Russian state.

 

Peter never obtained a formal education (or paid attention during it) due to the education flaws in his home country and the paranoia of his sister. And still, he was an astute observer and quick learner to the point where much of his observations were replicated with detailed accuracy back home.

 

The Rise And Reform Of Peter The Great

peter the great
Peter the Great, via biography.com

 

Much of the early reign of Peter the Great was dominated by his mother. She died in 1694 when Peter was 22, and Ivan died in 1696 when Peter was 24.  This was the age Peter had finally managed to grasp independent rule as the Tsar of Russia. He immediately embarked on his Grand Embassy.

 

The Embassy was cut short due to the Streltsy Rebellion in 1698, which had already been crushed by the time Peter returned to Moscow in August of that year. After his life-changing travels through Europe, he immediately issued sweeping and expansive Petrine reforms that completely transformed the Russian state.

 

Peter surrounded himself with foreign advisors from Europe. He made French the language of Russian politics and her upper class (which it would remain until 1917) and abolished Muscovite dress in favor of French dress.  Famously, he introduced a “beard tax,” which required wearers of beards (a Russian tradition) to pay extra taxes in order to westernize the look of his people.

 

Peter shifted his attention from the Ottomans to the south over to the Swedes to the north – he headed a coalition against the Swedish Empire in the Great Northern War (1700-1721). In the conflict, Peter the Great obtained the site of the Swedish fort Nyenskans, where he would found a new Russian city: Saint Petersburg. The city became known as his “window to the west” and was the site where he finally created his impressive Russian Navy (from scratch)!

 

Imperial Russia: The Window To The West

emperors palace peterhof
The Emperor’s Palace “Peterhof” (Dutch for Peter’s Court) in Saint Petersburg, Russia, via Matador Network

 

The above picture is of the Emperor’s Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. Notice the symmetrical European colonialist style architecture: a mark of Peter’s great fascination with all things western.

 

Peter the Great made Saint Petersburg the new capital of his empire, which it would remain until 1918 (by the name of Petrograd, and later Leningrad after Vladimir Lenin). The Tsar adopted the title of emperor, a western title, over the traditional Russian title, the title Tsar being a Russified moniker of the Roman imperial title Caesar.  Russian sovereigns sustained the title of emperor until 1917.

 

Peter attempted to industrialize his state, though it was a slow start and dramatically lagged behind the rest of Europe. Imperial Russia’s ill-developed industry would become part of the reason for her poor performance in the First World War as well as Stalin’s state collectivized agriculture program in the 1930s.

 

In being such an active individual with an intellect to match, Peter introduced a meritocracy: the rule by merit. He despised hereditary titles and found them to make families of wealth lazy. He abolished hereditary denomination requiring everybody to work for status.  Though naturally unpopular with the upper classes, Russia adhered to this system until 1917.

 

At war, Peter loved to be on the front lines in combat himself with his newly reformed army in the heat of battle.

 

The Petrine Reforms Of The Great Emperor (Continued)

peter the great history.com
Peter the Great, via history.com

 

Despite being an Orthodox Christian state, Russia had its own dating system. Peter sporadically declared a change from the traditional Russian date to the Julian calendar following the church of Rome. On December 20, 7208 (in the Russian dating system), he decreed that on January 1, his country would turn the century alongside the rest of the continent – 1700.  He also enforced the western (Germanic) tradition of a Christmas tree and obligated New Year’s congratulations by law as of January 1, 1700.

 

The emperor curtailed the power of the Russian Orthodox Church and made it subordinate to his own power. He expanded the education system and constructed the first universities in Imperial Russia. He introduced compulsory education for all social classes (except the serfs.) Peter abolished arranged marriages as he thought they often led to disaster, thus giving more autonomy to young girls in his empire. Paradoxically, he was very interested in arranging marriages of his children into royal families of western Europe to strengthen his ties to them – his son and heir married (disastrously) the daughter of a German prince belonging to the family of Marie Antoinette.

 

Peter imported great books and western art and translated them into Russian. The first Russian newspaper was founded under the emperor. He also founded the Russian court system.

 

The Petrine reforms were naturally controversial; some were popular, and some were widely unpopular. In spite of his liberal and enlightened political outlook, the emperor crushed any and all opposition to his rule under his massive reformed western army.

 

The Personal Scandal Of Peter I

tsarevich alexei petrovich
Portrait of Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich of Russia, 19th century, via the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

 

The Petrine reforms transformed and modernized Imperial Russia, making it a dominant power in European geopolitics. But the domestic personal life of Peter was not so stable.

 

Messy marriages – firstly due to an arrangement by Peter’s mother – disrupted Peter’s family life. His relationship with his second wife, Catherine I, who succeeded him on the Russian throne, was stable. He did not get along well with his first wife, Eudoxia. The eldest of Peter’s three children (of fourteen) to survive childhood was Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich Romanov, mothered by Eudoxia.

 

Alexei was raised by his mother, who fostered a deep resentment for his father and projected it onto their son. In being so active, Peter was also not often around to see the boy. When Eudoxina was forced to enter a monastery and become a nun, the responsibility of the tsarevich fell to the nobles who had largely been ostracized by the emperor. The tsarevich grew up with a disdain for his father.

 

After a disastrous arranged marriage that produced two children, Alexei fled to Vienna after his wife died in childbirth. Peter wanted his son more concerned with the affairs of the state; the tsarevich renounced his role in lieu of his son Peter: Peter’s grandson.

 

Peter saw the flight as an international scandal. The emperor assumed his son was plotting insurrection and sentenced him to torture alongside his mother, Eudoxia. Alexei died in Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg in late June 1718 after two days of torture.

 

Ironically, 200 years and 21 days later, the Romanov dynasty would be effectively abolished with the execution of another Tsarevich Alexei – the son of Emperor Nicholas II in July 1918.

 

The Legacy Of Emperor Peter The Great Of Russia

peter i deathbed
Peter I on His Deathbed, by Ivan Nikitin, 1725, via The State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg

 

In his later years, Peter shifted his attention to the south and east and substantially expanded the territory of the Russian state.

 

The story of Peter’s declining health and death remains as restless and high-energy as the emperor himself. In the 1720s, Peter succumbed to urinary tract and bladder infections that blocked his capacity to go to the bathroom. After a successful operation, he continued to push himself to his absolute limits in his characteristically restless fashion.

 

In spite of the six extra months of activity Peter managed to get out of himself, the emperor succumbed to gangrene of the bladder. He died in early 1725 at the age of 52 with no named successor after forty-two years on the Russian throne.



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By Alexander StandjofskiBA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian IdeologyAlexander holds a BA in history and political theory from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He has studied the historical narrative of the western world as well as pre and post-Christian political thought and ideology spanning from 500 BCE to 1800 CE.