Note: Depending on interest shown for this article, every two weeks or so I will be posting educational (hopefully) articles with titles that will start with (Decider) or (Deceiver). “Decider” will focus on people whose decisions made a significant positive impact on world history. “Deceiver” will focus on people whose decisions made the world a worse place to live via them being deceivers, frauds, or just general assholes. Let’s get started.
Peter The Great — a very brief bio, and what motivated him
Peter The Great (1672-1725) became Tsar in 1689. (Well, actually, it was a joint Tsar-ship with his mentally retarded brother, Ivan … the result of the Kremlin Guard launching a coup d’etat. Ivan died six years later). Peter was a member of the Romanov Dynasty (1613-1825).
When Peter took over in 1689 Russia already stretched from the Polish border to the Pacific. Peter did add some small, yet terrifically strategic important, territory. However, Peter accomplished much greater good for Russia than merely acquiring territory.
What’s important to know about Russia at the time Peter took over is that it was for all intents and purposes totally isolated from the outside world. Russia missed out on all the great events; the Renaissance, the Reformation, the exploration of the world, and the birth of modern science. To westerners Russia was little more than an afterthought … a backwards and unproductive medieval state that was more Oriental than Occidental.
Peter was hell-bent on changing that. He wanted Russia to be competitive economically, and especially militarily, with Western Europe and the other major empire of the day, the Ottomans. But, he faced a huge geographical hurdle. Trade with Europe was essential, but he didn’t have any warm water seaports. Sweden controlled most of the Baltic, and the Ottomans controlled the entire Black Sea. So, Peter went to war.
The first Fort Azov Campaign — failure
The Turks and the Russian had been in on-and-off wars since 1568, vying to control the area around the Black Sea. Previous attempts to take the Crimea directly had failed, so Peter opted to lay siege to Turkish-controlled fortress of Azov at the mouth of the river Don (which flowed into the Sea of Azov, an inlet of the Black Sea).
The Ottoman garrison consisted of about 3,700 men. The Russian army consisted of 31,000 men and 10 cannons. The Russians blocked Azov from land but they could not control the river and prevent resupply. The siege started in the spring of 1695 and ended in October.
A few months later another Russian army of 120,000 men set out for the lower reaches of the Dnieper River to take the Ottoman forts there. Several forts were taken, but once again the Russians were not able to hold the area and withdrew most of their forces.
The second Fort Azov Campaign — partial success
The failure to capture Azov caused Peter to rethink his tactics … and he began to build ships to form the first ever fledgling Russian Navy. Peter ordered the construction of two ships-of-the-line, two fire ships, and twenty three galleys. The Turkish fleet consisted of 23 ships with 4,000 men. The Russian cavalry consisted of 70,000 men. The battle commenced on June 14, 1696. After massive bombardment from land and sea … and despite having lost only two ships … the Turks at the Azov garrison surrendered on July 19.
But, at the end of the day, Russia gained …. nothing. The Ottomans still controlled the Black Sea, …. Peter’s fleet was bottled up in the Sea of Azov due to Crimean and Ottoman control of the Strait of Kerch ….. and Russia still did not have a suitable trading port.
Peter realized that any chance of gaining the necessary hotly contested territory would reacquire an upgraded modern army and a fully equipped modern navy. He also realized that the expertise to achieve these goals simply did not exist in Russia at that time. Peter would need to look at countries that already had advanced military technology and naval engineering.
So, Peter sent out a huge diplomatic mission to Europe, led by himself, known as The Great Embassy (aka, The Grand Embassy).
The Great Embassy
“The Great Embassy was one of the two or three overwhelming events in Peter’s life. The project amazed his fellow countrymen. Never before had a Russian tsar travelled peacefully abroad; a few had ventured across the border in wartime to besiege a city or pursue an eney army, but not in time of peace” ————— “Peter the Great: His Life and World” by Robert K. Massie
Peter organized a 250-man expedition (ambassadors, noblemen, priests, soldiers, clerks, cooks, and musicians) for Europe in March 1697, known as The Great Embassy. The expressed intention was to develop relations with those Christian nations of Europe that opposed the Ottoman Empire. Peter’s unstated goal was to learn as much as he could about European military and naval methods.
The Great Embassy’s Political Success
In terms of the diplomatic efforts, The Great Embassy had only one success. The major European powers were in various disputes amongst themselves, which would lead to the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701. As they were preparing to fight each other, they had no desire to antagonize the Ottoman Empire by siding against it with the mostly insignificant Russians.
Peter formed an alliance with Poland and other countries (especially Denmark) with interests in the Baltic against the dominance of Sweden. This resulted in the Great Northern War which took part during most of Peter’s reign (1700-1721). It was after the Great Northern War that Europeans called Peter “the Great” and started referring to his country as the Russian Empire instead of Muscovy. Even Peter’s enemies admitted that “he works harder than any peasant”.
