#1 Peter the Great. A man of height

Peter the Great of Russia… So cool a nickname that most of us had probably tried, unsuccessfully, to convince our pals to bestow it on us. Tough work though, you’ll need to squash a few countries in your wake first. So how did Peter suceeded it then? It took him around 21 years of relentless fight against the Swedish Empire, the so-called Great Northern War, for his country to place itself as one of the most powerful in Europe, and for him to add the soubriquet “The Great” in his CV.

Short, angry rulers are believed to be the most eager to prove that good things come in small packages. But Peter was the tallest ruler of his time, at 6’7, or 2.03m tall. Conveniently for Russia, and inconveniently for the NBA, basketball didn’t exist during 18th century.

#2 Tsar of Russia

Born in 1672, Peter was the third son of Alexis Romanov, Tsar of Russia. Alexis died when Peter was 4, and at just 10 years old, Peter was crowned co-Tsar alongside his disabled half-brother, Ivan V. True power, however, rested with his half-sister, Sofia. Displaced to Preobrazhenskoye, in Moscow’s outskirts, Peter grew surrounded by a toy army. With real guns… Only in Russia, comrades.

His toy army expanded, and in the future, it would become Russia’s finest regiments: the Preobrazhensky and the Semyonovsky. Peter, who loved playing the drum and serving as a bombardier, enjoyed unlimited energy and during his whole life, continued to enrol in the lowest positions. Peter only accepted promotions when he felt he merited enough.

A painting of Peter the Great and his ships
A young Peter the First, after he had taken the power from his half-sister Sofia. Author: Godfrey Kneller. Source

From his youth, Peter suffered from epileptic seizures, starting in the left side of the face. Initially a tremor, spasms and convulsions followed, ending with Peter losing consciousness. A beautiful servant, who later became his second wife, Catherine, would take Peter’s head in her lap, stroking his hair and temples until he fell asleep.

#3 The ship builder

Peter’s most characteristic trait, was his passion for ship building, and thanks to the expert advice from foreigners, all of whom were confined in Moscow’s German Suburb, the first Russian fleet was assembled. Once Ivan died, and Sofia was stripped of power and imprisoned in a convent, Peter set off to Western Europe with his Grand Embassy. He insisted in travelling incognito, under the name Peter Mikhailov, a totally useless disguise given his considerable stature.

Peter’s refined his shipbuilding skills in Zaandam, Amsterdam and London’s dockyards, while recruiting many skilled foreigners to teach the uninterested Russian population, who would rather that Peter had left them in peace. A foreign ambassador in London said of Peter that, rather than civilising his subjects the Tsar seemed to want to turn them into sailors.

Tsar Carpenter monument in St Petersburg, accurately depicting Peter doing what he loved the most. Built by L. A. Bernshtam. Photo by: Heidas. Source

Apart from skills, Peter also acquired multi-coloured hobbies. Like rock stars pick drugs during international tours, Peter picked incisive medical tools. And who better to practice on than your own servants? And although Peter wasn’t totally unskilled, his terrified servants hurried to conceal their sickness. Just imagine your giant boss offering to cure you if you dare call sick.

#4 St Petersburg. Peter’s biggest accomplishment 

Returning to the land of the vodka, which Peter and his jolly company downed like authentic Russians, he had already made plans to wage war on the Swedish Empire, siding with Poland and Denmark. The allies happily believed that declaring war on the 18 year old Charles XII was a good idea. It wasn’t.

If you wish to learn about the Great Northern War in more detail, check this simple and straight-to-the-point video:

The Great Northern War lasted 21 years, but Peter finally got what he wanted: access to the Baltic Sea. In 1703, on the shores of the river Neva, Peter laid the foundations for the Fortress of Peter and Paul, which grew to become Saint Petersburg, Russia’s capital until 1917. Russians weren’t much enthusiastic about living in a desolate marsh, where their houses flooded frequently. But Peter was adamant.

