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Peter the Great of Russia | How He Changed Russia Forever...

a painting portrait of Peter the Great

What Was Russia Like Before Peter?

To understand why Peter the Great was so determined, it’s important to understand what Russia was like before him. Before Peter’s life, Russia was undeveloped and had rejected Westernization and modernization.

On the left, you can see what France was busy building in the 1600s. King Louis XIV was building the enormous and grand Palace of Versailles. Meanwhile, Russia was still back in the Middle Ages.

Russia was still medieval, and the aristocracy and Orthodox Church still held enormous power. The aristocracy, made up of the boyars (nobles), were powerful lords who controlled most of the country and numerous times defied the tsars.

To the rest of Europe, Russia was barbaric and uncivilized, completely different than what we see today. Russia had no real infrastructure or big cities. The common people of Russia were mainly serfs and were basically slaves to the boyars. This backward Russia is what Peter was born into in 1672.

The Early Life of Peter the Great

Peter was born to Tsar Alexis and Natalya Kirillovna Naryshkina, Alexis’ second wife. Peter was the 14th child of Alexis. Most of the children born to Alexis and his first wife, Mariya Ilinichna Miloslavskaya, were sickly, while Peter was relatively healthy. However, as soon as Alexis died, the two sides of the family began fighting for power.

a painting portrait of Czar Fyodor III of Russia
Fyodor III

Peter was only four when his father died, and his older half-brother, Fyodor III, became tsar. Through Fyodor, the Miloslavskaya (Alexis’ First Wife’s Family) rose to power. He only ruled for six years, dying at only 20 years old.

When Fyodor III died, the Miloslavskaya (Alexis’ First Wife’s Family), were determined to keep power. Russia’s most important and powerful men (boyars) gathered to proclaim who would be tsar.

The Miloslavskaya (Alexis' first wife's family) backed Ivan, Peter's older half-brother, while the Naryshkina (Peter's mother and Alexis' second wife) backed Peter. The boyars declared their support for the healthier and more capable Peter.

a painting portrait of Czarina Sophia of Russia

However, Ivan's sister, Sophia, persuaded the guard (streltsy) to revolt, forcing Ivan V to share power with Peter. As a result, Ivan’s older sister became regent because of Ivan’s poor health and Peter’s youth. She forced Peter out of the government, so Peter and his mom fled to a village outside Moscow.

How Did Peter Become Interested In The West?

a painted portrait of a young Peter the Great as a kid

Growing up in a village, he did not receive a proper education for a tsar. However, a church clerk gave him a basic education, and Peter became interested in the military, so he played military games with the other kids; some of them eventually rose to become generals in Peter’s army. As Peter grew up, a model fortress