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There has never been a more remarkable national leader in modern history than Peter the Great (1672–1725). He was a giant in every way. In physical stature, willpower, enthusiasm, energy, libertinism, and refusal to accept old conventions, he stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries. He grew up in an atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and court rivalries that often assumed violent forms. He only gained power, at the age of seventeen, by ousting his half sister, Sophia, and shutting her up in a nunnery. As a product of the system, Peter was, of necessity, ruthless and tyrannical, personally carrying out the execution of defeated rebels and even effecting the death of his own son.
But there his identification with Russia’s past ends. For what has earned Peter his place in history is his tearing his country, kicking and screaming, from its traditional, oriental customs and beliefs and integrating it into the life of Europe. He removed the privileges of the medieval aristocracy, brought the church under state control, and rejected the old Russian calendar in favor of the dating system used in Europe. He even ordered his courtiers and officials to shave their traditional beards and adopt Western dress codes. He avidly studied the latest scientific and technological advances and employed them to build a modern army and to create from scratch a Russian navy. These tools he used to devastating effect by destroying the Swedish Empire and making Russia (with its brand-new capital, St. Petersburg) master of the Baltic.
European leaders did not know what to make of this eccentric, unsophisticated tsar who loathed pomp and ceremony, served as a junior officer in his own armed forces, and indulged in rowdy, boorish behavior. Yet, by the end of his remarkable reign, this man, who had made a servant girl his own wife and empress, had married members of his family into the royal houses of Europe. Thanks to Peter the Great, Russia was profoundly changed. So was Europe.
Derek Wilson tells his extraordinary story with a verve and atmospheric detail that emphasizes vividly the impact this one man made not only in Russia, but in the wider world. Peter the Great created a new Europe in which, for good or ill, Russia was to play a crucial part. His contemporaries were obliged to come to terms with him. And today, it is perhaps even more important for us to understand the historical context and the pivotal role Peter played in the creation of a whole new order.
PETER THE GREAT
He stood at the top of the Red Staircase between the Cathedral of the Assumption and the Palace of Facets - a dark-haired, wide-eyed ten-year-old, already tall for his age. He huddled close to his mother, who had one arm around him and the other round his half-brother. Ivan. The tension in Tsarevna Natalya's body told him that something was very wrong. She had gathered the two boys hurriedly from their rooms in the palace and rushed them out to face a bewildering scene. Below them, in the square, stood a crowd of soldiers brandishing muskets and shouting. 'Here are Tsar Peter and Tsarevich Ivan,' Natalya cried, and that seemed to calm the angry mob.
Then, three or four soldiers advanced up the steps, intimidating with their calf-length vivid caftans, helmets and vicious pikes. They approached the shrinking Ivan. 'Are you really the Tsarevich?' one of the bearded strel'tsy demanded. 'Yes, yes,' the petrified child stammered. Peter stared at the men and felt his mother's grip tighten on his upper arm. He wondered what would happen next.
Two of his mother's friends advanced down the steps and addressed the soldiers. Young Peter wanted to steal back to the quiet and safety of the palace, behind closed doors. But he was rooted to the spot. He could not understand what was passing between the mutineers and the government leaders; did not know what the men intended to do with those terrible sharp halberds. He soon discovered. With a sudden shout, the mob surged forward. They grabbed the two men on the staircase. The screaming victims were impaled on those hideous spikes. Then their bodies were thrown to the ground, and hacked and slashed to pieces. With a cheer, the soldiers rushedup the steps. Did Peter cry and bury his face in his mother's robes, as some people reported, or did he stand, glaring at the murderers with calm defiance, as others would have us believe? One thing is certain. As the rebellious strel'tsy surged past into the palace in an orgy of looting and destruction, the scene imprinted itself on Peter's mind and never left him. He would grow up to hate Moscow and all it represented.
