7th March 2018: Peter the Great and the Making of Modern Russia

On Wednesday 7th March 2018 Wye Historical Society welcomed Patricia Erskine-Hill to talk about "Peter the Great and the Making of Modern Russia". Peter the Great single-handedly transformed Russia from the dark ages to modernity. He forced his people to adopt Western ideas on science, art and manners, even banning beards (associated with orthodox religion) and traditional robed clothes. It was a difficult transition - Russians hadn't seen many foreigners and were terrified of them. He also introduced schooling for boys to improve the literacy rate of 2%. He took particular interest in the military, re-organising the army and setting up the Russian navy. His military endeavours enabled him to double the size of the Russian Empire and opened up access to the Baltic. He was at war for 24 out of his 26 years of reign. At 6'8" Peter had a huge personality to match. He was known to be coarse, violent and cruel while also being a great reformer and visionary.

When his half-brother Feodor III died in 1682, ten-year-old Peter was elected ruler in waiting with his mother as regent. However, his 25-year-old sister Sophia gained support from the palace guard and staged a coup. Peter and his infirm half-brother Ivan were proclaimed joint Tsars with Sophia as acting as regent. At 17 Peter decided to take power and Sophia was overthrown. After the death of his mother and brother, Peter became Tsar of all Russia. In 1697-8 he set out on a Grand Embassy across Europe to seek European help against the Ottoman Empire. He studied shipbuilding and worked with shipwrights in Deptford. While in London he leased Sayes Court from John Evelyn, but he and his followers trashed the house, using pictures as dartboards, destroying hedges with wheelbarrows and chopping up all the furniture for firewood. A £350 payment was made in reparation. Peter spent time with King William who presented him with the Royal Transport - the most modern ship in the King's fleet. Peter was keen to set up trade links and gained the right to import tobacco from Virginia. He also visited the Royal Mint, Woolwich Arsenal and the Royal Observatory.

In 1707 he secretly married his mistress who took the name Catherine, marrying her officially in 1712. She was humorous and cheerful and it was an affectionate relationship. Peter changed the succession rules so she could rule after him. He had 14 children, but only three survived. His son Alexei from his first marriage was imprisoned and tortured for plotting treason. He died soon afterwards.

Peter helped to plan his new city of St Petersburg, though thousands of men died building it. When finished it contained over 100 museums and 200 palaces. He transformed the upper level of society within one generation. Although the reforms were heavily criticised, they lasted until the Revolution.

Ellie Morris