Peter the Great reformed Russia’s medieval political structure, developed trade and commerce. He established a modernised Russian navy and army.


BENGALURU: On 9 June 1672, was born a man who transformed Russia and whose legacy continues today. This month Russians are celebrating the birth of one of their greatest rulers.
On the 350th anniversary of Tsar Peter’s birth, President Vladimir Putin paid homage to the ruler who made Russia not only powerful but who initiated reforms and measures that created versatility and excellence in many fields. It was Tsar Peter’s vision, foresight and energy that made Russia a powerful European nation.
Peter Alexeivich Romanov was born in turbulent times. As a youth he had seen the strife between the Boyar families, had known of the attacks by little neighbours on Russian territory and their bizarre ambition to occupy the Kremlin. Ascending the throne, he vowed to bring stability and strength to his country. He redeemed his pledge to a very large measure.
As Prime Minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin had inherited similar problems following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russia became the happy hunting ground for foreign investors and so called advisers. The former superpower became a resigned spectator of depredations by other countries in a unipolar world. Prime Minister, then President Putin, brought in financial stability, restored social welfare and education schemes, reorganised the defence services, and most importantly, restored Russians’ pride in their nation and its traditions.
Russia had encountered immense turmoil following the death of Tsar Ivan IV in the late 16th century. This period was called Smutnoe Vremy or Time of Troubles. To bring stability and fill the empty throne, the landed gentry or Boyars selected Mikhail Romanov, a callow youth from a remote province. His only claim was that he was the grandnephew of Anastasia Romanova, the first and beloved wife of the awesome Tsar Ivan IV. The Romanovs ruled Russia for 301 years.
Peter was Tsar Mikhail’s grandson and son of Tsar Alexei. Neither men made any impact on the vast empire. Alexei’s two marriages created an undeclared civil war as families of the two wives—Miloslavskys and Naryshkins—fought for eminence after his death. Alexei’s sons by his first wife were feeble, though his daughter Sofia was both capable and ambitious. With support of the elite Streltsy Guard she fomented the violent Moscow Uprising. Sofia became Regent while her brother Ivan ruled. These events shaped Peter’s character.
Exiled to Preobrazhenskoe, a village not far from Moscow, Peter became interested in military strategies. He established an armed group there, which would become the famous Preobrazhensky Regiment, loyal only to the Tsar. Their interventions would sometimes influence the fate of revolutions. Chaffing under restrictions, 17-year-old Peter seized power from Regent Sofia and was crowned Tsar of Russia.
Soon after, he married Evdozhia Lopukhina from a powerful Boyar family, who bore Peter a son—the star-crossed Alexei. The only portrait of Evdozhia shows a slender girl with pale golden hair and wistful grey eyes. She was demure and gentle, a devout Orthodox Christian brought up in old Muscovite traditions. At first, Peter was charmed by his bride and the Lopukhin family gained ascendency. The other Boyar families resented this. Peter’s mother Natalya joined the envious groups to sow doubts about Evdozhia’s health and mind. Eventually, Peter sent Evdozhia to a monastery where she became a nun. The seeds of a future tragedy were sown when young Alexei saw his father’s cruelty to his mother. Alexei opposed all that Peter symbolised.
Many years later, Peter married a Livonian woman of dubious background who ruled briefly as Catherine I—to the contempt of the Russian nobility.
The throne gave Tsar Peter not only power over a vast rich land; it also filled him with aspirations to transform what was still a medieval country into a modern land. He soon went on his travels to North and West Europe, where he saw the flowering of the age of scientific enquiry, technological innovations and military strategies. Peter studied ship building in Holland, studied the work of scientists such as Isaac Newton, the medical works of William Harvey. He returned to Russia and created a new age.
Peter the Great reformed Russia’s medieval political structure, developed trade and commerce. He established a modernised Russian navy and army based on compulsory military service for all nobles. The peasantry and the bourgeoisie were also recruited to serve in specific regiments. Military experts and scientists were invited to Russia as advisers. He reorganised the apparatus of government and created a civil service in Russia by introducing the Table of Ranks. This document defined the classification of all military, naval, court and civilian officials into 14 classes. The Table of Ranks was designed to create a “social elevator” for dedicated military and government officials and to reduce nepotism in military and civil services. Tsar Peter believed in meritocracy, which the Soviet system inherited.
The winds of change blew strong and a new Russia began to emerge. The old laws of Russiskaya Pravda were replaced by a legal system with rules and procedures. Courts of justice were established. Young Russians went to study in German universities to become scientists, lawyers, and doctors. Older Russians were commanded to adopt Western court etiquette from The Honourable Mirror of Youth.
A “window on Europe” was opened by building Petersburg on the marshes of Lake Lagoda. Italianate palaces, opera houses, schools and academies were established here. Russia became a European power.
From this time, two currents warred against each other; the old orthodox Russia, which detested the break in traditions and customs, and the new westernised Russia, which wanted dramatic changes. Tsar Peter symbolised the new spirit, and his only legitimate son, Tsarevich Alexei, the old. A bitter tragic conflict raged between them until Peter ordered the execution of his son Alexei.
Slavophiles disliked the mindless imitation of the West by the nobility and progressive intellectuals. Westernisers wanted reform of Russia’s social institutions and political absolutism. Reform in every sphere was necessary if Russia was to redeem herself from some impending disaster. Slavophiles feared that westernisation would destroy the unique place Russia occupied as the most eastern of western nations and the most western of eastern nations. The Orthodox Church offered them staunch support against the Tsar’s program. The Tsar’s subjects looked askance at foreign merchants and diplomats who lived in courteous isolation in the “German Suburb.”
Tsar Peter’s admiration of the West was not reciprocated. Europe feared that a modernised powerful Russia could endanger their new agenda of colonial adventures. So Russia had to be “contained.”
Invasion came from North Europe. King Charles XII of Sweden, with the best equipped and best trained army in Europe, attacked and defeated Tsar Peter’s army at Narva in 1700. This compelled the Tsar to fortify his army. But Peter had a secret foe in his beautiful mistress, Anna Mons, who passed on military information to the Swedish army. King Charles XII’s army again marched towards Moscow. This time the Russians drew in the invaders and implemented their scorched earth tactics. Another spy, Mazepa informed Charles XII of Russian positions. In April 1709, Charles XII besieged Poltava (now Ukraine) where he could replenish supplies.
Tsar Peter and his army approached Poltava in May. Inspecting the regiments on the eve of battle, Peter addressed them: “Warriors! The time has come that will decide the fate of the Fatherland. You should not think that you are fighting for Peter but for the Fatherland and for our Orthodox Church.” The Swedish infantry attacked the Russians on June 27. The artillery fire from the Russian side led to the retreat and surrender of the Swedish army at Poltava. Charles XII with his spy Mazepa took refuge in the Ottoman Empire.
Voltaire, philosopher of the French Enlightenment, observed that Poltava was “the only battle in history, in which the aim was not destruction, but which provided Tsar Peter the necessary peace to pursue the path of transformation of Russia.”