Aerial view of Peter and Paul Fortress
Fortress of Peter and Paul today, still the centre of the populous St Petersburg. Attribution: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0. Source

#5 Negative facts about Peter

Although the Tsar was credited with launching Russia into modernisation and turning the country into a dominant European power, he wasn’t a ruler lacking shortcomings. He was prone to outbursts of anger, disciplining servants and aristocrats alike with his cane. Once, Peter caned his chef, who served him a cheese smaller than the one he had measured, and commanded to be stored for him the night before. Probably Peter wouldn’t have caned the poor chef if his broccoli had diminished.

Peter enjoyed working ivory and wood with his lathe, and traditional team sports, like torture. He personally knouted and beheaded some of the Streltsy, the former Tsar’s bodyguards, for a failed insurrection, and had their corpses hung in Sofia’s windows, to deter any attempt to reinstate her to the throne.

In 1718 he had his son and heir, the Tsarevich Alexei, whipped after the latter had fled Russia but was coerced to return. Interrogated by Peter, Alexis admitted that he would have joined a theoretical rebellion against his father, and wished for his death. It was evidence enough. Alexis was sentenced to be executed but died beforehand, as a result of the wounds sustained during the flogging.

Peter seated and angrily looking at Alexis, who stares at the floor, perhaps guilty
Peter interrogating Alexis in Peterhof. Painting of 1871 by Nikolai Ge. Photography author. Source

With his second wife Catherine, Peter had several children, but only Anne and the future empress, Elizabeth, survived to adulthood.

#6 Westernization and the beard tax

Peter was obsessed with learning how things worked, unlike most of us, who are only genuinely interested when our TVs and smartphones jam. While travelling abroad, he insisted on measuring fortresses and bridges himself, even at midnight. He regarded his subjects as unruly children, and attempted to Westernize them, forcing them to wear western clothes, learn foreign languages, travel abroad, and shave their beards, a true sacrifice and sacrilege for the Russians of that time.

Peter dressing the Preobrazhensky Regiment uniform. He holds a sword, a map, and his arm rests on a cannon
In 1721, the Senate offered Peter the title Emperor, and the nickname ‘The Great’. Painter: Paul Delaroche. Photographer. Source

Russians were proud of their messy, bushy beards, which kept them warm during winter, and proved their Russian manliness. To their despair, Peter always carried a razor, and left his subjects’ faces smoother than baby’s buttocks, should they dare to visit Peter unshaven. Luckily for the hipsters of that time, a special tax could be paid to retain the bushy beard.

Those reluctant to part ways with their sexy Russian beards, they could pay the tax, to which they’d be given these tokens as a proof they had complied with the law. Author: U.S. State Department. Source

Peter distasted ceremonies, and loved mocking the ritual-addicted clergymen. Alongside a company known as the Drunken Synod, escorted by dwarves and led by a mock-pope, they would dress like priests or stand half-naked. They rode Moscow with sledges, pulled by boars, donkeys, and even bears. The Orthodox Church wasn’t much concerned about the bear’s wellbeing, but viewed Peter as the Antichrist.

#7 Succession. The wife of Peter the Great

Years of heavy drinking, the tolls of war, and wrestling the stubborn Russian folkwho often fled to Siberia rather than face Peter’s crushing taxesled to a decline in the Emperor’s health. Peter’s bladder was failing, and in 1725, after wading into freezing waters to rescue a squad of stranded soldiers, his condition quickly deteriorated. He died on 8th February 1725. Catherine, who had been crowned co-empress a year earlier, succeeded his husband as Catherine the first of Russia.

Catherine I. Born Marta Helena Skowrońska, of humble origins. A trait shared by many of Peter’s intimates. Painter: Jean-Marc Nattier. Source

Some worshiped Peter as the founder of the Russian Empire and greatest Russian of all time, while others accused him of replacing the Russian culture in favour of the Western ways. Peter’s legacy is wide and controversial, but the best summary perhaps, is from Robert K. Massie: “Peter was a force of nature, and perhaps for this reason, no final judgment will ever be delivered. How does one judge the endless roll of the ocean or the mighty power of the whirlwind?”

Would you like to hear more about our sky-scrapper, Russian friend? I’d absolutely recommend you checking this free preview and buying his biography by Robert K. Massie. And if you liked this post don’t forget to subscribe and comment for more