Peter I The Great

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Peter I The Great


Born May 30 (June 9), 1672, in Moscow; died Jan. 28 (Feb. 8), 1725, in St. Petersburg. Buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Russian tsar (from Apr. 27, 1682). Russian emperor (from Oct. 22, 1721). Statesman, military commander, and diplomat.

Peter I, the only son of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich by his second wife, N. K. Naryshkina, was married twice: from 1689 to 1698 to Evdokiia Fedorovna Lopukhina, and from 1705 to 1725 to Marta Skowroń ska, later Empress Catherine I. His first marriage produced a son, Aleksei Petrovich; his second marriage, two daughters, Anna and Elizaveta, as well as eight other children who died in infancy. In April 1682, after the death of the childless Tsar Fedor Alekseevich, Peter was elevated to the throne, bypassing his older half brother, Ivan. However, their sister, Tsarevna Sof’ia Alekseevna, and the Miloslavskii family, relatives of the first wife of Aleksei Mikhailovich, took advantage of the Moscow Uprising of the streVtsy (semiprofessional musketeers) in 1682 to carry out a palace coup. In May 1682 the supporters and relatives of the Naryshkins, including the boyar A. S. Matveev, were murdered or exiled. Ivan V Alekseevich, a sickly youth, was declared the “first” tsar, and Peter I the “second” tsar, with Sof’ia as regent.

During his childhood, Peter was educated at home. Physically strong, lively, curious and able, and endowed with a good memory, he learned easily and enthusiastically. He was taught reading, writing, history, and geography by F. Petrova, N. M. Zotov, and A. Nesterov. With the help of palace artisans he mastered many crafts (joinery, turnery, weaponry, smithcraft, watchmaking, and printing). Military “games” (potekhi) played a special role in shaping his personality. Detachments of poteshnye (play troops) created for the games later became the guards and the nucleus of the Russian regular army. The formation of Peter’s outlook and interests was greatly influenced by foreign teachers, including F. I. Lefort, P. Gordon, and J. Bruce. From his early years he knew German; later he studied Dutch, English, and French.

Throughout his life Peter continued to study, increasing his knowledge and devoting special attention to military matters. From 1688 to 1693 he studied shipbuilding on Lake Pereiaslavl’, under the direction of the Dutch craftsman F. Timmermann and the Russian craftsman R. Kartsov. During his first trip abroad (1697-98) he completed a course in artillery science at Königs-berg. For six months he worked as a carpenter in the Amsterdam shipyards, studying naval architecture and learning how to draw plans. He completed a course in shipbuilding theory in England. Under his orders, books, instruments, and weapons were purchased from other countries, foreign craftsmen and scholars were invited to Russia, and young Russian dvoriane (members of the nobility or gentry) were sent abroad to study. Peter I met with Leibniz, Newton, and other scholars and scientists. In 1717 he was elected an honorary member of the Paris Academy of Sciences.

In the second half of the 1680’s there were clashes between Peter and Sofia, who aspired to absolute rule. In August 1689, after receiving information concerning Sof’ia’s preparations for a palace coup, Peter hurriedly left the village of Preobrazhenskoe (near Moscow) for the St. Sergius Trinity Monastery (now Zagorsk), where troops loyal to him and his supporters began to assemble after his arrival. Moscow was surrounded by armed detachments of dvoriane summoned by Peter’s messengers. Sof’ia was deposed and incarcerated in the Novodevichii Convent. Her supporters were exiled or executed. After the death of Ivan V Alekseevich in 1696, Peter became the autocratic ruler of Russia.

During his reign Peter I showed a profound understanding of the state tasks facing Russia. He carried out major reforms aimed at overcoming the country’s backwardness (relative to the advanced countries of the West) and at using the country’s vast natural resources to preserve and strengthen the feudal serf-holding system. His reforms were a historically lawlike phenomenon conditioned by the previous internal development of Russia, by a sharp exacerbation of the class and intraclass contradictions at the end of the 17th century, and by the deterioration of Russia’s international position.

In carrying out his reforms, Peter I was compelled to engage in an intense struggle with the reactionary opposition. Even the first superficial attempts at reform aroused discontent and resistance in conservative circles among the boyars and the clergy, who expressed their dissatisfaction with Peter I and their support for Sofia in the plot led by I. Tsykler (1697) and in the 1698 uprising of the Moscow strel’tsy. The uprising of the strel’tsy was cruelly suppressed by Peter: 1,182 people were executed, and the Moscow strel’tsy regiments were disbanded. The resistance of the opposition persisted in a weakened and disguised form until 1718 (the “conspiracy” of Aleksei Petrovich).

