Leading biographer, Derek Wilson, explores the many facets of Peter I, Emperor of all the Russias; his physicality, his energetic personality, his intelligence and his cruelty. But the political achievements of this monumental figure are what have inspired generations of historians and ordinary people.
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Derek Wilson is a leading biographer and the author of several critically acclaimed and bestselling books including The Astors; Hans Holbein; and more recently, The King and the Gentleman, about Charles Stuart and Oliver Cromwell.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
PETER THE GREAT
1SurvivalHe stood at the top of the Red Staircase between the Cathedral of the Assumption and the Palace of Facets - a dark-haired, wide-eyed ten-year-old, already tall for his age. He huddled close to his mother, who had one arm around him and the other round his half-brother. Ivan. The tension in Tsarevna Natalya's body told him that something was very wrong. She had gathered the two boys hurriedly from their rooms in the palace and rushed them out to face a bewildering scene. Below them, in the square, stood a crowd of soldiers brandishing muskets and shouting. 'Here are Tsar Peter and Tsarevich Ivan,' Natalya cried, and that seemed to calm the angry mob.Then, three or four soldiers advanced up the steps, intimidating with their calf-length vivid caftans, helmets and vicious pikes. They approached the shrinking Ivan. 'Are you really the Tsarevich?' one of the bearded strel'tsy demanded. 'Yes, yes,' the petrified child stammered. Peter stared at the men and felt his mother's grip tighten on his upper arm. He wondered what would happen next.Two of his mother's friends advanced down the steps and addressed the soldiers. Young Peter wanted to steal back to the quiet and safety of the palace, behind closed doors. But he was rooted to the spot. He could not understand what was passing between the mutineers and the government leaders; did not know what the men intended to do with those terrible sharp halberds. He soon discovered. With a sudden shout, the mob surged forward. They grabbed the two men on the staircase. The screaming victims were impaled on those hideous spikes. Then their bodies were thrown to the ground, and hacked and slashed to pieces. With a cheer, the soldiers rushedup the steps. Did Peter cry and bury his face in his mother's robes, as some people reported, or did he stand, glaring at the murderers with calm defiance, as others would have us believe? One thing is certain. As the rebellious strel'tsy surged past into the palace in an orgy of looting and destruction, the scene imprinted itself on Peter's mind and never left him. He would grow up to hate Moscow and all it represented.
'We are Europe.' That claim was made in 1814 by Alexander I, Emperor of All the Russias. He spoke on behalf of the crowned heads of Europe. Bearing in mind the major role the Tsar had played in overthrowing Napoleon's attempt to destroy the old order, none of his fellow monarchs demurred. A century earlier, such a claim would have seemed utterly incomprehensible. The apparently endless territory beyond the Dnieper and the Dvina had been, to most Westerners, a mysterious place peopled by semi-barbarians who espoused alien religions - either Islam or a heretical form of Christianity. The few travellers who did venture into the interior - most of them Polish Jesuit missionaries sent to enlighten the benighted Orthodox Slavs -- brought back stories of a brutal land populated by hard people, most of whom were nomads or semi-nomads and knew nothing of broad-streeted cities with elegant palaces and neatly laid-out parks. Cartographers in Amsterdam, Paris and London, struggling to fill the large empty spaces on their maps, thought in terms of 'Russia in Asia' and 'Russia in Europe'. The man who almost single-handedly made his people aware of the world that lay to the west and made the West aware of his people, land and culture was a roaring giant of childlike enthusiasms and psychotic complexity, of whom one English observer recorded, 'I could not but marvel at the depth of the providence of God, that had raised up such a furious man to so absolute an authority over so great a part of the world.'1 That furious man was the remarkable individual known, with good reason, as Peter the Great. He shifted the whole direction of history, and the fact that, twenty years after the superpower struggles of the Cold War, statesmen of the so-called 'free world' still pay anxious court to the men who rule in Moscow is testimony to the altered relationship inaugurated by the fourth Tsar of the Romanov dynasty.When, in 1696, Peter became de jure sole master of the world's largest land empire, few people within his territory and fewer outside it understood just how extensive it was. It was bounded by the White Sea in the north and the Caspian in the south, but from east to west it extended more than ten thousand kilometres, from the frontier with Poland to the northern Pacific coast. The exploration and colonisation of Siberia is a story that, for adventurousness, courage, savagery, missionary endeavour and commercial exploitation matches and even exceeds the opening up of the DarkContinent and the European settlement of North America. It was fired by the religious impulse to convert pagan tribes and by the quest for furs, which took the place in the Russian economy that