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Before the 18th century, Russia was considered a part of Europe only by courtesy. Hemmed in by Sweden on the Baltic and the Ottoman Empire on the Black Sea, the country had no warm water ports. Archangel on the White Sea was its only outlet to the West. Consequently, there was little trade. Besides the physical separation, Russia was separated by the customs and cultural adherence to Eastern cultural and political traditions. During the 18th century, the Russian Empire became a Political power. This became possible because of Peter the Great. His accomplishments forced the West to take notice.

Peter The Great
The Russian Empire is usually dated from the reign of Peter the Great from 1689 to 1725 and with it the beginning of modern Russian history. When he came to power, Peter had two basic goals for his country.

  • Modernize his country in western fashion.
  • Gain warm water ports to access to the west, thus, bringing more trade, recognition, and respect by the other European powers.

Dealing with the West
Peter set out upon his plans by at first sending a grand embassy to the European powers in 1697 to enlist their help against Turkey. He went along, pretending to be a ship's carpenter named Peter Mikhailov, and worked in English and Dutch shipyards. He studied everything from anatomy and engraving to European industrial techniques.

He was determined to give Russia an outlet to the sea, both on the Baltic Sea, which was controlled by Sweden, and on the Caspian Sea, whose shores were held by the Turks and Tartars. He brought European shipbuilders to Russia, and in 1696, with a new fleet, was able to capture Azov, the chief Turkish fortress on the Sea of Azov. As Capt. Peter Alekseevich, he commanded from the Principium, a ship built by his own hand.

In 1700, he felt ready to attack Sweden. With Poland and Denmark as allies, he started the Great Northern War, which lasted until 1721 Peter defeated the Swedes and gained an outlet to the Baltic Sea.

The Treaty of Nystad (1721) ended the war and gave Russia the prized Swedish provinces on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. Sweden became a second-rate military power, and Poland was reduced to a pawn of its more powerful neighbors, Russia and Prussia.

As a result of the victory, the Russian Empire was formed on Oct. 22 (Nov. 2, New Style), 1721. On that day Peter was acclaimed Father of the Fatherland, Peter the Great, and emperor of all the Russia’s, by the Russian Senate, in gratitude for victory in the war.

Internal Affairs
At the same time as he was dealing with the west, Peter was organizing and modernizing his country, internally. He was to all intents and purposes, ruthless in this matter. He implemented reforms and forced his subjects to conform. He founded a navy, introduced factories, reformed the administrative machinery, and organized a modern army. He created a new Russian capital St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland.

In 1703, wanting to "open a window to Europe", Peter began construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress on territory that he had won, which became the new capital city of St. Petersburg and moved his imperial court there in 1712.

In order to populate St. Petersburg, Peter required all upper-class Russians to move there from their estates. This of course caused some hardship on those who were required to do so.

One problem was that the country had no transportation infrastructure. What roads there were only ran east to west, and even then, they were difficult to traverse, especially during the Russian winter. Both Napoleon and Hitler found this out when they tried to invade and conquer Russia.

Peter westernized his subjects by using taxation and implementing new laws. Some examples are below:

  • He put a high tax on beards and Oriental dress to force the people to adopt Western dress.
  • He freed women from forced seclusion. He modernized the calendar, simplified the alphabet, unified the currency, and introduced universal taxation.
  • Russia's first modern hospitals and medical schools were built by Peter.
  • He encouraged the rise of private industry and the expansion of trade.
  • He forced education upon his officers and members of his court because many could not read.

Thus by implementing and enforcing these changes upon his subjects and gaining warm water ports for his navy, during his reign, Peter first achieved a sea to sea empire.

Peter died in 1725. His work survived almost half a century of incompetent rulers. Succession after him was unsteady, and the male Romanov line died out under Elizabeth (ruled 1741-62).

The name was nevertheless kept by her successor, Peter III, a member of the German House of Holstein-Gottorp. His widow, a member of the German House of Anhalt-Zerbst, ruled as Catherine II, who came to the throne in 1762.

She again took up the task of reform. She was widely respected for her charm and intelligence, but her casual love affairs with men younger than she made her notorious.

Romanov Dynasty
For further study on Peter the Great, the Romanov Dynasty, and Russia in general, follow the links below. You will find these sites, informative and educational.

1689-1725 Peter the Great
1725-1727 Catherine I
1727-1730 Peter II
1730-1740 Anna Ivanovna
1740-1741 Ivan VI
1741-1761 Elizabeth
1761-1762 Peter III
1762-1796 Catherine II (The Great)
1796-1801 Paul I

Other sites
To learn more about the Russian Monarchy after Catherine the Greats death, visit the Royal Russia web site.

Imperial Russian Journal
This is the only journal to cover the Russian Monarchy. In its fourth year of publication, covers the Monarchy from the 18th and 19th century. This page gives your subscription information.

Treasures of the Czars
The Moscow Kremlin Museum contains graphics of artifacts from the Russian Monarchy. Enrich your knowledge of Russian history by visiting this site. 

Portions of this article were drawn from Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia Copyright © 1993, 1994 Compton's NewMedia, Inc.