Who was Peter the Great?
Peter the Great (Peter I, 1672-1725), son of the Tsar Alexi, led a wild and perilous youth, while his older sister Sophia ruled as regent, but he later drove her into a convent and ruled jointly with his idiot half-brother Ivan. He gave Ivan precedence but kept all the power to himself.
Peter's first concern was to organize the army on European lines and build a navy. Lacking a seaport, except Archangel he attacked Turkey and captured Azov on the Black Sea (1696). Eager to find out about Western civilization, he set out with an embassy, visiting Prussia, Hanover and Amsterdam, where he worked as a shipwright. He spent three months in England, working on ships in the dockyard at Deptford, and returned to Russia taking with him about five hundred English engineers, surgeons, artificers, seamen and artillerymen. In Moscow he put down a revolt with barbaric cruelty, forced the nobles to adopt European dress and ideas, reorganized the Church and forced peasants into the army or into labor battalions.
In 1700 he declared war on Sweden and after many defeats from Charles XII his generals beat the Swedes at Poltava in 1709. Russia thereby gained a strip of the Baltic coast, where Peter built the port of St Petersburg, a city that was the wonder of the world for its splendor and the speed with which it was built. Meanwhile, he again attacked Turkey, this time losing Azov, but by 1721 he had made peace with Sweden and had won three Caspian provinces from Persia.
He toured Europe a second time in company with the Tsarina Catherine, his former mistress, a slattern whose appalling manners shocked the Courts of Paris and Vienna as much as the behavior of Peter himself, whom they regarded as an insane gorilla. He was certainly a monster of cruelty, a man with no understanding of justice or dignity, but when he died at the age of fifty-two he had made Russia into a modern power, having given her an army and a navy, factories, schools, industries, a system of government, an alphabet, a coinage, hospitals, museums, newspapers and a splendid capital.