'We are Europe.' That claim was made in 1814 by Alexander I, Emperor of All the Russias. He spoke on behalf of the crowned heads of Europe. Bearing in mind the major role the Tsar had played in overthrowing Napoleon's attempt to destroy the old order, none of his fellow monarchs demurred. A century earlier, such a claim would have seemed utterly incomprehensible. The apparently endless territory beyond the Dnieper and the Dvina had been, to most Westerners, a mysterious place peopled by semi-barbarians who espoused alien religions - either Islam or a heretical form of Christianity. The few travellers who did venture into the interior - most of them Polish Jesuit missionaries sent to enlighten the benighted Orthodox Slavs -- brought back stories of a brutal land populated by hard people, most of whom were nomads or semi-nomads and knew nothing of broad-streeted cities with elegant palaces and neatly laid-out parks. Cartographers in Amsterdam, Paris and London, struggling to fill the large empty spaces on their maps, thought in terms of 'Russia in Asia' and 'Russia in Europe'. The man who almost single-handedly made his people aware of the world that lay to the west and made the West aware of his people, land and culture was a roaring giant of childlike enthusiasms and psychotic complexity, of whom one English observer recorded, 'I could not but marvel at the depth of the providence of God, that had raised up such a furious man to so absolute an authority over so great a part of the world.'1 That furious man was the remarkable individual known, with good reason, as Peter the Great. He shifted the whole direction of history, and the fact that, twenty years after the superpower struggles of the Cold War, statesmen of the so-called 'free world' still pay anxious court to the men who rule in Moscow is testimony to the altered relationship inaugurated by the fourth Tsar of the Romanov dynasty.
When, in 1696, Peter became de jure sole master of the world's largest land empire, few people within his territory and fewer outside it understood just how extensive it was. It was bounded by the White Sea in the north and the Caspian in the south, but from east to west it extended more than ten thousand kilometres, from the frontier with Poland to the northern Pacific coast. The exploration and colonisation of Siberia is a story that, for adventurousness, courage, savagery, missionary endeavour and commercial exploitation matches and even exceeds the opening up of the DarkContinent and the European settlement of North America. It was fired by the religious impulse to convert pagan tribes and by the quest for furs, which took the place in the Russian economy that spices and precious metals had held for the expansionist Iberian nations of the sixteenth century. But it was the consolidation of Russia's position west of the Urals that preoccupied rulers in Moscow throughout the two hundred years following Ivan Ill's successful emancipation from the Mongols in 1480.
The principality of Muscovy was one of several landlocked Russian farming/mercantile states periodically harassed by nomadic tribesmen from the steppes. It never knew a period of sustained peace. Even after 1480, its rulers constantly struggled with neighbouring chieftains in order to secure their frontiers or improve their trading positions. Muscovy extended its rule over other Russian principalities only to find itself hemmed in by Sweden, Poland and Turkey, who were determined to keep the alien nation out of their markets. Periodic wars imposed financial burdens on Muscovites and contributed to political instability. Between 1598 and 1613, Muscovy experienced the 'Time of Troubles', an era of turmoil and bloodshed remarkably similar to England's Wars of the Roses. Rival noble houses competed for the crown. Legitimate claimants vied with pretenders. Military leaders changed sides with an eye to their own advantage rather than the good of the people. Rulers even hired Polish mercenaries. The conflicts only ended when the exhausted magnates called an assembly of nobles, gentry, clergy and leading townsmen to elect a new tsar. Their choice fell on Michael Romanov, distantly connected with the already legendary Ivan the Terrible (1547--84). The Russians had found a dynasty that would rule them for almost exactly 300 years.
The comparatively stable period that followed did not dispel the basic problems faced by the state. Muscovy was a country driven in on itself. Powerful neighbours blocked any intercourse with western European nations and denied it direct contact with the commercial highways of the Baltic and the Mediterranean. In the political claustrophobia of Moscow, aristocratic and dynastic intrigues festered. They came close to destroying in infancy the child born to Tsar Alexis and his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina, in 1672.
The Tsar was in theory an autocrat and in reality dependent on the support of the boyars. These were the top noble families, normally around thirty in number. Their ranks were augmented, usually annually, when the Tsar conferred the title on favoured individuals. Their loyalty was a matter of personal and religious adherence to the divinely anointed Tsar; there were no legal or constitutional ties. It was a loose arrangement that inevitably lent itself to the forming of factions and obliged the ruler to be negotiating constantly for support. Naturally he turned first to his own family and the families with which he was connected by marriage. In his need for men he felt he could trust, he might also raise up favourites and place them in positions of power. It was a system, if such it can be called, that encouraged jealousy, corruption and court intrigue. Weak tsars were manipulated by those around them. Strong tsars had to be ruthless.
