Peter the Great

An Inspired Tsar

Peter I was born in the night of 9 June 1672, the fourteenth child of Alexis I of Russia and his second wife, Natalia Naryshkina. The traditional festivities surrounding the birth, involving the distribution of sweetmeats and decorations, took four whole days. Peter’s half-brother Feodor (tsar from 1676) was appointed godfather. All of Alexis’ sons by his first wife Maria Miloslavskaya were weak and sickly, so it came as a great relief to the Russian ruler when tsaritsa Natalia bore a lusty boy. The tsarevich was a lively, restless child who needed constant attention. By the age of six months he had already started to walk.

Peter was attracted to military science from an early age, something that was to stay with him for the rest of his life. At the family’s summer residence in Preobrazhenskoye – a village about 18 kilometres north-east of the Kremlin in Moscow – a toy army camp was built for Peter, with wooden cannons that could shoot leather-covered wooden cannonballs. Alexis died in 1676, leaving the throne to his oldest son, the fourteen-year-old Feodor. When Peter was six, Feodor placed him under the tutorship of the kindly, pious Nikita Zotov, so that he could learn to read and write. The precocious tsarevich, always hungry for knowledge, mastered the alphabet without any difficulty, though his spelling remained erratic throughout his life.

In 1682 the 20-year-old Feodor died. As he had no children, the throne should have passed to Peter’s older half-brother, the 15-year-old Ivan. But this sickly youth, who could scarcely walk and was virtually blind, was in no state to rule the country. So he was bypassed, and Peter, not yet ten, was proclaimed tsar. But scarcely a month later an uprising took place, led by Ivan’s older sister (and Peter’s half-sister) Sophia Alekseyevna, who sought to overthrow her brothers and seize power. The conflict ended in a compromise. Peter and Ivan were appointed joint rulers, with Sophia acting as regent. But relatives of Peter’s mother had been murdered in the uprising, and the sensitive, quick-tempered boy was left permanently scarred by these events. Throughout his life he suffered from facial tics, and was haunted by anxiety about his own safety and that of his mother. Sophia’s regency lasted seven years. Peter went to live in Preobrazhenskoye, visiting Moscow only when necessary. Mention was made early on of Peter’s ‘remarkably handsome looks’, lively nature, disregard for etiquette (the little tsar was the first to jump up from his throne to greet envoys) and fearless gaze.

War games

The young Peter spent all his time playing at armies. His first toy regiments were made up of his footmen, young noblemen, local youths and even the court dwarfs. The young commander held mock battles and manoeuvres, studied gunnery, marksmanship and military exercises, the tactics of foreign armies, and uniforms and flags. He even practised drumming. Those who took part in his war games from a young age later became his allies. Peter also came into contact with foreigners who lived in the ‘German Quarter’ in east Moscow, a neighbourhood where non-Russians were required to live. They included skilled craftsman and officers who were only too glad to enter the tsar’s service. Many of them instructed Peter in military matters, sciences and crafts. Peter’s toy army increasingly began to resemble the real thing, acquiring regular units and real uniforms. From 1683, Sophia often had real cannons and cannonballs delivered to Preobrazhenskoye at Peter’s request. On his eleventh birthday, the first practice cannon shots were fired under the guidance of Dutch captain Simon Zommer. Although Peter always remained tsar and commandant, he started as a drummer in his own regiment and then served as gunner on a par with the regular soldiers.

A small fortified camp was built in Preobrazhenskoye as early as 1682. In 1686 a scaled-down fortress was built nearby, called Pressburg. Peter worked so hard on its construction that his hands became calloused. Over the years he mastered fourteen separate crafts, never passing up an opportunity to learn something new. He had a great aptitude and fascination for practical skills. And when he was interested in something, he always devoted himself to it with characteristic single-mindedness. When an old sailing boat was found in a village, Peter discovered a new passion: shipbuilding. Under the guidance of the Dutchman Karsten Brandt, a resident of the German Quarter, a boatyard was set up. The number of troops in his toy army increased so greatly (to 600 men!) that half the soldiers from Preobrazhenskoye had to be barracked in the neighbouring village of Semenovskoye. The Semenovskoye and Preobrazhenskoye regiments were the beginnings of what would later become the Russian Imperial Guard. The regents started to be a little perturbed by Peter’s activities.


