"I am a student and I seek teachers."
Seal of Tsar Peter I, 1697
It would have been hard to miss the foreigner working at the royal navy’s Deptford Dockyard. The man, ostensibly a ship carpenter, stood over six and a half feet tall. He was at Deptford, the navy’s leading site on the Thames, to observe and learn about the craft of English shipbuilding. Despite the working class accouterments and the other ploys to remain anonymous, most people saw through the charade. Rumors were rampant even before the foreigner’s arrival on English soil. Yet the rumors were true. The giant of a man working at the docks was none other than the tsar of Russia, Peter I.
Peter I was born in 1672. He was the son of Tsar Alexis and his second wife Natalya Naryshikina. Tsar Alexis died in 1676 when Peter was a young child. The crown passed to Feodor III, Peter’s eldest half-brother. Feodor was often ill and died a few years later in 1682 with no heirs. The succession to the tsardom was disputed between the Miloslavskys, the family of Alexis’s first wife, and the Naryshikins, the family of Peter's mother. The Miloslavskys naturally wanted Peter’s other half-brother Ivan to be tsar. But Ivan, too, was sickly as well as mentally unfit. Sophia, Tsar Alexis’s daughter and Peter’s half-sister, organized a rebellion led by the Streltsy, the elite members of Russia’s army. During this time, Peter saw many of his relatives executed. The uprising led to declaring Ivan and Peter as joint tsars, with Ivan V considered the senior tsar. As regent, it was Sophia who wielded the state's actual power.
While a young boy, Peter took no interest in politics and was content to let Sophia rule in his name. He spent most of his time engaged in shipbuilding and sailing. He also liked to role-play, conducting mock battles. Some of his tutors and his father’s advisers had been Westerners, and these men would significantly impact Peter’s views of his own country. When he was 17, Peter decided to seize power from his half-sister Sophia. Sophia’s position had deteriorated due to failed campaigns against the Crimean Khanate, who at the time was a tribute subject of the Ottoman Sultan. Peter pressured Sophia’s supporters to defect to his side, especially those in the army. Late in 1689, Sophia found herself isolated with few remaining supporters. She relented and relinquished her position as regent. She agreed to enter a convent, change her name, and give up all ties to the royal family. It would not be until his mother Natalya died in 1694 and then his half-brother Ivan V in 1696 that Peter I became sole ruler of Russia.
When Peter I assumed the tsardom, Russia was already a vast country. During the previous century, Peter’s Romanov predecessors had greatly expanded the state's boundaries until it stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Yet much of the country remained unpopulated, and despite having abundant natural resources, Russia lacked the infrastructure and technology to exploit them. Russia had remained insular and resisted many of the changes wrought by the Renaissance and Reformation in the rest of Europe. The populace was highly conservative and held onto long-held customs. It was a feudal, agrarian-based society where peasants depended on the large land-owning Boyars. Between the authority of the Boyars and the Russian Orthodox Church, there was even less freedom than elsewhere in Europe. Russia was also beset by the Swedes in the north and the Ottomans in the south. Having grown up with Western associates, Peter understood the necessity of modernizing his country if Russia was to compete with these great powers.
Peter immediately began a program westernizing all aspects of Russian society, government, and the military. He sought western expertise in science, technology, art, warfare, and politics and invited these men to his court in Moscow. To accomplish this, he forced his court to wear French fashions and imposed various taxes, such as one on beards. When he started to build his new capital at St. Petersburg, he imported Italian and German architects to create a city in the same manner as Vienna or Paris. Going against tradition, the tsar married his family off to other European princes. Peter would go on to replace the government administration with a merit-based civil service, and he would take action to break the traditional power of the Boyars creating a western-style absolute monarchy. His tax and trade reforms would result in more significant revenue for the state treasury putting Russia on a more stable economic footing. He industrialized the lumber and mining industries so that by the end of his reign, Russia was the leading exporter of iron. He reorganized the army in line with other European states.
Yet Peter recognized that two things would hold Russia back despite all these other efforts. His childhood fascination for ships and shipbuilding did not end when he became tsar. Peter desired to build a strong navy and expand Russia’s maritime outlets. At the time, Russia had only one outlet at Arkhangelsk (Archangel) on the White Sea. The Baltic Sea was controlled by Sweden, the Black Sea by the Ottomans, and the Caspian Sea by the Safavids of Persia. An opportunity to change this occurred in the spring of 1695. Peter launched a campaign against the Ottomans in Crimea to seize a foothold along the Sea of Azov, the eastern end of the Black Sea. The target of this campaign was the fortress at Azov, located at the mouth of the Don River. The three-month siege failed because Peter couldn’t prevent the garrison from being resupplied by river or sea. He withdrew and then built a fleet at Voronezh in the winter of 1695-1696. In May 1696, a fleet of two warships, 23 galleys, and hundreds of smaller boats was transported hundreds of miles down the Don River. Despite the distance, the fleet managed to gain access to the open sea. Peter laid siege to Azov again, and after the fleet successfully fended off a Turkish force, the combination of naval and army blockade forced the Ottomans to capitulate in July. Peter now had his major port for his shipbuilding enterprise.