Alexis Mikhailovich enjoyed a long reign (1645--76) thanks to his ability to balance the leading boyar families. However, in his later years, desiring to give the crown greater independence, he raised up a low-born favourite, Artamon Matveev, and it was this man who more than any other created the circumstances that coloured the early years of Peter's life. Matveev was the son of a clerk who rose up the ranks in the diplomatic service. Artamon chose a military career, and by the 1660s he had his own regiment of musketeers, whose duties included guarding the Tsar. Alexis was impressed with the young man and entrusted to him various administrative and diplomatic tasks, which he performed with both efficiency and flair. Thereafter his rise was rapid, and by 1670, Matveev was the Tsar's right-hand man. This coincided with important developments in the royal family. Alexis' first wife, Maria Miloslavskaya, had recently died. She had presented him with thirteen children, but only three had survived infancy: a girl, Sophia, and two boys, Fedor and Ivan. Both sons had weak constitutions, and in the hope of providing Russia with a healthy heir, Alexis decided to marry again. A shortlist of suitable high-born maidens was drawn up and, inevitably, the leading boyar families fell to scheming and manoeuvring over the rival candidates for the royal bed.
Matveev favoured the seventeen-year-old Natalya Naryshkina, who came from a family of moderately wealthy landowners to whom he was distantly related. Natalya's father, Kirill Naryshkin, was a member of Matveev's regiment of musketeers. The favourite could thus count on the support of the Naryshkins as he made his plans to safeguard his position in the event of Alexis' death. Everyone knew that the two Russian princes were unlikely to be long-lived. Fedor was described as 'very unhealthy and melancholic', while Ivan was 'humpbacked and nearly blind'. Matveev intended to put in place a strong-minded tsaritsa who would underpin his own position and,God willing, provide Russia with another heir who would come into his own as soon as his stepbrothers were no more. The situation was quite plain to Matveev's enemies, and they immediately swung into action. Poison-pen letters accused Natalya of having an affair with a Polish nobleman, and rumours were spread that Matveev was using drugs to influence the Tsar. Their schemes came to nothing. In February 1671, Alexis and Natalya were married. Fifteen months later, the new Tsaritsa gave birth to a healthy son.
The favourite certainly stood to gain from the success of his candidate, and, after Alexis had chosen Natalya, further rewards were not slow in coming Matveev's way. In 1674, he received the ultimate accolade, the rank of boyar. All the political activists in Moscow were now looking to the future, when Alexis would be replaced by one of his weak and malleable sons. Matveev had the immediate advantage, and he used it to remove the relatives of the late Tsarina, the Miloslavskis, from Moscow and appoint them to positions in distant regions. Other boyars were also dismissed from high office in favour of men of lower rank who owed their positions to the favourite. Natalya's relatives were, of course, among those brought to the Kremlin and given important jobs. Her father was also raised to boyar status. But Matveev's enemies kept a close eye on him and used every stratagem to hamper his attempt to build up a 'party'. He was obliged to proceed with caution and fate was not on his side. Tsar Alexis fell suddenly ill in January 1676 and died within a few days.
This resulted in thirteen years of turmoil that ultimately degenerated into a reign of terror. Natalya and her young son were seldom out of danger. The majority of the boyars resented her because of her humble origins and her connection with Matveev, but the more conservative among them had other, personal grievances. They thought her an ambitious, 'liberated' woman, contaminated by foreign influences. She had spent some of her impressionable teenage years in Smolensk, where her father held a military post, and had come into close contact with the hated Catholic Poles. She lacked the submissive, unthinking respect for ancient institutions that was expected of Russian women. Her open-mindedness communicated itself to Peter during his early years, when mother and son were thrown especially close together by shared adversity.
