HIS 241
Peter the Great remarks by Professor Evans

Peter Paul Fortress
The Peter and Paul Fortress (Петропавловская крепость) in St. Petersburg
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It is hard to know exactly where to start with my remarks about Peter the Great.  I could talk a bit about his complicated family history, which defined his childhood years, or his adversarial relationship with the traditional Russian nobility (much like Louis XIV in France).  I could also explore Peter's unending interest in all things mechanical and technical. (Up to the end of his life he was always tinkering with little models)--There is an old Russian saying along the lines of "Give a Russian an axe, and you have a carpenter."  Then, as yet another possible subject, there is Peter's relentless energy, drive and ambition to make Russia into a great Western European power.  We could also talk about his unfortunate later family life (and the murder of his son, Aleksei).

Ok, so what did he do.  In sum, he took a medieval, East European, despotic country and made it a European power.  He expanded the size and military power of his state and modernized its administrative machinery.  He also further consolidated the power of the Russian autocrat; all political power derived from Peter.  Remember, "walk tall and carry a big stick."  That is exactly what Peter did.  He brooked no interference or hesitation in the realization of his plans.

Peter surely accomplished much, but the price was not cheap:  much higher taxes, enserfment of the peasants, binding the nobility to state service and a decreased Russian population. He also introduced one of the key characteristics of later Russian history, the dualistic nature/spirit of Russia.  (The two eagles facing different directions in the imperial emblem, the black and the white, is kind of symbolic of that.)  For while he modernized the Russian nobility, he did not modernize the peasantry.  So you had this (social, economic, linguistic and spiritual) chasm separating the classes in Russia by the nineteenth century.

Poltava and the 1709 campaign as part of the Great Northern War against Sweden
If Russia was going to be part of Europe, then it needed a seaport on the Baltic (the "window to the west") to be able to trade and communicate with Western Europe.  That meant war with Sweden, which controlled the Baltic Sea around 1700.  Now that was not going to be an easy task, since Sweden was one of the premier military powers in Europe at the time--hard to believe isn't it.  Sweden was ruled by Charles XII (1682-1718, r. 1697-1718) one of the great military commanders of European history.

Russia's first effort against Sweden turned out to be a disaster.  On 20 November (1 December) 1700, the Swedish and Russian armies met in the Battle of Narva (now in Estonia).  Charles XII with an army numbering around 8,000 attacked the Russian forces of over 35,000 in a blinding snowstorm.  Basically, the Russian army ran from the field--many drowned trying to cross the Narva River.  Swedish casualties were minimal, less than 1,000, while Russia lost more than fifteen thousand men.  Fortunately, for Peter the Great, Charles XII did not follow up the battle but instead turned his attention to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  This provided Peter with the time needed to reorganize the army and to also found St. Petersburg in 1703.

Finally, in 1708 Charles XII turned his attention back again to Russia.  After crossing into Russia, Charles defeated Peter at Holowczyn in July, but in September at the Battle of Lesnaia, Peter crushed Swedish reinforcements marching from Riga. Charles XII refused to retreat and decided to invade Ukraine.  Peter withdrew his army, destroying property along the way.  (The same "scorched earth" policy would be used in 1812 against Napoleon.)  In the spring of 1709, Charles resumed his advance, but with a much smaller army as a result of the winter; he also essentially had no ammunition for his cannon. Charles decided to lay siege to the fort at Poltava on the Vorskla River in Ukraine despite the fact that Peter had a substantial force already there to defend position.

At Poltava, on 27 June (8 July) 1709, the Swedish and Russian armies met in one of the decisive battles of European history.  The day before the battle, Charles XII was out inspecting the battlefield in full view of the Russian forces, when the Russians decided to try and take a shot at him.  As luck would have it, Charles XII was hit in the foot, incapacitating the king and preventing him from personally leading his troops in battle, as was his custom; that probably sealed the Swedish defeat then and there.

Charles XII still made his battle plans and intended to control the battle from a litter without being able to see what was actually going on.  The Swedes numbered about 15,000 men, while Peter commanded maybe 45,000 (estimates of the numbers involved vary enormously, but is is clear that the Swedes were outnumbered at least 3:1). Charles XII, not in one of his more brilliant command decisions, opted for a frontal assault on the Russian positions.  The Russians had earthworks in front of the Swedes and on each flank, and also cannon.  The frontal assault began in the early morning, and despite the heroic valor of the Swedish troops, the assault was doomed.

By close to noon, the battle was over and what was left of the Swedish army fled for the Dnieper River where the remnants surrendered some days later (The prisoners were sent to St. Petersburg where they were put to work building the city).  Charles XII managed to escape with about 1,500 men to Moldova, then part of the Ottoman Empire where he spent five years in exile before he was able to return to Sweden. The battle was a decisive defeat for Swedish forces, ending Charles' campaign in Russia/Ukraine. It meant the end of Sweden as a great power in Europe.  It also signified the emergence of Russia as a European power, although it would take another twelve years to actually achieve victory in the Great Northern War

Some websites with information about Poltava.

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Some details about Peter the Great.

He was born 30 May (9 June) 1672, crowned tsar 27 April 1682 (sole tsar when his step-brother Ivan V died 29 January 1696), proclaimed emperor 22 October 1721, died 28 January (8 February) 1725.

Peter was the fourteenth child of tsar Aleksei I, from the tsar's second marriage to Natalia Naryshkina (Aleksei's first marriage was to Mariia Miloslavskaia, 1625-1669, thirteen kids). Peter married twice (Evdokiia Lopukhina, 1669-1731, married 1689; and Marta Skavronska (Ekaterina, or Catherine I), 1683-1727, married 1712) and had 11 children, most of whom died in infancy. The oldest son from his first marriage, Aleksei (1690-1718), was convicted of treason and executed in 1718.

Physically, Peter was a giant who stood almost seven feet tall, green eyes, incredible physical strength (and unbelievable drinking abilities).  He was a skilled craftsman and enjoyed making models and tinkering with objects.

Peter died on 28 January 1725 without having named an heir.  A few weeks earlier, he had seen a ship in trouble and jumped into the freezing water to rescue the sailors.  He caught a cold which progressively worsened.  Legend has it that on his death bed just as he was prepared to dictate instructions of who should succeed him, he died.  He was buried in the Peter-Paul Cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Some websites with information about Peter the Great.

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Some recommended books
  • Nicholas Riasanovsky, The Image of Peter the Great in Russian History and Thought (1985)
  • Avvakum Petrovich, The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum (1861)
  • Samuel Baron, ed., The Travels of Olearius in Seventeeth-Century Russia (1967)
  • Vasilii Kliuchevskii, Peter the Great (1958) from his Kurs russkoi istorii (1903)
  • Paul Bushkovitch, Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671-1725 (2001)
  • Cecil Field, The Great Cossack: The Rebellion of Stenka Razin (1947)
Some recommended websites



All materials on this site are copyright © 2005, B. Blois & C.T. Evans
For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu