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Tsarist Russia and Peter the Great: How Russia Became a European Country

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Written by Bedirhan Atabay


Many different states have risen and fallen throughout history. While some of these states achieved great success and gained influence over large populations, others failed to keep up with the times and collapsed. Again, there was a state that was considered to be out of step with the times in its own time: Tsarist Russia. Although it had recently become considerably larger and more powerful, it was still considered an impoverished country that had failed to build an effective education system, economy, military forces, and navy like the Western states. But all that was about to change: one man was ready to change Russia forever.


Peter became the new emperor of Russia in 1682. After the death of Tsar Alexis, Peter was declared tsar by the Kremlin with the support of the Nareltsy family [1]. The Streltsy military unit, which was under the influence of the Miloslavsky family, who were disturbed by this, besieged the palace. Streltsy was a military unit consisting of musketeers, established by Tsar Ivan the Terrible to modernize the army in the past. In the past, the Streltsy were paid in money and grain, but now they were paid in land, which led to them gaining influence over the state and fighting for their ambitions instead of serving the people [5]. The Streltsy military unit demanded that Ivan V become tsar. Their demands were half accepted and the uprising ended with Peter and Ivan being declared tsar together [1]. However, since Peter was very young at the time and Ivan's sister Sophia was the regent, Ivan's influence was greater than Peter's in the government, and Peter could not have full influence over the state in the first years of his rule due to Ivan V's higher political position [1]. All these streltsy incidents resulted in Peter's hatred towards them, which greatly influenced his later military reforms.


Due to Sophia's influence, Peter did not receive the education that a Russian Tsar should normally receive. He had a keen interest in military sciences and was involved in many trades such as carpentry, blacksmithing, and printing [1]. There was a "German Colony" near Peter's region, where foreigners were allowed to stay. Peter was an occasional visitor to this region, and during his stay there he developed a keen interest in life in western civilizations, which had a great influence on him. An English sailor who resided in the region fueled his interest in seafaring [1]. At the same time, he learned both the Dutch language and medicine from a Dutch Royal Surgeon named Johan Termont [6]. All this would allow him to see Russia's shortcomings and how certain important sectors in European states worked. The westernization of Russia, which was performing appallingly badly in almost every sector, would lead to progress in all sectors and contribute greatly to the creation of the modern Russian state as we know it today.


In 1689 there was a streltsy revolt. Sophia wanted to use this rebellion to her advantage, but things went well for Peter. Peter took the role of regent from Sophia. This resulted in Peter strengthening his dominance in the country [1].


When Peter came to the throne, Russia did not have access to tradeable seas such as the Baltic, the Caspian, and the Black Sea; it only had access to the Arctic Ocean, but even that was too cold for trade. All these factors pushed Peter to implement a policy focused on establishing borders to these seas. Peter first organized an expedition to the fortress of Azov, held by the Crimean Tatarstan, a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire, to seize the Black Sea trade dominated by the Ottoman Empire. Although the first siege in 1695 resulted in the navy-less Russian army being forced to retreat after a 96-day siege, in the winter of 1695-1696, Peter attacked with a river fleet at Voronezh on the banks of the Don River, and a second siege took the city from the Ottoman Empire in 1696. At the same time, Peter founded another port city in the region, Taganrog, in addition to Azov [1, 9, 10].


Although he was able to take the Azov fortress, it became clear that Peter needed a good fleet and a regular army. But instead of calling in experts from other countries, Peter ordered young men from noble families to be sent to England, Italy, and the Netherlands for training. He aimed to learn how Europe had developed so much in the last centuries and at the same time to build an alliance against the Ottomans. In 1697, Peter started traveling secretly and first worked as a carpenter on a ship in the Netherlands. Then he traveled to Great Britain where he began to learn seamanship. He also worked in the shipyard of the British Navy [1]. His work was not limited to shipbuilding. 170 Before 0, there were no Russian-born doctors in Russia. In the past, Russians did not practice modern medical methods in any way, on the contrary, they treated patients with natural methods, i.e. using herbs, honey, etc., and there was no transition to a modern medical system [6]. Even though Tsar Mikhail I, a former tsar, had visibly improved this system and established a ministry of health, the medical needs of the large and densely populated country were still not fully met. Peter realized this and went to Leiden University in the Netherlands. At that time, Leiden University had become the center of the world in the field of medicine and medicine since non-Catholics could no longer study medicine and medicine after the papal reforms in Italy [6]. There Peter met Goverl Bidloo, who was a professor of anatomy and medicine and also the great rector of the university. Goverl Bidloo was also the Royal Physician to William III, both Stadtholder of the Netherlands and King of England, and since 1696 he was the inspector of all doctors, pharmacists, surgeons, and hospitals in the Netherlands and England [6]. Peter was in search of a royal physicist for himself. Goverl then proposed his nephew Nicholaas Lamberlus Bidloo to Peter as the royal physicist. Accepting Peter's offer, Lamberlus became the Royal Physicist in 1703 and accompanied Peter on his travels to other countries [6]. Apart from all this, Peter visited factories, arsenals, schools, and museums in Western countries and learned how things were done there. He also tried to persuade both Britain and the Netherlands to form a European alliance against the Ottomans, but these requests failed because both governments had problems, problems that would later lead to the War of Spanish Succession.