In 1689 Peter married Eudoxia Lopukhina. Now of age, he no longer needed a regent. Sophia made one last attempt to seize power. Peter marched with his toy army to a nearby cloister, assembling an impressive group of supporters. The patriarch of the cloister, sent out to negotiate by Sophia, went over to the side of the young tsar. The beleaguered Sophia was forced to give up. She spent the rest of her life incarcerated in the New Maidens’ Convent in Moscow. Peter’s half-brother and fellow-tsar Ivan remained neutral during this conflict.

Portrait of Evdokia Lopukhina, Peter’s first wife, Russia, unidentified artist, 1790-1810, Oil on canvas. 66 x 56 cm. © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Against his mother’s wishes, Peter’s visits to the German Quarter became more and more frequent. He had long been fascinated by this forbidden neighbourhood and was well informed about the lives and customs of the foreigners. Everything was so different: straight, clean streets, brick houses with large, transparent windows (glazed windows then being a novelty in Russia), parks and allotments, European dress. During his conversations with merchants, doctors, craftsmen, engineers and soldiers, Peter soaked up new and useful knowledge. He learned to dance, ride a horse and fence, and acquired a taste for tobacco, wine and beer. Andrew Vinius, later a close associate, taught him Dutch. In 1689 Peter met the valiant general Patrick Gordon, a Catholic who had left the newly Protestant Scotland at an early age to become a soldier of fortune. He introduced Peter to another mercenary, the Swiss François Lefort, a cheerful and accomplished individual who was at his happiest organising merry gatherings and parties. Lefort’s house was a meeting place for Peter’s Russian friends from Preobrazhenskoye and the residents of the German Quarter. Wine flowed, and the parties regularly led to bacchanalian excesses.

A jolly drinking company set by Peter subsequently turned into the notorious ‘All-Drunken Synod’, involving masked costume balls and drunken hooliganism by the tsar’s young cronies. Moscow was scandalised by the group’s mocking parodies of the church. In the eyes of the common folk, Peter was no better than an atheist. Indeed, many thought him to be the Antichrist. There was a malicious rumour that foreigners had switched him at birth, and that he was really Lefort’s son. In 1693 Peter travelled to Archangel, at the time Russia’s only seaport. It was here that he saw the sea for the first time and fell in love with all things maritime. Peter sailed before the mast in a number of vessels, experiencing the power of the elements when they ran into heavy storms. He was seized by the desire to make Russia into a naval power. In 1694, the last exercises of the toy army took place. No fewer than 30,000 soldiers, including artillerymen, were involved in these manoeuvres, and casualties even fell. The tsar took part as a gunner under the name of Pyotr Alekseyev.

The Battle of Azov

Peter inherited many unmet obligations towards allies. The Holy Roman Empire, Venice and Poland were demanding that Russia act decisively against the common enemy, the Ottoman Empire, threatening otherwise to draw up separate treaties with the Turks. Peter resolved to attack the Ottoman fortress of Azov. His first attempt, in 1695, was unsuccessful. Preparation immediately started on a second campaign. The tsar was in command, though he officially allotted himself the modest role of gunner. Serfs who joined the army were promised release from feudal bondage. A fleet was built, and this time the fortress was taken. Peter, sole ruler of Russia since the death of Ivan in early 1696, was now in a position to demand that his allies take a more active stance against the Ottoman Empire. But they did not hurry to respond.

