In the year 1698, Tsar Peter set forth upon his first voyage to western Europe. He travelled by way of Berlin and went to Holland and to England. As a child he had almost been drowned sailing a homemade boat in the duck pond of his father's country home. This passion for water remained with him to the end of his life. In a practical way it showed itself in his wish to give his land-locked domains access to the open sea.
Peter the Great in the Dutch Shipyard
While the unpopular and harsh young ruler was away from home, the friends of the old Russian ways in Moscow set to work to undo all his reforms. A sudden rebellion among his life-guards, the Streltsi regiment, forced Peter to hasten home by the fast mail. He appointed himself executioner-in-chief and the Streltsi were hanged and quartered and killed to the last man. Sister Sophia, who had been the head of the rebellion, was locked up in a cloister and the rule of Peter began in earnest. This scene was repeated in the year 1716 when Peter had gone on his second western trip. That time the reactionaries followed the leadership of Peter's half-witted son, Alexis. Again the Tsar returned in great haste. Alexis was beaten to death in his prison cell and the friends of the old fashioned Byzantine ways marched thousands of dreary miles to their final destination in the Siberian lead mines. After that, no further outbreaks of popular discontent took place. Until the time of his death, Peter could reform in peace.
It is not easy to give you a list of his reforms in chronological order. The Tsar worked with furious haste. He followed no system. He issued his decrees with such rapidity that it is difficult to keep count. Peter seemed to feel that everything that had ever happened before was entirely wrong. The whole of Russia therefore must be changed within the shortest possible time. When he died he left behind a well-trained army of 200,000 men and a navy of fifty ships. The old system of government had been abolished over night. The Duma, or convention of Nobles, had been dismissed and in its stead, the Tsar had surrounded himself with an advisory board of state officials, called the Senate.
Russia was divided into eight large "governments" or provinces. Roads were constructed. Towns were built. Industries were created wherever it pleased the Tsar, without any regard for the presence of raw material. Canals were dug and mines were opened in the mountains of the east. In this land of illiterates, schools were founded and establishments of higher learning, together with Universities and hospitals and professional schools. Dutch naval engineers and tradesmen and artisans from all over the world were encouraged to move to Russia. Printing shops were established, but all books must be first read by the imperial censors. The duties of each class of society were carefully written down in a new law and the entire system of civil and criminal laws was gathered into a series of printed volumes. The old Russian costumes were abolished by Imperial decree, and policemen, armed with scissors, watching all the country roads, changed the long-haired Russian moujiks suddenly into a pleasing imitation of smooth-shaven west-Europeans.
In religious matters, the Tsar tolerated no division of power. There must be no chance of a rivalry between an Emperor and a Pope as had happened in Europe. In the year 1721, Peter made himself head of the Russian Church. The Patriarchate of Moscow was abolished and the Holy Synod made its appearance as the highest source of authority in all matters of the Established Church.
Since, however, these many reforms could not be successful while the old Russian elements had a rallying point in the town of Moscow, Peter decided to move his government to a new capital. Amidst the unhealthy marshes of the Baltic Sea the Tsar built this new city. He began to reclaim the land in the year 1703. Forty thousand peasants worked for years to lay the foundations for this Imperial city. The Swedes attacked Peter and tried to destroy his town and illness and misery killed tens of thousands of the peasants. But the work was continued, winter and summer, and the ready-made town soon began to grow. In the year 1712, it was officially declared to be the "Imperial Residence." A dozen years later it had 75,000 inhabitants. Twice a year the whole city was flooded by the Neva. But the terrific will-power of the Tsar created dykes and canals and the floods ceased to do harm. When Peter died in 1725 he was the owner of the largest city in northern Europe.
Peter the Great Builds His New Capital
Of course, this sudden growth of so dangerous a rival had been a source of great worry to all the neighbours. From his side, Peter had watched with interest the many adventures of his Baltic rival, the kingdom of Sweden. In the year 1654, Christina, the only daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, the hero of the Thirty Years War, had renounced the throne and had gone to Rome to end her days as a devout Catholic. A Protestant nephew of Gustavus Adolphus had succeeded the last Queen of the House of Vasa. Under Charles X and Charles XI, the new dynasty had brought Sweden to its highest point of development. But in 1697, Charles XI died suddenly and was succeeded by a boy of fifteen, Charles XII.
This was the moment for which many of the northern states had waited. During the great religious wars of the seventeenth century, Sweden had grown at the expense of her neighbours. The time had come, so the owners thought, to balance the account. At once war broke out between Russia, Poland, Denmark and Saxony on the one side, and Sweden on the other. The raw and untrained armies of Peter were disastrously beaten by Charles in the famous battle of Narva in November of the year 1700. Then Charles, one of the most interesting military geniuses of that century, turned against his other enemies and for nine years he hacked and burned his way through the villages and cities of Poland, Saxony, Denmark and the Baltic provinces, while Peter drilled and trained his soldiers in distant Russia.
As a result, in the year 1709, in the battle of Poltawa, the Moscovites destroyed the exhausted armies of Sweden. Charles continued to be a highly picturesque figure, a wonderful hero of romance, but in his vain attempt to have his revenge, he ruined his own country. In the year 1718, he was accidentally killed or assassinated (we do not know which) and when peace was made in 1721, in the town of Nystadt, Sweden had lost all of her former Baltic possessions except Finland. The new Russian state, created by Peter, had become the leading power of northern Europe. But already a new rival was on the way. The Prussian state was taking shape.