(b. June 9 [May 30, Old Style], 1672, Moscow, Russia—d. Feb. 8 [Jan. 28], 1725, St. Petersburg)
The founder of the Russian Empire was Peter I, also known as Peter the Great. As tsar of Russia, he reigned jointly with his half-brother Ivan V (1682–96) and alone thereafter (1696–1725). In 1721 he was proclaimed emperor. He was one of his country’s greatest statesmen, organizers, and reformers.Peter (in full, Pyotr Alekseyevich) was the son of Tsar Alexis by his second wife, Natalya Kirillovna Naryshkina.
When Alexis died in 1676, Peter was only four years old. Peter’s half-brother Fyodor, who then became tsar, died in 1682. Peter and another half-brother, Ivan, were to rule jointly, but because Ivan was sickly and feebleminded, his sister Sophia served as regent. Sophia, clever and influen-tial, excluded Peter from the government, and he grew up in a village outside Moscow.
Early in 1689 his mother arranged Peter’s marriage to the beautiful Eudoxia (Yevdokiya Fyodorovna Lopukhina). The marriage did not last long. Peter soon began to ignore his wife and eventually relegated her to a convent. Later that year, Peter removed Sophia from power. Though Ivan V remained nominally joint tsar with Peter, the adminis-tration was now largely given over to Peter’s kinsmen, the Naryshkins, until Ivan’s death in 1696.At the beginning of Peter’s reign, Russia was territori-ally a huge power, but had no access to the Black Sea, the Caspian, or to the Baltic. To win such an outlet became the main goal of Peter’s foreign policy. He engaged in war with the Ottoman Empire (1695–96) with the goal of cap-turing Azov, which he did.
In 1697 Peter went with the so-called Grand Embassy to western Europe. Comprising about 250 people, its chief purposes were to examine the international situation and to strengthen the anti-Turkish coalition (to no avail), but also to gather information on the economic and cultural life of Europe. Peter pretended to be a ship’s carpenter named Peter Mikhailov and worked in English and Dutch shipyards. He also visited factories, schools, and museums and studied everything from anatomy and engraving to European industrial techniques.
When Peter could not secure anti-Turkish alliances, he abandoned his plans for pushing forward from the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. He now turned his attention to the Baltic instead, which led to the long-running Northern War (1700–21) with Sweden. At the war’s end, the eastern shores of the Baltic were ceded to Russia. In the middle of the Northern War, Turkey declared war on Russia (1710–13), which ended with Azov left to the Turks. From that time on, Peter’s military effort was concentrated on winning his war against Sweden. In 1722, hearing that the Ottoman Turks would take advantage of Persia’s weakness and invade the Caspian region, Peter himself invaded Persian territory. In 1723 Persia ceded the western and southern shores of the Caspian to Russia in return for military aid.
Despite being occupied with several wars for many years, Peter managed to make many widespread reforms and changes in Russia. At the beginning of Peter’s reign, Russia was less developed by comparison with the coun-tries of western Europe. This inhibited foreign policy and even put Russia’s national independence in danger. Peter’s aim, therefore, was to overtake the developed countries of western Europe as soon as possible, in order both to pro-mote the national economy and to ensure victory in his wars for access to the seas. He initiated a series of reforms that affected, in the course of 25 years, every field of the national life—administration, industry, commerce, tech-nology, and culture. He modernized the calendar, making it conform to European usage with regard to the year.
Peter simplified the alphabet, unified the currency, and introduced universal taxation. He encouraged the rise of private industry and the expansion of trade. Peter was the first ruler of Russia to sponsor education on secular lines and to bring an element of state control into that field. Various secular schools were opened and the children of soldiers, officials, and churchmen were admitted to them. The translation of books from western European lan-guages was actively promoted. Peter built Russia’s first modern hospitals and medical schools. He also began con-struction of the city of St. Petersburg in 1703 and established it as the new capital of Russia in 1712.
Peter had a son, the tsarevich Alexis, by his discarded wife Eudoxia. Although Alexis was his natural heir, the two were not close, and Alexis did not agree with Peter’s policies. Peter, meanwhile, had formed a lasting liaison with a peasant woman, the future empress Catherine I, who bore him other children and whom he married in 1712. In 1718 Alexis was tried on charges of high treason and condemned to death. He died in prison before the formal execution of the sentence.
In the autumn of 1724, seeing some soldiers in danger of drowning in the Gulf of Finland, Peter characteristi-cally plunged himself into the icy water to help them. Catching a chill, he became seriously ill in the winter but even so continued to work. He died early in the following year, leaving an empire that stretched from Arkhangelsk (Archangel) on the White Sea to Mazanderan on the Caspian and from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Although he had in 1722 issued a decree reserving to him-self the right to nominate his successor, he did not in fact nominate anyone. His widow Catherine, whom he had crowned as empress in 1724, succeeded him to the tempo-rary exclusion of his grandson, the future Peter II.