While Peter in Austria was planning to go to Venice, another Streltsy uprising broke out in Moscow. This time Streltsy's goal was to give Sophia full leadership of Russia. Peter's soldiers defeated the Streltsy under Sophia's control. This was followed by the demobilization of the younger Streltsy units, which greatly reduced the influence of the Streltsy unit [1]. In 1720 the entire unit ceased to exist [5]. This was Peter's message that he would destroy anyone who opposed the modernization movement, and the bodies of the murdered Streltsy soldiers were hung in the Red Square [5].


As we have mentioned, Peter's dream from the moment he took the throne was to dominate the surrounding seas, and one of these seas was the Baltic Sea. To realize his goals in the Baltic Sea, Russia, which was under Peter's control, together with Prussia, Denmark-Norway, and Poland, came together under the name of the Northern Alliance and declared war on Sweden. During the war, Russia laid siege to Narva and captured the city in 1700 [2]. As a matter of fact, with the withdrawal of the Polish-Lithuanian Union and Saxon troops due to the winter season, an opportunity arose for the Swedes to counterattack the Russians [2]. Even though the Swedish army sent to Narva was a quarter of the size of the Russian army, the war ended in a major defeat for Russia due to the lack of training of the Russian soldiers [2]. After the great defeat at Narva, Peter struggled to reorganize his army. This battle showed Peter that his army was an unmodernized, untrained army and at the same time pushed him to modernize it.


One of Peter's biggest dreams was to build a new, European-style, modern city from scratch. After Peter reclaimed the region of Ingria, which had been taken from Russia by Sweden in 1611, he decided to build a city called Saint Petersburg in the region. The reason behind this construction decision was that the city would be easy to defend [4]. The area where the construction of the city had begun was a swamp and this raised some doubts about the construction of the city. Nevertheless, in 1703 the construction of the city began with the construction of a harbor [4]. The foundation of the Pavel Fortress was laid on May 16, 1703, but due to the muddy terrain, the Pavel Fortress was built on foundations reinforced with posts and boards buried in the mud, as in Amsterdam. The rest of the city's buildings were rehabilitated during the first ten years, and since these houses were built on mudflats, it was not necessary to use the same method for their construction as for the castle. To make the architecture of this city similar to Europe, Peter brought many architects from Europe to draw the plans of the city, the sewage system, and the distribution of the buildings. Of course, Peter did not forget to build a magnificent winter palace for himself, and in addition to the winter palace, he also built a summer palace, the plan of which he designed himself.


Petersburg became the new capital of Russia in 1712. The city's population skyrocketed in 1710, and from then on it surpassed that of Moscow, the former capital of Russia, and remained larger than Moscow until the 1900s. After Peter, especially Italian artists built beautiful buildings that could be considered works of art, and Saint Petersburg, about which dozens of poems were written during this period, was seen by the world as Russia's gateway to the West [3].


In 1708, Sweden turned its sights on Russia again and went on the offensive. On September 28, 1708, the Battle of Lesnaya was the decisive battle of the Great Northern War. Having been defeated, King Karl of Sweden abandoned the attack on Moscow and moved south; after resupplying his army in Ukraine, the king marched on Moscow again and besieged the strategically important Poltova Fortress in May 1709. Peter inflicted a major defeat on the Swedish king at the Battle of Poltava. The Swedish king was wounded and took refuge in Bandar Fortress near Ottoman territory. Since the Russian army following the King of Sweden crossed the Ottoman border and wreaked havoc, and also due to the letters sent by King Karl of Sweden from Bender Castle to Istanbul asking for help, the Ottomans declared war against Russia. The Ottoman army under the command of Baltacı Mehmed Pasha captured the Russian army on the banks of the Prut River on July 19, 1711. The Russian camp was in great despair. Peter had to approve the idea of surrender.


