Peter I of Russia

Missing image
Portrait of Peter by Paul Delaroche

Peter I (Pyotr Alexeevich) (9 June 16728 February 1725 [30 May 167228 January [[1725]] O.S.1]) ruled Russia from 7 May (27 April O.S.) 1682 until his death. Known as Peter the Great (Пётр Великий, Pyotr Velikiy), he was at first a joint ruler with his weak and sickly half-brother, Ivan V, who died in 1696. Peter then ruled alone until 1724, whenceforth he ruled jointly with his wife, Yekaterina I. Peter carried out a policy of "Westernization" and expansion that transformed Russia into a major European power. He abandoned Tsar as his primary title in 1721 and replaced it with "Emperor."

Peter was extraordinarily tall at six foot seven inches (2 meters) and a powerful man, although his gangly legs and arms are said to have limited his handsomeness.


Early life

Peter, the son of Aleksey I and his second wife, Nataliya Kyrillovna Naryshkina, was born in Moscow. Alexei I had previously married Maria Miloslavskaya, having five sons and eight daughters by her, although only two of the sons—Feodor and Ivan—were alive when Peter was born. Aleksei I went on to have two further daughters by Nataliya Naryshkina before dying in 1674, to be succeeded by his eldest surviving son, who became Fyodor III.

Fyodor III's uneventful reign ended within six years; as Fyodor did not leave any children, a dispute over the succession between the Naryshkina and Miloslavskaya families broke out. Properly, Ivan was next in the line of succession, but he was an invalid and of infirm mind. Consequently, the Boyar Duma (a council of Russian nobles) chose the ten-year old Peter to become Tsar, his mother becoming regent. But one of Aleksei's daughters by his first marriage, Sophia Alekseyevna, led a rebellion of the Streltsy (Russia's lite military corps). In the subsequent conflict, many of Peter's relatives and friends were murdered—Peter even witnessed the butchery of one of his uncles by a mob. The memory of this violence may have caused trauma during Peter's later years.

Sophia insisted that Peter and Ivan be proclaimed joint Tsars, with Ivan being acclaimed as the senior of the two. Sophia acted as Regent during the minority of the two Sovereigns and exercised all power. For seven years, she ruled as an autocrat. Peter, meanwhile, was not particularly concerned that others ruled in his own name. He engaged in such pastimes as ship-building and sailing. The ships he built were used during mock battles. Peter's mother sought to force him to adopt a less unconventional approach and arranged his marriage to Eudoxia Lopukhina in 1689. The marriage was an utter failure, and ten years later Peter forced her to become a nun and thus freed himself from the marriage.

By the summer of 1689, Peter had planned to take power from his half-sister Sophia, whose position had been weakened by the unsuccessful campaigns in The Crimea. When she learnt of his designs, Sophia began to conspire with the leaders of the streltsy. Unfortunately for Sophia, a rival faction of the streltsy had already been plotting against her. She was therefore overthrown, with Peter I and Ivan V continuing to act as co-Tsars.

Still, Peter could not acquire actual control over Russian affairs. Power was instead exercised by his mother, Nataliya Naryshkina. It was only when Nataliya died in 1694 that Peter became truly independent. Formally, Ivan V remained a co-ruler with Peter, although he was still ineffective. Peter became the sole ruler when Ivan died in 1696.

Early reign

Early in his reign, Peter implemented sweeping reforms aimed at modernising Russia. Heavily influenced by his western advisors, Peter reorganized the Russian army along European lines and dreamt of making Russia a maritime power. He faced much opposition to these policies at home, but brutally suppressed any and all rebellions against his authority.

To improve his nation's position on the seas, Peter sought to gain control of more maritime outlets. His only outlet at the time was the White Sea. The Baltic Sea was at the time controlled by Sweden. Peter instead attempted to acquire control of the Caspian Sea, but to do so he would have to expel the Tatars from the surrounding areas. He was forced to wage war against the Crimean Khan and against the Khan's overlord, the Ottoman Sultan. Peter's primary objective became the capture of the Ottoman fortress of Azov, near the Don River. In the summer of 1695, Peter organized the Azov campaigns in order to take the fortress, but his attempts ended in failure. Peter returned to Moscow in November of that year, and promptly began building a large navy. He launched about thirty ships against the Ottomans in 1696, capturing Azov in July of that year.

