Saturday, March 7, 2015

Peter the Great and the Land of the Tsars

St. Basil's in Red Square


First permit me to make a small housekeeping announcement. The blog now has a new custom domain. This site will be redirecting there in the future. You may click on the link here and bookmark it if you please. Of course, you can still follow me on Facebook here, which is, in fact, the best way to keep up with my goings on, should you be so inclined. Now, on to the post!

No less an authority than Winston Churchill said that Russia is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. In large part due to the Cold War and the existence of the Iron Curtain, for decades the Soviet Union was a closed society as far as Westerners were concerned. Here in the United States, we existed on a steady diet of anti-Russian propaganda, just as they were fed a diet of anti-American propaganda. But it has really been that way for much, much longer. Even prior to the Russian Revolution, the country always had a certain mystic, exotic feel with its difficult language, strange customs, and beautiful, mysterious domed cathedrals. As an American of Irish descent, I really enjoy Russian history because it has a lot in common with Irish History. (Which really means lots of starvation and death.) Even the languages are both a lot older than English and a lot more difficult to learn. Through the Middle Ages, Russia was seen more as an Asiatic Country than a European one. All that would change with the emergence of a new Tsar named Peter who today we know better as Peter the Great. (Or Peter der Grosse in German which sounds a lot cooler!)

Peter grew to be a man of many......crowns. Part barber, part executioner, part Tsar, part carpenter, part shipwright, he rose from a childhood marred by tragedy and intrigue to transform Russia into a major power. Peter came from the marriage of his father, Tsar Alexis, to his second wife Natalya. Peter was not directly in line to the throne as Alexis had two sons with his first wife. Upon his death, the crown passed to the eldest Feodor who was a sickly young man. Needless to say, he did not last long! When he died without an heir, a dispute arose over who should next assume the throne. Technically, Peter's older brother Ivan was next in line, but Ivan was described as being "feeble minded" and thus not suited for the throne. We do not know what his infirmity actually was and there has been much speculation. A committee decided that ten year old Peter should inherit the title instead. But Ivan and Peter's older sister Sophia would have none of that! She led a coup of Russian nobles and young Peter watched as his uncles were hurled from a balcony to be hacked to pieces with pikes. No doubt this had a profound effect on the child who would one day rule Russia. Rather than sole control, Peter and Ivan were said to be co-rulers with Sophia really calling the shots. Eventually, as he grew older, Peter was able to wrest control from Sophia, who he forced to enter a convent, though he still ruled alongside Ivan until his brother died.

One interesting thing about Peter was that he grew to be extremely tall. Accounts say he was 6'8 which would make him tall today. Back then that made him enormous as he was over one foot taller than the average European. Today he might go on to a lucrative career as a professional basketball player! Back then he had to settle for ruling Russia. In order to enlist the support of other European monarchs, Peter traveled with an entourage on what is called "The Grand Embassy". Technically he was working incognito, but with his size I doubt he fooled anyone. He met with the Prussian, the Dutch, and the English. Peter was after a couple of things. First, he wanted support in his struggle with the Ottoman Empire. Second, he wanted to hire Western experts to bring back to Russia to help him modernize. He also wanted naval knowledge, which he gained by working "under cover" at a Dutch shipyard. Upon his return to Russia, he would go on to create the modern Russian Navy.

Peter had to return from his trip early as a rebellion broke out among the nobility. It was easily crushed and Peter acted in a brutal fashion towards the plotters. Over a thousand of them were tortured and executed. In fact, Peter took pleasure in personally hacking off the heads of those who conspired against him. He also fancied himself quite the dentist and loved pulling teeth! He kept a collection of them in his personal rooms. Boyars at the Russian court learned to hide the fact that their teeth ached lest Peter pull out a pair of pliers and go to work. Peter also commanded all around him to stop dressing in the Asian fashion and adopt Western dress at court. This included cutting off the beards of the boyars, a task the Peter also loved performing on his own. If a boyar wanted to keep his beard, he had to pay a hefty tax! For entertainment, Peter had a troop of dwarfs that performed at his palace for the amusement of all. His reign, 1682-1725, the Enlightenment was taking place in Europe and Peter was duly influenced by it. But his crowning achievement isn't beards or teeth, it is the city which bears his name.

Peter captured the area from Sweden during the Great Northern War. The first building constructed was Peter and Paul Fortress. Given the fact that he was an autocratic ruler, getting the manpower necessary to construct a city was easy. He used conscripted peasants! To help with the design, Peter also brought in Western experts who could give assistance with design and construction which gave St. Petersburg a decidedly European feel. Peter moved the capitol there in 1712. This made St. Petersburg, not Moscow, the seat of power for the Russian Empire. It was in this city where Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and overthrew the provisional government. It was in this city where Bloody Sunday turned peasants against their Tsar. Of course, growing up I knew the city as Leningrad! In 1914, the name was changed to Petrograd. Then it became Leningrad. And now, thankfully, it is St. Petersburg again.

As he aged, Peter began to suffer from bladder and urinary tract problems which were common in the Russian royal family. (Hereditary illnesses are common in all the royal families of Europe due to inbreeding! A fact that some Americans seem to forget with their ridiculous worship of the British royal family.) At one point, doctors performed a procedure that released something like four pounds of blocked urine! That had to hurt. In 1725, Peter again suffered from blood in the urine and abdominal pain. He began to fade quickly. An autopsy was performed after his death and it revealed a gangrenous bladder. So how "great" was Peter? Certainly he transformed Russia into a European rather than Asian country. His modernization programs made Russia powerful. But peasants still lived as virtual slaves of the aristocracy. Tens of thousands of people were executed, some by Peter's own hand. So, like most figures in history, and indeed most people today, Peter was not good or bad. He was a man of his time and in some ways, perhaps, a man ahead of his time. 

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian. 

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