Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert Massie

Peter the Great

Summary

  1. Peter the Great westernized and modernized Russia in the 17th and 18th centuries. He developed their seafaring capabilities, opened Russia up to western technology, trade and customs and all this pushed Russia into the global scene. Peter was one of the most energetic and hard working people in history
Key Takeaways
  1. As a child, Peter was robust and very healthy, unlike his sickly step brother Ivan. He was fascinated by war from an early age and believed in meritocracy which was almost unheard of in Russia at this time. When he was a older, he wouldn’t accept a promotion in his army until he felt he deserved it
  2. Was extremely curious and learned many practical things but lacked formal education and could hardly read and write
  3. He found an old English boat and this sparked his life long love of sailing and the sea as well as his fascination with the west (in a time when anything foreign was typically deemed evil) – 2 huge themes for the rest of Peter’s life
  4. Peter reached a height of 6’7 and had boundless energy but also slight tics and convulsions when faced with stress
  5. After an important win over the Turks, Peter ramped up his efforts to build up a navy and sent 50 noble men to Western Europe to learn how to build and man the large vessels that were being built. This was only the beginning as he would send hundreds more in the coming years to learn western ways and establish connections with the west. Peter also decided to travel to the west for 18 months incognito in 1697 to learn their ways. This was a turning point in European history as it opened up secluded Russia
  6. The Great Northern War with Sweden over lands in the Baltic would take over 30 years and consume much of the rest of Peter’s life. Russia gained back some of her ancient lands from this war and Sweden’s power weakened. Charles XII was in power in Sweden at this time and lead one of the strongest and best trained armies in the world. He was crowned king at 15, was smart and stubborn and a thrill seeker and ashamed of any sign of weakness. His first decisive victory over the Russians made him very cocky and he would pay for it later in his life with huge losses coming from the Russians
  7. Peter had an important victory over the Swedes on the Baltic and quickly started building a new city in 1703 – what is now St. Petersburg. It cost many lives and took much effort but it soon became a city. Peter forced laborers and nobility alike to move to st Petersburg so that the city had a population. Everyone but Peter hated the city as it was damp, there was little food and floods and fires broke out regularly. Eventually it of course became central to Russian politics and culture
  8. Would eventually marry Catherine. She was also born very poor and soon an orphan but through her beauty and wit was able to capture the attention of Sheremetev, then Menshikov and then Peter himself. She would marry Peter in 1711 and bear him 12 children but only 2 would live let a young age – Anne and Elizabeth. She never forgot where she came from and was tough but feminine and perfect for Peter
  9. Peter and his son Alexis were very different in that his son did not enjoy war, shunned his duties as a tsarevich and was more intellectual. He was educated and married in Dresden as Peter wanted in order to get western ties into the family. Peter eventually became so frustrated with Alexis that he said he had removed him as heir to the throne. Alexis escaped to Vienna and then Naples out of fear for his life but soon returned after his father summoned and forced him to come back. Alexis was charged with treason and tortured but exactly how he died is a mystery
  10. After the Great Northern War, Peter began focusing on internal initiatives – made the government more efficient by implementing the senate and began opening colleges. Also made everything more meritocratic – reversing centuries of donning positions in the military and government based solely on birth. Also was not afraid of bringing in foreign experts to help start and teach about anything – a new practice in xenophobic Russia. He also took big steps at eliminating bribery and corruption in government with strict punishments. Established an industrial economy and promoted private enterprises. Established a consistent currency in order to bolster and make trade more efficient. Made st Petersburg Russia’s biggest port but was not able to create a successful merchant marine as other world powers had a near monopoly. All of these things took their toll on the Russia citizens in the form of very high taxes but they never borrowed from foreign governments or went to to debt. Peter was also much more practical and tolerant in terms of religion and did much to change how the church was run and administered. He did not like pomp or ceremonies and preferred simple foods and lived frugally. He had a bad temper and often hit and punished those around him as he flew into a tantrum. He tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to introduce culture into st Petersburg through theater and music but the most important addition was the implementation of the Academy of Sciences
  11. Peter died at 53 years of age on January 28, 1725 after 43 years of rule. He was one of the most influential men in Russian history and forever changed their course
What I got out of it
  1. I had no idea how much Peter had done for Russia in terms of modernization and opening it up to the rest of the world. He had to overcome so much of the old Russian mentality where anything or anyone not from Russia was looked down upon and demeaned. With his energy, work ethic and vision, he changed the face of Russia forever.

