Peter Romanov was not born Great but earned the moniker by setting precedents previously unheard of for the kingdom of Russia. Born royal in 1672 to Tsar (or Czar) Alexis I and his second wife, Natalya, as he was the youngest son, no one gave much thought to him ever reigning the kingdom.
When Peter was only 3 years old, his father passed away leaving his eldest son as the King Of Russia. Feodor III or more aptly named, Feodor the Most Quiet, had suffered from health issues as a result of falling off his horse when he was 12 years old. The injuries left him nearly an invalid as he only could walk with the aid of a cane and could not even put a cap on top of his head. More than just the injuries sustained, he also suffered from scurvy and had a very quiet demeanor, hence the name Feodor the Most Quiet. It is of no wonder that Feodor succumbed to an early death at age 20 in 1682, childless to boot.
The next in line of succession was up for some debate when Ivan, Peter’s older half-brother, was proclaimed Tsar to the disagreement of Peter’s family. A resolution was provided by Sophia, another older half-sibling, who convinced Russia to accept a joint rule between Ivan and Peter while she would act as their regent until Ivan came of age. Sophia did just that, she was regent of Russia for 2 years prior to Ivan V and Peter the Great.
It sounds easy right? It wasn’t and it’s important to understand what happened during this time to fully grasp what Peter had to overcome. Back to the debate of king. When Peter’s family fought to have him chosen as Tsar over Ivan, Ivan’s family retaliated and to make matters worse, they had the support of the Kremlin Guard. Ivan and his supporters decided to seize control of the government by whatever means possible. Unfortunately for Peter, those means were him watching as his family and supporters were thrown from the Faceted Palace to their deaths onto the pikes of the guards. Pretty brutal for a boy not even 10 years of age.
From that event on, Peter would never enjoy the city of Moscow. Luckily, Sophia sent him away so she really only had one ruler between her and the kingdom she felt she deserved. Seven years from his time spent in Moscow, Peter now was about to come of age and as another attempt at the throne, Sophia arranged a second coup and royally failed causing her to be sent to a convent. In 1696, Ivan V died, leaving Peter the sole ruler of Russia thus becoming Peter I.
What would later become known as The Grand Tour of Europe was a 2 year journey that Peter embarked on around Europe learning about customs, cultures, industries, and another knowledge he could gain. He left on this tour shortly after Ivan’s death in order to make Russia a better place to live as it was considered a country that was behind-the-times.
While he was gone Sophia had not been sulking quietly in her confinement, she was plotting another coup involving the Kremlin Guard. As flashbacks of his childhood danced through his head, Peter promptly turned heel and headed for Russia. Peter was on the warpath and in no mood for diplomacy for when he returned he easily defeated the Guard. After the defeat, Peter also ordered the execution of all the rebels who survived and the bodies were decisively hanged outside of Sophia’s window in the convent. Thought to have gone mad from this episode, Sophia never vied for the kingdom again.
Having cut his tour short because of this hiccup in his kingdom was no trouble to Peter as he had learned a great deal on his travels and decided that it was time to modernize Russia. A whirlwind of new laws were implemented immediately. All of the old aristocracy in Russia were ordered to shave off their traditional beards or pay a fine, and he also banned all the Russian traditional clothing for men as well, since modernized countries were filled with men who had a more sophisticated look about them. Peter was not solely concerned with fashion though, he also concentrated his efforts on schools and colleges around Russia to educate his people and created jobs by starting iron and steel mines, all as an effort to increase the military might of Russia.
Peter was also responsible for building the first ever naval base in Russia to increase his power of the seas but a problem arose that needed solving. The only seaport that Russia had was through the White Sea, a body of water that would freeze for up to 9 months of the year, not a successful trade port for someone who wanted to import and export goods on a regular basis. A trade port must be built on a better coast and Peter had his eye on the Baltic. In order for him to gain access to this area, a war was waged on Sweden, The Great Northern War, opening up an area on the Baltic Sea allowing for a new city to be built. Peter won the war and created St. Petersburg. Once the new city was completed, Peter changed the capital of Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
It was the war with Sweden that changed Russia from a kingdom to an empire overnight as it had succeeded in becoming the most powerful entity on the Baltic Sea. Peter was still not satisfied and continued to amp up his military by creating shipyards, ships, and fortresses to strengthen the navy. He continued to force Western culture on the empire, including coffee drinking and cigarette smoking to look more Western and less barbaric, even creating a Senate as he had seen in his Western travels.
The death of Peter the Great is one that is of legend and according to this legend, Peter was on the coast when he saw a group of soldiers drowning in the cold, November waters in the northwest. Jumping in to save as many soldiers as he could, Peter suffered from a fever that caused his kidneys to fail and his bladder to suffer from the effect of gangrene. Four months of pain was endured from the jump into icy waters before Peter died on February 8, 1725.
It would seem that with all of the great reforms that Peter instilled upon his country that he would be remembered as one of the greatest rulers of all time. This is not wholly true as not everyone believes he was filled with such goodness. He was a ruthless man that stood 6 foot 7 inches tall who would not anyone stand in his way of making his empire the greatest power that ever would be. Not everyone agreed with his methods as the clergy and nobility were vehemently opposed to reforms that hurt the financial stability of the peasants due to such strain on economics from his military expansions.
Some even believe that it was not through the reforms of Peter the Great that Russia became a European power but was in fact through his successor Catherine the Great. Nonetheless, it cannot be argued that it was through this giant of a man that Russia became a modernized country that had military might, outstanding educational opportunities unavailable previously, and a culture that was both refined and civilized.