Peter the Great of Russia
Peter the Great of Russia
Peter Romanov was born in 1672. When Peter was ten, he and his brother Ivan were named dual monarchs of Russia; their older sister Sophia would serve as regent until the boys grew old enough to rule. In 1689, the nobles ousted Sophia from power. On Ivan’s sudden death, Peter became Czar Peter I of Russia. Known to history as Peter the Great, he would rule Russia until his death in 1725.
Peter was characterized by genuine intellectual and scientific curiosity. He also had a strong, dominant personality and believed in absolute rule with a very heavy hand. These two qualities of the czar’s character had a decisive effect on Russia’s development during the early eighteenth century.
Peter was fascinated by European culture. In 1697, he left his homeland to tour Europe in disguise. Given that the czar was six feet, six inches tall—a true giant in an era when people were much smaller than they are today—his disguise fooled no one. However, he enjoyed his ability to speak directly with commoners of all types, and even share their heavy manual labor, as he could not easily have done had he traveled in a more ceremonious style.
When Peter returned to Russia, he made plans to turn it into a modern nation that would take its place beside the great states of Europe. Western influence was soon apparent everywhere in Moscow. At the court and elsewhere, Peter began requiring Western administrative practices and Western efficiency. During Peter’s reign, many French, English, and German books were translated into Russian for the first time; Peter himself acquired an impressive personal library. He introduced Western-style dress to replace the traditional Russian costumes; the most famous innovation in personal style was a law against beards, since European fashion dictated a clean-shaven face for a man. Many nobles and gentlemen opposed this law with surprising vigor, for two reasons: first, Orthodox doctrine required believers to wear full beards, and second, a beard was welcome protection against frostbite during the bitter Russian winters. In the end, Peter exempted priests from the no-beard policy.
Peter kept up a constant state of warfare during his reign; the standing army reached a new high of two hundred thousand troops under his rule. By 1721 he had moved Russia’s border far to the west, acquiring Estonia, Livonia, and part of Switzerland. In 1703, Peter founded a new capital city at the mouth of the Gulf of Finland, naming it St. Petersburg after himself. Peter would use this beautiful city much as Louis XIV used Versailles; he required the boyars to attend him there during part of every year and forced them to pay for its construction.
Peter the Great died in 1725. Since he named no successor, a period of some chaos ensued. At first, his widow assumed power, ruling as Catherine I; after her death, various factions struggled for power. The situation was resolved in 1762 when Peter II became czar; however, mental and emotional instability made him incapable of ruling. His German wife, Catherine, assumed power when he died suddenly; historians agree that she either murdered him or ordered her followers to do so.
Catherine II, like Peter the Great, was determined to make Russia into a European nation, not surprising given her German origins. She continued Peter’s policy of moving the nation’s border ever westward. Between 1769 and 1774, Russia gained territory along the Danube River and also a port on the Black Sea.
Catherine absorbed many ideas from the Enlightenment. She introduced Russians to Western music, art, literature, and philosophy. She corresponded with the famed author Voltaire. She founded and supported a number of institutions that would improve society, including a major hospital and a medical school, and led a campaign for inoculation against smallpox. She supported education for girls and young women and opened Russia’s first public library. She reformed the legal code to limit the use of torture of prisoners and expanded religious freedoms.
Like other absolute monarchs, Catherine understood the need to protect her position by controlling the aristocracy. She took two major steps to keep the nobles content with their lot. First, she exempted them from taxes. Second, and partly in response to a major peasant uprising, she granted them absolute control over their serfs. With the loss of many important freedoms, including the right to move, the serfs in effect became slave labor. Their status would not improve until the 1860s.
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