#26. Peter the Great

“Ladies and gentlemen of the court caught sleeping with their boots on will be instantly decapitated.” –Tsar Peter the Great

The smallest person on our list is followed by its largest. In 1696, the six-foot, seven-inch, 24-year-old Peter Romanov inherited a backwards Russian kingdom, but he transformed it into an empire that rivaled those of the West. In fact, it’s because of Romanov that we can even consider Russia, despite its mostly Asian geography, a Western nation at all. By the end of his reign, he set Russia on a trajectory that would one day fly over all other European nations.

For this reason, Romanov — better known as Peter the Great — is deservedly the 26th most influential person in Western history.

In 1672, Peter was born to Tsar Alexis I and his second wife, Natalya.[1] The seventeenth century Russia into which he was born did not resemble the formidable Russian Empire of later days. While the European powers of Spain, Portugal, Britain, and France were already grinding their footprints overseas, exporting Western culture to other continents, the isolated Tsardom of Russia struggled for an identity.

Centuries earlier, before the turn of the millennium, an east Slavic ethnic group known as the Rus consolidated around the city of Kiev in eastern Europe.

Not exactly prime real estate, but they were just holding on after the Housing Crisis of 1204.

Kieven Russia remained a sizable eastern European polity for several hundred years. By the mid-thirteenth century, however, pressure from an aggressive Asian people, the Mongolians, fragmented the Rus, and they were integrated into the enormous Mongolian Empire.[2]

Biggest. Contiguous land empire. Ever.

Russia — the land of the Rus — became the latest addition to an Asian composite of conquered peoples.[3] This invasion developed into an identity crisis for the Russians. Were they still European if they were governed by an Asian people?

Even after 1480, when the Grand Duchy of Moscow broke away from the disintegrating Mongolian Empire and unified most of the Rus, the new Russian leaders had an easier time acquiring eastern, Asian territory than they did the better defended European lands to their west. At the turn of the sixteenth century, with Moscow as the new capital of an expanding Russian state, Ivan the Terrible became its first “tsar,” and the “Russian Tsardom” was born. Ivan and his successors continued to push eastward.

I’m going to assume all PPFA readers are smart enough to read Russian.

Deeper and deeper into the Asian continent they went until they became, in geographical terms, mostly Asian. As a result, Russia absorbed more and more people who looked less and less European.

Meanwhile, major cultural differences existed between Western Europeans and Russians. In fact, while Russia, in terms of its geography, seemed to be both European and Asian, in terms of its culture, it was often neither. It was a Christian Orthodox nation, whereas Western Europe in 1500 was almost fully Catholic and Asia a smattering of Muslim, Daoist, Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and others. Additionally, Russia’s unique Cyrillic script and language set it apart from the Latin alphabet of the West and the ideographs of the East.[4] And, while the light skin color of western Russians said European, their unique style of dress and beards on the men’s faces said no such thing. They even slept with their shoes on, a practice already considered uncivilized by Westerners.

Thus, before Peter the Great, Russia was neither geographically nor culturally Western. Most of it lied in Asia, as did millions of Asian Russians, and they practiced a different kind of Christianity, wore different clothes, wrote different letters, and had different social mores.

More significantly, Russia had done little to keep up with the modernizing European continent. Technologically and culturally, it fell centuries behind. It had no Renaissance, no Reformation, no Scientific Revolution.[4] It’s as if Russia was stuck in the Middle Ages. Its army and navy lagged woefully behind. Its Orthodox clergy controlled education. There was no quality literature or art, no emphasis on mathematics or science. In Western Europe, the seventeenth century was the century of Galileo and NewtonDescartes and Locke. It was a century of a rising merchant class. Rural peasants moved to growing cities for diverse employment.

But as serfdom faded away in the West, it had been increasing in the Russia inherited by Peter Romanov. And while Western Europe, with its numerous warm-water ports, sailed the seas and brought in unprecedented profits from subjugated colonies, Russia pushed eastward, finding nothing but icy coasts, frigid taiga, and the remnants of a malformed Mongolian Empire that had relied more on pillaging than infrastructure. In this case, going eastward was the equivalent of going nowhere, and it seemed to be the only thing the Russians were doing fast.

And then came Peter the Great. In 1696, he inherited sole control over the Russian state.[5] His lengthy and educated tenure as heir-apparent allowed him to analyze everything that was right with Western Europe and wrong with Russia.

He determined that the best way to catch the European powers was to become like them, so an undercover Peter traveled to Western Europe to learn about it.[6] Tsar Peter I transformed into Sergeant Peter Mikhailov and set off for Europe as part of a “Grand Embassy” of over 200 Russian diplomats ostensibly led by a trio of ambassadors who tried to form alliances with European countries. He also ordered 50 Russian nobles to scatter throughout the West to learn about, and then report on, its culture and innovations.