The reforms of Peter I affected all aspects of social and public life, contributed to the elevation of a ruling class of dvoriane and pomeshchiki (fief holders), and promoted the rise of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie. Peter I expanded the seignorial rights of the pomeshchiki over the property and person of the serfs, replaced the household tax on the peasants with the poll tax (podushnaia podat’), and issued a decree concerning the possessionary peasants (posessionnye krest’iane), whom the owners of manufacturing enterprises were allowed to acquire. During his reign, masses of state peasants and peasants who paid the iasak (tribute) were assigned or attached to state and private factories. Peter I also ordered the mobilization of peasants and townspeople for the army and for the construction of towns, fortresses, and canals.

The decree on primogeniture (1714) eliminated the difference between the pomest’e (fief) and votchina (patrimonial estate) by granting the owners of both kinds of estates the right to pass on their property to one of their sons, a practice that consolidated the landed property of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry). The Table of Ranks (1722) established a system under which a man’s promotion in the military or civil service was determined not by birth or genealogy but by capabilities and merit. The new system contributed to the strengthening of the dvorianstvo, which was expanded by an influx of individuals from various strata, who attained noble rank by their devotion to the tsarist government.

The resistance of the popular masses to the growing oppression by the pomeshchiki (fief holders, or landlords) and the feudal state was manifested in major antifeudal movements that were cruelly suppressed by the tsarist government (the Astrakhan Uprising of 1705-06, the Bulavin Revolt of 1707-09, and the Bashkir Rebellions of the 17th to 18th centuries).

During the reign of Peter I, many manufacturing and mining enterprises were established. The foundation was laid for the exploitation of newly discovered iron deposits (the Urals, Olo-nets Krai, and Lipetsk), as well as for the extraction of nonferrous metals, such as copper and silver. To promote the development of industry, Peter I issued the Berg-Privilegiia of 1719 (a legislative act defining government policy toward the mining industry), established central bodies (collegia) to administer commerce and industry, and transferred state enterprises to private owners, to whom he granted subsidies. A number of canals were constructed, including the Vyshnii Volochek Water System and the Ladoga bypass canal. The protectionist tariff of 1724 was intended to safeguard the new branches of industry against foreign competition. A mercantilist measure, it was also designed to encourage the import of raw materials and products, the output of which did not meet the demand on the domestic market.

Striving to strengthen the merchant class, Peter I established the Burmisterskaia Palata (Chamber of Bürgermeisters) in 1699 and completed the reform of municipal government with the creation of the Chief Magistracy and the town magistracies (1720), which were to administer justice to all members of the merchant class and to increase the number of commercial and manufacturing enterprises. The merchant class was divided into two “guilds,” and the artisans were divided by trade into professional associations (tsekhi).

The reform of the machinery of state under Peter I was an important step toward the transformation of the Russian autocracy of the 17th century into the bureaucratic dvorianstvo monarchy of the 18th century, with its bureaucracy and its service estates. In 1711 the Boyar Duma was replaced by the Senate. The collegia were established in 1718 to replace the prikazy (offices). In 1711 the functions of administrative control and supervision were assigned to the fiskaly, secret agents who were responsible for exposing corruption and abuse of power in the bureaucracy. Later, these functions were assigned to procurators (prokurory) headed by a procurator-general. The patriarchate was abolished and replaced by the Holy Synod, or Ecclesiastical Collegium, which was under the control of the government. Political investigation was the responsibility of the Preobrazhenskii Prikaz (Preobrazhenskii Office) and later of the Secret Chancellery (Tainaia Kantseliariia).

The Petrine administrative reforms were very important. In 1708-09 the uezdy (districts), voevodstva (territories under military governors), and namestnichestva (territories under imperial lieutenants [namestniki]) were replaced by eight (later, ten) provinces (gubernii) headed by governors. In 1719 the provinces were divided into counties (provintsii). In 1703, Peter I founded St. Petersburg, which became the country’s capital in 1712. Russia was proclaimed an empire in 1721.

It was Peter I’s lifelong concern to strengthen Russia’s military power and enhance the country’s role in international affairs. When Peter the Great took the throne, he faced the task of continuing and concluding a war that had broken out between Russia and Turkey in 1686. As a result of the Azov campaigns of 1695-96, Azov was captured, and Russia gained access to the Sea of Azov. However, this did not solve the main problem of foreign policy—the establishment of direct ties with the West, a goal that could be achieved only by gaining access to the Baltic Sea. To attain this objective, it was necessary to recapture Russian territory seized by Sweden at the beginning of the 17th century. During his trip around Western Europe in 1697-98 (the Grand Embassy), Peter I began to work toward this goal, laying the foundation for an anti-Swedish Northern Alliance, which took shape in 1699. After concluding the Constantinople Peace Treaty of 1700 with Turkey, he funneled all of the country’s energies into the struggle with Sweden. In the Northern War (1700-21), Russia achieved total victory, becoming one of the great European powers.