Read Peter the Great

  • At the beginning of Peter’s reign there was only one seaport – Archangel
  • The Russians are an interesting people – deeply religious, fear anything foreign, drink heavily and are steeped in tradition and it seems very sad or at least brooding in many respects
  • His mom died when he was 22 and he was deeply sad but after that he stopped performing in Kremlin rituals and started doing whatever he wanted to do
  • Peter was getting his fleet built by the Dutch and remodeled the Russian naval flag (which was eventually adopted for the whole country) after the Dutch flag
  • Peter often worked very hard and along side of regular people – to build ships of in times of war which was very unusual since the tsar was usually considered a type of Demi God
  • Louis XIV was in power at the same time but him and Peter never met as the French were somewhat allied with turkey while Russia was at war with them
  • On his travels he first started in northern Germany and then to Holland to learn ship building from the worlds finest. Holland was at the height of its power at this time and they had more merchant ships than the rest of the world combined. Amsterdam st this time was the richest city in the world
  • Peter was endless in his curiosity and loved living and being just another carpenter. His identity was difficult to conceal and he was soon discovered but managed to arrange things so he could still just be another carpenter
  • At 21, William of Orange took control of the army and was able to fend off the attacking French by essentially flooding much of the land around Amsterdam. Almost as a fluke he became king of England and he took with him his almost obsession with keeping France at bay
  • Peter’s tireless energy and enthusiasm is fun to hear about. He loved staging wars and would often get so into it he would join and do crazy stuff
  • After Holland went to England where William of Orange was now king and he learned a lot about shipbuilding and came to respect the English tremendously
  • Favorite drink – brandy laced with peppers
  • After England he went to Vienna where king Leopold I was ruling. He did not like Vienna much and was on his way to Venice when he got word the Streltsy revolted. He turned back to Moscow but the revolt was crushed before he got back. He stopped in Poland which before was an enemy but the new king Augustus and Peter became great friends
  • The Great Embassy was over and their goal of gaining alliance against the Turks failed but they exposed Europe to Russia’s true culture and learned a lot. When he returned he did away with beards and traditional Russian clothing, changed to follow the western calendar And did away with his wife
  • War of the Spanish Concession – when King Carlos II died, the Spanish throne went to a grandson of Louis XIV but Louis accepted for him. Europe geared up for war in order to keep France from also gaining all of Spain
  • Alexander Menshikov was not a stable boy but befriended Peter and rose very quickly and eventually became a Russian prince. He acquired great power and wealth but stole from the state and was punished. He was peters best friend after Le Fort died and was instrumental in helping Peter westernize Russia
  • The Russians ended up winning at Poltava and when they did Europe took notice and Sweden’s power began to decline
  • Ottoman Empire reached its height in the mid 16th century. They tolerated many different religions and Constantinople had one of the largest populations in the world with about 700,000 people. The harem was strictly for the sultan and protected by black eunuchs who often gained substantial powers. The harem was full of women who were so willing to please they’d do anything for the sultan
  • The Russians mobilized against turkey but lost at Pruth and had to give back all the land they conquered from them and since King Charles XII was with Turkey at the time they had to give him free passage back to Sweden. Turkey could have gotten much more for Sweden but they achieved all their goals and didn’t need to acquiesce to Swedish goals
  • Peter’s dream of conquering the Black Sea and Azov were out to rest after this defeat. Russia simply was not strong enough to handle westernization, fending off Sweden, and the building up St. Petersburg while also conquering these lands
  • Prussia was coming into its own in the early 1700s with an organized and efficient government run by King Frederick William and his son Frederick the Great
  • Russia wanted to take Finland away from the swedes so built galleys which were more maneuverable and could navigate the shallow waters of the rocky coast better than the big Swedish navy could and easily took over southern Finland starting in 1713
  • Russia and Turkey made peace and this forced Charles to leave. He finally returned to Sweden after being away for more than 15 years
  • Peter brought in a French architect trained under Le Notre (designed Versailles gardens) named Le Blond. He helped design St. Petersburg as well as Peterhof, the Summer Gardens and many more impressive buildings
  • In 1716 Peter again returned to the west to try to improve his health, build allies and try to finally end Sweden once and for all
  • Louis XIV died and with this the alliances of Europe and the balance of power began changing. France now allied with England and Peter saw a chance to gain a very powerful ally who used to back Sweden. He stopped in Paris to pay the new king a visit and to explore the French capital which was much smaller, dirtier and more dangerous than what we know now
  • King Charles could not let go of his grudge with Russia. Although Sweden was in bad shape, he resumed war preparations and had to drag men from all over the country and raise taxes astronomically high in order to be able to support an army. Goertz took over as finance minister and did a great job. He convinced Charles to at least try negotiating a peace with Russia but before anything could be agreed upon, Charles was killed in battle in Norway
  • In 1721, a treaty was reached between Russia and Sweden, ending more than 20 years of war. Russia celebrated with enormous festivals and dinners
  • During his final years he attempted to grow trade and trade routes. Unsuccessfully often with China and the Middle East
  • His son and heir, Peter Petrovich died and this left his parents distraught for months. Peter decided that rulers after him could name their successors, and he named his wife, Catherine I, as the next tsarina. She didn’t change much and was only alive for 2 years to rule. Even during that time, Menshikov was the true ruler of the Russian state

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