Peter the Great (from Robinson and Beard)

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Peter the Great in Robinson and Beard, History of Europe (1921)

Peter was a tall, strong man, impulsive in action, sometimes vulgarly familiar, but always retaining an air of command. When he visited Louis XIV of France in 1717 he astonished the court by taking the seven-year-old king under his arms and hoisting him up in the air to kiss him. The courtiers were much shocked at his conduct.

Source: James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard, History of Europe (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1921), pp. 19-22.

Below is an excerpt from Robinson and Beard's classic history textbook of 1921. These remarks although relatively straight-forward about Peter the Great, clearly are dated and reflect the author's knowledge, and prejudices, about Russia in 1921.

36. Peter the Great (1672-1725).
At the time of Peter's accession, in 1672, Russia, which had grown greatly under Ivan the Terrible and other enterprising rulers, still had no outlet to the sea. In manners and customs the kingdom was Asiatic, and its government was like that of a Tartar prince. Peter had no objection to the despotic power which fell to him, but he knew that Russia was very much behind the rest of Europe and that his crudely equipped soldiers could never make head against the well-armed and well-disciplined troops of the West. He had no seaport and no ships, and without these Russia could never hope to take part in the world's affairs. His two great tasks were therefore to introduce Western habits into his barbarous realms and to "make a window," as he expressed it, through which Russia might look abroad.

37. Peter's Travels in Europe.
In 1697-1698 Peter himself visited Germany, Holland, and England for the purpose of investigating every art and science of the West, as well as the most approved methods of manufacture, from the making of a man‑of‑war to the etching of an engraving. Nothing escaped the keen eyes of this rude, half‑savage Northern giant. For a week he put on the wide breeches of a Dutch laborer and worked in the shipyard at Zaandam near Amsterdam. In England, Holland, and Germany he engaged artisans, scientific men, architects, ship captains, and those versed in artillery and in the training of troops--all of whom he took back with him to aid in the reform and development of Russia.

38. Peter's Reform Measures.
Peter was called home by the revolt of Russian nobles and churchmen who were horrified at his desertion of the habits and customs of his forefathers. They hated what they called "German ideas," such as short coats, tobacco smoking, and shaven faces. Peter took a fearful revenge upon the rebels and is said to have himself cut off the heads of many of them. Like the barbarian that he was at heart he left their heads and bodies lying about all winter, unburied, in order to make the terrible results of revolt against his power quite plain to all.

Peter's reforms extended throughout his whole reign. He made his people give up their cherished oriental beards and long flowing garments. He required the women of the richer classes, who had been kept in a sort of oriental harem, to come out and meet the men in social assemblies, such as were common in the West. He invited foreigners to settle in Russia and sent young Russians abroad to study. He reorganized the government officials on the model of a Western kingdom and made over his army in the same way.

39. Founding of St. Petersburg.
Finding that the old capital, Moscow, clung persistently to its ancient habits, Peter prepared to found a new capital for his new Russia. He selected for this purpose a bit of territory on the Baltic which he had conquered from Sweden‑very marshy, it is true, but where he might hope to construct Russia's first real port. Here he built St. Petersburg at enormous expense and colonized it with Russians and foreigners. Russia was at last becoming a European power.

40. Russia gains on the Baltic.
The next problem was to get control of the provinces lying between the Russian boundary and the Baltic Sea. These belonged to Sweden, which happened to have at that time a very warlike young monarch, Charles XII. He filled Europe with astonishment for a time by engaging in war with Denmark, Poland, and Russia and gaining many surprising victories. But his attempt to penetrate into Russia proved as fatal to him as a similar attempt did to Napoleon a century later. His prowess only served to set back Russia's plans for the moment. Three years after his death, which occurred in 1718, Peter found himself in a position to force Sweden to cede him Livonia, Esthonia, and other Swedish territory which had previously cut Russia off from the sea.

41. Peter's Attempt to reach the Black Sea.
Peter looked with longing eyes on the possessions of the Turks to the south of him, and he made vain attempts to extend the Russian control as far as the Black Sea. He did not succeed in this, but it had become evident that if the Turks were to be driven, from Europe, Russia would prove a mighty rival of the other European powers in the division of the spoils.

For a generation after the death of Peter the Great, Russia fell into the hands of incompetent rulers. It only appears again as a European state when the great Catherine II came to the throne, in 1762. From that time on, the Western powers had always to consider the vast Slavic empire in all their great struggles. They had also to consider a new kingdom in northern Germany, which was just growing into a great power as Peter began his work. This was Prussia, whose beginnings we must now consider.