1902 Encyclopedia > Peter the Great

Peter I
(known as: Peter the Great)
Czar (emperor) of Russia

PETER THE GREAT. PETER I, ALEXEIEVICH, surnamed THE GREAT (1672-1725), czar of Russia, was born at Moscow on 11th June 1672. His mother, Natalia Narishkina, was the second wife of the czar Alexis. He was taught reading and writing, and the limited range of subjects which then constituted education in Russia, by the deacon Nikita Zotoff. He came to the throne in the year 1682, on the death of his elder brother Feodoro; there was another brother, Ivan, who was six years his senior, but he was weak both in body and mind. Feodore therefore had wished Peter to succeed him, but Sophia, his sister, a woman of strong character and great ambition, was desirous that Ivan should rule, so that she might be proclaimed regent and in reality exercise the sovereignty. She therefore fomented a revolt of the " streltzi," or native militia, and the result was a compromise, whereby Ivan and Peter were to reign jointly. On the death of Ivan in 1696 Peter became sole ruler, and punished Sophia by incarcerating her for life in the Devichi monastery, where she died in 1704.

Peter the Great image

Peter the Great

With the aid of Lefort, a Swiss adventurer, and other foreigners, Peter commenced his remarkable reforms, for which see RUSSIA. Here nothing more than a brief summary of the leading events of his life is given. In the year 1696 he besieged and took Azoff, his great object being to give Russia a seaboard. In 1697 he made his first Continental tour, on which occasion he worked at the dockyards of Zaandam and Deptford. On leaving England ho took with him many ingenious men who wished to try their fortunes in a new country,—among them Perry the engineer, who has left us an interesting account of Russia at that time. From England Peter went to Vienna, where he studied the tactics of the imperial army, then enjoying a great reputation throughout Europe, and was meditating a visit to Italy when he heard of a revolt of the streltzi, fomented by the partisans of the old regime, in consequence of which he hurried back to Moscow, and on his arrival punished the rebels with the greatest severity.

In the year 1700 he joined Poland and Denmark against Sweden. Although defeated at Narva the same year, he pursued his plans unremittingly, and in 1709 won the battle of Poltava, after which Charles, the Swedish king, became a fugitive in Turkey. In 1703 the foundations of St Petersburg were laid. Peter had married in 1689 Eudoxia Lopukhin, but had divorced her in 1696; she bore him a son, Alexis. In 1711 he took as his second wife Martha Skavronska, whom he caused to be baptized in the Greek Church under the name of Catherine. In this year took place Peter's unsuccessful campaign in Turkey, which ended with the loss of Azoff. The well-known story of his being rescued by Catherine when on the point of being obliged to surrender to the enemy has been shown to be of very doubtful authority. In 1713 Peter had made himself master of a considerable strip of the Swedish coast. In 1716 he went on another European tour in the company of his wife ; on this occasion he visited, among other places, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Paris. During his absence his son Alexis, who had been a constant source of trouble to him, became more rebellious and estranged from his father. He was openly leagued with the reactionary party in Russia, who looked forward to his assistance in reversing the policy of Peter, as soon as he should succeed to the throne. Peter on his return in 1718 forced his son to renounce all claim to the sovereignty. Alexis was afterwards tried for high treason and sentenced to death; soon it was given out that he had died suddenly. The fate of this wretched young man has only been ascertained in modern times ; it seems tolerably clear that he sank under; repeated inflictions of torture. His death is a dark stain upon the character of Peter. On 10th September 1721 the peace of Nystad was concluded, by which Sweden ceded Livonia, Esthonia, Ingria, Carelia, Viborg, and the adjacent islands to Russia. In 1724 Peter went to inspect the works on Lake Ladoga, and further weakened his constitution, which had long been in an unhealthy state on account of the continual excitement and arduous labours of his life. The czar died on 28th January 1725.

The character of Peter exhibits a strange congeries of opposed qualities. According to some he "knouted" Russia into civilization; others see in him the true "father of his country" and the founder of Russian greatness. In spite of his errors, no one will deny that he was a man of great genius; his was the "fiery soul that, working out its way," exhausted prematurely a vigorous physical organization. Although frequently cruel, on many occasions he showed humanity and tenderness, and even in his most violent fits of temper was amenable to advice, as he evinced in enduring the rebukes of Prince James Dolgoruki. All Russia seems but the monument of this strange colossal man. He added six provinces to her dominions, gave her an outlet upon two seas, a regular army trained in European tactics in lieu of the disorderly militia previously existing, a fleet, and a naval academy, and, besides these, galleries of painting and sculpture and libraries. The title of "Great" cannot justly be refused to such a man.

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