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Peter the Great Looks West

The Tsarina, Alexius' first wife, Mary Miloslavski, died in 1669 trying to bear her fourteenth child. Of the five sons she bore, two had survived. The eldest, Theodor, was not healthy. Alexius remarried in 1670, and in 1672 his wife, Natalya Naryshkina, bore him a son: Peter, the future Peter the Great. The messy succession that was common to monarchies was in the making.

In 1676 Alexius died. Theodor, at the age of twelve, inherited the throne as Theodor III. The Miloslavskies were pleased and eager to reestablish their power. Soon Theodor was married and under pressure by the Miloslavskies to produce an heir. The Miloslavskies were warned that the effort might be too much for Theodor, and the warning appears to have been correct. In 1682 at the age of twenty he died, without his wife bearing him a child. Theodor's brother, Ivan, now 16, was half-blind, had a speech impediment and was uninterested in ruling. Theodor's half-brother, Peter, was bright, healthy and aggressive. Peter's mother, Natalya, was named regent, and Peter was named tsar. This conflicted with Miloslavski's fondness for power, and they staged a coup, with Peter witnessing the murder of members of his mother's family. A council of nobles trying to settle matters made Peter and the half-blind Ivan co-tsars. Peter's mother was dismissed and the grown daughter of  Alexius and Mary Miloslavski, Sophia, was made regent over the boys. She ruled with the support of the Miloslavski family and enjoyed the power, finding it superior at any rate to the usual isolation of royal daughters. The inevitable showdown between Peter and Sophia took place in 1694 when Peter reached the age of twenty-two. Peter won the men with arms to his side, luring and threatening holdouts. Sophia lost hope that she would be able to exercise the violence needed to combat her younger half-brother. Peter sent an embittered Sophia to a nunnery, and he executed some of her supporters on the charge of treason.

Peter had been interested in sailing and boats. He had spent much of his later teens learning boat building and sailing with Dutchmen on Lake Pleschev, eighty-five miles northeast of Moscow. He enjoyed being treated by the Dutch as a common apprentice. His mother, however, was annoyed by his interest in foreigners. She arranged his marriage, but Peter was bored by his wife's conversation, still preferring his life with the Dutchmen at Lake Pleschev, and his wife joined his mother's dislike for those foreigners who were stealing her husband's attention. Peter was inquisitive and independent in his thinking. He was a skeptic and unimpressed by Church admonitions that foreigners were evil people.

Peter was aware of the superiority of Western Europe, and in 1697, at the age of twenty-five, he went abroad for eighteen months to learn and to experience life in the West. He went first to Amsterdam, then the wealthiest city in the world –  its harbor packed with sailing ships. In Amsterdam he worked in a shipyard. He visited factories and mills, museums and botanical gardens. He walked the streets, seeing well-dressed and friendly people. He visited Amsterdam's open-air market, where goods of all kinds were available.  He visited people in their homes, met with architects, inventors and engineers, and he found himself interested in printing and the surgery of Fredrik Ruysch, who was preserving bodies with chemicals. With his Russian and Dutch companions he enjoyed Amsterdam's taverns. And he was impressed by what he saw of religious toleration. Then Peter went to England, second to the United Netherlands in wealth. He went also to Vienna and he returned home through Poland, arriving back in Moscow in 1698 eager to change Russia.

Sources

The Origins of Capitalism in Russia: Industry and Progress in the 16th and 17th Centuries, by Joseph T Fuhrmann, 1972

Russia in the Age of Peter the Great, by Lindsey Hughes, 2000

A History of Russia, by Nicholas V Riasanovsky, Third Edition, Oxford University Press, 1977

The Economy and Material Culture of Russia, 1600-1725, by Richard Hellie, Chicago University Press, 1999

Peter the Great, by Robert K Massie, 1980

The Romanovs, by Virginia Cowles, 1971

Copyright © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.