Peter the Great

Shortly after making peace with Sweden, Czar Peter I of Russia was declared Emperor of all Russian.  While some wanted him to be proclaimed the Emperor of the East, Czar Peter chose to forego the title.  However, his Chancellor Gavrila Golvkin  tagged the Emperor with a title he could not refuse:  Peter the Great.

How is greatness defined?  In the case of the Emperor of all Russia, Czar Peter, greatness was earned through his efforts to mold Russia into a modern nation, even if he had to drag the people and the Russian Orthodox Church kicking and steaming all the way.  He moved to expand the borders of his powerful nation.  Peter the Great wanted the world to see his beloved Russia as a modern, progressive, maritime nation.

Peter the great had great aspirations of expanding the borders of his lands.  At the heart of this move was his strong desire to see his nation develop as a maritime power.  He was utterly consumed with developing a great navy, gaining southern lands along the Black Sea  to build and control warm-water seaports.  Russian, at the height of Peter’s maritime dreams, spent most of the year as a land-locked and ice-blocked nation.  Originally, Peter’s only maritime outlet was the White Sea at Arkhangelsk.

Sweden controlled the Baltic Sea, while the Ottoman Empire controlled the Black Sea in the South.  He set out to push the Tatars from the Black Sea region.  In an agreement with Poland which ceded Kiev to Russia, Peter was forced to wage war against the Crimean Kahn.  This also meant that he would need to wage war against the Ottoman Sultan.  In 1695, he focused his attention on capturing Azov, a fortress near the Don River.  The Azov campaign failed.

Still fixated on his maritime dream, the Czar returned to Moscow and began building his navy.  With a fleet of nearly 30 ships, Peter returned to capture Azov a year later.  He founded Russia’s first navy base in the region at Taganrog.

Realizing the value of allies, Peter traveled to Europe incognito to obtain aid from the monarchs of Europe.  His journey was less than fruitful.  In fact, it was somewhat discouraging.  He discovered that France had an alliance with the Sultan.  Austria was involved in wars in the west and wanted to avoid convict in the east.  Europe was entangled in concern over the succession of the Spanish monarchy.  His timing seemed to be all wrong.

In his travels, Peter made his way to Holland.  His journey there was the birthplace of many of his modern ideas.  The Czar seized the opportunity to study the art of shipbuilding.  For four months he was able to study shipbuilding in the largest shipbuilding yard in Europe at the time:  the Dutch East India Tea Company.  He also met and hired many skilled craftsmen from the region to help him build his navy.

At every turn, the ambitious Peter gleaned information.  He was like a curious child who could not absorb enough.

Upon leaving Holland, Peter expanded his travels to England where he studied the techniques of building cities.  He would later use what he learned to build the Russian City of St. Petersburg.

In order to bring his land into a modern era, Peter took actions that were often unpopular with the church.  The Russian Orthodox Church held fast to the belief that men should wear beards.  Peter the Great in his travels to Europe had been exposed to a world of clean-shaven men.  He issued decrees that all his courtiers, government officials, and even the men of his military shave their beards.  How could he enforce such a rule?  Did he lock people in prison to get his way?  No.  He declared that anyone who wanted to wear  his beard must pay a special annual tax of 100 rubles..  Instead of locking men away in prison at the expense of the Russian government, Peter found a way to squeeze money from those who were against his beardless policy.

In addition to the fashion trend of clean-shaven faces, Peter had also come in contact with new styles of clothing.  Again, he imposed new laws to bring his nation into the height of fashion.  Those who held to the old traditional garb, would have to pay a price.

Peter also capitalized on another facet of Russian life that shock the religious world in which he lived.  Peter dared to tax babies.

He also came out and voiced his opposition to arranged marriages.  He felt these made way for resentment between couples.  This decision was probably due to his own unhappy marriage that ended in divorce after the birth of three children.

Peter took another step toward modernization by imposing the Julian calendar on his land..  The New Year under his new plan would begin January 1, where in the past it had begun on September 1.  The September 1 date had coincided with Russia’s belief that this time was the time of the creation.  The move to January 1 made the New Years Date coincide with the birth of Christ.

Peter the Great reigned 42 years, an era that came to a close in 1725.  Throughout his years in power, Russia was thrust, willing or not, into a more modern lifestyle.  His dreams and ideas of modernization and a southern seaport were shared by a later ruler of the nation, Czarina Catherine the Great.

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