Peter the Great’s reign over Russia paved the way for Russia’s future as a world power. His many reforms and westernization of the country influenced millions and left a lasting legacy. The complexity of Peter is astonishing, his intellectual curiosity, combined with his hasty temper and cruelty caused a tumultuous but successful reign as Tsar. His brilliance as a ruler profoundly effected Russian society but his cruel decisions left an indelible mark on his legacy. He established his absolute power by fiercely putting down rebellions and even in personal relations with his wife and children.
His cruelty and anger shown in his decisions gave him the power that allowed him to push Russia forward and allowed him to become the influential leader that he is known as today. Peter’s influence on Russian society was remarkable. He inherited the position of Tsar in 1682 at the age of 10 but did not come to rule until 1689 when he overturned his sister Sophia’s regency and took control over the country with his half-brother Ivan. He took absolute control over the country six years later when Ivan died (Duffy and Ricci 190).
His countless reforms and westernization of Russia left it a much stronger power in European society upon his Death in 1725. His expansion of the military helped Russia strengthen their position in Europe and led to Russia’s acquisition of several key pieces of land. He used reforms to create a stronger, more capable military than Russia had ever possessed. Peter used his army frequently during his reign, only one of the 36 years was peaceful. Peter’s cruelty influenced many of his decisions concerning the Russian Military.
He was quick to suppress any revolts and his punishments were almost always harsh to show that he was not to be betrayed. His sentences for those who betrayed him in the Streltsy Rebellion were brutal. Peter condemned thousands for execution and used torture as a means of inflicting pain on those who had dishonored him, not only as a means to acquire a confession (Hosking 77). His power was shown even more greatly when he brought his own sister Sophia under questioning and confined her permanently to a convent, held under watch of a hundred guards and allowed no visitors (Massie 257).
Peter’s barbarity towards those who revolted against him allowed him to obtain an even greater amount of power in Russia. His intimidation was only elevated by his appearance. Peter was considered a giant in this time period with a towering height of 6’7. His dark features and massive size were very intimidating and allowed him to easily gain the control of his subordinates (Massie 134). During his many travels to Western Europe his attempts at anonymity were often unsuccessful because of his great height and many companions (Troyat 93).
Peter’s extraordinary curiosity about western culture brought forth several trips to trips to the countries of Western Europe, often traveling incognito (Rempel 3). He traveled in disguise so that he could learn about the aspects of Western Culture from a different viewpoint and he gained a lot of knowledge from these voyages. Peter’s frequent travels left Russia unmanned, often for months at a time. His absence often spawned revolts and rebellions among the people (Massie 245). When Peter returned he showed no mercy in putting down the rebellions and asserting his absolute power over the country.
This is when Peter’s true cruelty was shown, his brutality in sentencing those who rebelled brought out a different man, a man who loved to see people suffer, a man we would see more often as his reign progressed. People who expressed negative thoughts about Peter’s decisions were often executed before they had a chance to gain followers and rebel against the Tsar. The Streltsy, bushy musketeers and pikemen, Russia’s first professional soldiers, were often found at the receiving end of harsh sentences (Massie 38). The Streltsy were simple Russians who took advantage of their status in the Russian Military.
Many opened shops but didn’t have to pay taxes on their earnings because of their position in the military and some became quite wealthy (Massie 39). The Streltsy had been under watch from the Tsars for a long period when Peter inherited the position and there were worries about a possible overthrow. The Streltsy were first tricked into marching to the royal family after they were told that Ivan had been murdered. When the Streltsy arrived, it was believed that they were revolting against the royal family when they really had the intention of protecting them (Massie 43).
Upon learning of the deception, the Streltsy were infuriated and stormed into the palace and butchered many including close friends of the royal family. Upon growing tired of the carnage, the Streltsy retreated from the Kremlin (Massie 46). This first murderous revolt was the source of unstable relations between the military class and the Tsars for years to come. Peter and his half-brother Ivan, children at the time, were forced to witness the brutal slaughter of people close to them and it is likely that Peter remembered these atrocities when he condemned many of the Streltsy to die in the future.
During one of Peter’s travels to Western Europe in 1698, the Streltsy once again revolted and marched on Moscow (Massie 226). Peter abandoned his trip quickly and traveled back to Russia. While Peter was traveling back he heard good news, out of the four regiments that had revolted, 130 of the men had been executed and 1,860 were prisoners. Peter had been traveling abroad for over a year so there were many rumors about what might have happened to him. The Streltsy who were not among the first rebellion had grown tired of their poor treatment and decided that it was necessary to overthrow the Tsar.
Panic ensued in Moscow as those remembered the bloody revolt 16 years earlier (Massie 245). The rebellion was quickly put down before the Streltsy could reach Moscow with the help of cannons. The Streltsy who had not been killed quickly surrendered and Peter was assured that not one had escaped. Peter’s words spoke loudly that he was not one to give mercy. He claimed that justice and harshness were closely linked. Perhaps he truly expressed his thoughts on power when he pronounced, “Moscow, would be saved not by pity, but by cruelty” (Massie 255).
