Happy birthday Peter the Great!
Peter 1, Tsar of Russia from 1682 to 1725, was born 344 years ago on 9 June 1672. He’s considered one of the country’s great reformers, dragging Russia out of mediaeval oblivion and transforming it into the powerful nation it still is today.
Peter the Great – some say he nicknamed himself – centralised the government, secularised schools, modernised the army and created a navy. Energetic and decisive, he ruled with an iron fist, subjugating the peasant classes, but developed commerce and industry to capitalise on Russia’s potential. Taxes were high, making him unpopular with the masses, but there’s little doubt the money for the most part was wisely spent. A larger than life character, he really knew how to live: handsome and tall, he bore eleven children from two marriages.
Under Peter’s rule, Russia acquired territory overseas, first taking Estonia, Latvia and Finland as well as devoting much time to attempts to expand to the eastern Mediterranean and push back the Ottomans. He was smart but ruthless. In 1709, Swedish forces discovered that to their cost when they were tricked into heading for what’s now the Ukrainian city of Poltava in the depths of a harsh winter. Victory gave Peter the Great the access to the Baltic Sea that he so craved. Expansion brought with it status; in 1721 Russia was declared an Empire and with it, Peter became Emperor of All Russia.
Although he was born in Moscow, Peter the Great is most associated with the city in which he died. He established the city of St Petersburg in 1703, choosing to site it on the banks of the Neva River, a location which gives it such appeal today. The first building to be erected was the Peter and Paul Fortress, never actually used for the defensive purpose for which it had been intended. Over the years, it’s been a military base, government offices and even a jail for political prisoners, but these days it’s a museum.
Peter the Great also built the Winter Palace, home to the iconic Hermitage. The Hermitage is now a world-class art museum with three million different works by history’s most talented painters. It’s no wonder this beautiful building features on every itinerary, no matter how short. Peterhof or Petrodvorets, on the outskirts of the city, was the Tsar’s splendid summer residence, surrounded by fountains and parkland. It too wows the crowds, another of this elegant city’s incredible sights.
There are numerous monuments to Peter the Great throughout the city, testament to his enduring appeal. His grave can be found at the St Peter and Paul Cathedral, and, like the fortress and palaces, it’s an essential stop on any St Petersburg itinerary.