By war’s end Russia had a powerful standing army of 200,000 – the largest such force in Europe. It provided Russia with the military muscle to replace Sweden as the greatest power in north-eastern Europe. The war with Sweden ended with the conclusion of the Treaty of Nystadt (1721) which gave Russia access to a strategically important stretch of the Baltic coast. Russia now had access to the sea and sea trade which opened the opportunity of economic and cultural exchanges with the countries of western Europe.
To ensure that Russia could maintain this territory … and to exploit the maritime access …. Peter ordered the founding of a new city on desolate marshland, about three miles inland from the gulf. He used foreign engineers, architects, and city planners he met while traveling abroad to make the bog-land habitable. The city would become famous for it’s gorgeous buildings … many designed by renowned Italian architect, Domenico Trezzini. Peter made a decisive break from the past by moving the capital, Moscow, to this new city … St. Petersburg.
The Great Embassy’s Real Success …. Knowledge
Peter’s goal of learning from the Europeans was a resounding success. He attempted to travel incognito, giving his name as ‘Peter Mikhailov’ … but he fooled few, as it’s hard to disguise someone 6’8” tall.
Wherever The Great Embassy traveled, Peter wanted to learn as much as possible about how things worked. He had no interest in theoretical knowledge. He was more interested in the products of European civilization, rather than the theories that produced them. Sometimes his naiveté resulted in humorous exchanges; while in Prussia, not knowing about whalebone corsets, he remarked that German ladies had very hard bones.
Peter spent his time visiting shipyards, armament factories, and military bases, universities, and museums. In the Dutch Republic Peter was given access to the shipyard of the Dutch East India Company, the largest and most advanced in the world, where he actually labored for four months on the construction of a ship. Using his own tools, he would work with his hands to learn shipbuilding as a carpenter learns it. Peter didn’t want the luxurious house offered to him. He chose instead the master ropemaker’s house, where he lived with several of his men. He made his own fire, cooked his own meals, and mended his own clothes. He even learned to make shoes. Every morning at dawn he set out joyfully to the shipyard dressed as a Dutch workman. He was simply “Carpenter Peter’’ to them. After four months, the ship was finished. Peter was given papers that said he was a master of the art of naval architecture. With great pride Peter would thereafter declare, “I, too, am a carpenter!”
Ultimately he became an expert in 14 crafts: he could shoe a horse, cast a cannon, pull a tooth or cut the type for a printing press.
PETER’S RETURN TO RUSSIA
It should be appreciated that Peter even left his country for 18 months … where a military coup d’état and a disruptive and often violent political environment was the norm. As such, Peter was forced to return to Russia after an uprising in one part of the army. But, the uprising was quickly and brutally repressed before Peter arrived … which left him free to implement many of the reforms he had been planning while he had been in Europe.
An extensive shipbuilding program was undertaken. The new navy would be modeled on those of the British and Dutch Republics. The army reorganized along the lines of the Prussian and Swedish military … both generally recognized as being the best armed forces of the day. Peter employed numerous experts in various fields (military experts, engineers, scientists, architects, and a whole range of others) during his Great Embassy travels who arrived in Moscow to not only modernize the military, but to modernize the country as well.
Some changes were major, such as; military conscription, establishment of technical schools, replacement of the church patriarchy with a holy synod answerable to himself, simplification of the alphabet, changed the calendar, and introduced a hundred other reforms, restrictions, and novelties. Some changes were trivial … such as encouraging Muscovites to adopt Western dress and customs, which resulted in Peter instituting a tax on beards in an effort to get those who were resistant to change to at least look like clean shaven Westerners.
Peter — Russia’s George Washington
Peter’s decision to reform Russia and implement a policy of ENGAGEMENT … rather than warmongering or bullying … had far-reaching effects for Russia, Western Europe, and even for the entire world leading up to this very day. Compare Peter’s policy of co-operation with current American international politics today … the Politics Of Bombs.
Peter was a true Renaissance Man; a man of many skills and talents, and if he lacked in knowledge in any area of interest he actively and aggressively sought to educate himself. He took the bull by the horns by his own blood, sweat, and tears. He wasn’t just “the decider”, he was a doer. He just as easily could have coined the motto, “The buck stops here!”. Compare Peter’s leadership to the buffoon currently known as POTUS. The contrast couldn’t possibly be more startling.
Closing Note: Please save yourself the effort of googling and searching for “Peter The Great was evil”. This writer is not blinded by Peter’s short-comings. Yes, he exhibited brutality at times. Yes, he failed to reform the concept of tzardom, and the Romanov’s would rule for the next 200 years. Had he instituted reforms regarding political rule of his country, then perhaps there would have been no Bolsheviks in 1917 to instigate the Russian Revolution … and Communism might never have existed. But, no man is perfect. Even George Washington was not able to abolish slavery. It takes a real man, with real character, with real vision, and real strong determination to modernize a huge and backward nation. Peter’s commitment to making Russia a great nation meant that inevitably sacrifices were made, compromises became a necessary evil, and hindsight is always 20-20. However, he is called Peter The Great – not, Peter The Pussy – for a reason.
http://xenohistorian.faithweb.com/russia/ru03.html (Imperial Russia)
http://www.debello.ca/ussr/1689/095.html (The Grand Embassy)