Peter The Great – Russian Tsar
Peter the Great (1672—1725) was one of the most famous Tsars in Russian history. Although he was often cruel, no one can deny that he changed his country’s future forever.
Peter was unique in many ways. He was six feet eight inches tall and very handsome. He had a lot of energy and great physical strength. Peter was wild, and he sometimes had bad manners. But he was very bright and he wanted to learn about everything. Every day he added to his knowledge and improved his skills. He loved to play games of war and also liked ships and sailing. He enjoyed hard work and building things with his hands. Peter also liked ordinary things. He liked to dress in old, simple clothing. He had a huge appetite, but liked to eat simple foods such as bread, cabbage soup, and cold meat. Peter hated formal occasions and behavior. He refused to allow people to kneel to him just because he was the tsar.
In those days, there were great changes in European culture, science, and education. However, the noblemen in Russia did not want any changes. They didn’t travel outside Russia and they didn’t want foreigners in their country. There was a group of Europeans in Russia who worked as government and military advisers. Peter knew many of them. Several of these Europeans were his closest friends.
Peter wanted Russia to be as great as the European countries. He decided to go to Europe to learn everything he could. But, he did not want to travel as the leader of a country. He wanted to be free to study and learn. So he took a large group of men with him and disguised himself as a common soldier. It wasn’t easy to hide the huge and powerful Tsar of Russia, and soon everyone in Europe knew about the traveling Russians. Their customs and clothing were very peculiar. However, many people were most upset by their bad manners. For example, they completely destroyed a beautiful English country house where they stayed. They used chairs to make fires, tore up sheets and beds, shot their guns at priceless paintings, and ruined the beautiful gardens.
Peter was as bad as his men. Nevertheless, his travels were a great success. Peter’s dream was to create a powerful Russian navy, so he had to learn shipbuilding. He worked for four months in a shipyard in Holland. Then he went to England and worked in a shipyard there. Everywhere he went, he asked questions and learned more. He learned watchmaking and studied the human body. In fact, when he returned to Russia, he even helped doctors perform surgery. Peter learned many other things in England. The Bishop of Salisbury taught him about religion and government. King William III ordered his ships to have a pretend sea battle so Peter could learn about military command. Peter sent many, many things to Russia — machinery, scientific equipment, and even an English coffin. He hired hundreds of specialists, such as engineers, doctors, shipbuilders, naval officers, and technicians to go back to Russia with him. When he returned to Russia, Peter wanted things to change quickly. As tsar, Peter had complete power over his people and he used this power to make them change. Often he was cruel and heartless. If people didn’t do what he ordered, he cut off their hands, beat them, or killed them. He even ordered his own son, Alexis, to be killed because Alexis didn’t agree with his ideas.
Peter wanted everything to change — the government, the military, and religion. He built canals, factories, schools, hospitals, and museums. He changed the calendar and the alphabet. He developed a new system of government and started Russia’s first newspaper. He even changed what people ate. Many Russians were starving, but they didn’t eat potatoes. People called them the “devil’s root.” But Peter helped them change their minds. Many of Peter’s changes cost a lot of money. So he taxed the Russian people until they had nothing left. They paid taxes on everything from boots to drinking water.
He also wanted to make changes in people’s personal lives. For example, at that time Russian men had beards; European men did not. So Peter passed a law that all men had to shave off their beards. If a man wanted to keep his beard, he had to pay a tax. Peter wanted the rules to be followed, so sometimes he took a razor and removed the men’s beards himself. Peter did not like the noblemen’s long robes either. First he cut off the sleeves of the robes. Then he made the noblemen kneel down and he cut the robe where it touched the floor. The noblemen were very upset to see their beautiful robes cut. Soon Peter passed a law that all men and women had to dress like Europeans.
Peter greatly improved the lives of Russian women. At that time, men had complete power over women and often treated them badly. Women were not allowed to be out alone. They hid their bodies under a lot of clothing and painted their teeth black. In addition, fathers chose their daughters’ husbands. Peter said women had to become part of the modern world. He made men and women eat meals together and go to parties together. Women were forced to wear European clothes and were no longer allowed to paint their teeth. And for the first time, women could choose their own husbands.
In addition to changing and rebuilding Russia, Peter wanted to get more land for his country. He went to war with Sweden, and took over a lot of land in the area. He built a new capital city, Saint Petersburg. It was a cold, wet, and empty place, but Russia needed a port city for its navy. Saint Petersburg was called “the city built on bones.” Thousands of men worked for almost 10 years. Conditions were so bad that 200,000 men lost their lives. When it was completed, it was one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Peter continued to build and modernize Russia right up to his death at the age of 53. Peter the Great’s force and energy made his country into a modern power and made him into a legend.
There are a lot of monuments to Peter in different Russian towns and cities.
From What a Life! Stories of Amazing People By Milanda Broukal © A Pearson Education Company