Peter the Great, the 14th child of Tsar Alexis by his second wife, Natalya Kirillovna Naryshkina, was born Pyotr Alekseyevich on June 9, 1672 in Moscow, Russia. Commissioned by his father, his education from an early age was put in the hands of several reputed tutors. Tsar Alexis died on 29 January 1676, leaving the sovereignty to Peter's elder half-brother, Feodor III, who was sick and weak. As Feodor died childless in 1682, a dispute arose between the first wife of Alexis I, Maria Miloslavskaya and his second wife, the mother of Peter, over who should inherit the throne. Though Peter's other half-brother, Ivan V was next in line for the throne, he was chronically ill and of infirm mind. Consequently, the 10-year-old Peter was chosen by the Boyar Duma, a council of Russian nobles, to become the Tsar with his mother as regent. However, Sophia Alekseyevna, one of the daughters of Alexis from his first marriage, led a rebellion of the Streltsy, Russia's elite military corps, in April–May 1682 against the decision. Finally, it was decided that, Peter and Ivan will be proclaimed joint Tsars, with Ivan being acclaimed as the senior and Sophia will act as the regent during the minority of the sovereigns and exercised all power.
For the next seven years, Sophia ruled the country as an autocrat. However, Peter was not very much concerned that others ruled in his name. He kept himself engaged in shipbuilding, sailing, and mock battles with his toy army. In the meantime, his mother arranged his marriage to Eudoxia Lopukhina in 1689. But, the marriage was a failure and neither Eudoxia nor their son Alexey shared Peter's interests. Many years later, Alexey was charged with treason, arrested and died under mysterious circumstances. Eudoxia was divorced by Peter in 1712 and was forced to enter a convent to become a nun. Peter married Marta Skavronskaya in the same year, who became the future Empress Catherine I.
In 1697, Peter travelled to Western Europe in disguise under the pseudonym of Pyotr Mikhailov, along with a large Russian delegation, called ‘Grand Embassy. In Prussia, he studied artillery and received a certificate as a firearms master and in Holland he learned the craft of shipbuilding by working at the Dutch docks as a carpenter. In England, he met with King William III, visited Greenwich and Oxford and studied the English techniques of city-building. However, he was displeased as he listened to a session of the House of Commons and could not understand how the common folk could dare to publicly discuss and criticize the policies of their sovereign. He also visited Leipzig, Dresden and Vienna and spoke with Augustus II and Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor.
However, his educational tour was cut short in 1698, when he was forced to rush home due to a rebellion of the Streltsy. Though the rebellion was easily crushed by the Tsar's troops before Peter returned home from England; Peter acted ruthlessly towards the mutineers. More than one thousand two hundred of the rebels were tortured before they were executed and their bodies were publicly exhibited as a warning. Some of the rebels were deported to Siberia for life and Peter’s half sister Sophia, who was supposed to be the brain behind the rebellion, was forced to enter a convent, where she gave up her name and family status.
Though Sophia was overthrown, Peter could not acquire actual control over the Russian affair, as power was practically exercised by his mother. When his mother died in 1694, Peter became an independent sovereign at the age of 22, with Ivan V as the co-ruler, though he was ineffective. When he died in 1696, Peter became the sole ruler, at the age of 24.
Though the Renaissance and the Reformation swept through Europe, Russia tentatively avoided its influence, rejected westernization and decided to remain aloof and isolated from modernization. As a result, Peter inherited a severely underdeveloped nation compared to the culturally prosperous European countries. But, he took the challenge and in an attempt to reestablish Russia as a great nation, implemented sweeping reforms, despite much opposition.
As a step to modernise the nation, he introduced French and western dress to his court and ordered the courtiers, state officials, and the military to shave their beards and adopt modern clothing styles. On the other side, he introduced taxes for long beards and robes in September 1698.He reorganized his army according to Western standards, created a strong navy and officially founded the first Russian Navy base, Taganrog. Apart from that, he also introduced new administrative and territorial divisions of the country, administered greater control over the reactionary Orthodox Church and secularized the schools.
As a means to make Russia westernized, he wanted the members of his family to marry other European royalty. He proposed Frederick William, the Duke of Courtland to marry his niece, Ana Ivanovna and used the wedding in order to launch his new capital, St Petersburg. In fact, he hired Italian and German architects to design it like the westernized palaces and buildings. Peter also introduced a new chronology from 1 January 1700, making the Russian calendar conform to European usage with regard to the year and instead of traditional 1 September, started to celebrate the New Year on 1 January, according to the Julian calendar.
During those days, Russia’s only outlet was the White Sea at Arkhangelsk. In the north of the country, the Baltic Sea was controlled by Sweden, while in the south, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea were controlled by the Ottoman Empire and the Safavit Empire of Iran respectively. To acquire control of the Black Sea, Peter needed to capture of the Ottoman fortress of Azov, near the Don River. In the summer of 1695, he organized the Azov campaign, but it ended in failure. However, in 1696, he again launched about thirty ships against the Ottomans and captured Azov in July of that year. However, his first attempt at seizing the Baltic coast ended in disaster at the Battle of Narva in 1700. In the year 1708, Swedish king Charles XII invaded Russia and defeated Peter at Golovchin, but deprived of local supplies, the Swedish army was forced to halt its advance in the winter of 1708–1709. When they resumed their effort to capture Ukraine in the summer of 1709, they were decisively defeated in the Battle of Poltava on 27 June. That ended Charles' campaign in Ukraine and forced him to seek refuge in the Ottoman Empire, while Peter’s army captured the Swedish province of Livonia, the northern half of modern and the southern half of modern Estonia, driving the Swedes to Finland. Finally, the Great Northern War ended in 1721 and according to the Treaty of Nystadended, Russia acquired Estonia, Livonia, Ingria and a substantial portion of Karelia. On the other hand, had to pay two million Riksdaler and surrendered most of Finland. Soon after peace was made with Sweden, Peter was officially proclaimed Emperor of All Russia on 22 October 1721and Russia was declared an Empire.
In the mean time, as the Persian Safavid Empire drastically declining, Peter took the advantage of the situation and launched the Russo-Persian War of 1722-1723, which is also known as the Persian Expedition of Peter the Great. It resulted in the sharp increase of Russian influence in the Caucasus and Caspian Sea region for the first time
Peter the Great was a great reformer. He abolished Russia's archaic form of government and appointed a viable Senate. He imposed a poll tax, but abolished the land tax and the household tax. He focused on the development of science and recruited several experts to educate his people about technological advancements. He also introduced compulsory education for all the children of the nobility, government clerks, and lesser-ranked officials. He was brought up in the Russian Orthodox faith and was a religious man. But, he disliked the Church hierarchy, which he kept under tight governmental control.
Peter was undoubtedly an effective leader, but he was also known to be cruel and tyrannical. The high taxes that often accompanied his various reforms led to revolts among citizens, which he suppressed cruelly. He arrested his son, Alexis, on charge of treason and executed him. He was a tall and handsome man, married twice and had 11 children, many of whom died in infancy. He used to drink excessively and harbored violent tendencies.
Peter the Great died on February 8, 1725, without nominating an heir and entombed in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, located in St. Petersburg.