One of the first acts of the new Tsar, Fedor, was to recall and reinstate members of his mother's family, the Miloslavskis. The tables were turned on Matveev, who was dispatched into exile at Pustozersk, in the treeless wastes of the Malozeml'ska Tundra, three thousand kilometres from Moscow. Prominent members of Natalya's family were also ordered away from the capital and placed under virtual house arrest. Natalya herself kept a lowprofile in the Kremlin palace with her three children (Natalya was born in 1673 and Fedora, who died at the age of four, in 1674). However, she could not fail to be aware that Peter was the subject of increasing interest and speculation. He was obviously more robust than his half-brothers, and it soon became clear that he would grow to be very tall. Young Peter was a bright, intelligent lad who responded well to the instruction of his excellent tutor, Rodion Streshnev. Calculating members of the political class realised that the son of Alexis' second marriage might yet succeed. But not if the current Tsar and his relatives had anything to do with it. In July 1677, Fedor got married and everyone at court watched the new Tsaritsa carefully. They had to watch for a long time. Not until July 1681 was Fedor's wife brought to bed of a child. And then the rejoicing was cruelly cut short. The Tsaritsa died during the birth and her baby son followed within hours. Seven months later the desperate and ailing Tsar tried again, taking a fifteen-year-old bride, against the advice of his physicians.
Every move in the roller--coaster adventures of the royal family affected the fortunes of Peter and his mother. In the spring of 1682, restrictions against Matveev and the Naryshkins eased. The ex-favourite returned to his estate near Moscow, and Natalya's relatives were readmitted to the court. Their reinstatement was an attempt by the Tsar to assert his independence by displaying favour for men his father had trusted. But his strength for the task was rapidly failing. On 27 April, the semi-invalid Tsar Fedor died. Faced with the choice between the fifteen-year-old half-blind, mentally impaired Ivan and the nine-year-old healthy Peter, the majority in the boyar council, the duma, voted to proclaim Peter tsar. It seemed that the Naryshkins' long ordeal was over. But the worst was yet to come.
Over the next few months two events occurred, and it is not altogether clear exactly how they related to each other. Behind the scenes the Miloslavskis moved to safeguard their position. Peter's election meant that Ivan's family now risked being sidelined -- or worse. They might well have feared a backlash once Matveev and the Naryshkins were back in power. What they needed was to have Peter set aside in favour of Ivan. There was no law of primogeniture in Russia and there could be no doubt that Peter had the potential to make the better ruler. Any contest, therefore, was entirely governed by family rivalries and not by considerations of what might be best for Russia. The person who emerged as leader of the Miloslavski challenge was Tsar Alexis' third surviving daughter, Sophia (born 1657). She had the support of one of the leading boyars, Vasily Golitsyn (who may also have been her lover).
The other event was the revolt of the musketeers, the strel'tsy. The strel'tsy were the nearest thing Russia had to a corps of crack troops. They werearmed with primitive (by Western standards) firearms. Originally recruited by Ivan the Terrible from among the ranks of the urban trading communities, they combined military duties with civilian pursuits. This tended to create a tension between rival loyalties. They were very proud of their elite status in the military but often reluctant to be away on campaign for long periods of time because this interfered with their business interests. The strel'tsy of Moscow formed the Kremlin guard, and this was where their political influence rested. Their closeness to the court enabled them to bring pressure to bear on their betters. The nation's leaders relied on the loyalty of the strel'tsy but were wary of their potential power. The revolt of 1682 began as a protest over pay and conditions, and the soldiers' discontent was focused on certain unpopular officers. One of the first acts of the new Naryshkin-packed government was to pacify the malcontents by demoting and publicly flogging some of the protesters' bêtes noires. But appeasing mobs is always a self-defeating stratagem, and once the strel'tsys' blood lust was up, they looked for other victims. Their complaints were directed against the new regime and they declared their loyalty to Ivan.
Sophia and her collaborators decided to ride the tiger of strel'tsy wrath for their own ends. The princess was described by one foreign diplomat as an accomplished and ruthless schemer: 'Her mind is as sharp, subtle and political as her figure is broad, short and gross and, without ever having read Machiavelli or learned about him, she has a natural grasp of all his maxims.' As tension in Moscow rose, with bands of disaffected soldiers swaggering through the streets, someone began spreading rumours that were deliberately intended to inflame the situation: the Naryshkins were strutting about the palace as though they owned it; one even had had the temerity to sit on the royal throne; Tsar Ivan had been attacked. On 15 May, an angry musketeer mob appeared before the palace demanding to know that Ivan was safe. Natalya brought Ivan and Peter out to the top of the steps. That did not satisfy the rebels. Their leaders now wanted a conference with boyar leaders to discuss a long list of grievances. Principally they required Ivan to be made tsar and the Matveev-Naryshkin caucus to be exterminated. However it was managed, the strel'tsy had become a violent armed force doing the bidding of Sophia and Golitsyn. The situation was approaching flashpoint. Then Matveev appeared accompanied by Michael Dolgoruki, one of Golitsyn's enemies. With a roar, angry soldiers dragged them away from the royal party and threw them down the stairs into the courtyard where they were hacked to pieces by the strel'tsy mob.