The Grand Embassy

The young tsar was so curious about the world outside Moscow that he instructed Lefort to organise a mission to Western Europe. Peter was to join the mission incognito, under the name of Pyotr Mikhailov. This Grand Embassy, numbering 250 participants, left Moscow in March 1697. Peter was the first tsar to travel outside his kingdom. The official aim of the Embassy was to breathe new life into the coalition against the Ottoman Empire. But Peter made no secret of the fact that he was travelling ‘to observe and to learn’, as well as to recruit foreign experts for his new Russia. In the Swedish city of Riga the tsar was allowed to inspect the fortress, but to his considerable annoyance he was not permitted to take measurements. In Courland (the present-day coastal region of Latvia and Lithuania) Peter met the duchy’s ruler, Frederick Casimir. The duke tried to persuade Peter to join him in an alliance against Sweden. At Königsberg Peter visited the fortress of Friedrichsburg. He took part in an artillery course, and was issued with a diploma testifying that ‘Pyotr Mikhailov has mastered the skills of a bombardier and is well-versed and capable in the use of firearms.’

At the next stop, Coppenbrügge, near Hameln, Peter visited Sophia, Electress of Hannover, who received him very warmly. She wrote of him in a letter, ‘He is an exceptional man. It is impossible to describe him or to imagine him if you have not seen him. His heart is in the right place, and full of noble sentiments. I should also tell you that he did not get drunk in our company.’ She later wrote, ‘In Amsterdam His Excellency amused himself by visiting taverns in the company of sailors […] If he had had a good upbringing, he would be an excellent man, because he has an abundance of good qualities and a good head on his shoulders.’

Visit to the Dutch Republic

The tsar travelled through the Dutch Republic, at the time one of the wealthiest and most economically powerful states in the world. Peter left the Grand Embassy at Emmerich am Rhein. Together with a small group he escaped the time-consuming festive reception at the Dutch border by boarding a boat that took him straight to Zaandam. Years previously, Peter had met some men from Zaandam who were working in Russia. As he sailed up the Zaan river he spotted one of them. ‘Smith, smith, come here!’ the tsar called in his Russian-accented Dutch. The smith Gerrit Kist looked up and recognised the tsar. Peter asked Kist if he and his little band could stay with him, which is how the tsar came to live in what is now known as the Tsar Peter House. Peter stayed there from 18 to 26 August, while working at a boatyard as a carpenter. His expertise and appetite for work impressed even seasoned shipwrights. But Peter wasn’t able to preserve his incognito. A mere three days after his arrival he was recognised by a skipper from Amsterdam who had often sailed to Archangel. From that point on a crowd would come and gape at him daily, and he couldn’t go anywhere without attracting attention. So he took up an invitation by the mayor of Amsterdam, Nicolaas Witsen, to visit Holland’s chief city.

Tsar Peter House

Witsen traded with Russia and had once taken part in a mission to Moscow, as many a mayor of Amsterdam before him. In 1694 he had even delivered a fully equipped warship to Archangel. Peter had not forgotten this, and now met Witsen for the first time. Witsen arranged for Peter to work at the VOC shipyard in an undisturbed spot, protected by canals and a drawbridge. He was also given a cottage at the yard. Peter insisted on everyone calling him ‘Pieterbaas’. He wanted to become a shipwright.

While in Amsterdam, Peter visited public utilities, a madhouse, the Spinhuis – a correctional institution for women – two orphanages, the Portuguese and Ashkenazi synagogues, the town hall on Dam Square, the new botanical gardens and the workshop where Jan van der Heyden’s improved patented fire hoses were made. He bought weapons for the army. He studied the art of printing, visited the anatomical theatre in the city’s Weigh House and was initiated into the art of dissection by the anatomist Frederik Ruysch. An unknown Russian who was also there gave a description, ‘In Amsterdam [...] I visited a doctor of anatomy, where I saw human bones, arteries and brains, infants’ bodies from conception to birth, hearts, lungs, kidneys, stones forming inside kidneys and similar internal processes, all perfectly preserved in alcohol, untouched by the passage of time’. Once back in Russia Peter seized every opportunity to assist at operations. Peter and Ruysch kept in contact; they sent each other insect specimmens.

