Czar Peter: The ruler who changed Russia's destiny

ERHAN AFYONCU
Published 01.11.2019 01:19

The question of who actually writes history is a much-debated issue about which many theories have been produced. According to one of these theories, history is made by charismatic leaders. British historian Thomas Carlyle describes in his book "On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History" the roles of leaders throughout history who have shaped the world and led the masses.

Czar Peter's reign in Russian history is cited as an example of the role played by leaders in the progress of nations. Peter (Petro) ascended the throne in 1682 at the age of 10, but he had to share the throne with his half-brother Ivan, who was chronically ill and mentally impaired when his half-sister Sophia led a rebellion of the Streltsy (Russia's elite military corps). Ivan and Peter were proclaimed joint czars, with Ivan being named as the senior. Sophia acted as regent during that period and held the actual power.

Sophia forced Peter to live with his mother Natalia in a village outside Moscow. During this period, Peter mastered Latin, German and Flemish and kept reading. He became friends with Europeans visiting Russia and inquired about their civilization.

His greatest passion was navigation. As a boy, he formed a flotilla of small boats and organized naval maneuvers in Lake Pleshcheyevo. In 1689, the shadow on his throne was removed through a plot hatched by Sophia and her accomplices, who aimed to eliminate him for good but failed.

Sojourn in Europe

In 1697, he traveled incognito to Western Europe on an 18-month journey with a large Russian delegation of 270 members. He visited the Netherlands and Britain. He spent some months at the shipyards in Amsterdam and Zaandam, gaining practical experience in shipbuilding. During his stay in Europe, he examined everything he saw.

He had sample models made. Ottoman statesman and historian Cevdet Pasha wrote of Peter's sojourn in Europe as, "Peter the Great was a man who traveled across Europe, lived there and learned sciences and technology there. Since our rulers had no such opportunity to travel and observe, we suffered from inexperience."

Upon his return from Europe, Petro initiated his reforms. He had Russian nobles, whom he forced to dress like Europeans, cut off their beards. He personally shaved the beards of those who refused to shave.

Russia had no standing army before Peter's reign. The Russian army was composed of soldiers provided by nobles, Cossacks, the Streltsy and foreign mercenaries, who made up half of the army. Peter formed the first national army of Russia. He introduced compulsory military service, thus removing the need for mercenaries.

He also extended the use of firearms and emphasized military education. He established military academies for training the staff who would use heavy weapons in the land army and navy. Before Peter, Russia had no navy as it had no port either on the Baltic or the Black Sea.

He established Russia's first navy and turned his country into a naval power, too. He eliminated the Streltsy, who were similar to the Ottoman janissaries. Following the failed Ottoman siege of Vienna, Peter joined the Holy Alliance against the Ottomans and captured Azov.

After suffering numerous defeats, Peter eventually defeated Charles XII of Sweden in the Battle of Poltava. However, his army was routed by the Ottomans in the Pruth River Campaign in 1711. But the Ottoman Grand Vizier Baltacı Mehmet Pasha missed the opportunity to wipe out the Russian army. In 1716, Peter paid a second visit to Europe. At the time of his death in 1725, he left behind a very different Russia.

He transformed his country

The first few years of Peter's reign saw Russia stuck in economic backwardness. The czar launched widespread reforms to remedy the situation. He allowed merchants and craftsmen to form their own municipalities for the development of towns, improved the guild system and strived to promote industry.

Before Peter, industrial enterprises in Russia had been limited and the ones that existed were mostly run by foreigners. Peter put the most critical industrial sectors under state monopoly and enabled the emergence of new sectors through state subsidies.

The number of items produced locally when he ascended the throne was just 21. At the time of his death, however, the figure rose to 200.

Peter increased his country's foreign trade volume by sevenfold, reformed the land ownership and allowed serfs to work in industrial jobs. He made the Russian calendar conform to European usage. He launched the first Russian newspaper, Vedemosti.

In 1724, he established the Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Peter reformed the education system and sent a lot of students to Europe, allowing non-nobles access to education. He had various books in Western languages translated into Russian.

He turned the church into a government department. He tried to unify all Orthodox Christians around the world under the Russian Orthodox Church. He founded Saint Petersburg, which would replace Moscow as the capital city. Russian Czar Pyotr Alekseyevich I, who was introduced to us as "Crazy Peter" in history classes, is known as "Peter the Great" in the rest of the world.

Ottoman documents at his time used to refer to him as "Grand" and "Akbıyık/White Mustachioed." Later on, probably in order to deprecate him, we began to call him "crazy." Actually, Peter I was a giant of a man physically. He would have deserved that nickname again with a height of over 2 meters, but what made the world call this czar "great" is the great works he did for the history of his nation.

Peter's biography

Türkiye İş Bankası Cultural Publications have long been publishing quite detailed and voluminous biographies of great figures. So far, the biographies of 39 important names, who left their marks in various fields ranging from politics to science and from music to theater, have been released.

Among them are: Winston Churchill, Otto von Bismarck, Benjamin Franklin, Simon Bolivar, Maximillien Robespierre, Buddha, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Julius Caesar, Hammurabi, Marco Polo, Kubla Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Paul Dirac, Sarah Bernhardt, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mozart and Beethoven. The latest publication within the series is Robert K. Massie's 1,062-page tome "Peter the Great."

The book examines in detail such critical turning points in the czar's life like Peter's childhood, his ascent to the throne, grabbing power, travel to Europe, wars with King Charles XII of Sweden, the Battle of Pruth, his relations with ambassadors and the founding of Saint Petersburg.

As in many other biographies of and documentaries on Peter, however, the Battle of Pruth is not given due emphasis in the book. I believe that the publication of other biographies of rulers such François I, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Charlemagne, Katherine II, Friedrich II, Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, who played important roles in the history of their own nations, will greatly help enrich the literature in Turkish.

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