spices and precious metals had held for the expansionist Iberian nations of the sixteenth century. But it was the consolidation of Russia's position west of the Urals that preoccupied rulers in Moscow throughout the two hundred years following Ivan Ill's successful emancipation from the Mongols in 1480.The principality of Muscovy was one of several landlocked Russian farming/mercantile states periodically harassed by nomadic tribesmen from the steppes. It never knew a period of sustained peace. Even after 1480, its rulers constantly struggled with neighbouring chieftains in order to secure their frontiers or improve their trading positions. Muscovy extended its rule over other Russian principalities only to find itself hemmed in by Sweden, Poland and Turkey, who were determined to keep the alien nation out of their markets. Periodic wars imposed financial burdens on Muscovites and contributed to political instability. Between 1598 and 1613, Muscovy experienced the 'Time of Troubles', an era of turmoil and bloodshed remarkably similar to England's Wars of the Roses. Rival noble houses competed for the crown. Legitimate claimants vied with pretenders. Military leaders changed sides with an eye to their own advantage rather than the good of the people. Rulers even hired Polish mercenaries. The conflicts only ended when the exhausted magnates called an assembly of nobles, gentry, clergy and leading townsmen to elect a new tsar. Their choice fell on Michael Romanov, distantly connected with the already legendary Ivan the Terrible (1547--84). The Russians had found a dynasty that would rule them for almost exactly 300 years.The comparatively stable period that followed did not dispel the basic problems faced by the state. Muscovy was a country driven in on itself. Powerful neighbours blocked any intercourse with western European nations and denied it direct contact with the commercial highways of the Baltic and the Mediterranean. In the political claustrophobia of Moscow, aristocratic and dynastic intrigues festered. They came close to destroying in infancy the child born to Tsar Alexis and his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina, in 1672.The Tsar was in theory an autocrat and in reality dependent on the support of the boyars. These were the top noble families, normally around thirty in number. Their ranks were augmented, usually annually, when the Tsar conferred the title on favoured individuals. Their loyalty was a matter of personal and religious adherence to the divinely anointed Tsar; there were no legal or constitutional ties. It was a loose arrangement that inevitably lent itself to the forming of factions and obliged the ruler to be negotiating constantly for support. Naturally he turned first to his own family and the families with which he was connected by marriage. In his need for men he felt he could trust, he might also raise up favourites and place them in positions of power. It was a system, if such it can be called, that encouraged jealousy, corruption and court intrigue. Weak tsars were manipulated by those around them. Strong tsars had to be ruthless.Alexis Mikhailovich enjoyed a long reign (1645--76) thanks to his ability to balance the leading boyar families. However, in his later years, desiring to give the crown greater independence, he raised up a low-born favourite, Artamon Matveev, and it was this man who more than any other created the circumstances that coloured the early years of Peter's life. Matveev was the son of a clerk who rose up the ranks in the diplomatic service. Artamon chose a military career, and by the 1660s he had his own regiment of musketeers, whose duties included guarding the Tsar. Alexis was impressed with the young man and entrusted to him various administrative and diplomatic tasks, which he performed with both efficiency and flair. Thereafter his rise was rapid, and by 1670, Matveev was the Tsar's right-hand man. This coincided with important developments in the royal family. Alexis' first wife, Maria Miloslavskaya, had recently died. She had presented him with thirteen children, but only three had survived infancy: a girl, Sophia, and two boys, Fedor and Ivan. Both sons had weak constitutions, and in the hope of providing Russia with a healthy heir, Alexis decided to marry again. A shortlist of suitable high-born maidens was drawn up and, inevitably, the leading boyar families fell to scheming and manoeuvring over the rival candidates for the royal bed.Matveev favoured the seventeen-year-old Natalya Naryshkina, who came from a family of moderately wealthy landowners to whom he was distantly related. Natalya's father, Kirill Naryshkin, was a member of Matveev's regiment of musketeers. The favourite could thus count on the support of the Naryshkins as he made his plans to safeguard his position in the event of Alexis' death. Everyone knew that the two Russian princes were unlikely to be long-lived. Fedor was described as 'very unhealthy and melancholic', while Ivan was 'humpbacked and nearly blind'. Matveev intended to put in place a strong-minded tsaritsa who would underpin his own position and,God willing, provide Russia with another heir who would come into his own as soon as his stepbrothers were no more. The situation was quite plain to Matveev's enemies, and they immediately swung into action. Poison-pen letters accused Natalya of having an affair with a Polish nobleman, and rumours were spread that Matveev was