The bloodletting continued for three days. Bands of soldiers rampaged through the capital and its environs, hunting down men they believed to be their enemies and carrying out summary executions. Peter lost several relativesin the rebellion. He shared his mother's fear and anguish, and might even have been present when she pleaded tearfully for her father and brothers to be spared by the musketeers' leaders. Meanwhile, Sophia and her allies were seeking a way of bringing the situation under control. The 'loyal' demands of the rebels for Ivan's election had given them what they most wanted, and it was not in their interests to allow mob rule to continue. Golitsyn negotiated a compromise with the duma and the strel'tsy whereby Ivan and Peter would be jointly crowned as senior and junior tsars respectively, with Sophia acting as regent. The Naryshkin tree was pruned but not uprooted. The victorious party did not want to provoke an ongoing feud between families. They needed concord among the boyars in order to re-kennel the hounds they had unleashed. The strel'tsy, inevitably, were continuing to flex their muscles, making ever more extreme demands. In late summer Sophia removed the royal court from Moscow to tour various country estates, leaving the capital virtually under the control of the musketeers and their commander, Ivan Khovansky. The story was that their majesties had to be removed because they were in danger of being attacked by traitors. A letter (probably forged) accusing Khovansky of plotting against the Tsars was then circulated among the political elite. Having assured herself of boyar support, Sophia now summoned Khovansky to be present at a court ceremonial occasion. As soon as he and his son arrived, they received the summary justice they had meted out to others in recent weeks. Bereft of their leader, the rebels rapidly caved in and were only too ready to accept a royal pardon in return for swearing a new oath of loyalty. When the court returned to the Kremlin in November, a major constitutional crisis had been averted and firm government established under the leadership of Tsarevna Sophia, who held the reins of power for the next seven years. But the trauma of the bloody summer of 1682 had left an indelible mark, not least on Peter.
The end of the violence and Sophia's triumph did not signal the end of rivalry in Moscow. A Swedish diplomat summed up the situation graphically in a report home:
Between the two tsars there is great jealousy. The younger has the greatest following, especially among the nobility, although the older has given the nobility great gifts and favour and lets everything be governed by his sister ... Most people are of the opinion that the younger tsar would separate from the elder and easily get the government alone. A few weeks ago various writings were found in the tsar's [i.e. Peter's] apartments in which among other things it was stated that the princess would keep the government to herself and the older tsar would go to a monastery, in which also the lord Miloslavski and others who supportthe older tsar were threatened, and for this reason a great investigation was done to find out whence these came.2
Sophia began to adopt an increasingly authoritarian pose. In royal decrees she coupled her name with those of the Tsars. For the time being, she could rule in the name of her brother, but the likelihood of his living a long life was remote, and without him she would have to face down Peter's supporters. Success then would depend on her ability to build and maintain a secure power base.
The most enduring effect on Peter of all the unpleasantness was his alienation from Moscow. Ivan IV had called his capital the 'third Rome' and prophesied that no city would ever surpass it, but Peter spent as little time there as possible, preferring his country residence in Preobrazhenskoe, a village in the northern suburbs. Moscow held bitter memories for him, and he had no taste for the heavy formality of traditional church and state ceremonial. His physical separation from the trappings of Muscovite convention helped him to look critically at a way of life he might not otherwise have questioned so closely. He developed a gift for what we might today call 'thinking outside the box'. Whenever possible, the teenage Tsar escaped from court ritual and the claustrophobic small-windowed rooms of the Kremlin to enjoy a simple open-air life at Preobrazhenskoe. He had a wooden house built for him, and this became the centre of a court very different from that presided over by Sophia. Peter also avoided being moulded by formal education. He was not 'bookish' and his handwriting remains the despair of historical researchers, but he was intensely inquisitive. He was always intrigued to know how things worked and how they were made. He sought out carpenters and metalworkers and from them learned how to handle tools.