Peter knew that Russia could not face the mighty Ottoman Empire alone. In 1697, he traveled to Europe along with a large delegation of advisors—the "Grand Embassy"—to seek the aid of the European monarchs. Peter's hopes were dashed; France was a traditional ally of the Ottoman Sultan, and Austria was eager to maintain peace in the east whilst conducting its own wars in the west. Peter, furthermore, had chosen the most inopportune moment; the Europeans at the time were more concerned about who would succeed the childless Spanish King Charles II than about fighting the Ottoman Sultan.

The Grand Embassy, although failing to complete the mission of creating an anti-Ottoman alliance, still continued to travel across Europe. In visiting England, the Holy Roman Empire and France, Peter learnt much about Western culture. He studied shipbuilding in Deptford and Amsterdam, and artillery in Knigsberg. His visit was cut short in 1698, when he was forced to rush home by a rebellion of the streltsy. The rebellion was, however, easily crushed before Peter returned; of the Tsar's troops, only one was killed. Peter nevertheless acted ruthlessly towards the mutineers. Over 1200 of them were tortured and executed, with Peter acting as one of the executioners. The streltsy were disbanded, and the individual they sought to put on the Throne—Peter's half-sister Sophia—was forced to become a nun.

Also, upon his return from his European tour, Peter sought to end his unhappy marriage. He divorced the Tsaritsa, Eudoxia Lopukhina, whom he had deserted long earlier. The Tsaritsa had borne Peter three children, although only one—the Tsarevich Aleksei—had survived past his childhood.

Peter's visits to the West impressed upon him the notion that European customs were in several respects superior to Russian traditions. He commanded all of his courtiers and officials to cut off their long beards and wear European clothing. Boyars who sought to retain their beards were required to pay an annual tax of one hundred rubles. In 1699, Peter also disbanded the traditional Russian calendar, in which the year began on 1 September, in favor of the Julian calendar, in which the year began on 1 January. Traditionally, the years were reckoned from the purported creation of the World, but after Peter's reforms, they were to be counted from the birth of Christ.

Great Northern War

Peter made peace with the Ottoman Empire and turned his attention to Russian maritime supremacy. He sought to acquire control of the Baltic Sea, which had been taken by Sweden a half-century earlier. Peter declared war on Sweden, which was at the time led by the sixteen-year old King Charles XII. Sweden was also opposed by Denmark, Norway, Saxony and Poland.

Russia turned out to be ill-prepared to fight the well-trained Swedes, and their first attempt at seizing the Baltic coast ended in disaster at the Battle of Narva in 1700. Russia could not meaningfully participate for years, and Charles meanwhile concentrated on Poland and Saxony. Peter improved his own army, conquering modern Estonia. Confident he could beat Peter at his leisure, Charles ignored these campaigns, and continued to wage war primarily in Poland and Saxony.

As the Poles and Swedes fought each other, Peter founded the great city of Saint Petersburg (named for Saint Peter the Apostle) in Ingria (which he had captured from Sweden) in 1703. He forbade the building of stone edifices outside Saint Petersburg — which he wanted to become Russia's capital — so that all the stonemasons could participate in the construction of the new city. He also took Martha Skavronskaya as a mistress. Martha converted to Orthodox Christianity and took the name Catherine, allegedly marrying Peter in secret in 1707.

Following several defeats, the Polish King August II abdicated in 1706. Charles XII turned his attention to Russia, invading it in 1708. After crossing into Russia, Charles defeated Peter at Golovchin in July. In the Battle of Lesnaya, however, Charles suffered his first ever loss after Peter crushed a group of Swedish reinforcements marching from Riga. Deprived of this aid, Charles was forced to abandon his proposed march on Moscow.

Charles refused to retreat to Poland or back to Sweden, instead invading Ukraine. Skillfully, Peter withdrew southward, destroying any Russian property that could assist the Swedes along the way. Thus, the Swedes became incapable of capturing Russian supplies, and suffered in the bitterly cold winter of 1708–1709. In the summer of 1709, they nevertheless resumed their efforts to capture Ukraine. Charles then found Peter much more aggressive, and the battle both yearned for took place at Poltava on 27 June. Peter reaped the benefits of years of work on improvements to the Russian army, inflicting almost ten thousand casualties and afterwards capturing what remained of the Swedish army. In Poland, August II was restored as King. Charles fled to the then-neutral Ottoman Empire, where he tried to convince the Sultan, Ahmed III, to help him in a renewed campaign.

