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

Updated September 15, 2017 3.3k views15 items
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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.

  • Photo: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Czar At 10, He Saw Members Of His Own Family Slain Before His Eyes

    Peter became czar when he was only 10 years old. But at first, he was co-ruling with his half-brother Ivan, who had some type of developmental and mental disabilities. This joint rule was a result of Peter's father having had children with two different wives. Both powerful families wanted a stake in ruling Russia, even if Ivan's family knew he would never be able to officially rule.

    This tension between the two most powerful ruling families led to violence. When Peter was still a boy, he witnessed the brutal slayings of several members of his mother's family, including two of his uncles. The crime was perpetrated by the Streltsy, an elite unit of guardsmen controlled at that time by the young Czar Ivan's family.

    Growing up surrounded by violence and intrigue formed Peter's character, making him cautious and, at times, cruel.

  • Photo: Nikolai Nevrev / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Toured Western Europe Like A Rock Star

    The mentally challenged Czar Ivan perished when the half-brothers were still young. Everyone who saw them together remarked on how very tall, handsome, and strong young Peter appeared. So when he was able to rule completely on his own, the rival families retreated somewhat. They would return later, but this was Peter the Great's moment in the sun. He stood nearly 7 feet tall with broad shoulders: When Russians call him "Peter the Great," what they mean is "Peter the Huge." His manner and outlook matched his physical stature. 

    Peter married a noblewoman and produced a male heir. He also determined to modernize the enormous land he ruled. His own father, Alexis, was interested in bolstering Russia's reputation in Europe. Russia was, at that time, still a rather backward country, with precious little infrastructure, almost no secular culture, and a court that was downright Byzantine.

    Czar Alexis's reforms were a major influence on his son, who was determined to drag his mostly unwilling countrymen into the modern era. To that end, he arranged what was called the Grand Embassy, a retinue of Russian noblemen and craftsmen who traveled with him to Western Europe. The intent was to learn the ways of Westerners and bring back new knowledge and technology, as well as art and culture, which Peter hoped would lift his country out of the medieval era.

    While Peter achieved these aims, he and his men also did much to validate Western opinions of "wild Russians." The Great Embassy's men - along with their czar - behaved like rock stars in hotel rooms. For example, in England, they were provided with an elegant house to stay at; they promptly trashed the place. Peter happily paid for the damages, but no money could repair the damage to his and his countrymen's reputation.

  • Photo: Valentin Serov / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Peter I Is Famous For Breaking Open Windows, But He Also Stepped On A Lot Of Toes

    The traditional saying goes like this: Peter the Great broke open windows to the West. And he certainly did. There was almost nothing that he did not try to improve about life in Russia - even on a personal level. For example, he demanded that all noblemen and their families abandon the Byzantine caftans, fur-trimmed hats, and other remnants of traditional Russian attire, and don the latest fashions from Paris. This included knee breeches for men and powdered wigs and faces for everyone.

    But these reforms came so swiftly and suddenly that they offended a number of Russians, noble and otherwise.

  • Photo: Vasily Surikov / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Some Russians Thought He Was The Antichrist

    Peter the Great's reforms shocked everyone, but most eventually went along with the czar. However, when he insisted upon Orthodox Church reform, he ran into trouble. The czar and the Church had always worked hand-in-glove, and the Russian church was extremely powerful and influential.

    A small percentage of the Orthodox faithful so opposed Peter's reforms that they were willing to perish defending the old ways. For example, there was a heated debate about how many fingers one should use when making the sign of the cross. The "Old Believers" maintained that only two fingers - the index and the middle finger - should be used. The reformers insisted on three (representing the Holy Trinity, and after all, it's what the oh-so-modern Westerners did).

    It may sound crazy that anyone took this seriously, but it was a real dispute in Peter's Russia, and some burned themselves alive in their own churches to oppose his religious reforms. Some even claimed he was the Antichrist.