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Peter the Great

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Peter the Great

In the span of a lifetime, Peter the Great transformed Russia from long beards and political stagnation to a new contender in the European world. Peter the Great ordered the creation of a Russian navy, started the construction of the city St. Petersburg, and declared Russia a world empire. Behind the political maneuvers, however, was a man infamous for his European tour, enormous height, and cruel temperament.

Peter the Great Facts

Peter the Great (1672-1725) was the fourth Tsar of the Romanov dynasty. He reigned from 1682 to 1725, a man large in both personality and physical size. He stood 6 feet and 8 inches tall, while the average height at the time was around 5 foot 6 inches. Born as Pyotr Alekseyevich (Peter is the English version of Pyotr), Peter gave himself the epithet "the great" towards the end of his reign. Given his accomplishments, historians have struggled to argue against the monarch's self-proclaimed greatness.

Peter the Great Life Timeline

  • 1672 CE: Peter the Great is born in Moscow, Russia, the 14th child of his father Tsar Alexis (Alexey).

  • 1682 CE: Peter the Great begins a joint rule with his half-brother Ivan V.

  • 1696 CE: Ivan V dies, and Peter becomes the sole ruler of Russia.

  • 1697 CE: Peter embarks on his Grand Embassy tour of Europe.

  • 1712 CE: St. Petersburg is made the capital of Russia, the "window to Europe"

  • 1721 CE: Peter declares Russia an empire, with himself as emperor.

  • 1725 CE: Peter the Great dies.

Peter the Great Portrait Study SmarterPeter the Great. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Peter the Great's Troubled Ascension to Power

What follows is a condensed version of Russian politics that led to Peter the Great's ascension to Tsardom. Try not to get tripped up in trying to memorize or pronounce the many different names. Instead, focus on how the following events represented 17th-century Russia and informed Peter as a child.

A family power struggle erupted in Russia following the death of Tsar Alexis I's son Fyodor III. A ten-year-old Peter, another son of Tsar Alexis, was chosen to be the new Tsar, though he was not first in line to inherit Russia. Ivan V, Peter's mentally deficient half-brother, technically had a rightful claim as Tsar. This instigated a conflict between Peter's family, the Naryshkina's, and Ivan's family, the Miloslavsky's. Ivan's sister Sophia was the face of Miloslavsky's resistance to Peter the Great.

Peter the Great Moscow Uprising Study SmarterArt depicting the Moscow Uprising of 1682. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sofia organized the Streltsy guard, the elite guard of Moscow, in resisting Peter's family. Multiple of Peter's family members were killed, and the young boy was forced to flee Moscow, abdicating the throne to Ivan V. Outside of Moscow, Peter the Great grew up directing wargames, sailing in the countryside, and learning under his mother.

Peter's Regiment:

While living outside of Moscow, Peter the Great organized realistic wargames with his wealthy noble friends. They wore uniforms and sought the advice of actual military generals. In their simulated battles, the children were brutal and unyielding, especially Peter. Growing from 50 to 100, and eventually 300 men. Loyal to Peter, this regiment assisted Peter in opposing Sofia's attempted rise to power. After Peter became Tsar of Russia, Peter's Regiment became an official military group, forming the basis for the Russian Imperial Guard.

Peter later reintegrated into Russian politics, wary of Sofia's control over his co-ruler Ivan V. In 1689, Peter the Great stopped Sofia from an attempt at seizing power, succeeding and forcing his half-sister to enter a convent for the rest of her life. In 1696, Ivan V died, and Peter became the sole, undisputed Tsar of Russia. At an early age, he was exposed to backward politics and violence in the Russian court, both of which heavily informed his character.

Peter the Great's Grand Embassy

In 1697, Peter directed a war effort against the Crimean Khanate, a subject of Turkey that controlled the Sea of Azov. Eager to obtain allies in the conflict, Peter the Great embarked on his Grand Embassy tour of Europe.

Peter the Great Grand Embassy Study SmarterPeter partying in Holland. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Traveling under the pseudonym Pyotr Mikhailov (though his height did not help to hide his true identity), the Russian ruler traveled to places such as Holland, London, and Prussia. Peter learned about shipbuilding, artillery, and western politics; he invited engineers from Europe to Russia; he ingratiated himself with European culture, often while drunk at a local pub.

Peter the Great as Absolute Monarch

The Grand Embassy further opened Peter's eyes to the success of Europe and the backwardness of 17th-century Russia. Keen to bring his country into competition with the west, Peter the Great enacted a series of aggressive reforms.

[Peter the Great] did not feel a blind sentimental affection for [the West] but on the contrary approached it with sober mistrust.

-Historian Vassily Kluchevsky

Exercising absolute power over his peoples, Peter the Great instituted the following reforms:

  • Europeanization of the Russian court culture (including shaved beards!)
  • Modernization of the Russian calendar.
  • Reformation of school systems and simplification of the Russian alphabet.
  • Instituted universal taxation and standardized Russian currency.
  • Established a civilian and military rank system that determined a person's status based on merit (and not heredity).
  • Introduced European technologies and ideas in the Russian military and the creation of a Russian navy.
  • Built and established St. Petersburg as the capital of Russia.