Peter also immersed himself in geometry, physics and the theory of shipbuilding. He saw places of execution and purchased parrots, apes and stuffed crocodiles. He visited Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in Delft to look through his famous microscope and to learn medical skills, notably the art of pulling teeth. He travelled by boat to De Rijp, had a look at the newly reclaimed Beemster region, went to the island of Texel and inspected the returning whaling fleet. Witsen often accompanied him on these expeditions. A keen collector, Witsen also showed Peter many cabinets of curiosities in Amsterdam, where plants, animals and objects from newly discovered parts of the globe were on view. Witsen had one himself, containing objects from Russia and regions even further to the east. He had written a book on North and East Tartary (now largely part of Siberia), a copy of which he had sent to Peter and his half-brother Ivan back in 1692. Witsen commissioned drawings of skulls, bones, horns, weapons, items of clothing and gold and silver objects found in graves. One half of a gold belt buckle ended up in Peter’s collection and the other half in Witsen’s collection. (We know this because Witsen included a picture of the buckle in his book.) Nowadays this work is the oldest source of information in Siberia on the region’s history, language and customs.

Belt plaque: battle between a monster and a horse, Siberia, 4th-3rd century BC, Chased gold. 12.3 x 8.2 cm. © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

On 11 September 1697 Peter had a highly secret meeting with King William III of England. Nothing is known of their conversation other than the fact that it lasted over two hours and that their leave-taking was friendly. The king invited the tsar to visit England with the particular aim of studying shipbuilding. At the time, English warships were regarded as the best and fastest in the world. King William ensured that Peter was given full access to English naval yards and artillery workshops. Peter spent nearly three months at Deptford naval yard, where he immersed himself in the design of vessels, performed calculations and measurements and learned how to use various tools and instruments. As soon as he could find the time, he tried to sail up the Thames. The Russians who accompanied him were something of a local nuisance. On one occasion they had used wheelbarrows – which were unknown in Russia – to push each other through hedges.

Peter attended a session of Parliament at the invitation of the King. The tsar was very interested in the way in which a constitutional monarchy like England was governed. He received lengthy instruction on the functioning of all manner of government bodies, and asked questions about the rights and duties of the King in times of peace and war, as well as his relationship with Parliament. The organisation of the Anglican Church inspired him to reform the Russian Orthodox Church.


Shortly afterwards, the Russian Embassy left for Dresden. As always, Peter travelled ahead of the slow diplomatic procession. On arrival he immediately asked to see a cabinet of curiosities, where he spent the night having a guided tour. He visited it again later, fascinated by the rare objects amassed by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, a keen collector. In Dresden Peter also visited the chief arsenal, metal foundries and a number of fortresses. At a dinner, a band played at Peter’s request, while he regaled those present with a display of drumming. The Embassy then paid a visit to Vienna, but shortly after arrival Peter hurried back to Moscow, having heard reports of a rebellion. In Poland the news reached him that the rebellion had been crushed. He halted there, and met Augustus the Strong, who was also King of Poland. They concluded a secret alliance against Sweden, which Peter hoped would give him access to the Baltic. This alliance was the most important political result of the trip. Back in Moscow, the tsar immediately ordered an investigation of the rebellion. Mass public executions took place on streets and squares. Peter chopped off several heads himself and forced others to do the same. Around 1,000 people were killed.

His reforms started the next day, when he personally cut off the beards of the aristocratic boyars with a pair of scissors, then issued a decree requiring all his courtiers and officials to cut off their beards. Those who refused had to pay a beard tax. On doing so, they were issued a ‘beard token’ as proof of payment. Not long after that, at one of his parties, Peter got out his scissors again and unceremoniously cut off the sleeves and bottoms of his guests’ long coats. This was the beginning of the famous clothing reform that forced many Russians to adopt European dress.