Peter foolishly attacked the Ottomans in 1711. Normally, the Boyar Duma would have exercised power during his absence. Peter, however, mistrusted the Boyars; he abolished the Duma and created a Senate of ten members. Peter's campaign in the Ottoman Empire was disastrous; in the ensuing peace treaty, Peter was forced to return the Black Sea ports he had seized in 1697. In return, the Sultan expelled Charles XII from his territory.

Peter's northern armies took the Swedish province of Livonia (the northern half of modern Latvia, and the southern half of modern Estonia), driving the Swedes back into Finland. Most of Finland was occupied by the Russians in 1714. The Tsar's navy was so powerful that the Russians could penetrate Sweden. Peter also obtained the assistance of Hanover and the Kingdom of Prussia. Still, Charles refused to yield, and not until his death in battle in 1718 did peace become feasible. Sweden made peace with all powers but Russia by 1720. In 1721, the Treaty of Nystad ended what became known as the Great Northern War. Russia acquired Ingria, Estonia, Livonia and a substantial portion of Karelia. In turn, Russia paid two million Riksdaler and surrendered most of Finland. The Tsar was, however, permitted to retain some Finnish lands close to Saint Petersburg, which he had made his capital in 1712.

Later years

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Peter I
Emperor and Autocrat of All Russia

Peter's last marked by further reforms in Russia. In 1721, soon after peace was made with Sweden, he was acclaimed Emperor of All Russia. (Some proposed that he take the title "Emperor of the East," but he refused.) His imperial title was recognized by Augustus II of Poland, Frederick William I of Prussia and Frederick I of Sweden, but not by the other European monarchs. In the minds of many, the word "Emperor" connoted superiority or pre-eminence over mere Kings. Several rulers feared that Peter would claim authority over them, just as the Holy Roman Emperor had once claimed suzerainty over all Christian nations.

Peter also reformed the government of the Orthodox Church. The traditional leader of the Church was the Patriarch of Moscow. In 1700, when the office fell vacant, Peter had refused to name a replacement, allowing the Patriarch's Coadjutor (or deputy) to discharge the duties of the office. In 1721, he erected the Holy Synod, a council of ten clergymen, to take the place of the Patriarch and Coadjutor.

In 1722, Peter created a new order of precedence, known as the Table of Ranks. Formerly, precedence had been determined by birth. In order to deprive the Boyars of their high positions, Peter directed that precedence should be determined by merit and service to the Emperor. The Table of Ranks continued to remain in effect until the Russian monarchy was overthrown in 1917.

Peter also introduced new taxes to fund improvements in Saint Petersburg. He abolished the land tax and household tax, and replaced them with a capitation. The taxes on land on households were payable only by individuals who owned property or maintained families; the new head taxes, however, were payable by serfs and paupers.

In 1724, Peter had his second wife, Catherine, crowned as Empress, although he continued to remain Russia's actual ruler. All of Peter's male children had died—the eldest son, Aleksei, had been tortured and killed on Peter's orders in 1718 because he had disobeyed his father and opposed official policies. Aleksei's mother Eudoxia had also been punished; she was dragged from her home and tried on false charges of adultery. Aleksei's friends had also been tortured.

In 1725, construction of Peterhof, a palace near St Petersburg, was completed. Peterhof (Dutch for "Peter's Court") was a grand residence, becoming known as the "Russian Versailles" (after the great French Palace of Versailles).

Peter's failures were few, although they were significant. He failed to obtain a warm water port on the Black Sea. Also, he was unsuccessful at reforming all of Russia, which still remained largely feudal country.


A law of 1722 had allowed Peter to choose his own successor, but he failed to take advantage of it before he died from an illness in 1725. The lack of clear succession rules led to many succession conflicts in the subsequent "era of palace revolutions." Peter was succeeded by his wife Catherine, who had the aid of the imperial guards. Upon her death in 1727, the Empress Catherine was succeeded by Aleksei's son, Peter II, bringing the direct male line of Romanov monarchs to an end. Thereafter, inheritance of the Throne was generally chaotic—the next two monarchs were descendants of Peter I's half brother Ivan V, but the Throne was restored to Peter's own descendants through a coup d'tat in 1741. No child would simply and directly succeed his or her parent until Paul followed Catherine the Great in 1796, over seventy years after Peter had died.


