Peter the First of Russia (more commonly known as Peter the Great) was born the son of Alexis Michailovich Romanov and Natalia Cyrilovna Narishkina on June 9, 1672 in Moscow, Russia (2:242-243). Alexis was overjoyed, and a great gingerbread cake with the double eagle was made, cannons were fired, and bells rang all over the land (4:89). But at his birth, it was not known that he would be the future czar of Russia. It was not until later on, when the czar Alexis died in 1676 at the age of 47, leaving his son Feodor (son of his first wife, Maria Miloslavsky) the heir to the throne (4:89).
Feodor was slightly retarded, and therefore very fragile. Bitter rivalries went up for 6 years between the widow and ex-wife of Alexis, until Feodor died of natural causes in 1682 (4:89). It was then that a truce was made that Peter and his half-brother Ivan (also son of Maria), who was also slightly retarded, would be joint czars (4:89). He spent most of his young childhood life in the Kremlin, which he grew to hate, due to the dusky rooms, the labyrinthine corridors, and the bloody memories of terror and danger (4:89). When Peter was 10 years old, the palace guards revolted, and brutally murdered the supporters of his mother.
Peter witnessed the brutal murders of Artemon Mateev, and Natalias brother on the lawn of the Kremlin. It was then that Peter, his two small sisters, and his mother withdrew to the countryhouse of Czar Alexis in the village of Preobrazhenskoe outside Moscow. They returned to the Kremlin infrequently, where Peter and Ivan sat on their double throne, flanked by 12 giant guards with battle-axes. Warily Peter listened as his clever and relentlessly ambitious older half-sister Sophia (also daughter of Maria), acting as regent, whispered instructions to him through the curtain (4:90).
In the country, Peter was allowed to roam the fields and streets with the peasant boys, who were his close friends, playing soldier, and building forts on his home grounds. By the age of 12, he had learned masonry, shooting, hunting, and other games (4:90). Children from neighboring countryside’s heard of these games and soon came from Moscow with their servants to play with the young Czar. One of Peters friends brought out a young fellow named Alexander Menshikov, whom, legend says, he had met selling meat pies in Red Square.
By the time Peter was in his teens, he had arranged a group of men, who became the Preobrazhensky and Semyonovsky guards, whom Peter called his ”merry company. “ Of these men, Peter made Alexander the lieutenant in command (4:90). At age 15 while out with his guards, Peter discovered a ship that sailed against the winds, probably a gift from Elizabeth 1 to Ivan the Terrible. The Russians had never seen anything like this before, and it baffled them, especially Peter. This is one of the many discoveries that eventually led Peter into his westernizing era (4:90-91).
Peter grew to be over 6 feet 7 inches tall, with a strong body, and a intimidating appearance. He learned masonry, carpentry, and other fields, until he had mastered over 14 professions (4:90). He also had an extraordinary capacity for drink, and a ferocious temper that gave him a harsh reputation (4:90). Peter was married on February 6, 1689 to Yevdokiya Theodorovna Lopukhina, who gave him 3 children. When his half-brother Ivan died in 1696, Peter became at 24 the one and only Czar of Russia. He had one strong mission to accomplish in his rule: to break the bonds of inflexible customs of Muscovy and to lead his country into a new day which shall be better than this“(4:90).
He was determined to Westernize his country to close the gaps and heal the scars of the Mongol invasions. So, the very next year after the death of his half-brother Ivan, Peter set out to see Europe himself — no Czar had ever set foot out of his dominions for over 600 years, or ever even seen the West. And the thought of the Czar leaving Russia deeply shook the entire country — they feared that he might never return (4:90-91).
In March, 1697, led by Peters Genevan general Lefort, a Grand Embassy of about 270 persons set out for Europe. First, Peter took 10 companions and sailed down the Rhine River to Holland, in a small town called Zaandam, near Amsterdam. There he learned shipbuilding, and even made ships himself by hand (4:92). A few months later, they carried on to England, where Peter insisted on climbing the uppermost galleries in the Parliament. In Deptford on the Thames River, Peter continued to study shipbuilding. While traveling in the West, Peter recorded his observations in notebooks.
He worked in the paper factory, where he learned the art of engraving. He learned how to cut up whale blubber in Texel, and human anatomy and surgery in Leyden. He also traveled to the cities of Cloves, Leipzig, Dresden, and Vienna, and later on in his life, he traveled to Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen, And Lubeck (4:93). On all his tours, he collected and recruited people and engaged them into service — workmen, engineers, surgeons, artists, seamen, gunners, goldsmiths, astronomers, and mathematicians (4:93). When Peter got back from his Grand Embassy, he immediately began changing things, starting with the cutting off of his beard.
He also built a modern navy, as well as a modern army, and he also started new schools of navigation, mathematics, geography, politics, medicine, philosophy, and finally astronomy (2:2). He introduced the potato, and also encouraged the breeding of native Russian horses. He began the first Russian newspaper, and ordered the printing of over 600 books — including a guide to the writing of compliments, proposals of marriage, and invitations. He brought actors to Russia, and had a theater built on Red Square. And finally, he introduced writing paper, and organized the first lace-making and tapestry-making industries in Russia (4:93-94).