The Russians' request for talks was accepted because Baltacı Mehmed Pasha, who was preparing to attack, did not trust the janissaries and the talks were concluded within 24 hours. Signed on July 21, the Treaty of Prut was ratified by Peter on July 22. The Russian army was released. As a result of the treaty, Azov, which Peter had taken with difficulty, was returned to the Ottomans, and therefore Peter's ambitions to expand to the Black Sea were postponed for a while.


From 1700 onwards, the requirements of the great war against Sweden necessitated industrial development. Russia had hardly any warships at that time, and to provide weapons and build a navy, metallurgy, and manufacturing industries had to be created on a large scale, and Peter, as Tsar of Russia, supported these projects. Huge capital investments were made and numerous privileges were granted to businessmen and industrialists [1]. These privileges included the right to buy peasant serfs (land slaves) to work in the workshops, resulting in a class of "conscripted" serfs living in certain regions and attached to the factories [1]. The methods of other countries were further studied and foreign experts were invited to Russia. The overall result was satisfactory: The material needs of the army and navy were met, numerous manufacturing plants were built with serf labor, and the metallurgical industry was so advanced that by the middle of the 18th century, Russia was leading Europe in this field [1].


In place of the unreliable Streltsy, Peter created a regular army for Russia on thoroughly modern lines. While drawing his officers from the nobility, he conscripted peasants and townspeople into the other ranks and made the length of service lifelong. Troops were equipped with Russian-made flintlock firearms and bayonets, uniforms were provided and regular drills were introduced. For the artillery, obsolete cannons were replaced with new mortars and guns designed by Russian specialists and even Peter himself [1]. The 1716 Army Regulations were particularly important, requiring officers to instruct their men "how to behave in battle", "to know the soldier's job from first principles and not to blindly follow the rules" and to show initiative in the face of the enemy. For the navy, during Peter's reign, the Russian people witnessed the construction of 52 warships and hundreds of galleys and other vessels in a few years, thus creating a powerful Baltic fleet [1]. Several private schools prepared their students for military or naval service, and finally, Peter was able to cut Russia's dependence on foreign military specialists.


Peter was also aware of the influence of religion on the people. The Orthodox Church, which belonged to Russia, was independent from the state and under the control of the patriarch. Peter took the church out of the patriarch's control and put it completely under state control. In this way, the state took control of religious institutions [1]. In addition to changing the way the church was governed, new churches were also built [1]. While Peter was making all these innovations, he drew the reaction of the Boyar class, the rich landowners in Russia. The Boyar class argued that Peter should withdraw the innovations and that the state affairs in Russia should be carried out in a traditional way as in the past [1]. All this forced Peter to take measures against the boyar threat. By imposing certain taxes on the boyars, including taxes such as the mustache tax, Peter reduced their income and at the same time curtailed their political power [1]. The victory of this policy resulted in the removal of one of the biggest threats to Peter, and at the same time, by reducing the high political influence of the boyars, Peter increased his power and authority in the administration.


As a result, Peter's innovations not only expanded the country's borders but also modernized and strengthened it. Peter's innovations are a good example for countries in distress today: Peter's innovations not only solved many of the problems of a weak, war-losing, poverty-stricken state, plagued by class differences and plagued by the failure of its military units to do their job properly but also built a solid foundation for the leaders who came after him to fix the problems.



References:

  1. Nikiforov, L. Alekseyevich (2023, June 5). Peter I. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Peter-the-Great

  2. Field, J. F. (2022, November 23). Battle of Narva. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Narva

  3. History of St. Petersburg Russia. (n.d.). Russia Tours from Express to Russia. https://www.expresstorussia.com/guide/petersburg-history.html#:~:text=the%2 019th%20 century-,St.,Fortress)%20shortly%20after%20this%20victory

  4. History of St. Petersburg in the era of Peter the great. (n.d.). Saint-Petersburg.com - travel and event guide for St. Petersburg, Russia. https://www.saint-petersburg.com/history/st-petersburg-in-the-era-of-peter-the-great/

  5. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2011, February 16). streltsy. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/streltsy

  6. Peter the Great and the Dutch influence on Russian medicine (n.d.). https://hermitage-magazine.ru/articles/peter-the-great-and-the-dutch-influence-on-russian-medicine/

  7. Russian Empire - The reign of Peter the Great. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Russian-Empire/The-reign-of-Peter-the-Great

  8. Peter I - The grand embassy (1697–98). (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Peter-the-Great/The-Grand-Embassy-1697-98

  9. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2010, September 30). Taganrog. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Taganrog

  10. Rusya'nın Balkan politikası (1696 - 1840). (n.d.). https://dspace.ankara.edu.tr/xmlui/handle/20.500.12575/78976

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