Peter I was originally styled, "Peter, Tsar and Grand Duke, Autocrat of All Great, Small and White Russias, of Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod, Tsar of Kazan, Tsar of Astrakhan, Tsar of Siberia, Lord of Pskov and Grand Duke of Smolensk, Tver, Ugra, Perm, Viatka and Bulgaria, Lord and Grand Duke of Novgorod of the Lower Lands, of Chernigov, Riazan, Rostov, Yaroslavl, Belozero, Udor, Obdoria and Conda, Ruler of All The Northern Lands, Lord of the Iverian Lands of the Cartalinian and Georgian Tsars, and of the Carbardinian Lands of Cherkassian and Gorsian Princes, and of other Lands Hereditary Lord and Dominator."

The title changed in 1721, with "Tsar and Grand Duke, Autocrat of All Great, Small and White Russias" being replaced by "Emperor and Autocrat of All Russia." Furthermore, "Grand Duke of Smolensk, Tver Ugra, Perm, Viatka and Bulgaria" was amended to "Grand Duke of Smolensk, Duke of Estonia, Livonia, Karelia, Tver Ugra, Perm, Viatka and Bulgaria." He also began to use an ordinal ("the First") after his name, despite the earlier practice of not using any ordinals at all in the monarch's formal style.

Legitimate issue

By Yevdokia Lopukhina
HIH Alexei Petrovich, Tsarevich of Russia18 February 169026 June 1718married 1711, Princess Charlotte of Brunswick-Wolfenbttel; had issue
HIH Alexander Petrovich, Grand Duke of Russia13 October 169114 May 1692 
HIH Pavel Petrovich, Grand Duke of Russia16931693 
By Ekaterina I
HIH Anna Petrovna, Grand Duchess of Russia7 February 170815 May 1728married 1725, Karl Friedrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp; had issue
HIM Empress Yelizaveta29 December 17095 January 1762married 1742, Alexei Grigorievich, Count Razumovsky; no issue
HIH Natalia Petrovna, Grand Duchess of Russia20 March 171327 May 1715 
HIH Margarita Petrovna, Grand Duchess of Russia19 September 17147 June 1715 
HIH Peter Petrovich, Grand Duke of Russia15 November 171519 April 1719 
HIH Pavel Petrovich, Grand Duke of Russia13 January 171714 January 1717 
HIH Natalia Petrovna, Grand Duchess of Russia31 August 171815 March 1725 

Heritage in the Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union took it as its point of honor to surpass in every regard anything that any Tsar had ever done. They looked to Peter the Great as a model to surpass, for they wanted to over-complete the modernization of Russia. His project for a canal to link the Baltic and the White Seas for both commercial and naval use was carried out under Stalin, for example, though in a haphazard manner with great loss of life and resulting in a militarily useless canal. The Russian communists consider the modern era as beginning with Peter's reign, and being surpassed by the contemporary era with the October revolution.

And he is revered even more by the current Russian nationalists.

Related articles



1. Dates indicated by the letters "O.S." are Old Style. All other dates in this article are New Style.

Preceded by:
Feodor III
Tsar of Russia
May 7, 1682November 2, 1721
with Ivan V May 7, 1682February 8, 1696
Succeeded by:

Template:Succession box two to one Template:End boxbg:Петър Велики cs:Petr Velik cy:Pedr I o Rwsia da:Peter den Store de:Peter der Groe es:Pedro I de Rusia eo:Petro la Granda fr:Pierre Ier de Russie fy:Peter de Grutte it:Pietro I di Russia he:פטר הראשון nl:Peter de Grote ja:ピョートル1世 (ロシア皇帝) ko:표트르 1세 no:Peter den store pl:Piotr I Wielki pt:Pedro I da Rssia ru:Пётр I sl:Peter Veliki sr:Петар Велики fi:Pietari I Suuri sv:Peter I av Ryssland tt:Piter I uk:Петро I Романов zh:彼得大帝


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