The Grand Embassy first stopped in Holland. As his ambassadors lobbied the Dutch court, Peter, who dreamed of a great navy for his kingdom, secured a pedestrian position as a ship carpenter.[7] For four months, “Sergeant Mikhailov” worked for the Dutch East India Company, learning the art of shipbuilding and other carpentry. He then traveled to Britain, owners of the greatest navy in history, and took a course on shipbuilding. He examined England’s shipyards and artillery plants. He learned about navigation. He studied Manchester and London, learning the ebbs and flows of Western cities. He even attended a session of Parliament. On his way home, he stopped in Prussia, Austria, and Poland. Throughout his trip, he visited factories, arsenals, theaters, museums, and universities. Unfortunately, as he planned a trip to Venice — the great seafaring city-state of the Mediterranean — an uprising in Moscow forced Peter home, but not before his 18-month journey taught him much about the West.[8]

Then the 26-year-old, brilliant, behemoth of a man set about modernizing Russia. With gobs of money, he wooed Western technicians and scholars to brave the Russian cold. He simultaneously sent Russians to Western schools and vocations so they could one day return as experienced Europeans ready to teach the next generation of Russians.

He also deduced that militaristic and economic strength were tied to naval might, but Russia’s lack of viable coastline stymied his fleet. Russia’s northern and only coast abutted the aptly named White Sea, which was frozen up to nine months a year.

So Peter let slip the dogs of war. He attacked the Ottoman Empire, the accomplished Muslim nation that had removed the Roman Empire from the map, so he could access the Black Sea to the south. With his capture of the Ottoman fortress on the Sea of Azov, which Russians had been trying to acquire for over a century, he had his access. At nearby Taganrog, Peter built the first naval base in Russian history.

Then, in 1700, he went to war with the Empire of Sweden.[9] The war raged for 21 years. By its end, victorious Russia tacked on more land to its west, including modern-day Latvia and Estonia.


Russia became the dominant power of the Baltic Sea, another outlet for Peter’s dream navy. Peter the Great had transformed the Russian Tsardom into the Russian Empire.

During and after the two-decade war, Peter forced his country to evolve. He had inherited a decentralized nation that was divided into many cumbersome, uneven districts, each governed by a nearby city. Peter transformed this scattered kingdom into an efficient central state, around which twelve manageable guberniya (provinces) were administrated by able, loyal governors. He created a Senate and cabinet to help supervise his growing empire.

He ordered new shipyards, sea fortresses, and ships, drawing the plans himself. He took an active part in the formation of a merchant fleet that grew alongside the strengthening navy. To make sure he had qualified builders and officers, Peter set up two academies: the School of Mathematical and Navigation Sciences in Moscow and the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg.[10]

Peter also promoted metallurgy as a new Russian industry, and Russia soon became the world’s top maker of cast-iron melting. This production bolstered Russian industry and the military. The Tsar designed new Russian guns and made both the army and navy professional, standing units. Government and military promotions became based on merit instead of bloodline.

Still, he wanted more than to just have Western European might. Peter felt Western innovation was tied to Western culture. Therefore, he wanted his subjects to look and behave more like Western Europeans. He discouraged beards as too “Asian looking.”[11] He ordered the entire military, nobility, and court to lose all their proud whiskers save their mustaches, even shaving reluctant nobles himself. He required them to dress in Western clothing. Russian appearance, as shown in a posthumous portrait of Peter, became fully Western:

Note to self: pose for family portrait holding a sword resting on a cannon.

He even controlled their sleeping habits; in bed, they were commanded to remove their shoes or face a mild punishment (see opening quote). He also encouraged them to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes.[12] The first Russian newspaper, the Saint Petersburg Vedomosti, was printed under Peter’s reign. Secular schools replaced Orthodox ones. Peter’s encouragement of science and state-run education hastened the Church’s loss of authority.

Peter encouraged commerce and industry, recognizing that each was essential not only to a vibrant economy, but in supporting the military. He built weaving mills and other proto-factories. He modernized means of communication and encouraged foreign and domestic trade. With a demand for skilled workers, free peasants left their farms. Villages became towns and towns became cities. A middle class grew. (Indentured serfs, however, were as subjugated as ever.) Throughout this transformation, Peter served as the ultimate role model for the new Russian citizen. Stay busy. Work hard. Get things done.

