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Peter was the son of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich and Natal'ia Kirillovna Naryshkina, born in Moscow on May 30th, 1672. Alexei had five sons and eight daughters by his first wife, but only two, Fedor and Ivan lived and they were sickly. Fedor became tsar when Aleksei died in 1676. He died childless in 1682, leaving the throne to the half-brothers Ivan and Peter. Each was the child figurehead for a contending faction centered around their mothers' clans, the Miloslavskii and Naryshkini, respectively. A regency was declared with their elder half-sister, Sophia, as regent and control of the government in the hands of her lover, Prince, V. V. Golitsyn. The young Peter witnessed the often bloody battles between the clans and riots of the streltzi guards. But in general his youth was spent in seclusion and regal privilege. Peter's mother arranged his marriage in 1689 to Evdokiia Fedorovna Lopukhina. They had a son, Alexei, whom Peter had tried for treason and executed. Alexei had a son who became Peter II. Peter divorced Evdokiia and married (Catherine1) They had two daughters, Elizabeth, who engineered a palace coup to gain the throne, and Anna, the mother of the future Peter III. The family is shown on this chart.

During Sophia's regency two major but unsuccessful campaigns were attempted against the Crimean Tatars, much to Peter's disgust. In 1689 Sophia attempted to use a streltzi revolt to eliminate Peter and place herself on the throne. Peter fled to the fortified Trinity-St. Sergius monastery from which he rallied his forces including the regiments commanded by foreign officers such as Patrick Gordon. Sophia was placed in a convent and Peter's clan took control, but Peter himself spent most of his time sailing and organizing his private regiments along Western lines. He increased recruitment of foreign military specialists. Recognizing that Crimea was too difficult a target, his first major military effort was directed against the Turks at Azov. The first campaign, in 1695, failed utterly, but Peter issued decrees ordering boyars and merchants to construct ships on the Don and the following year returned to capture the city. In 1697 he went on a "Grand Embassy" lasting 16 months throughout Western Europe as far as England, Holland and France. His initial objective was to organize an alliance against the Turks, but failing this he agreed to the proposals of King Augustus "the Strong" of Saxony that the time was ripe for a war against Sweden. He was successful in recruiting thousands of Dutch, English, and other expert artisans and military specialists to help him establish a modern navy as well as improve the Russian army. After signing a peace treaty with the Ottomans, he turned his attention to the main objective, gaining access to the Baltic Sea. Peter conducted secret mobilization of new regiments during 1698-99 and opened the Great Northern War in 1700 with a surprise attack to besiege the Swedish border fortress at Narva, while the Swedish King Charles XII and army were busy fighting in Denmark. Peter did not reckon with Charles's military genius or audacity. The Swedes quickly forced Denmark to sue for peace and then rapidly transferred their army to Livonia. By fall Charles surprised Peter, routing the Russian army and capturing nearly all its artillery. Peter fled to Moscow, but immediately set about building a new army and casting new cannon from confiscated church bells. He expanded state revenues by 300% or more and devoted over 90% of it to the military.

Charles made a strategic mistake by spending most of 1701-1708 maneuvering against Augustus in Poland and Saxony while Peter trained his new army by conducting raids and small-scale attacks in Livonia and Lithuania. Peter captured the Swedish fortresses on the Neva River, securing his long sought access to the Baltic, and went on to capture Narva in 1704. In 1708, when Charles turned again against Russia by shifting his troops into eastern Poland for a campaign against Moscow, Peter was ready. He executed a "scorched earth" strategy, blocking Charles' direct path toward Moscow and forcing him southeast into the expanses of Ukraine. Charles expected major reinforcements and supplies from the Cossacks ruled by Hetman Mazeppa, but Peter preempted his by sending a mobile detachment to destroy the Cossack Sech. He also destroyed a Swedish relief column bringing critical supplies and artillery at Lesnia. Finally, in 1709, as Charles was attempting to capture the key supply base at Poltava, Peter appeared in person with his much enlarged and better trained army. Charles reacted in typical fashion by launching a frontal assault against the Russian force over twice as large as his and dug in with field fortifications. Peter's counterattack and subsequent pursuit destroyed the Swedish army and Charles was forced to flee into Turkey.

For the remainder of the war Peter focused attention on building a navy in the Baltic capable of wresting control from the Swedes and in gaining control of the coastline in Finland, Courland and Lithuania. By 1725 he had 44 major ships in the Baltic and an army of 170,000 or more equipped with Russian made uniforms and weapons. The transformation of Russian industry made necessary by this enormous expenditure constituted one of the most profound and lasting changes of his reign. Charles died in battle in Norway in 1718 and his successor brought the war to a close with the treaty of Nystadt in 1721.

The military transformation was accompanied by equal or greater changes in all aspects of society. Peter decreed the adoption of Western methods and manners in dress, housing construction, education, medicine, city planning, government administration and much more. He reorganized the control of the Russian Orthodox Church, placing it under state control. Peter's new capital, St. Petersburg, became a thoroughly European city in which thousands of Westerners taught and helped administer the empire. The Russian language itself gained thousands of Western European words. When he died in 1725, Peter had set Russia on a course that integrated its artistic and cultural life with that of Europe and soon brought it to the rank of a major European and world power.


Here is the entry on Peter I from the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.


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