When Peter tried to introduce these reforms, as well as others, the very people he had hoped would support him, turned on him. The majority of the people who turned on him were the conservative boyars and clergy, who called him a heretic. They often referred to him as the Anti-Christ on the throne, with smoke billowing out of his mouth (4:94). The remarkable Czar also had time for a great love. She was a simple, Livonian orphan girl named Martha Skavronskaya, brought up as a servant in the house of a Lutheran minister who married her off at 16 to a Swedish cavalryman in Marienberg.
During the wars, he died, and Martha was brought to Moscow, where Peter eventually met her in the home of his friend Menshikov. When Peter fell in love with Martha, he was still married to Evdokia, whom he never loved. So, to get rid of her, he sent her to a convent in 1698, the same as divorce, when Peter was 26 (4:96-97). On November 8, 1707, Peter and Martha were married (she now took the name of Catherine). Together they had 12 children, including 6 sons, 3 named Peter, and 3 named Paul. All of their children died in childbirth except 2 daughters, Anna and Elizabeth.
In competition with Louis XIVs building his single grandiose palace, Peter decided to build a new capital. He decided to build the new city at the mouth of the Gulf of Finland, where it divides into 4 arms to form an extensive marshy delta. On a archipelago of islands, a desolate region of dark forests and marshes stretching out to the sea, lay between these waterways. He wanted this particular area, and in order to get it, he had to seize it from the Swedes, and he did so in 1702 (2:2). The city was to be called Sankt Piterburkh (the Americans tended to call it Saint Petersburg) (4:98-99).
Only 7 years after Peter had made his decision, he had a city. In 1712, he had a capital, and in 1714, it had 34,550 buildings. The Following are some of the depressing things that happened to the city, during and after its construction: (4:99) 1705-the entire city is drenched in water 1709-war with the Swedes 1715-people died due to roaming wolves 1721-floods and fires raged, and Peter nearly died To modernize and beautify his town, Peter created the academies, and the first libraries. He also recruited a man named Trezzini, an Italian from Lugano, to beautify his town.
Trezzini was followed by his son Pietro Antonio, and his nephew Giuseppe, whom altogether contributed 50 years to beatifying Sankt Piterburkh. What they created was a landmark: a 400 foot tower surmounted by a ornamented tower made of wood that stretched more than 197 feet into the sky. Also, in 1710, Trezzini made the plans for a summer palace, 2 stories tall, with 14 rooms, located where the Neva River and the Fontanka Canal meet. He also designed 2 winter palaces in 1711, next to the Admirality, which were stone and brick (4:100-101).
Later in Peters attempts of the beautification of Sankt Piterburkh, Jean-Baptiste Alexander LeBlond was recruited as the new Architectural General of Russia. He arrived in Sankt Piterburkh in 1716, with his wife and 6-year-old, and a Grand Embassy of French talent. It was because of LeBlond that Peter began immensely loving gardens. He said that his gardens should be ”better than the king of Frances,“ and ”open to all people. “ he imported gardening books from Rome, scented flowers from Izmailov, chestnuts from Hamburg, Lilac bushes from Lubeck, and flower seeds from Amsterdam.
By 1710, they popped up all over Russia, many of which were hand-planted by Peter himself (4:102-103). Due to the fact that so many people came to Sankt Piterburkh, there became a major cultural clash in Russia. Germans, French, Danish, and Scottish soon became known as the new Russians, making their homes primarily in Sankt Piterburkh. Sankt Piterburkh was Russias graceful international offspring of the 18th century (4:104). It was at Mon Plastir that one of the last scenes of tragedy in Peters life was played. Peter had one remaining son, Alexis, by his first wife Evdokia. Father and son never got along.
The son feared the father, and the father grew to despise the son. As Alexis grew older, he became the center of many plots by the conservative clergy and boyars to overthrow Peter, and overturn his reforms. Soon, Peter issued Alexis an ultimatum, either follow him loyally and support his reforms, or retire from the world as a monk. Alexis denied, and continued to be used by others. After hard questioning to Alexis and the boyars, Peter gave up and arrested and imprisoned Alexis in 1718. While being questioned in prison, Alexis unhappily died a young, weak, and used man (4:106). As Peter grew older, he was often ill.
He refused medical advice, and continued with his everyday life. One day while leaving Sankt Piterburkh, Peter plunged into icy cold waters to save a boatload of soldiers. And upon his return to Sankt Piterburkh, he fell gravely ill, and never recovered. Peter died at age 52. In January 1725 he was buried in the church of the Peter and Paul Fortess in a simple, white marble coffin under the great chandelier. From that time on, Czars were no longer buried in the church of the Archangel Michael in the Kremlin, but laid to rest in identical white marble coffins alongside the Great Peter (4:106-107).
In 29 short years, Peter the Great had revolutionized his land and turned it forcibly toward the west. Many of his people did not understand him and considered him a devil. Yet his love for his country and his people was total. In his energy, endurance, and imagination, he was supremely Russian; without any doubt, the greatest Czar Russia ever had. Gaurila Derzhavin, the 18th century Russian poet, asked: ”Was it not God, who in person, came down to earth? “ (4:107)