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Peter I of Russia
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Peter I of Russia

Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov (Пётр Алексе́евич Рома́нов), also called Peter the Great (Пётр Вели́кий, Pyotr Velikiy) (June 9 [May 30, O.S.][, 1672 - February 8, ]January 28, O.S., 1725) was a tsar of Russia (from 1682) and the first Emperor of the Russian Empire (1721-1725). He carried out a policy of Westernization and expansion that transformed Russia into a major European power.

He was acclaimed "Tsar" of Russia in 1682, alongside his half-brother Ivan V, but for the first seven years of their reign, their sister Sophia Alekseyevna held the reins as regent. In 1689, Peter and his supporters forced Sophia to resign as regent and enter a convent. Peter and Ivan then shared the throne amicably until Ivan, an invalid, died in 1696.

Peter was extremely tall at six foot seven inches (2 m) and a powerful man. His gangly legs and arms prevented him from being handsome, however. Strangely enough, the legend has it that his "manhood" was so long that he had to tuck it in his boot. One can still hear people refer to this "fact" in today's Russia with regards to someone's unusually big penis ("His is like Peter's", they say).

Early in his reign, Peter implemented sweeping reforms aimed at modernising Russia. Heavily influenced by his western advisors, Peter reorganised the Russian Army along European lines and dreamed of making Russia a maritime power. He faced much opposition to these policies at home, but brutally suppressed any and all rebellions against his authority.

In 1697 Peter put his new army to the test for the first time, defeating the Crimean Tatars of the Ottoman Empire and seizing the Black Sea ports of Azov and Taganrog. This campaign marked the first successful military offensive by a Russian army on foreign soil in centuries, and established Russia as a more serious player in European politics.

In 1698-99, Peter travelled to western Europe, where he spent time at the courts of many of the powerful leaders of the time, and studied shipbuilding in Amsterdam and Deptford (London), working as a labourer in the yards of the Dutch East India Company. Although his reception was friendly in his travels, he still was not taken seriously as an equal of the great crowneded heads of Europe.

After returning to Russia, where he reformed the coinage along the lines shown him by Isaac Newton and quashed a rebellion of the Streltsy (the Russian imperial guard), Peter declared war on Sweden, which had seized Russian territory on the Baltic Sea more than 50 years before. This was an affront to Peter and a major obstacle to his dream of Russia as a sea power. But the war would prove long and difficult. Sweden was the dominant military power of eastern Europe and was led by the young but brilliant King Charles XII of Sweden, who was to prove to be a worthy adversary for Peter.

Russia turned out to be ill-prepared to fight the well-trained Swedes, and their first attempt at seizing the Baltic coast ended in disaster at the Battle of Narva in 1700. Charles then took the offensive against Peter and his ally, King Augustus II of Poland. For the next eight years, Swedes ravaged Poland and Saxony, finally forcing Augustus off the Polish throne. Finally, in 1708, Charles invaded Russia seeking to capture Moscow and depose Peter.

Peter, in the meantime, had waged a successful campaign in the Baltic against lesser Swedish commanders, gaining modern Estonia and the mouth of the Neva River, where he founded the great city of St. Petersburg in 1703. Confident he could beat Peter at leisure, Charles ignored these campaigns.

After crossing into Russia in 1708, Charles defeated Peter at Golovchin (July 3, 1708) but then suffered his first defeat at the Battle of Lesnaya (September 28, 1708), when Peter crushed the left wing of the Swedish army moving down from Riga to join Charles's main army. Because of this defeat, Charles was forced to abandon his proposed march on Moscow. Refusing to retreat into Poland or back to Swedish territory, Charles instead invaded the Ukraine.

Peter skillfully withdrew southward, destroying anything of value that could assist the Swedes, who were hopelessly cut off from resupply. The Swedish army suffered greatly in the bitterly cold winter of 1708-09, but resumed the Ukrainian campaign in the summer of 1709, hoping to finally bring Peter to battle.

When Charles resumed the campaign, he found Peter much more aggressive, and the battle which both men wanted took place on June 27, 1709, at Poltava. Peter's years of work on improving the Russian army paid off, and he inflicted a crushing defeat on the Swedes, causing close to 10,000 casualties and soon capturing most of what remained of Charles' army. Charles fled to the neutral Ottoman Empire, where he tried to convince the Sultan Ahmed III to help him in a renewed campaign.

Peter foolishly attacked the Ottomans in 1711 and suffered a severe defeat. In the ensuing peace treaty he had to give back the Black Sea ports he had seized in 1697, but the Sultan didn't join forces with Charles XII. In fact, he expelled his Swedish guest from the empire in 1714.

Peter's northern armies took the Swedish province of Livonia (the northern half of modern Latvia, and southern Estonia) and then drove the Swedes back into Finland. Still, Charles refused to yield, and not until his death in battle in 1718 did peace become feasible. In 1721, the Treaty of Nystad ended what became known as the Great Northern War, and restored the Baltic coast to Russia all the way to its border with Finland (then part of Sweden).

Later that year, the Russian Senate granted Peter the title of Emperor, and he was quickly recognised as such by the rulers of Poland, Prussia and Sweden. In 1724, he had his second wife, Catherine, crowned as Empress. The imperial couple had been together since 1703, when Peter met her at the home of his best friend, Aleksandr Menshikov (1673-1729); then known as Martha Skavronskaya, the 20-year-old former peasant and servant was Menshikov's mistress. She soon became Peter's lover. They married in 1712, she took the name Catherine, and bore the emperor several children, both before and after their marriage. Upon Peter's death in 1725, she succeeded him as Catherine I of Russia and died two years later.

Peter's efforts at modernization of Russia

In an effort to move his people away from old customs, Peter often applied unusual and drastic measures. For example, he imposed a tax on large Russian-style beards starting on September 5, 1698; all men except priests and peasants were required to pay a tax of one hundred rubles a year and the commoners had to pay one kopek each. Another example was semi-obligatory assambleyas ("assemblies"), social gatherings with dancing, feasting and drinking. He also forcibly sent sons of nobles to Western Europe for study.

An important development was an introduction of the Table of Ranks. While other tsars would occasionally grant nobility for non-nobles, Peter put this onto a regular, formalized basis: people could gain and advance their position in the society based on their merits before the Emperor.

The Russian Orthodox Church strongly opposed Peter's reforms, rightfully seeing them as the destruction of old traditions and the power of the Church. (On one occasion, Peter ordered the removal of church bells for copper badly needed for cannons.) After the death of Patriarch Adrian in 1700, Peter did not appoint a successor, and in January 1721, he established the Holy Synod to govern the Church, the final step in its subjugation to his reforms.

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Succeeded by:
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