The Azov campaigns proved more than ever the need for a navy and the need for a seaport. But Peter realized he could not fight the Ottomans and hold the Crimea alone. He would need the assistance of other states. Thus the idea of the Grand Embassy was born.
The Grand Embassy was assembled in March 1697. It was headed by a trio of high-ranking officials: Admiral Franz Lefort, General Fedor Golovin, and Foreign Minister Prokopy Voznitsyn. The contingent numbered 250, prompting Lefort to write, “Never has there been such a big embassy.” The delegation was given detailed instructions via the Foreign Office. One of the public goals of the embassy was to advertise Russia’s success at Azov. It was hoped this would revamp Russia’s image as a backward nation into a serious challenger to Turkish power. The embassy was to reconfirm the “ancient friendship and love, and the weakening of the Turkish sultan, the Crimean khan and all their Muslim hordes, the enemies of the Cross of Our Lord.” Thirty-five so-called volunteers were added to the traditional composition of the group. These men were destined for the Dutch Republic to study shipbuilding and navigation. Among these volunteers was a Peter Mikhailov - Tsar Peter I. More than anything, this trip was Peter’s personal quest for knowledge about the practices of the West.
Peter purposely declined to lead the embassy himself and attempted to travel incognito. One reason for this has been attributed to his eschewing of diplomatic formalities. He wished to work and observe freely without being burdened by official duties. The deceit was also meant to disguise his absence for as long as possible. It was feared that the Turks might take advantage of his absence, but even at home, Russian leaders rarely left the country during peacetime, especially to the dreaded West. Therefore any semblance of normalcy at home would hopefully stave off any trouble. By September 1697, all attempts to hide Peter’s 6’ 7” presence ultimately failed.
The embassy started with successful negotiations with the Duke of Courland and King Frederick I of Prussia. By August of 1697, the delegation had settled in the Dutch Republic. Here, Peter spent time in Zaandam, keeping up the pretense of being a ship carpenter and living in rented rooms from a blacksmith. He eventually transferred to Amsterdam. The Dutch East India Company granted him special privileges that allowed him to work at the shipyards under a Dutch master shipwright. At the beginning of September, Peter secretly met with the Dutch stadtholder and king of England, William of Orange. Official records of these meetings were not kept, but eyewitness accounts suggest topics included trade and distrust of France, an ally of the Ottomans at the time. The tsar spent four months studying shipbuilding, sailing, and visiting sights. The Dutch impressed upon him the importance of a well-ordered state, well-planned towns, and commerce.
In early January 1698, Peter took a small entourage to England, leaving behind the central part of the delegation in the Netherlands. The tsar would be a guest of the English until April. During this time, he had ample opportunity to learn the practical aspects of shipbuilding and the role of a strong navy to a modern state. He spent much of this time at the Royal Navy Dockyards at Deptford. Along with shipyards and munitions factories, Peter visited the Royal Observatory, the Royal Mint, and the Royal Society. He gained an understanding of English methods of city-building, the knowledge he would use in building his new city at St. Petersburg. At the Royal Observatory, he acquired need navigational skills, and at the Woolwich Arsenal, he viewed the production of artillery. All of this would prove fruitful later on.
On returning to Russia, the Grand Embassy stopped in Vienna to talk with Austrian ministers about renewing an alliance against the Turks. Nothing came of these, and a trip to Venice was canceled because news of an uprising forced Peter to hurry back to Moscow. In the end, the embassy had failed in its stated aims of stitching together an anti-Turkish alliance. Unfortunately for Peter, Europe’s leading powers were too focused on the question of the Spanish succession. (That would result in war in 1701.) But with his newfound knowledge, he was able to transform the Russian military and develop the navy he always desired. This would serve him well in the upcoming war against Sweden over the Baltic Sea.
The Great Northern War began in 1700 between Peter and King Charles XII of Sweden. After initial defeats, Peter seized control of the region around the mouth of the River Narva, which would become the site of the future St. Petersburg. This would also be Russia’s foothold on the Baltic. The war ended with Sweden’s crushing defeat at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, and Russia supplanted Sweden as a major power in the region.
The Grand Embassy failed in the short term, but over the long term, it was instrumental in providing Tsar Peter I with the means by which he could move Russia forward. It was a first step in Russia becoming a modern nation-state modeled after the great powers of Western Europe. The Great Northern War announced Russia’s emergence as a significant player in European politics and could no longer be taken for granted as a “backward and barbarous state.”
Peter the Great: A Biography: Lindsey Hughes
Peter the Great: His Life and World: Robert K. Massie