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Peter the Great. Sinner or Saint?
Peter the Great. Sinner or Saint
It is very hard for me to give a character sketch of Peter the Great in a few pages. But I have read so many inaccurate accounts that I feel compelled to try. He had faults although being a psychopath or sadist was not among them. Yes he emptied the treasury for the Great Northern War and raised taxes so that the people were starving. He melted bells for cannons and put the Church under government control. He made the aristocrats serve indefinite terms in the army or lose their estates, borrowed skills from the West and killed his own heir. But he did a great deal of good and felt these measures and others to be necessary.
The theme of his life was economic progress. He borrowed from the West not for its own sake but for Russia. As he said “My brethren, where is the man among you who, twenty years ago, would have conceived the idea of being engaged along with myself in building ships here on the Baltic..And to see our sons returning home accomplished men from foreign countries? ….
The Poles and the Germans formerly groped in the same darkness with which we have hitherto lived....Russians can put to shame other nations with their success in the sciences, they work tirelessly, solidly and gloriously.” 1
Peter was at least 6'5, some say 6'7 and there was a wart on the left side of his face, never painted. His face was roundish and he had a high forehead and fine eyebrows, and a short nose large at the end. His complexion was tanned, his eyes were large and black. He looked severe and stern with occasional epileptic grimaces that were fearful but lasted only a moment.2 A disease now thought to be encephalitis struck him in his early twenties. After that he had no control over some of his facial and hand motions, especially if he was upset. He was described as being very handsome by the royalty of Europe.
As for his character, Peter did not like crowds and he did not like being the center of attention. Charles Whitworth the British ambassador wrote that Peter had a bad temper. His initial response was often anger and violence. He once said “I am sensible that I have my faults, and that I easily lose my temper; for which reason I am not offended with those who are on familiar terms with me when they tell me of it, and remonstrate with me, as does my Catherine.”3 Then when he calmed down according to Whitworth, he went to the opposite extreme. He couldn't make up his mind what to do.
John Bell who knew him described Peter as always in a hurry. He was constantly inspecting or figuring out how to raise cattle or planning a battle. In his “spare” time he heaped his rooms with things he made; boots, chairs, pots, and snuff boxes.. Peter could not even remain sitting down even in church. He sang with the choir even though he did not like the music to avoid sitting still.
John Bell said as a soldier he was a very simple person. Peter was graceful, tall, good looking, clean and plain in dress. He often walked on foot and did not wear boots. On the march he wore a white night cap with a plain flapped hat over it and a short waistcoat. He put on his regimental clothes when getting messages from chieftains of the mountaineers as the Lieutenant-Colonel of the guards.4 Most of the time he dressed like a peasant. He wore his dress suit only on holidays and great occasions.
Peter who could afford any luxury rode around St. Petersburg in a simple two wheeled carriage with two grooms. In winter he had a sledge with one horse and two attendants. On state occasions he borrowed the carriage of Menshikov. As was his habit , Peter would stop to take petitions and if they had merit he would present them at the next senate.5 Peter did his senate business from 4 in the morning till noon. Peter then ate simple dishes such as vegetable soup, cold ham or beef and cheese with black bread with his family.6
In the night he drank until ten at night with friends and then went to sleep.7
Bell said he was almost perfect except for liking women and kindly as a man but not as Tzar.
Peter once told William III he liked the simplicity, neatness and modesty of England, despite being the richest nation on earth.8 His summer house was considered very small with 14 main rooms, seven on each floor. Peter and Catherine had at least five other large palaces, but Peter lived there every summer until he died.
His personal qualities and what he did for Russia are superlative.
On the other hand he was crude. It is well known that Patriarch Joachim whispered to Peter as his last wish to allow Russia no foreign clothes or customs, and to avoid the company of all Lutherans, Calvinists or Catholics. The Patriarch told him their churches should be destroyed.9
Peter reacted to this with complete indifference. He ordered some 'German' suits for himself and later created the Drunken Synod of Fools and Jesters. Adrian, elected after Joachim, was ignorant and unsophisticated. Peter 'celebrated'his election in crude humor. His 'synod' encompassed every form of excess. It was meant to be a monument to decadence, a parody of the Church from the huge piles of food and wine, to the servants waiting on the people without clothes and the guests, dressed as clergy, themselves. It was said to take four days to recover. Some people died from the forced drinking.
And though Peter always said he loved his wife, he was not faithful. Peter was quite open about this. John Bell wrote “Many people represented Peter as a tyrant because they repeated stories picked up at ale houses. This was not his character. He was just and prudent and his humanity over balanced his failings. His greatest weakness was women.”
