Tsar of Russia who fostered industrial development, b. 9 May (30 June*) 1672 (Moscow, Russia), d. 8 February (28 January*) 1725 (St. Petersburg).
Pyotr (Peter) Alekseyevich was the son of Tsar Alexis and his second wife Natalya. His father died in 1676 when Peter was four years old. The new tsar Fyodor III, the eldest of two sons from Tsar Alexis's first marriage, was of poor health and died six years later (in 1682).
Ivan V, the second son from the first marriage, was also weak and simpleminded. The 10 year old Peter, on the other hand, was active and intelligent. The various orders of Russia therefore supported Peter, but the family if Ivan's mother used the streltsy (musketeers of the tsar's bodyguard) to stage a revolt. As a result Ivan and Peter were declared joint tsars, but Ivan's 25 year old sister Sophia was made regent.
Sophia soon isolated Peter and his mother from all government business, and Peter grew up in Preobrazhenskoye, a village on the outskirts of Moscow. Excluded from formal education, Peter roamed the outdoors and took to carpentry, joinery, blacksmithing and printing. Through contact with the inhabitants of a nearby nemetskaya sloboda (a place were foreigners were allowed to live) he developed an interest in mathematics, military engineering, navigation and shipbuilding, the latter boosted by the discovery of a derelict English sailboat in a shed.
In 1689 Peter's mother decided to prove that Peter was now old enough to take over the government's affairs and arranged his marriage with Eudoxia. Sophia attempted to use another streltsy revolt to establish herself completely in power, but Peter reacted by placing her under house arrest in a convent. (Nine years later after another streltsy revolt he forcibly made her a nun. In the same year he sent Eudoxia, who he had already ignored for years, into a convent.)
Ivan V died in 1696. Russia at the time was a huge country with no access to the sea and very little industrial and scientific development, well behind the leading European powers. Peter had the first seaworthy Russian ships built and set out to gain access to the Black Sea. His campaign against the Turks was not successful at first; but in 1696 he captured Azov on the Don River and founded Taganrog on the Don estuary. The access to the Black Sea, however, remained an elusive hope.
To support his plans for a Russian navy, in 1697 - 1698 Peter travelled with a party of 250 selected people to western Europe. For four months he worked incognito as a carpenter at the shipyard of the Dutch East India Company, followed by more months at the shipyard of the British Royal Navy. He visited factories, schools and museums and hired foreign experts to work in Russia. When word of another streltsy revolt reached him he returned to Moscow, suppressed the revolt and disbanded the streltsy.
Seeing that he could not possibly defeat the Turks, Peter turned to gaining access to the Baltic Sea. After initial defeat from the Swedish troops Peter could in 1703 establish St. Petersburg on the mouth of the Neva River at the Gulf of Finland. In 1712 the city became Russia's capital. The final win over Sweden, which brought the eastern Baltic coast under Russian control, was achieved in 1721. It gave Peter the title "emperor of all Russians".
During the same years Peter undertook substantial internal reforms. The population in towns was classified into "regulars" and "commons". The regulars were divided into two guilds, the first for rich merchants and professionals (doctors, actors and artists), the second for artisans and tradesmen. The guilds enjoyed certain privileges, such as exemption from military duty. Merchants could rise from the second to the first guild by increasing their capital. All hired labour was classified as commons, and anyone who could show to be actively pursuing a trade was allowed to settle in towns.
The provinces were restructured, and the heath tax (a tax based on property) was replaced by the poll tax (a tax levied on every head of population). When this led to unrest, Peter distributed his newly formed army in garrisons, which formed the head of new "regimental districts" and had to be maintained by the local population.
In 1700 Peter replaced the old Russian calendar, which counted years "from the Creation of the World", by the European calendar (keeping however to Julian rather than Gregorian counting of the days of the month). He modernized the script, introduced a secular school system, promoted the translation of books and established the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1724.
In 1722 Peter introduced the "Table of Ranks", which abolished promotion in the public service on the basis of ancestry and replaced it by promotion on merit. There were 14 ranks; everyone who reached the eighth rank received hereditary nobility. This changed the character of nobility - the influence of the old aristocracy was reduced, and many factory owners and other new bourgeois became nobles.
Peter the Great was stern, sometimes brutal in his demands and expected everyone to perform at their best; but he demanded the same performance from himself and never hesitated to tackle manual tasks. He died from a cold contracted when he jumped into the Gulf of Finland to rescue two soldiers from drowning.
Peter's reign brought rapid industrial and social development to Russia and the admiration of forward looking European minds; Voltaire wrote a major work about progress in Russia under Peter the Great. His forward-looking policy was, however, severely hampered by his attempt to bring about a capitalist Russia by strengthening the nobility and increasing the harsh exploitation of the peasantry. Many serfs were forced to continue as serfs in their new status as factory workers. This policy robbed him of popular support - on the contrary, Peter had to suppress several peasant revolts - and did not eradicate the opposition of the aristocracy, who wanted to retain their old privileges.
The opposition concentrated around Peter's son Alexis. In 1716 Peter forced his son to renounce his heritage and become a monk. Alexis fled the country but returned in 1718. He was charged with high treason and sentenced to death.
Peter's second wife Catherine I, a woman from humble origin who he had married in 1712, became his successor after his death. She could hold down the reactionary forces in the aristocracy during her reign, but they were not defeated. Over the years they regained control of state power, and Russia fell back into stagnation, from which it did not recover for another 150 years until the October Revolution of 1917.
Portrait: painting by Paul Delaroche, 1838, public domain (Wikipedia)
* Russian date of the time. The calendar used in Europe did not come into force in Russia until 1918.