Wide-ranging reforms

Peter’s reforms were only achieved through hard-handed enforcement. His main aims were to impose a modern, sophisticated culture on Russian society and to grow closer to Europe. He was inspired by Western capital cities. High priority was given to the education and training of Russians, as Peter wanted the country to be more self-sufficient. From then on, foreigners working in Russia were obliged to give professional training to Russians. Young Russians were allowed to travel abroad in order to train or study. On their return, many of them had their skills personally tested by the tsar. From 1703, Peter built a new capital which was to be his window on the West: St Petersburg. He decided that it should have a west-facing seaport. As location, he chose the Neva delta, which had just been wrested from Sweden. A colossal city quickly grew out of the swampy ground, with neither money, effort nor human life being spared in the process. It is estimated that around 40,000 serfs died during its construction. In 1712 Peter made the new city the capital of his empire. Schools of mathematics, medicine and navigation were set up there, as well as in Moscow and other towns. Moscow acquired an astrological observatory. In 1714 the Maritime Academy was set up in St Petersburg, followed by the Academy of Sciences in 1724.

Panorama of Amsterdam, Unidentified draughtsman (formerly attributed to Jan van Kessel, 167[6?], Pen, ink, watercolour, gouache. 41.5 x 205.5 cm. © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Noblemen and their wives were obliged to attend the famous Petrine assemblies, where they played cards and chess, and conversed. The police checked whether everyone came on these occasions. Peter regularly held water festivities on the Neva, irrespective of the weather. Anyone who failed to appear risked a stiff fine.

The Great Northern War

The Grand Embassy had not led to the formation of an anti-Ottoman alliance, but had given Peter the idea of a campaign against Sweden. He celebrated the truce with the Sultan with a big firework show in Moscow, informing his astonished subjects the next morning that Russia was at war with Charles XII of Sweden. From 1700 to 1721 Peter waged the Great Northern War against the Swedes. (Under his rule, Russia spent no fewer than 37 years at war.) Surprisingly, Russia proved able to build a fleet of warships that dealt a crushing defeat to Sweden, one of Europe’s strongest naval powers. Peter was personally involved in the construction of the vessels, sometimes as carpenter, sometimes as designer. Church bells were melted down to make cannons, but more was needed, and iron foundries sprang up all over Russia, especially in the Urals. Despite the expense of two decades of warfare, Russia was able to wage the Great Northern War without ever needing foreign loans. It brought stunning victories, but also dramatic defeats. Tsar Peter gradually matured as commander-in-chief, scoring his greatest success with a tremendous victory at Poltava (1709). A low point was reached in the Pruth River Campaign of 1711, when the Russian army was surrounded and Peter only just escaped being made a prisoner of war.

In August 1708, Peter, then on campaign, was devastated by the death of his favourite dog, Lisetta. He had her body sent to the former court physician, Dutchman Nicolaas Bidloo, with the request that she be stuffed. Ten days later, Bidloo wrote to the tsar, ‘Well, my lord, after much pain and effort she looks just as if she were alive [...] and can now be preserved for a great length of time.’ It is said of this little bitch that Peter occasionally signed letters with the name Lisetta and that his wife Catherine once exploited this. She pinned a little letter on the collar of a condemned man, signed by Lisetta, in which the dog asked for his life to be spared. Peter could refuse Lisetta nothing.

Although Peter was very conscious of fashion and was well-dressed, he loathed official ceremonies, was averse to court etiquette and liked to dispense with the traditional honours paid to the tsar. He was less interested in the decoration of his palaces than the furnishing of their workshops, where he spent much of his time. Large rooms with high ceilings always made him feel uncomfortable. He was happiest in cosier interiors, like the rooms in Dutch homes.

Second visit to the Dutch Republic

In 1716 the tsar went to Amsterdam for the second time, where he again visited Jacob de Wilde, renowned for his collection of coins, cut stones and other antique objects. On this occasion, Jacob’s daughter Maria presented Peter with an etching that he had made on his first visit, nearly twenty years earlier. It is the only work of art taken from life depicting a Dutchman and Peter in the Dutch Republic. He had learnt etching in Amsterdam from Adriaan Schoonebeek, an engraver who worked for De Wilde.