Peter the Great developed into an outstanding commander during the Northern War. He was the founder of the Russian regular army and navy. His school of military art produced such military leaders as P. A. Rumiantsev, A. V. Suvorov, F. F. Ushakov, and Kutuzov. The structure of Russia’s military forces was based on two of Peter the Great’s innovations—compulsory service recruitment (rekrutskaia povinnost’), which was introduced in 1705, and compulsory military service for the dvoriane, who received the rank of officers after graduating from military school or serving as rank-and-file soldiers or sergeants in the guards regiments. The organization, armament and equipment, rules of training and tactics, and rights and duties of all ranks in the army and navy were defined in a number of documents which Peter I took part in drawing up: the Army Regulations (Voinskii Ustav, 1716), the Navy Regulations (Morskoi Ustav, 1720), and the Navy Statutes (Morskoi Reglament, 1722). In organization and armaments, the Petrine army came to be superior to the Swedish army, which consisted of regiments with weak artillery. Peter I established brigades and divisions, a powerful regimental and battalion artillery, a special artillery regiment, a dragoon cavalry, a corps volant with horse artillery, and regiments of grenadiers armed with rifles, hand grenades, and rifle-grenade dischargers. He paid a great deal of attention to the development of the war industry, which supplied the troops with rifles fitted with flintlock and bayonet, ammunition, and field pieces and naval guns, which were strictly standardized as to type and caliber. (As many as 13,000 guns were produced.)

In his views on strategy, Peter I was far ahead of his time. Among 18th-century military theoreticians in the West, the prevailing concept was that wars are won by means of a single general battle. Peter I, however, proposed a different approach: the mobilization of all the means of conducting a war on land and sea, in order to gain a decisive superiority over the enemy, and the flexible use of these means, depending on the circumstances.

At the beginning of the Northern War, the tsar applied the principle of gradually increasing forces, as well as the principle of developing skills in combat operations against an experienced enemy by using the methods of a “small-scale war” (for example, the siege of Noteborg, Narva, and Dorpat; separate combat operations in the Baltic region and in Poland; and the rear-guard battles of 1707-08). He did not allow himself to get carried away by victory, and he knew how to draw the essential conclusions from defeat. (For example, after the first failure at Azov in 1695, he began the construction of a fleet at Voronezh, and after the defeat at Narva in 1700, he carried out a fundamental reorganization of the cavalry and artillery.)

Peter I carefully planned each battle, after thorough reconnaissance of the enemy and reconnoitering of the area. In major land and sea battles (Poltava, Lesnaia, and Hangö) he acted decisively, striving for a complete rout of the enemy. He demanded that his orders and the decisions of military councils be carried out promptly and without hesitation, but at the same time he instructed the generals to act “in accordance with their discretion” and not to adhere to regulations “as if they were a blind wall.” Among his tactical innovations were the massing of artillery in field battles and in laying siege to fortresses, use of grenadiers to strengthen the flanks of combat formations (Lesnaia, 1708), the construction of field redoubts (Poltava, 1709), saber charges by the cavalry, and bayonet attacks by the infantry. Concerned for the morale of the troops, Peter I awarded the Order of Andrei Pervozvannyi (established by the tsar in 1698) to outstanding generals, and he gave medals and promotions to soldiers and officers for distinguished service. (Soldiers also received cash rewards.) At the same time, he established strict discipline in the army, prescribing corporal punishment or death for serious military crimes.

As a diplomat, Peter I showed a profound understanding of Russia’s foreign policy goals, skill in taking advantage of circumstances, and an ability to compromise. Russia’s foreign policy was entirely under his constant supervision. Often, he personally conducted negotiations and concluded treaties. As F. Engels pointed out, as early as the 1690’s, in his efforts to prepare for the beginning of a war against Sweden, “this truly great man was the first to appreciate, in the fullest measure, Russia’s exceptionally favorable position in Europe” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 22, p. 20). Before the battle of Poltava (1709), Peter I conducted a vigorous diplomacy, by means of which he succeeded in preventing Turkey and the Crimean Khanate from entering the war on Sweden’s side. Later, he managed to resurrect the Northern Alliance, which had fallen apart in 1706, and he persuaded Prussia and Hanover to become his allies. Peter I skillfully exploited the contradictions between the Western European powers and did not permit Great Britain to disrupt the peace negotiations with Sweden, which began in 1719 and culminated in the Treaty of Nystadt (1721). Under this treaty, Russia received territory along the Neva, in Karelia, and in the Baltic religion, including major towns such as Narva, Revel, Riga, and Vyborg. As a result of the Persian campaign undertaken by Peter I in 1722-23, Russia gained the western coast of the Caspian Sea, including the towns of Derbent and Baku. During the reign of Peter the Great permanent diplomatic representatives and consulates were established abroad for the first time in Russia’s history, and obsolete forms of diplomatic relations and etiquette were abolished.

