Peter I, called Peter the Great (1672–1725), czar of Russia, 1682–1725. Under Peter's rule Russia began its advance from a relatively primitive land with many Asian customs to a great European power. He wrested the eastern Baltic lands from Sweden and founded St. Petersburg as Russia's capital and its first port with easy access to western Europe. Peter's reforms, though often superficial and haphazard, acquainted Russians with European customs and technology. In the process, however, he increased the power of the czars and pushed more of the peasants into serfdom.

Peter was a huge, powerful man, standing six feet, eight inches (2.03 m). As an adult, he suffered from occasional, often violent, nervous seizures, probably a form of epilepsy. He was an intelligent and farsighted ruler, but he rarely showed restraint over his passions and often flew into wild rages. He was impatient with incompetence and dealt ruthlessly with any opposition.

Peter was three when his father, Czar Alexis, died. He grew up during a period of palace intrigue and once saw several of his relatives slaughtered. At age 10 he was named co-czar with his half-brother Ivan, who was feebleminded. Peter grew up in a Moscow suburb, where his companions were boys of humble birth, many of them foreigners. (Later they formed the nucleus of his army, navy, and civil government.) Peter took a great interest in mechanical arts and later boasted that he learned 15 trades, including dentistry. His special interests were sailing and shipbuilding, although his own country at the time had no navy.

Western Reformer

Peter did not take active control of the government until his mother died in 1694. He became sole czar when Ivan died in 1696. During 1697–98 Peter traveled to Germany, Holland, and England. He was the first Russian monarch to visit western Europe. While touring shipyards and factories he pretended to be a soldier named Peter Mikhailov. Before returning he recruited engineers, artisans, and naval officers for service in Russia.

In order to build a strong army and navy, and to establish mines, mills, and factories, Peter insisted on service to the state from all classes. By requiring new taxes and forced labor from the half-free peasants, he reduced many who were previously free to serfdom. Lacking competent administrators, he created a bureaucratic system in which advancement was to be based on merit and not merely personal favor. The new system, however, became rigid and was little more effective than the old one.

Other changes affected everyday customs. Peter made Western dress compulsory and forbade men to wear beards unless they paid an annual fine. He adopted the Julian calendar and founded Russia's first newspaper. Since the Orthodox clergy was hostile to reform, Peter abolished the office of patriarch. He established the Holy Synod, administered by a government official, to rule the church.

Empire Builder

In 1700 began the Great Northern War with Sweden for possession of the Baltic lands. Early successes enabled Peter to found St. Petersburg on conquered land in 1703. Charles XII of Sweden invaded Russia in 1708 with Cossack allies, but suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Poltava (1709). Russia and its allies—Denmark and Prussia—won further victories before Sweden made peace in 1721, ceding the Baltic lands of Estonia, Livonia, Ingria, and Karelia to Peter. He took the title “Emperor of All the Russias.”

Alexis, Peter's son by Eudoxia, his first wife, sided with his father's enemies. He was sentenced to death in 1718, but died in prison before execution, probably from torture. Peter made his second wife, Catherine, empress in 1724. She succeeded him as Catherine I.

See also Catherine (Catherine I).