Peter’s formal wear, Berlin, 1720-30, Kaftan: cloth, baiberek (silk brocade), gilded thread, wood. L 116; justacorps: linen, taffeta, gilded thread, wood. L 96; trousers: cloth, satin, baiberek, gilded thread, wood. L 76 cm. © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

In Amsterdam Peter sought out the apothecary Albert Seba, who had sold him his entire collection of stuffed animals the previous year. Frederik Ruysch was equally keen to sell his collection, and Seba had sent a specimen of his taxidermy to St Petersburg on an earlier occasion, but had never heard any more. In Amsterdam, however, the tsar proved greatly interested. He bought the lot: animals, dried plants and anatomical specimens. He even acquired the recipe of Ruysch’s secret liquor for preserving specimens. The anatomist amazed men of learning throughout Europe by the skill with which he prepared and preserved children’s heads and limbs, which appeared as fresh as they did in life. This remarkable collection is now the chief attraction of the Kunstkamera in St Petersburg, an encyclopaedic museum intended to display all human knowledge. Directly inspired by Peter’s visits to the Dutch Republic, it was established in 1719 in the Kikin Mansion and moved to its present premises in 1726.

Parties at court

Foreigners tended to be astounded by the Russian tsar’s simplicity and ‘lack of particularity’ in his dealings with his subjects. Senior government officials, army commanders and foreign diplomats rubbed shoulders with skippers and shipwrights at parties and assemblies. The festivities usually featured music, dancing and vast quantities of hard liquor. Peter himself only drank in moderation. Gatherings of this kind sometimes lasted several days, and guests weren’t allowed to go home without Peter’s express consent. Peter loved fireworks, and firework displays became a regular feature of city life in St Petersburg. He himself often lit the fuses of these ‘fiery diversions’. But at the same time, he seized every chance to help extinguish fires. He is known to have given a demonstration of the fire hoses that he bought in Amsterdam from Jan van der Heyden. Masked balls were often held in Moscow and St Petersburg. Peter, who loved dressing up, was always a keen participant. Usually he appeared in the guise of a Dutch sailor, a French farmer or a drummer. He also organised unusual weddings. The most famous was of two dwarfs, at which all the guests were also dwarfs.

Daily routine

On the rare days that the tsar was at home in St Petersburg, he followed a strict routine. He would rise between four and five, then attend the Secret Council. If time permitted, he would afterwards turn wood on his lathe. At six o’clock he would set out on a tour of inspection of construction works in the city. After that he would occupy himself with state affairs. He lunched at one o’clock. When it came to food, his tastes were extremely modest: cabbage soup, jellied meat, groats and stew. He never ate fish! In between meals he would stave off hunger with salted meat, ham, Limburg cheese, salted lemon and gherkins. He liked to drink anise vodka and wine. After lunch he usually had a nap. From four o’clock he would re-immerse himself in matters of state, followed by an hour of relaxation at his lathe. In the evenings he would visit friends or entertain his close circle at home.

Death and succession

Death mask of Peter. After 1725, St Petersburg, from the original by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, after 1725, Bronze-tinted plaster. Case 34.5 x 29 x 33 cm. © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Peter took various steps to ensure that his reforms continued after his death. He did not trust his oldest son Alexei, who stood to inherit the throne. He came to suspect Alexei of plotting against him, and had him thrown in prison and tortured. Alexei died as a result of this brutal treatment. Peter had remarried in 1712. His second wife, Catherine, was the daughter of a Latvian farmer and the love of Peter’s life. She bore him several sons, but all died young. Only their daughters Anna and Elizabeth survived. To increase their chances of inheriting the throne, Peter had his wife crowned empress in 1724. In 1722 he issued a decree overturning the laws of succession. It gave the tsar the right to appoint his own heir, who could also be female. On his deathbed on 8 February 1725 he wrote on a slate, ‘Leave everything to …’. Unable to finish the sentence, he called his daughter Anna, but died before he could make his wishes clear.

Portrait of Tsarevich Alexey Petrovich, Peter’s son, Russia, unidentified artist, 1800-50, Oil on canvas. 84 x 70 cm. © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Portrait of Peter the Great, Pieter van der Werff, 1697-1700, Oil on canvas. 56 х 49.5 cm. © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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