using drugs to influence the Tsar. Their schemes came to nothing. In February 1671, Alexis and Natalya were married. Fifteen months later, the new Tsaritsa gave birth to a healthy son.The favourite certainly stood to gain from the success of his candidate, and, after Alexis had chosen Natalya, further rewards were not slow in coming Matveev's way. In 1674, he received the ultimate accolade, the rank of boyar. All the political activists in Moscow were now looking to the future, when Alexis would be replaced by one of his weak and malleable sons. Matveev had the immediate advantage, and he used it to remove the relatives of the late Tsarina, the Miloslavskis, from Moscow and appoint them to positions in distant regions. Other boyars were also dismissed from high office in favour of men of lower rank who owed their positions to the favourite. Natalya's relatives were, of course, among those brought to the Kremlin and given important jobs. Her father was also raised to boyar status. But Matveev's enemies kept a close eye on him and used every stratagem to hamper his attempt to build up a 'party'. He was obliged to proceed with caution and fate was not on his side. Tsar Alexis fell suddenly ill in January 1676 and died within a few days.This resulted in thirteen years of turmoil that ultimately degenerated into a reign of terror. Natalya and her young son were seldom out of danger. The majority of the boyars resented her because of her humble origins and her connection with Matveev, but the more conservative among them had other, personal grievances. They thought her an ambitious, 'liberated' woman, contaminated by foreign influences. She had spent some of her impressionable teenage years in Smolensk, where her father held a military post, and had come into close contact with the hated Catholic Poles. She lacked the submissive, unthinking respect for ancient institutions that was expected of Russian women. Her open-mindedness communicated itself to Peter during his early years, when mother and son were thrown especially close together by shared adversity.One of the first acts of the new Tsar, Fedor, was to recall and reinstate members of his mother's family, the Miloslavskis. The tables were turned on Matveev, who was dispatched into exile at Pustozersk, in the treeless wastes of the Malozeml'ska Tundra, three thousand kilometres from Moscow. Prominent members of Natalya's family were also ordered away from the capital and placed under virtual house arrest. Natalya herself kept a lowprofile in the Kremlin palace with her three children (Natalya was born in 1673 and Fedora, who died at the age of four, in 1674). However, she could not fail to be aware that Peter was the subject of increasing interest and speculation. He was obviously more robust than his half-brothers, and it soon became clear that he would grow to be very tall. Young Peter was a bright, intelligent lad who responded well to the instruction of his excellent tutor, Rodion Streshnev. Calculating members of the political class realised that the son of Alexis' second marriage might yet succeed. But not if the current Tsar and his relatives had anything to do with it. In July 1677, Fedor got married and everyone at court watched the new Tsaritsa carefully. They had to watch for a long time. Not until July 1681 was Fedor's wife brought to bed of a child. And then the rejoicing was cruelly cut short. The Tsaritsa died during the birth and her baby son followed within hours. Seven months later the desperate and ailing Tsar tried again, taking a fifteen-year-old bride, against the advice of his physicians.Every move in the roller--coaster adventures of the royal family affected the fortunes of Peter and his mother. In the spring of 1682, restrictions against Matveev and the Naryshkins eased. The ex-favourite returned to his estate near Moscow, and Natalya's relatives were readmitted to the court. Their reinstatement was an attempt by the Tsar to assert his independence by displaying favour for men his father had trusted. But his strength for the task was rapidly failing. On 27 April, the semi-invalid Tsar Fedor died. Faced with the choice between the fifteen-year-old half-blind, mentally impaired Ivan and the nine-year-old healthy Peter, the majority in the boyar council, the duma, voted to proclaim Peter tsar. It seemed that the Naryshkins' long ordeal was over. But the worst was yet to come.Over the next few months two events occurred, and it is not altogether clear exactly how they related to each other. Behind the scenes the Miloslavskis moved to safeguard their position. Peter's election meant that Ivan's family now risked being sidelined -- or worse. They might well have feared a backlash once Matveev and the Naryshkins were back in power. What they needed was to have Peter set aside in favour of Ivan. There was no law of primogeniture in Russia and there could be no doubt that Peter had the potential to make the better ruler. Any contest, therefore, was entirely governed by family rivalries and not by considerations of what might be best for Russia. The person who emerged as leader of the Miloslavski challenge was Tsar Alexis' third surviving daughter, Sophia (born 1657). She had the support of one of the leading boyars, Vasily Golitsyn (who may also have been her lover).The other event was the revolt of the musketeers, the strel'tsy. The strel'tsy were the nearest...
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