Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
When a strong individual rises up to lead into the future, he can be perceived with mixed emotions. He could be seen as the answer to prayer or as the one destroying what once was strong. Peter the Great of Russia was such a figure. His personality and character was reflected in his rule and the new direction he took the great nation.
Russia was a strong nation that could not be ruled successfully with weakness. History had proven that for the country. When Peter assumed the throne, Russia got strength and more in just one man. His very character epitomized the times.
Peter was a very strong man. His muscular built and extreme height at close to seven feet tall made him a very imposing figure. He was reported to be able to physically do as much as two or three ordinary men could do. This was no weak ruler that could be controlled by others. He was a man to stand on his own feet. Many times, rulers in Russia and other nations found themselves under the power of advisors or others longing for the throne. This was not to happen with a man that was physically imposing. Yet, there are some attributes that come with such strength that is not always pleasant.
With strength comes the ability to exercise physical power over others. Peter was known to be physically abusive to anyone including close friends and those of the court. He would beat them whenever the mood hit him. No one was to rule over him but his rule was complete even to the physical extreme. Crossing him was not something that was done by the wise.
Peter was also possessed a very outgoing personality. This especially can be seen in his rather wild interactions with his comrades that involved drinking, women, and physical fun. These excursions could go on for days and enjoyed by all involved. It built up camaraderie with those closest to him, but was also a reason for concern in his personal life.
He was also a man who was heavily involved in the world around him. He did not just lead a nation and an army. He put himself through the professional rise of a soldier or sailor and learned every step of the ladder to admiral and general. Not one weapon was ignored by him. He learned it all and understood everything that he governed. This would serve him well in the military conflicts that would occur in his reign from 1682 to 1725.
One of the greatest attributes of Peter was his mind and the curiosity that possessed him to continually learn. He learned various trades which was extremely unusual for someone in his position. At one time it was said that he was familiar with fourteen areas of trade before he was forty years old which including forging and iron working as well as printing. Eventually the number of trades went over twenty including that of barber and dentist. He practiced these professions on his attendants quite often.
During this time, there are about 18,000 foreigners that called Moscow home. They did not give up their native ways which drew Peter’s attention. He became fascinated with the ways of many Western cultures including German. He went to the Western part of Europe in 1697 and in 1717 and looked to the use of technology that was implemented there. This would become important in the future of Russia as their young leader soaked in everything he could.
He learned to appreciate the wisdom of others but never let them control him. He took control of the nation and began reforming it to bring it into line with the West. He longed to take all of Russia including society, government, and culture and turn it into the Western nations he so admired. He was a leader that saw what Russia could be and not what it once was. He looked into the future and saw “a modern, powerful, prosperous, and educated” empire. This would not happen without its share of problems.
Many saw Peter as a heretic and a man bent on destroying the traditional Russia. This led to rumors of his birth and if he really was the legitimate heir. Many tried to tear him down as he pushed Russia forward and initiated reforms. It was through Peter the Great that Russia pivoted in its advancement and took a more decidedly Western look to it. He was not an angel sent to lead the nation forward. He was a man that was complex and with fault. His reforms were at times “chaotic, piecemeal, and ineffective” and could also be very brutal and violent.
It was Peter’s personality and character that helped drive Russia into the modern age and bring it to a whole new level on the world stage. No more would the nation be as isolated. It would begin to open up to the world and embrace more changes than it had in the past. Not all changes would be good or be effective, but through Peter the attempts were made and exposure to the West was made. The impact of his reforms and his reigns can be seen in the beauty of St. Petersburg that was named after the tsar and designed to reflect his power and strength. It was these characteristics that would push a reluctant nation forward and give it new energy to go where it had never gone before.
Browning, Oscar. Peter the Great. London: Hutchinson and Company, 1898.
Riasanovsky, Nocholas V. Image of Peter the Great in Russian History and Thought. Cary: Oxford, 1992.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia Eighth Edition. New York: Oxford, 2011.