Perhaps no death in our Top 30 occurred more heroically.[13] Legend has it that in November 1724, Peter was inspecting various projects along the coast of northwest Russia when he saw a group of soldiers on a sinking boat, some drowning in the frigid waters. Their Tsar rushed in to help. The giant Peter is said to have been in the ice for some time, saving everyone he could. Afterward, fever struck the great Tsar. His kidneys failed. His bladder became gangrenous. He died on February 8, 1725, at the age of 52.

But what of the Russia he left behind?

It was transformed. The Archbishop of Novgorod eulogized him: “We are burying Peter the Great . . . who has who has resuscitated Russia as if from the dead, and has raised it to great power and glory. . . . O Russia, he is your Moses!. . . . Can we in a short sermon mention all his glory?” Perhaps a short sermon can’t, but the verbose PPFA is always up to the challenge.

He inherited an ice-and-landlocked backwater that neither Europe nor Asia wished to claim and retrofitted it into an intercontinental empire with a modern navy. Five tsars and 37 years later, the Empress Catherine the Great followed in the former Great’s footsteps, further expanding the Empire, reducing Church authority, and promoting cultural progress. She completed Russia’s eastward journey (a sort of Manifest Destiny in the opposite direction), reaching modern Alaska to create the third largest empire in history.[14] Peter set Russia on the trajectory that Catherine continued.

Russia’s pre-Peter stagnation compared to Western Europe cannot be overstated. Whereas Catherine just continued the policies of her predecessor (keeping her from our Top 30), it was Peter who truly diverted Russia’s future. Thanks to the foundation he laid, Russia rivaled the West by 1800. Indeed, thanks to Peter’s reforms, it became a part of the West, mirroring its culture and embroiled in its geopolitics. It is Russia (and her winter) that finally slows Napoleon in 1812 and becomes a part of the European coalitions that bring him down. From then on, Russia entered into negotiations, alliances, and treaties like any other European nation.

It should be noted that after Russia’s triumph in the Napoleonic Wars, the nineteenth century was not kind to the world’s largest country.[15] It seemed to have forgotten the lessons learned under Peter. While western Europe and the young United States of America steamed ahead with industrialization, Russia stalled. Still, thanks to Peter’s earlier efforts, the potential was still there for a great, powerful Russian nation, and that potential was seized upon after the First World War. By the end of World War II, Russia had become the Soviet Union, and it joined the United States as one of two world superpowers. Peter’s dream was realized.

To wonder what might have happened to Russia without Peter, we needn’t look any further than the history of the Ottoman Empire. Russia and the Ottomans, even before Peter, were archrivals, competing for control of the Black Sea and the adjoining Bosphorus Strait, which linked the Black to the Mediterranean, which in turn allowed access to the Atlantic. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while Russia was an isolated, medieval kingdom, the Ottoman Empire was the foremost regional power. It controlled northeast Africa, the Middle East, Anatolia, and it even expanded well into southeast Europe. With multiple incursions, the empire struck fear in the hearts of Austrians and Italians.

And you just thought they made foot furniture.

The Ottomans were on three continents and had long coastlines on the Black, Aegean, Mediterranean, and Red seas. Their glorious, ancient capital of Constantinople joined Europe and Asia. If one were to have predicted the futures of pitiful Russia and the flourishing Ottoman Empire, one would think that the Ottomans’ was far more glorious, while Russia’s fate was to again be conquered.

Peter the Great, however, had other plans. Thanks to him, Russia modernized. The Peterless Ottomans, despite far superior geography, did not. While Russia eventually joined the great powers of Europe, the Ottoman Empire steadily weakened, disintegrated, and lost land to surrounding nations, including Russia herself. The clear Ottoman debilitation led it to be dubbed the “sick man of Europe,” and European leaders took it upon themselves to decide its fate (a cause of the footnoted Crimean War). After World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and was forced by the West into becoming the Republic of Turkey. The Turks, feared centuries earlier, became pawns in European games, while the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence grew to be larger than all things ever whiffed by the Ottoman Empire.

With Peter, we have an example of an innovative leader who reoriented his country to face the West. Unlike so many other important figures of history who merely took advantage of trends better than their contemporaries did, Peter reshaped history itself. He redirected Russia from remaining a bloated blotch of Eurasia to becoming a mighty monster of the Western world. Due to his impressive goals, effective means of achieving them, and role in creating a future world superpower, Peter the Great is the 26th most influential figure in Western history.


