How Peter the Great created an empire

How Peter the Great created an empire

The Russian Empire existed for nearly two hundred years. Quite a long time, so it would hardly be appropriate to consider the acceptance of the title of emperor by Peter the Great in the fall of 1721 a fad. Let us examine the events in the life of the Russian tsar that led him to that decision


A 70 Years’ War

The Treaty of Nystadt signed in 1721 ended the Northern War that Peter the Great and a coalition of his allies had waged against Sweden since 1700. There were longer periods of hostilities in world history – the Hundred Years’ War between England and France or the Thirty Years’ War in Germany. Such a strain put on nations for a long time led to their exhaustion in each of these conflicts, and Peter’s Russia was no exception. If we take into account that Peter entered the Great Northern War literally the day after he had received the news of a peace concluded with the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople, it would mean that for Russia the period of wars had lasted from 1686, when the Russo-Turkish War broke out, begun under the rule of Princess Sophia. However, the war with the Turks, in turn, was a direct consequence of the peace that ended the Russo-Polish War, which had lasted since 1654 (an armistice was signed in 1667, but the period of time from 1667 to 1886 was not altogether peaceful). The peace and the alliance with Poland meant for Russia severed relations and a war with the Ottoman Empire, and then with Sweden.

Thus, in 1721, Peter not only made peace with the Swedes, but also ended a period of large-scale wars, which had lasted for almost 70 years, as it had begun under his father, Tsar Alexis. Each of those wars was both successful, in terms of territorial gains, and exhausting due to prolonged mobilization of various resources. A country with new borders, with new linguistic and religious groups of the population, with a new capital and new ambitions was very different from the Russia inherited by Peter. To perpetuate those changes, a new status was needed. But why imperial?


Finding himself first a co-ruler, and then the ruler of a nation at a fairly young age, Peter first acted as the head of a Christian state, a member of a Holy League against infidels. This was the name of the coalition that formed around Austria after the Turkish attack against Vienna and the siege of the city in 1683. The threat posed by the Ottoman Empire was very real, and it forced several countries in Europe to unite. Initially, young Peter (he was 14 when the war broke out) was very solicitous about religious issues, but by and by he came to the conclusion that prayers alone were not enough to win a war. Nevertheless, for a certain time spell in his life, the tsar had to think one thing, say another, and do something else entirely.

The first trip to Arkhangelsk, undertaken by Peter in 1693, had an official cover: The tsar was going on a pilgrimage to the northern monasteries. But the real purpose of the trip was his interest in building a navy. The Great Embassy of 1697–1698, undertaken after a successful Azov campaign, had the official goal of strengthening the Holy League, but, in fact, Peter was acquiring new knowledge in the field of technology and government.

The latter circumstance is often underestimated, but, in fact, Peter’s acquaintance with the monarch of a new type, William III, had a great impact on him. On the one hand, William was the ruler of England, Scotland and the Netherlands and a strong military leader. On the other hand, in each of these countries, the king’s power was limited by parliament, and this did not seem to bother him at all. After all, states functioned without the sovereign’s constant intervention, largely with the help of the “invisible hand of the market” (80 years before Adam Smith coined this term) and the trade oligarchy, which got rich through overseas trade. Peter returned from his European voyage very much impressed by this efficient “regular state” and the military leader at its helm. His life goal changed. It was necessary now not only to govern wisely, but also to create a self-learning state machine that would allow the economy to develop. Overseas trade was the obvious key to wealth, but its development required peace, and peace could only be achieved with a powerful army and navy. To build and maintain them, wealth was needed. In the beginning, however, Peter was not put out by this vicious circle.


The capture of Nöteborg and the founding of St. Petersburg, the victory in the Battle of Poltava and the capture of the Baltic cities up to Riga and Vyborg, convinced Peter of the efficiency of the chosen model for the time being. The model was victorious and covered him with glory, but at the same time multiplied the number of ill-wishers who, in the year of the disastrous Pruth River Campaign, finally had a reason to gloat. When the Russian tsar took Azov in 1697, Europe was happy; when he was forced to tear down the fortifications on the Sea of Azov in 1711, it was no less happy. However, further strengthening of Russia was by no means part of the plans of Peter’s European allies, and he felt the full extent of their lack of enthusiasm. He had to end the war with Sweden alone, and, for this, he needed a powerful navy in the Baltic Sea. It was the prospect of the emergence of this navy that worried the British and the Dutch most of all.

The 1710s were for Peter a period of disillusionment where his facies that he had cherished since the years of the Great Embassy tumbled down. That forced Peter to turn to another version of government adopted in Europe. The second Great Embassy, of 1717, went to Paris, where after the death of the Sun King, Louis XIV, the throne was occupied by his seven-year-old great-grandson Louis XV. “The child is very handsome of both his face and body, and quite sensible for his age,” Peter wrote.

The tsar was already over forty, the scope of his interests was much wider than 20 years ago, but he continued to learn. One thing he learned was how enlightened European absolutism worked in practice. And it worked even with a seven-year-old boy sitting on the throne. From France, Peter exported not only technical innovations (for example, drawings of galleys, which henceforth were to be built according to the “French fashion” that had advantages over both the Turkish and Venetian manner), but also a new understanding of the role of the state in the life of society.

It was still the navy that decided the outcome of the war, namely the successful landing operations in the vicinity of Stockholm in 1719 and the victory at Grengam in 1720. The huge sum paid by the victorious Russia to the defeated Sweden under the Treaty of Nystad was more like a payment for Sweden’s withdrawal from the alliance with England, fraught with a new war. It was a sign of Russia’s new policy, this time very pragmatic.


In 1721, no country in Europe was viewed by Peter as a reliable ally or a role model anymore. The state completed the period of learning from seniors, and the status of empire was to seal the fact that Russia could now stand on an equal footing with its European partners. At least Russia already had enough forces and means for this.

After accepting the status of emperor, Peter took up projects of a global nature. His last campaign, the Persian campaign of his navy and army in 1722–1723, was more like a colonial expedition than a war of the European type. Among his last decrees was an order to send explorers to the northeastern tip of Eurasia in order to find out if the continent joins America. Studying the biographies of the famous Russian explorers of the Arctic, Siberia and the Far East, of those who mapped these lands in the mid-18th century, it turns out that they all went through a harsh school in the Baltic and were imbued with the ideas that Peter embraced in his declining years. It may seem strange, but for Peter the idea of empire coincided wholly with the idea of peace. It was important for him to make Russia so strong that no other European power would view it as a space for colonization any longer, but would see Russia as an equal partner to negotiate with. Only that strength could give the country an opportunity for further development in the world of the 18th century (and beyond). The achievement of this goal was, perhaps, Peter’s main success.

By 1721, the state had completed its learning period, and the status of empire sealed this fact

“If you fell in the Empire born, | better to live in a remote province near the sea”
(Joseph Brodsky)

Almost everyone knows this line of Joseph Brodsky from Letters to a Roman Friend. The poet wrote about Ancient Rome, but, as usual, not only. For a person born in Leningrad, the connection between the concepts of «empire» and «sea» was quite natural.

The founder of the city in which Brodsky was born could well have subscribed to this line, because he himself decided to live in a «remote province near the sea» that had just been conquered from the enemy (during the years of Swedish rule, the Swedes did not have a remoter place than the mouth of the Neva River). And when a few more provinces of the same kind were added to this «remote province near the sea», and a new capital began to grow in it, only then did the country become an empire.


How Peter the Great created an empire
How Peter the Great created an empire
How Peter the Great created an empire