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The Remarkable Life Of Peter The Great, The Physically Enormous Czar Who Modernized Russia

Updated September 15, 2017 2.9k views15 items

Czar Peter the Great of Russia casts a long shadow over history. A giant of a man, with appetites for learning and adventure to match, he did more to modernize his country than pretty much any other ruler before or since. But who was Peter the Great as a man, a father, and a reformer?

Born into violent turmoil between warring factions - and he was kin to all of them - he learned early when to be crafty and when to be cruel. He came to the throne as a young child, and for a time had to co-rule with his physically and mentally handicapped half-brother. Once he attained his majority, he was a shockingly bold reformer, despite wild protests from the nobility and church. Essentially, Peter the Great took the largest country in the world and pulled it forcibly from the medieval era into the early modern era.

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  • He Performed Dentistry Techniques He Learned In Europe On Unwitting Patients

    He Performed Dentistry Techniques He Learned In Europe On Unwitting Patients
    Photo: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Peter possessed a highly curious mind. While on his Great Embassy to Western Europe, he engaged in a wide variety of practical training, ranging from shipbuilding to cheese making to dentistry.

    He was quite proud of what he'd learned from the Western dentists. Upon his return to Russia, he enjoyed "practicing" on the people at court. Saying no to the czar wasn't really an option, so courtiers had to grin and bear it.

  • He Was Responsible For Creating Russia's First Navy

    He Was Responsible For Creating Russia's First Navy
    Photo: Abraham Storck / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Not many people realize that Russia is one-sixth of the entire landmass on Earth. It spans from the edges of Western Europe, down to the Caspian Sea, up north to the Arctic Sea, and across the steppes to Vladivostok on the Pacific shore. Yet this enormous country is very nearly landlocked. For centuries, the Mongols ruled the only warm water port in Russia, the Black Sea, so Russia never developed a navy. Even before he traveled West, Peter was keenly aware that if Russia was ever to develop into a world power, it must have a navy.

    Building one was at the top of the wish list he took to the West. While in England, Peter was aided by King William III, who was eager to improve trade relations with Russia. William gave Peter access to British naval bases, and even gave him a state-of-the-art English ship - Royal Transport - as a gift. He learned more shipbuilding techniques in Amsterdam, as the Dutch at that time were a great naval power.

    Back in Russia, Peter founded the School of Mathematics and Navigation Sciences in 1701 to disseminate modern ideas within Russia. At the same time, an accelerated shipbuilding program was put into place, particularly in the town of Voronezh in the first decade of the 18th century.

    Because of his accomplishments, Peter is known today as the father of the Russian Navy.

  • He Preferred Sleeping In Log Cabins On Bearskin Rugs To Fancy Beds In Palaces

    Despite his lofty title and upbringing, at heart, Peter the Great was a man of simple tastes. He didn't care for ostentation, and sometimes went out in a carriage so shabby that one observer thought it would have been beneath the tastes of an average Moscow tradesman. His manners were coarse; his total indifference to dining utensils shocked the aristocracy of Germany.

    Later, when constructing his new capital of St. Petersburg, he had a log cabin built for himself. For all his arrogance and love of novelty, he was a down-home boy at heart.

  • He May Have Ordered His Own Son's Murder

    He May Have Ordered His Own Son's Murder
    Photo: Nikolai Ge / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Peter the Great's life was not only one of adventure, learning, and partying. His personal life - at least a portion of it - was very different. His first marriage was arranged, something a person with such a controlling personality would have resented, and he never loved his first wife, finally putting her aside.

    A surviving child was born of the marriage - a son, the Czarevich Alexei. He was Peter's sole heir, but Peter was unhappy with how the boy turned out. Alexei was slight and bookish, and loved Western culture. You'd think that would have pleased his father, but Peter treated his son harshly until Alexei left Russia for a time.

    Peter considered this a betrayal, and wrote to his son, demanding his return. He promised in letters that he would endeavor to be more understanding of his son's wishes and lifestyle.

    It was a trap. Alexei returned, but was immediately held like a prisoner. While Peter did not personally kill his son or order his execution, he did instruct guards to physically punish him. Alexei perished as a result of the harsh treatment of his father's guards, and Peter lost his only heir. He would go on to produce more children with his second wife, but only one daughter would survive. She became the Empress Elizaveta, and she perished childless.