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#1 Peter the Great. A man of height

Peter the Great… So cool that most of us had probably tried, unsuccessfully, to convince our pals to use this nickname on us. Tough work though, you’ll need to squash a few countries in your wake first. But you can start with the weak and unaware ones I suppose.

Meme of The Simpsons TV show. Bart is about to hit an unsuspected Homer with a chair.

What about Peter? It would take 21 years of fighting the Swedish Empire, during the Great Northern War, to allow Russia to gain access to the Baltic Sea, for Peter 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.

Michael Jordan cries
We know M.J. It’s so unfair Peter wasn’t drafted for the Chicago Bulls

#2 Peter 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… what the fuck?

“In Russia, small comrades can use rifles”

Ivan, Russian Peasant. 1684

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.

Peter with royal regalia and armour
A young Peter the First. Notice the ship in the background

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 Peter 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.

“Oh, here comes a giant Russian called Peter. The Tsar is also a giant. And his name is also Peter? Must be a coincidence”

Smart Dutch carpenters. Amsterdam 1698

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 make them sailors.

Statue of Peter building a ship
Tsar Carpenter monument in St Petersburg, depicting Peter

Apart from skills, Peter also acquired multi-coloured hobbies. Like rock stars take their pick of drugs during international tours, Peter picked incisive medical tools. And who better to practice on than your own servants? Although Peter wasn’t totally unskilled, his terrified servants still concealed 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 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.

“I’ll beat the shit out of this royal brat”

Peter about Charles XII, 1700

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. St Petersburg city
Fortress of Peter and Paul, in the centre of the 5 million inhabitants St Petersburg

#5 Negative facts about Peter

The Tsar 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, the Tsarevich Alexei, whipped after he fled Russia, and 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 of the knout wounds before it took place.

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

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

#6 Peter, Russia, 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 martial 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’

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 the poor devil’s face smoother than baby’s buttocks, should they dare to visit Peter unshaven. Luckily for hipsters, a special tax could be paid to retain the bushy beard.

Russian churchmen with long, thick white beard
Peter wasn’t into these sexy Russian beards

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 folk, who fled to Siberia rather than face Peter’s crushing taxes, led to a decline in the Tsar’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 the First. Peter's wife
Catherine I. Born Marta Helena Skowrońska, of humble origins. A trait shared by many of Peter’s intimates

Some worshiped Peter as the 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 250% recommend you checking this free preview and buying his biography by Robert K. Massie:

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