imperial russia meme - one/two sovereign tsars/tsaritsas: Peter The Great
On June 9th 1672, Peter Alexeievich Romanov was born to Tsar Alexis I and his second wife, Natalia Naryshkina; he was their first child and their only son. His father has been married once before, to a woman who bequeathed the dynasty thirteen potential heirs - but when Alexei married Natalia, only eight were alive. Two of these were sons, Alexis’s heirs, Ivan and Feodor. Alexis and Natalia would also produce two daughters, Natalia and Feodora.
Tsar Alexis I died in January 1676, passing the throne to his eldest surviving son, the weak and sickly Feodor. Feodor died in 1682, but the new king, his brother Ivan, was chronically ill and in no right mind to rule Russia. 10-year-old Peter Alexeievich was chosen to become Tsar with Ivan, his mother Natalia as regent - he now reigned as Peter I, as he would for the next forty-two years.
Peter’s first years as Tsar saw his mother ruling like an autocrat, whispering into the two boys’ ears responses to questions, listening in to the matters of state. She arranged Peter’s first marriage to Eudoxia Lopukhina in 1689 - a failure - and that year, Peter planned to take control of power, now having reached his majority. His half-sister Sophia Alexeievna conspired with other leaders to raise disorder and dissent, so she could keep the power for herself, but Peter was informed and escaped in the night to safety, where he gathered support. He overthrew Sophia’s government and forced her into a convent, stripped of her name and position in the royal family. Still, it was 1694 before Peter could rule independently; the year his mother Natalia died. His half-brother Ivan, his co-ruler, died two years later.
In 1690, Peter’s son and heir, Alexei Petrovich, was born. As he matured, the boy showed no interest in matters of state; in 1715, Peter agreed to let him renounce his place in the order of succession, if he became a monk. Alexei travelled to Europe, fleeing from his father’s pressures on him to join the army if he wished to remain Tsarevich. Emperor Charles VI, Alexei’s brother-in-law, sympathized with Alexei and suspected Peter of harboring murderous feelings for his son - a grave insult to Peter that caused a huge scandal at court.
On February 18th 1718, Alexei had returned home and a “confession” extracted from him that renounced the throne. A reign of terror began; friends of Alexei Petrovich were tortured, his mother Eudoxia (Peter’s first wife) dragged from a convent and publicly accused of adultery. The month of April brought fresh confessions from his son, with no facts to back them up; the worst was a wish for Peter’s death. Peter saw his son as a dangerous traitor, and Alexei was sentenced to death. His torture was continued to try and uncover more information; the Tsarevich was weak and ailing, receiving stroke after stroke with a knout (a multiple whip), until he died on June 26, 1718.
Peter implemented sweeping reforms to modernize Russia, inspired by Western Europe; all courtiers, state officials and those in the military had to shave their long beards and dress in the styles of the day. His dream was to make Russia a maritime power. His Azov campaigns of 1695 were to obtain the Ottoman fortress there, where he could take control of the Black Sea. Three years later, on September 12th, he established the first Russian Naval base at Taganrog. The year before in 1697, Peter went on his infamous “Grand Embassy” - incognito travelling around Europe in hope of finding an ally to invade the Ottoman Empire with. Those hopes were dashed, but Peter travelled to many European cities, meeting artists and kings and studying various crafts such as shipmaking and city-making - which he would put to good use in 1703, when Peter built the spectacular city of St. Petersburg.
The “Grand Embassy” was cut short in 1698, when a rebellion broke out with the state officials; easily crushed, Peter extracted his vengance by torturing and executing over 1,200 rebels. Peter ended his marriage to Eudoxia Lupukhina, established beard tax (a fine of one hundred roubles to any man wishing to keep their long beard), and ended the practice of arranged marriage - a practice Peter thought barbaric. In 1699 he moved the celebration of New Year, and thus the calender used in Russia, to January 1st (it had previously been September 1st); the Julius Calender was put into effect.
Russia went to war with Sweden in 1700 over control of the Baltic Sea - this was known as the “Great Northern War”. At first it was a disaster, until Sweden concentrated on battling the Poles, which gave Peter time to build a city, St. Petersburg, and reorganize his army. Sweden invaded Russia again in 1708. The Swedes suffered his final loss when Peter crushed forces in Riga, and they abandoned their plans to take Moscow. It would be 1720 before Russia and Sweden made their peace. Peter attacked the Ottoman Empire in 1710 - it was a disaster. Peter was forced to relinquish the Black Sea, which he had captured thirteen years previously in 1697. By 1714, Russia occupied the majority of Finland; it would remain this way until the 1917 February Revolution. St. Petersburg was named capital in 1717.
On October 22nd 1721, Peter proclaimed himself Emperor of All Russia. His title was not recognized by the majority of European powers, because many of them feared he would claim authority over them. That same year, Peter created the Holy Synod; a council of ten clergymen who would rule the Russian Orthodox Church. The “Table of Ranks” was created in 1722: it was a new order of precedence, where your rank was not determined by birth but by merit and service to the Emperor. This was in effect until the 1917 dissolution of the monarchy. He also made education compulsory in 1714 for all those age 11-15 in the nobility. Taxes began in the cities to fund improvements. In 1725, construction of the “Russian Versailles” was complete - the Peterhof Palace (Dutch for “Peter’s Court”) stood in all its splendour near St. Petersburg.
In 1714, Peter’s second wife Catherine Alexeievna (born a Lithuanian peasant called Marfa Skowronska), who he married in secret in 1707, was crowned Empress. Of their twelve children, two survived; daughters Anna (born 1708) and Elizabeth (born 1709). There was plenty of affection between the Imperial couple - Catherine was often able to calm her husband and soothe him during his epileptic seizures.
Peter’s health had never been robust; he had epilepsy and notable facial tics, and although he stood a gigantic 6’8, he lacked the bulk of a man that size. He was tall and slim, with narrow shoulders, small hands and feet, and a small head atop his body: he had a head of thick dark brown hair, black eyes and slightly disfigured lower lip. His health began to fail in the winter of 1723. The next summer, surgery performed on his bladder released four pounds of blocked urine. Peter was bedridden until October 1724. In January 1725, uremia struck him again. Legend has it he scrawled a note "Leave it all to" before he was struck by exhaustion, and summoned his eldest daughter Anna.
Between four and five in the morning of February 8th 1725, Peter I, the first Emperor of Russia, known to us today as Peter The Great, took his last breath. His bladder was infected with gangrene. He was fifty two years of age. He did not name a successor, so his wife Catherine ascended to the throne as Russia’s first female ruler. She opened a path for a century almost entirely dominated by women. She survived Peter by two years. The throne then passed to Peter’s grandchild by his son Alexei, Peter II.
Peter the Great was a powerful figure, the first symbol of Russian imperialism. His reign was marked by change; he was the creator of the great city of St. Petersburg that still stands today, still bearing his name; he introduced taxes that would last for centuries; Westernizing the court’s way of dressing paved the way for court dress; he made considerable effort to improve the army and navy; he introduced the Julian Calender, followed by Russians until 1918 - Peter crafted an empire that over time became one of the greatest in the world.