Major cultural and educational reforms were implemented during Peter’s reign. Secular schools were established, and the clergy’s monopoly on education was eliminated. Peter I founded the Gunners’ School (1699), the School of Mathematical and Navigational Sciences (1701), and a school of medicine and surgery. The first public theater in Russia was opened during his reign. In St. Petersburg the Naval Academy (1715), a school of military engineering, and the Artillery School (1719) were established, as well as translators’ schools, which were attached to the collegia. Founded in 1719, the first Russian museum (Kunst-kamera) included a public library. Peter I encouraged the establishment of primary “mathematical” (tsifirnye) schools and, at mining enterprises in the Urals, schools for blast-furnace operators and mining technicians. Primers, alphabet books, teaching aids, books, and school maps were published.

In 1700, the tsar introduced a new calendar. The beginning of the year was to be celebrated on January 1, instead of September 1. The years were to be numbered not from “the creation of the world” but from the birth of Christ. The first Russian newspaper, Vedomosti (Records), was published in 1703. Between 1708 and 1710 the half uncials were replaced by the Civil typeface, which was similar to the modern alphabet. Founded in 1725, the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences included a Gymnasium and a university. A number of expeditions were carried out by order of the tsar: A. Bekovich-Cherkasskii went to Middle Asia, I. M. Evreinov and F. F. Luzhin to the Far East, and D. Messer-shmidt to Siberia. V. Bering’s expedition was planned by order of Peter I, who was also responsible for laying the foundation for mapping Russia and systematically studying its geography.

During the Petrine era the Petergof architectural ensemble (Petrodvorets) and numerous government and cultural buildings were erected. Among the many fortresses built during the period were the Kronstadt and the Peter and Paul. The foundation for town planning was laid during the construction of St. Petersburg, and the fundamental principles were established for the erection of residential buildings according to standard plans. Peter I encouraged scholars, engineers, and artists. All of his cultural reforms were characterized by the development of ties with Western European culture and were closely associated with the tasks of strengthening the absolutist state.

In handling affairs of state and military matters, Peter I relied on talented and loyal associates, who included individuals of nongentry background (for example, A. D. Menshikov, P. P. Shafirov, and A. F. Makarov), as well as representatives of the dvorianstvo (for example, B. P. Sheremetev, F. Iu. Romodanov-skii, P. A. Tolstoi, F. M. Apraksin, B. A. Golitsyn, M. M. Go-litsyn, F. A. Golovin, G. I. Golovkin, B. I. Kurakin, and N. N. Repnin).

Endowed with intelligence, a strong will, energy, breadth of vision, purposefulness, curiosity, and a great capacity for work, Peter I was also hot-tempered, cruel, and ruthless. He refused to consider the interests and the life of the individual, and he did not hesitate to impose the death sentence on his own son, Aleksei (1718). Despite all the contradictions in his character, he is known in Russian history as a progressive statesman and military figure who “hastened the copying of Western culture by barbarian Russia, and [did] not hesitate to use barbarous methods in fighting barbarism” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 36, p. 301).

In the USSR there are memorial house-museums of Peter I in Leningrad, Tallinn, Vologda, Leipāja, Moscow (Kolomenskoe), and Pereslavl’-Zalesskii. There are museum exhibits on Peter the Great in Leningrad at the Hermitage, the State Museum of the History of Leningrad, and the Central Army and Naval Museum; in Moscow at the State Historical Museum and the Armory (Oruzheinaia Palata); in Riga at the State Historical Museum of the Latvian SSR; and in Tallinn at the State Historical Museum of the Estonian SSR. In addition, there are exhibits devoted to Peter I at the museums of local lore in Azov, Arkhangel’sk, Voronezh, and Petrozavodsk, as well as in Poltava at the State Museum of the History of the Battle of Poltava.

A number of cities have monuments to Peter I. In Leningrad the Bronze Horseman (bronze, unveiled in 1782; sculptor E.-M. Falconet) stands in Decembrists’ Square (formerly Senate Square), and in front of the Engineers’ Castle there is a bronze statue of Peter the Great (1743–44, installed in 1800; sculptor B.C. Rastrelli). There are monuments to Peter I in Kronstadt (sculptor F. Zhak), Arkhangel’sk, Taganrog, Petrodvorets (bronze, granite; sculptor, M. M. Antokol’skii), Tula, and Petrozavodsk (sculptors I. N. Shreder and I. A. Monigetti). Peter the Great has captured the imagination of many Russian writers (for example, A. S. Pushkin, A. N. Tolstoy, A. P. Platonov, and Iu. P. German) and inspired many artists (M. V. Lomonosov, V. I. Surikov, N. N. Ge, V. A. Serov, A. N. Benois, and E. E. Lansere for example).


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.