It was inevitable that, in his quest for knowledge, Peter would be drawn to Kokui. This was the place near Preobrazhenskoe that Tsar Alexis had designated as the settlement for foreigners - the diplomats, merchants and military advisers he had encouraged to come to Russia to share their expertise and help develop the economy (see p. 31 below). It was a cosmopolitan community where Germans, Hollanders, Swedes, Englishmen, Scots and Frenchmen, Catholics and Protestants rubbed shoulders, maintaining their national rivalries yet drawn together by their 'foreignness'. Peter was fascinated by this ghetto and its inhabitants, with their strange (and rather more comfortable) clothes, the modern machines and gadgets in their houses and the stories they had to tell of a wider world beyond Russia's enclosed culture. The growing boy visited Kokui often, made friends there and accepted several of them as his guides and mentors.
What made the foreigners even more attractive in Peter's eyes was theprevailing attitude of the Russian establishment towards them, as expressed by the Orthodox patriarch Joachim:
May our sovereigns never allow any Orthodox Christians in their realm to entertain any close friendly relations with heretics and dissenters - with the Latins [Roman Catholics], Lutherans, Calvinists, and godless Tatars (whom our Lord abominates and the church of God damns for their God-abhorred guiles); but let them be avoided as enemies of God and defamers of the church. May they command by their tsarist decree that men of foreign creeds who come here to this pious realm shall under no circumstances preach their religion, disparage our faith in any conversations, or introduce their alien customs derived from their heresies for the temptation of Christians; they should be strictly forbidden to do all this on pain of severe punishment ... For these dissenters do not agree in faith with us, Christians, who are in possession of true Orthodoxy; they are completely at variance with us in interpreting the tradition of the [holy] fathers; they are alien to our mother, the Orthodox church. Of what help could such accursed heretics be to the Orthodox host? They only bring on the wrath of God. The Orthodox pray to God according to the rules and customs of the church, while they, the heretics, sleep, and perform their abominable deeds, despising Christian prayer. The Christians honour the most pure Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, and invoke in every way her aid and that of all the saints; but the heretics -- the military commanders -- being ungodly, revile it and blaspheme; in no way do they respect the most holy Mother of God and all the saints; they do not honour the holy icons, they scoff at all Christian piety. Christians observe the fasts; heretics -- never.3
For young Peter, association with these 'heretics' had the delicious flavour of forbidden fruit.
Peter could not be a cipher. In Moscow his position was ambiguous and he could do nothing to change it. At Preobrazhenskoe he created his own pond in order to be its big fish. By pursuing there his own passions, he was, perhaps without realising it initially, laying the foundations for Russia's army and navy. The young Tsar spent much of his time in what seemed to most observers to be military games but which formed the basis of something much more important. Not for him playing with toy soldiers; Peter formed his own little regiments -- the Preobrazhensky and the Semenovsky -- composed of local young men and the sons of courtiers. They had uniforms, ranks and training methods, all based on the latest innovations in Westernmilitary techniques. The two regiments had their own barracks and a small fort, named Presburg. From about 1687, Peter enjoyed the benefit of advice from General Patrick Gordon, a Scottish soldier of fortune who had served his father for many years and who became a close personal friend. Peter had a profound respect for professionals and always formed his own opinion of a man's worth. In the nearby royal estate of Izmailovo, at the age of sixteen, he made an exciting discovery. It was an old sailing dinghy. Though much in need of repair, it caught the boy's imagination. He had it refitted and was soon taking sailing lessons from a Dutch expert. He was joined in his new sport by some of his soldier friends from Presburg, and as they tacked to and fro on Lake Pleshcheevo, the grand vision was formed: Russia should have an ocean-going navy. Muscovy had never been a maritime power, for the very good reason that it had no outlet to the world's oceans other than the White Sea, which was frozen for several months of the year.