His attitude on Jews showed his mixed character. Peter once said he hated Jews more than Muslims. But he did not allow pogroms or slaughter and once hung 13 men in the army who were planning to kill the Jews in a conquered Polish town. He stood in front of the synagogue himself. When Peter sent Abraham Veselovsky, a converted Jew, to Vienna look for talent he said “I don't care if a man is baptized or circumcised. The only thing I want is for him to be a good man and to know his business."10
Some European monarchs loved and others hated him. The French considered him a curiosity. Where ever he went in France Peter would stop and question the local farmers and see how they lived. He would take notes on anything of importance in agriculture or technology with dates attached to the viewing.11
Showing great perspicacity Peter wrote his wife from France that the “misery of the common people is great.”12 He asked his entourage how long that system could go on. He said of France “it grieved him to see that her great luxury would soon be the ruin of her.”13
Peter visited the Prussian court when the Princess Wilhelmine was nine. The Tzar was described as simply dressed as a military man, tall, well made and handsome. She wrote nasty things the behavior of Peter . But others said these things were not true. Her brother was at war with Russia at the time she wrote her memoirs
The worst image of Peter came from the killing of his own son. Alexei swore to undo his father's very costly work. There is no doubt that had he become Tzar, Alexei intended to give the Orthodox Church and conservative aristocrats great power. He was not feared by the neighboring monarchs. Peter was concerned with the survival of the progress of Russia. No one in 1718 would say that was assured. '
His son ran away from Russia and then returned. Peter used the occasion to purge or silence the anyone with influence who stood in the opposition. In the end he killed, imprisoned or exiled Alexei, friends of his son, his own half sister, church officials, his first wife's married lover and senators, and their servants.
Alexei admitted he had no intention of returning in the lifetime of his father. He hoped that would be short.14 But worse, he said he would have joined the opposition if they had asked and deposed his father.
Peter forbid any sign of mourning for his son.
His reaction to the death of his four year old son with Catherine was quite different.
For three days and nights he ate nothing. The door to his room remained locked while he threw himself on the walls and screamed.
Jacob Dolgorukis sent notice that the entire body of the Senate must assemble at the outside of the room of Peter. When Peter opened the door Dolgorukis told him because of his excessive and useless sorrow the economy was collapsing. Their enemies, seeing their state were encouraged to make plans. Peter came out of his room and went to work.15
Peter accomplished a great deal for Russia. To the astonishment of all, he won the Great Northern War with Sweden, the greatest power in the area. Later he made the court mourn the death of their King, Charles XII for a week.
Peter built orphanages, cleared out street beggars by making hospitals and arrested whores to prevent venereal disease in his soldiers. He also paved roads, and improved delivery of goods, people and mail. Peter set up factories to make cloth, paper, potash, glass, china, lace, wool, linen and silk. He made a sugar works, and corn factory and introduced the potato. He opened iron, copper, gold and silver mines.16 Peter protected the woodlands for the first time in Russia and approved saw mills.
Most famously Peter succeeding in making a navy. He approved a new table of ranks for the civil service the army and the new navy.17 Competent civilians could rise in the ranks for the first time. He reorganized the government districts of Russia.
But everything went through him. It put a burden on everyone else to get his approval to do anything.
Peter the Great once said “I am represented as a cruel tyrant. That is the opinion foreign nations have formed of me; but how can they judge! They do not know the circumstances I was in at the beginning of my reign; how many people opposed my designs, counteracted my most useful projects, and obliged me to be severe. But I never treated anyone cruelly, nor ever gave proofs of tyranny. On the contrary, I have always asked the assistance of such of my subjects as have shown marks of intelligence and patriotism, and who doing justice to the rectitude of my intentions, have been disposed to second them; nor have I ever failed to testify my gratitude by loading them with favors.”18
1 Massie, Robert K page 725
2 Schuyler , Eugene Vol 2 page 315
3 Von Staehlin pages 266-267
4 Bell, John Vol 2 page 364-365
5Von Staehlin page 243
6Bell, John Vol 2 pages 469-472
7Barrow, John pages 273-274
8Cross, Anthony Glenn Page 97
9 Schuyler, Eugene page 196
10 St. Petersburg Jews “Velesovsky Brothers” on line
11 John Barrow page 300
12 Schuyler, Eugene Vol 2 page 311
13 Troyat, Henri Peter the Great page 190
14 Massie, Robert K page 702
15 Von Staehlin page 300-305
16 Bradford, Sarah Hopkins page 83
17Schuyler Eugene Vol 1 page 39
18Von Staehlin page 292-293