Peter sought out all that had any negative feelings about his power and everyone was under suspicion. He believed that someone had to have influenced the rebellion of the Streltsy and looked to his half-sister Sophia for an answer. The Streltsy, had their revolt been successful, would have allowed Sophia to gain power again as regent. Peter brought his sister under questioning but she refused to confess to any charges. He spared her life but confined her to a convent where she was held under tight watch and allowed no visitors (Troyat 53). Peter now moved to the sentencing of the Streltsy who had betrayed him.
The Streltsy that were captured as prisoners were tortured unbearably up until their executions for two reasons. Peter wanted to gain as much information as possible on the uprising and the cause for it but he also wanted those men to suffer for the acts that they had committed and assert his power to prevent further rebellions. The men would be tortured in a variety of different ways but mainly with the batog, the knought, and fire (Massie 256). Upon arriving to their executions, many of these men could not walk as a result of the inhumane torture that they had been forced to endure.
The men went quietly; perhaps because they saw it as an end to the countless hours of pain they had experienced. Every few days, more of the Streltsy were executed and the bodies of all were hung from beams and gibbets, reminding those opposed to Peter to keep silent (Massie 258). Peter almost ridiculed some of those in their executions, he had the leaders of the rebellion hung right outside of Sophia’s room, holding a piece of paper representing the very same petition in which they had asked for Sophia to rule. They remained outside her room for the duration of the winter (Duffy and Ricci 208).
Not all of those who were among the revolting Streltsy were executed though. Men under the age of 20 were branded on the right cheek and exiled from Russia while some had their ears or noses cut off. These men served as constant reminders of the rebellion and how harshly it was put down (Duffy and Ricci 208). It is possible that Peter himself served as an executioner as some sources stated (Massie 260). Peter used this rebellion to strengthen his grip on Russia, asserting his power and shutting down this revolt sent a strong message to his opposition.
Peter realized how crucial it was to maintain the power in Russia if he planned to modernize and strengthen the military; he learned as a child just how important this was. By harshly putting down revolts and rebellions, Peter sent a message to those who were thinking of opposing him. Peter’s cruelty in many ways helped him hold power in Russia. Peter’s complexity as a ruler and his brutality allowed him to keep such a strong grip on the nation and allowed him to radically change his country during his reign, something that might not be possible if he wasn’t feared by the people.
In his later life, Peter once again showed his extreme cruelty by allowing his own son to be sentenced to execution. Peter married a shy girl named Eudoxia when he was 17 years old in 1789 (Duffy and Ricci 196). Their marriage was a disaster because Eudoxia was uneducated and shared little of Peter’s interest of Western Society (Massie 76). Before their marriage would end in 1800, Eudoxia had given birth to two children, Alexis and Alexander. Alexander would die during his infancy but Alexis led a tragic life that haunted Peter (Massie 76)
Alexis, the Tsarevich, and heir to the throne, feared his father enormously throughout his life and was not at all interested in many of the things associated with his father (Hosking 93). Peter struggled to educate Alexis on the things he would need to know in order to become Tsar but Alexis seemed to have no interest. Alexis even questioned his father’s reforms and angered him greatly. Alexis’ hate for his father grew to the point where he would take medicines to make himself ill so he wouldn’t have to make public appearances or duties (Massie 670).
As Alexis’ interests drifted further and further away from Peter’s, he looked for an escape. Alexis worried that his father would deny him of the throne or perhaps even send him to a monastery (Massie 681). In a frantic state, Alexis fled his father’s grasp to the castle of Ehrenberg in the remote Tyrolean valley (Massie 682). He traveled with a few servants and his mistress; a peasant girl named Afrosina. Peter heard of Alexis’ flight while traveling in Amsterdam and was furious about the embarrassment that Alexis was causing him. Peter worried about a cause for rebellion and saw this incident as a possible spark for revolt.
It was essential for Peter to locate his son and reconcile to prevent any further plans of rebellion. Alexis was content with his surroundings however, and still cowered at the thought of returning to his father. When Alexis learned of his father’s pursuit, he fled once again. Alexis and his party arrived in Naples in Southern Italy in early May of 1717 (Troyat 215). Peter had since learned of his son’s whereabouts and made plans to have him followed. He was humiliated by his son’s disobedience and planned on actions he could take to bring him back.
Peter sent Peter Tolstoy, one of his best diplomats to Naples with the mission of returning his son to Russia by any means necessary. Tolstoy was given a letter, which informed Alexis that his father would pardon him if he returned and that if he did not, he would be deemed a traitor, and Peter would use force in order to bring him back (Massie 686). Alexis first refused to return but quickly reconsidered when Tolstoy lied, telling him that Peter was coming himself to seize him. Alexis agreed to return to Russia if he was granted two requests, to be allowed to live a simple life in a country house and that he be allowed to marry Afrosina.