[1]In case you’re wondering, and I know you are, tsar is just a different spelling for czar. The word derives from “Caesar,” the title of the Roman emperors. With the 1453 fall of Constantinople — the capital and last vestige of the Orthodox Eastern Roman Empire — to the Muslim Ottomans, the Orthodox Russians considered themselves the heir to Rome. They dubbed Moscow the “Third Rome” (after Rome and Constantinople), and their leaders used the Russian translation of Caesar as their title. The Russians, interestingly, weren’t the only ones to appropriate this Roman moniker for their leaders. The German kaiser also springs from Caesar, as does a host of other titles.

[2]The Mongolian invasion was led by Bhatu Khan, a grandson of the infamous Genghis Khan. History records that the Russians reacted to Khan’s assault like so.

[3]Cyrillic gets its name from Cyril, one of two Christian missionary brothers who taught Christianity to Slavs in central and eastern Europe. The Slavs were illiterate and had a incomparable oral language, so Cyril and his brother, Methodius, invented a written alphabet and language based on the sounds of the Slavic tongue. The product of Cyril’s hard work was his eponymous language, Cyrillic. I’m not the only person who finds this stuff interesting, right?

[4]The last of which was catalyzed by Nicolaus Copernicus, our #28.

[5]Complex Russian politics and inheritance claims blur Peter’s ascension. In 1676, when Peter was 4, his father died. Tsar Alexis had children by his first wife, so the eldest, Peter’s half-brother Feodor III, took the throne. Half-paralyzed and sickly, however, Feodor left administration to advisers. When Feodor died six years later without children, another half-brother of Peter, Ivan V, was next in line, but Ivan was also sick and perhaps insane. Peter, barely 10 but the only other son, was given partial power with his ill brother, though his mother acted as regent. It can therefore be argued that Peter’s reign technically began in 1682. Frustratingly for the adolescent, however, he was only 10, he had to share with his insane half-brother, and his mom called the shots anyway. (Tribulations experienced by 10-year-olds across time.) Soon, a rebellion against Peter’s mother led to the rise of Peter’s half-sister, Sophia, as regent. Seven years later, a 17-year-old Peter led a counter-rebellion and overthrew Sophia as regent, though he allowed Ivan to continue his place as joint-tsar. Peter’s mother reassumed power and governed until her 1694 death, which left Peter and Ivan in total joint-control. Two years later, Ivan died, and Peter was the last claimant standing. (Remember when you started this footnote? Me neither.)

[6]I am not making this up. The 6’ 7” Tsar of Russia traveled undercover to Western Europe. It’d make for a tremendous piece of fiction if it weren’t 100 percent true.

[7]This humbling act for Russia’s greater good was later honored with a statue in St. Petersburg.

[8]His European tour cut short, an irate Peter squelched the rebellion, tortured and executed over a thousand people associated with it, then ordered their mutilated bodies to be publicly displayed.

[9]Saying “Empire of Sweden” sounds odd bordering on hilarious, but in the seventeenth century, Sweden was one of the stronger powers around. It controlled modern Sweden, Finland, and parts of mainland Europe in modern Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. It even founded a North American colony in modern Delaware. The Empire’s downfall started with Peter the Great’s invasion, a tangential example of his importance.

[10]Saint Petersburg was built in 1703 on Peter’s orders. On the western lands acquired during the conquest of Sweden, he felt it useful to have a city from which to communicate with his muse, Western Europe. His city plans looked just like those of the Western cities he visited during his Grand Embassy — wide boulevards, beautiful architecture, advanced engineering. Ten years later, he relocated the Russian seat of government from Moscow to his new Westernized city. This move had the advantage of being closer to Western Europe for diplomatic relations, and it was also closer to the Baltic Sea. St. Peterburg became known as Russia’s “window to the west.” In 1725, the Russians completed the construction of the grand Palace of Peterhof — Peter’s Court — which was known as the Russian Versailles, further evidence of Russian Westernization under Peter. The city remained the capital until the Soviets moved it back to Moscow in 1918. Six years after that, the name was changed to Leningrad — after the Bolshevik revolutionist Vladimir Lenin, but later, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the name was changed back to Saint Petersburg. You should go.

[11]He even had a beard tax!

[12]Best. Tsar. Ever.

[13]Apologies to Joan of Arc at number 27 and that forthcoming guy who one might say died for our sins.

[14]Behind only the British and Mongolian empires.

[15]A harsh but perfect example of this decay is the oft-forgotten Crimean War (1853-1856), the bloodiest Western conflict before the crimson twentieth century. It was history’s first war between industrialized nations, though some, as it turned out, were more industrialized than others. In less than 30 months, the Russians lost 700,000 soldiers to the French, British, and Ottomans. Among many revelations from the war — not the least of which was that modern warfare was really, really bad — was that Russia had once again fallen behind the pace of Western Europe. This lesson would be retaught during World War I.


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