Portrait of King Charles XII of Sweden by 17th-18th century Catalan-French baroque painter, Hyacinthe Rigaud.

Tsar Peter’s victory at Poltava is immortalised in Alexander Pushkin’s poetic drama “Poltava.” Lev Tolstoy continued the tradition in “War and Peace”, wherein he narrated Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino.
Tsar Peter’s interests went beyond politics and warfare.
Though he was a votary of Western science and technology, he had a Janus-like vision towards the Orient. He realised that Russia required knowledge of Asian civilisations on her frontiers, especially India. At this time the Mughal Empire was disintegrating and the first European companies were exploring possibilities of establishing trading posts. In the early 1700s, Tsar Peter directed all available documents on India to be collected and annotated. It was the first time that a European government took keen interest in Indian civilisation. In 1728, he established the Asiatic Museum to house Indian manuscripts brought by scholars and travellers from India. This was the genesis of a systematic study of India. Tsarina Catherine II continued the tradition and commissioned translations of Indian fables from the Pancha-tantra and Hitopadesha, which were published in the Russian language in 1762.
Rarely has one ruler transformed his nation in one lifetime as did Peter Alexievich Romanov. And that too a nation as vast and as complex as Russia. Tsar Peter laid the foundations of a modern powerful Russia, whose victories on the battlefield are matched by magnificent achievements in education, science, medicine, literature, music, ballet, theatre.
Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin immortalised Tsar Peter in his dramatic poem “The Bronze Horseman”—a formidable figure who brooks no interference in his Promethean task. The statue of Tsar Peter or the Bronze Horseman was built in Petersburg to remind Russians of their greatest ruler.

Achala Moulik is a retired civil servant who has published novels, books on international relations and European history. She received the Pushkin Medal in recognition of her work on Russian history and culture.