From his new friends in the foreign diplomatic and mercantile community, Peter heard something of how the trading network to the West operated; Russia's furs, hemp and tallow finding their way, via Archangel, in Dutch, English and Swedish ships to distant markets. Why should Russia not have a more active role in this profitable commerce? In the summer of 1693, he set off for Archangel to see for himself the great trading vessels. He stayed till late in the season, gobbling up every scrap of information on the construction and handling of ships, despite the entreaties of his mother, who viewed with suspicion anything to do with the alien environment of the sea, terrified that Peter might meet a watery death. He returned home brimming with ideas that he immediately began putting into practice. Within three years he had laid the basis of a fleet made up of armed merchantmen and galleys commissioned from the Archangel dockyards or bought from the Dutch.
The young Tsar's preoccupation with such activities suited Sophia and Golitsyn well. Their political situation was essentially insecure. Peter was popular with the nation's elite and becoming steadily more so. Their own power base was the Miloslavski network, the more reactionary boyars and church leaders and the strel'tsy. To widen their support they needed the disabled Tsar Ivan to marry and sire an heir, and also to originate some popular policies. They failed on both counts. In 1684, Sophia managed to arrange her brother's nuptials. The unfortunate bride was Praskovia Saltykova, who had, almost literally, to be dragged kicking and screaming to the altar. There followed for the Regent five years of impatient waiting. At last the Tsarina became pregnant, but Sophia's relief was short-lived. The baby was a girl. Luck just was not with Sophia (Ivan and Praskovia had no fewer than five children between 1689 and 1694 -- all girls). There was no male who could be presented to the people as a potential alternative to Peter. This couldbe put down to misfortune, but the fiasco of Russian foreign policy was of the government's own making. In 1687 and 1689, Golitsyn personally led military campaigns against the Turks in the Crimea. They were intended, in part, to divert attention from the failings of the regime by producing rousing national victories. They failed spectacularly. Both were disastrously costly in terms of lives and money and brought Russia no increase in land or treasure. Sophia laid on a hero's welcome for her returning colleague, but it fooled nobody.
Now Sophia had another problem. In January 1689 Peter had got married, and within months it was known that his wife, Eudoxia Lopukhina, was pregnant. If she were to be delivered of a healthy prince, Sophia's ambition to hang on to power would be doomed. The following summer she had to swallow the humiliation of the second Crimean campaign. Peter now began to assert himself. He had rarely stood up to the Regent. He had his own interests, and he might well have reflected that the best strategy was to allow Sophia enough rope to hang herself. But now he challenged government policy and declined to automatically endorse the Regent's enactments. It is from this year that we have a pen picture of the young Tsar from a French visitor who had his detailed information from Peter's close companions. It is not an altogether endearing portrait.
Tsar Peter is very tall and quite well proportioned, with a handsome face. His eyes are big but so wild that he is pitiful to look at. His head shakes continually. He is twenty years of age. He amuses himself by making his favourites play tug-o-war with each other and often they knock each other out in their efforts to pay court. In the winter he has large holes cut in the ice and makes the fattest lords pass over them in sleds. The weakness of the new ice often causes them to fall in and drown. He also likes having the great bell rung but his dominant passion is to see houses burn, which is a very common occurrence in Moscow.4
We must suspect a certain amount of deliberate sensationalising in this report by a traveller wishing to impress, but some elements of the account are supported by other testimony. Peter was restless and found it difficult to sit through long church services and court rituals. He always had to be up and doing and was possessed by an energy that was at times manic. As a compulsive enthusiast, he stopped at nothing in his pursuit of the latest idea, and he drove his companions and courtiers to do his bidding, whether that involved fighting mock battles with the real risk of serious injury or carrying out experiments to test the strength of ice. He had witnessed appalling scenesof violence at an early age and had known what it was to experience personal danger. This had left him desensitised to the pain and suffering of others. He did not shrink from bloodletting, and the kind of buffoonery he classed as practical jokes sometimes had fatal consequences. Peter grew into manhood with an emotional void at the centre of his life. He avoided several of the religious ceremonies that the sovereign was expected to attend and which, it was believed, connected him with the God in whose name he claimed to reign. His actions were increasingly governed by his desires, plans and ambitions. He had withdrawn from Moscow because there his self-expression was restricted. In Preobrazhenskoe, by contrast, no one could or did thwart him. If ever he felt that he was not receiving appropriate respect, that his whims were not being sufficiently indulged, he responded with hot rage or cold determination to make the offender pay. Men like Peter Mikhailovich usually achieve great things - at great cost.