This list is not all-inclusive, but it does indicate some of the drastic and swift measures that Peter the Great was willing to take to bring his country up to par. Often, Peter was absolute in his enforcement of these new measures, essentially assuming full dictatorial control of Russia. Some resisted the Tsar, but Russian victories against Sweden in the Battle of Poltava and the Ottoman empire validated Peter's reforms.

Peter the Great, or Peter the Cruel?

Tsar Peter's cruelty is undeniable. Though he was well-liked by his people, his reforms were imposed through intimidation and fear. After his son Alexey fled Moscow as part of a conspiracy and later returned, Peter had Alexey imprisoned and tortured for the rest of his life. After defeating his half-sister Sofia's initiative to seize the throne, he had heard guards executed and hanged outside of the prison cell he kept her in. More than a couple of times, Peter the Great had his opponents beheaded, their heads preserved in a pickle jar for his observance.

Peter the Great Accomplishments

It is my great desire to reform my subjects, and yet I am ashamed to confess that I am unable to reform myself.

-Peter the Great

If Peter the Great's claim as absolute monarch was ever disputed, one can point to the year 1721, when Peter proclaimed Russia as an empire, with himself as the emperor. He adopted the epithet "the great", confident that his reforms had shaped Russia for the better. Before his death in 1725, Tsar Peter announced his wife Catherine as his successor.

Peter the Great Leading Russia Study SmarterPeter the Great leading a group of Russians. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout his reign, Peter the Great had accomplished much in the form of military conquest and political and social reform. He reduced the power of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, seized land in the Baltic that opened up Russia to greater sea trade, and instituted reforms that set the stage for Russia to become a powerful player in European affairs.

Peter the Great Importance

After Catherine's death in 1727, however, there was no clear and long-lasting heir to the Russian throne. For all the reforms Peter had done, he did not ensure a stable Russian future by producing a clear heir. Political battles for succession quickly followed. Nonetheless, Peter's reformed Russian bureaucracy (the system of ranks based on service and merit) assured that the government would survive until the ascension of Catherine II (the Great) to the throne in 1762.

Peter the Great Statue Study SmarterStatue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia. Source: W. Bulach, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Peter the Great's reforms and absolute rule elevated Russia into a modernized, European status in the 18th-century, changing the course of Russian history forever. Many statues of the Russian Tsar on horseback stand tall across Russia, such as his massive statue in St. Petersburg, signifying the lasting importance of Peter the Great.

Peter the Great - Key takeaways

  • Peter the Great, born in 1672, faced much violence and political turmoil in his youth, following the death of his father Tsar Alexey.
  • After defeating the political aspirations of his half-sister and outliving his half-brother, Peter became the sole ruler of Russia.
  • Peter the Great embarked on a tour of Europe, called the Grand Embassy, in which he became exposed to European culture, customs, politics, and technology.
  • During his reign, Peter the Great instituted many reforms in Russian culture, politics, and economy, intent on elevating his country to a competitor with the European countries. The reforms were largely successful.
  • Peter the Great did not leave a clear and long-lasting heir following his death. Political turmoil ensued, until Catherine II (the Great) assumed power in 1762.

Frequently Asked Questions about Peter the Great

Peter the Great died in 1725 due to medical issues, long before Catherine the Great's time. Whether Catherine the Great plotted to kill her husband (also named Peter) is disputed by historians. 

Peter the Great died in 1725 due to various health issues, mainly related to an infection in his bladder. 

Peter the Great was a member of the Russian Orthodoxy Church, a branch of Christianity that is prominent in Russia to this day. 

Peter the Great was a Russian ruler in the 17th and 18th centuries who instituted extreme reforms that modernized Russia and its military.

Peter the Great was reportedly 6 feet and 8 inches tall, much taller than the average 5 feet and 6 inches of males during his time. 

Final Peter the Great Quiz


How did Peter the Great obtain his epithet "the great"?

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He gave it to himself when he declared himself emperor of Russia. 

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Why was Peter the Great's ascension to power so difficult? 

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People were unsure whether the inheritance should go to Peter, a healthy young boy, or Ivan V, a sickly and mentally-deficient man. Political turmoil ensued. 

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What best describes Peter the Great's Grand Embassy? 

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An informal trip across Europe under a false identity, meant to obtain alliances and learn from western cultures. 

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What was NOT a reform by Peter the Great? 

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A formal mandate that all courtly men must wear beards, embracing Russian heritage. 

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How did Peter the Great enforce his reforms? 

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Through intimidation and force.

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What was the general reaction to Peter the Great's reforms? 

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General dissatisfaction, then acceptance based on Russian successes in foreign wars.

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What was significant about the year 1721?

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Peter the Great declared Russia an empire with himself as emperor.

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What was significant about the land in the Baltic that Peter the Great captured through war? 

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It opened Russia's rising navy up to vast possibilities of new sea trade. 

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What was significant about Peter the Great's death? 

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He left no clear and long-lasting heir to his throne. 

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How did Peter the Great reform political verticality (the ability to raise your social status) in Russia?

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He established a civilian and military rank system that determined a person's status based on merit (and not heredity). 

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