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THE SHAPING OF MODERN EUROPE
17th Century Europe
Growth of Russia to 1725
Peter the Great and the Rise of Russia (1682-1725)
The reign of Tsar Peter I was one of the turning points, not only in Russian, but also in European history. But what a character! Even before he was proclaimed tsar in 1682 at the age of ten, he was known to have wandered freely through the popular quarters of Moscow, often getting drunk in the process. He was a violent and temperamental man who scandalised the Russian people by going abroad in 1696, with a few close friends, in order to "discover" the west. Peter was determined to modernise Russia on the western model. For two years he travelled incognito in Holland, England, Austria and Poland trying to learn as much as he could about the technical advances of the west. However, his foul temper, drunkenness and dirty personal habits only convinced western Europeans that he was a barbarian with no future. He studied geography and anatomy and even worked as a labourer in shipyards.
In 1698 he returned to Russia upon hearing of an uprising of the streltzy (imperial guard) which he crushed ruthlessly. It was then that he decided to "westernise" Russia at all costs. The boyars were summoned to the Kremlin and their long beards and long Russian-style coats were cut by the tsar himself in order to conform them to western fashion.
Peter was young and impatient. He was determined to make Russia a powerful commercial and military state. In order to achieve this it was necessary to abolish all conservative Russian traditionalism and open the country to modern western influences.
The first major step in the "opening up" of Russia was Peter's creation of a new capital city. Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703 on the marshy swamps of the Gulf of Finland. Its construction cost the lives of at least 30000 men but, for Tsar Peter, any price justified the construction of "the window on the west".
The next step consisted of breaking the opposition to his reforms from the conservative nobility (the boyars) and the Orthodox Church. This he achieved by employing ruthless methods. In 1718 he tortured and executed his own son, the Tsarevich Alexis, suspected of being involved in a boyar plot to overthrow him. The boyars, in turn, were suppressed, with the heads of their leaders stuck on spikes on the walls of the Kremlin to discourage any further opposition. The Orthodox clergy were brought to heel less violently, but still very effectively, by the Patriarch being replaced by a synod, the members of which were personally chosen by Peter and who remained under his strict control.
Technical progress advanced rapidly with his creation of an Academy of Sciences with teachers especially recruited in Germany, Holland and England. For Peter, education was a priority but, it has been said that the methods which he used, while producing a westernised intelligentsia vital for the modernisation of the Russian state, frightened and alienated most Russians who remained fearful of foreign influence.
Nevertheless, his achievements were astounding. During his reign the Russian state expanded enormously (see map Page 62). He financed expeditions to Siberia, the Pacific and the Barent's Sea. Such territorial ambition inevitably brought the Russia of Peter the Great into direct confrontation with Sweden which, since the reign of Gustavus Adolphus, had been the great power of the Baltic region.
The clash happened in 1700. This year marked the beginning of "The Great Northern War" against Sweden (1700-1721) which was to determine, once and for all, who was the great power of northern Europe. The Battle of Poltava in 1709 was a crushing victory for the Russian army ( although it is said that an army of 80000 Russians facing a Swedish army of 17000, exhausted and decimated by dysentery, should have been expected to win). Poltava was to be a turning point in the history of Europe. Although the war ended only in 1721 with the Peace of Nystad, Poltava had demonstrated to the rest of Europe that Russia was a great European power.
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