It comes as something of a surprise that a man so proactive did not launch the political coup that, at long last, unseated Sophia. He might well have decided that she would undo herself. However, the eventual crisis seems to have been a case of spontaneous combustion. Clashes between tsar and regent were becoming more frequent, and in July 1689, Peter refused to sanction rewards the regime wanted to give to the 'victors' of the second Azov campaign. In Moscow, rumours (probably started by the reigning clique) now spread that Peter, under the pernicious influence of foreigners, had no respect for Russia's ancient religious and cultural institutions. More inflammatory was the suggestion that he was preparing to strike at the strel'tsy, on whom Sophia still relied. The musketeers themselves were caught in a dilemma, not clear who had the first call on their loyalty. On the evening of 7 August, one of Peter's leading supporters was arrested. At the same time a large body of strel'tsy was mustered, ostensibly to accompany the Regent to Donskoi monastery for religious observances. These events provided the spark. Messengers rushed to Preobrazhenskoe to waken the Tsar and warn him of impending peril. Peter leaped from bed and, without stopping to get dressed, took horse and galloped to a vantage point in nearby woods. Hither his servants followed him with suitable clothes, and having changed out of his nightshirt, the Tsar rode at full speed to the Trinity monastery, some twenty kilometres north-west of Moscow.
Peter's mother and wife, along with other family members and leading boyar supporters, hastened to join him. The young Tsar issued orders for the musketeers to rally to him at the monastery. Sophia countermanded these instructions. For three weeks the stand-off continued. More and more influential figures came to the Tsar's camp, including Joachim, Patriarch of Moscow, Russia's leading churchman. But the outcome was not a foregoneconclusion. Although Peter was popular, the Naryshkins were not. Several of the boyars found the royal family overbearing and feared that handing power to them would simply be to exchange the frying pan for the fire. Thus, some of the nation's most influential men waited on events, particularly the outcome of negotiations between the parties. Sophia sent messengers to the monastery to discuss a possible compromise. Peter did not respond, and eventually Sophia herself left Moscow for talks with her rival. Peter simply refused to see her and she was obliged to return, humiliated. Now, in this first political crisis of his life, the seventeen-year-old Tsar revealed one of his strongest characteristics -- stubbornness. He was essentially straightforward in his thinking and no scheming politique. When he had made up his mind on any course of action he pursued it with the energy and focus of a blinkered racehorse. He paid little attention to counsel. If his project failed, he merely set a different course, without anguishing over events or laboriously analysing the reasons for failure. Intriguingly, Peter's attitude towards politicians contrasts markedly with the respect he showed military, naval and technical experts. He was always ready to learn from those who had useful things to teach, and would spend hours in humble tutelage with men who could reveal to him the mysteries of a ship's rigging or novel battlefield manoeuvres.
As the days passed, Peter became bolder. Some strel'tsy units had come over to him, and he now ordered the surrender of commanders who failed to do so. He also demanded the surrender of Fedor Shaklovity, one of Sophia's favourites and the prime anti-Naryshkin rumourmonger. Now the tables were turned against Shaklovity: he was accused of plotting to assassinate the Tsar. The Regent tried strenuously to protect her ally, but on 7 September, she was forced to sacrifice him. Shaklovity was sent in chains to Trinity monastery. Four days later, after excruciating torture, he confessed to his 'crimes' and was executed. This was the end for Sophia. Golitsyn had already thrown himself on Peter's mercy and been happy to accept a sentence of banishment. Peter now consigned his half-sister to a convent and purged the government of all her supporters. The seven-year struggle was over.
PETER THE GREAT. Copyright © 2009 by Derek Wilson. All rights reserved.
List of Illustrations
1 Survival 1
2 The Third Rome 16
3 The Travels of Peter Mikhailov 32
4 Avenging Angel 58
5 'An army of veterans beaten by a mob' 81
6 Unhappy Families 109
7 'The horizon is clear' 133
8 'Projects that I have not been able to carry out' 157
Epilogue: All Unsilenceable Trumpet 184
Posted December 16, 2011
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Posted December 15, 2011
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Posted January 11, 2012
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