16 October 2021

Tsar Peter the Great single-handedly modernised Russia!

Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) ruled alone from 1694. Although Rus­sia was huge, its navy was weak at a time when European powers like Britain and the Dutch were exploring and colonising the globe, and ex­p­and­ing their bor­­ders. So to learn from European nations’ suc­cess­es, Peter spent 1697-8 travel­l­ing in Europe in a Grand Embassy.

Peter The Great 

by Jean-Marc Nattier, c1717 


This am­b­itious young man travelled to Western Europe sev­er­al times on his grand tour. Peter chose to travel incog­nito, calling himself Sg­t Pyotr Mikhaylov. None­the­less excited rumours of his visit spread from town to town: 6’6 tall, brilliant and half civilised.

His Grand Embassy consisted of 250 high-ranking am­b­ass­ad­ors and their staff, and he was able to blend in and spend time learn­ing about Europe first­ hand. He spent four months working at a ship yard for the Dutch East India Co., where he studied Netherland’s modern ship-building in­novations. Then he went to Brit­ain to further study ship­building, work­ing in the Royal Navy’s dock yard at Deptford, visiting factories, ars­enals, schools and mus­eums. The trip took 2 years altog­ether, vis­iting heads of state, coll­ect­ions of natural cur­iosities and theatres, and throwing wild parties.

Back home in 1698, Peter wanted to modernise Russian society based on Western European models, so Rus­sia could compete with the European superpowers. He played a cruc­ial role in chang­ing its economy, government, culture and religious aff­airs. He revised Russia’s cal­en­d­ar, introd­uc­ed changes to Russian writing, and comp­l­etely mod­ern­ised the military. And he wanted to westernise the next gen­­erat­ion of Rus­sians by marry­ing his family into other European roy­al­ty. 

Russia’s Europeanised city started when St Pet­ersburg became an el­egant and modernised capital. Building the NW sector of Amsterdam’s canals started in 1613 and finished in 1625. Decades later, Peter used Amster­d­am’s canal ring as inspiration for St Petersburg’s own system. Thus the canal system was a visible mark of the special relationship between the Netherlands and Russia.

Peter also reinvented Russian culture. He was an infl­uent­ial patron of the arts who founded the country’s first public museum. Fine paint­ings, jew­ellery and armour from the tsar’s collect­ions are still on display. Tsar Peter I certainly did change Russia forever. 

Pectoral Cross
commissioned and displayed by Peter the Great

The clearest implementation of social modernis­ation was via in­t­roducing western dress to court. The Tsar ordered his subj­ec­ts to re­place their long Russian overcoats with French jackets. Mannequins, set outside the Moscow city gates and in St Petersburg streets, pub­lic­ly dis­played the new fash­ions. Tail­ors who con­tinued to sell Russian styles risked steep fines, and pedestrians in an old-fashioned robe could have it shortened by the Tsar’s fashion police!

The Tsar also req­uired courtiers, state officials and the military to shave their beards, like the modern Western Europ­eans he’d met on his tour. Peter dram­atically begun the shaving practice at a New Year’s Eve reception, held in his honour. In attend­ance were his Army Com­mander and 2nd-in-command, and many aides and diplom­ats. Sudd­enly the crowd’s mood went from happy boozing to horror as Peter personally waved a huge bar­ber’s razor!

Peter the Great gaily cutting a Boyar's beard

The Tsar empowered pol­ice to forc­ibly and publicly shave those who re­fused to shave their faces. English visitor to Russia Capt John Perry said the Russians submitted only upon the Terror of having their beards forcibly pulled. Some men kept the torn out facial hair to put it in their coffin, so that they could give an excuse to St Nicholas in Heaven!! Note the teach­ings of the Russian Orth­odox Church, which consid­ered uncut facial hair a show of piety. To shave a beard was an anti-Christian sin.

In 1698, the Tsar established a beard tax, as Britain’s King Henry VII did. So what was the reason behind the tax? To back up his shav­ing command! Al­though his new tax wasn’t specifically to raise mon­ey, the state would indeed collect more taxes IF any person opted to keep his beard. The State Dept ordered that for nobility, military off­icers & merchants, the beard tax was 100 rubles per year. Those who paid the tax were given a tok­en of proof, silver for nobility.

A beard token, proof of paying the Russian beard tax

To the religious, the beard tax was a shocking scandal. Rumours circ­ulated that Peter was not the real Tsar but a sacrilegious fake, in­stalled by Russ­ia’s enemies. Fin­al­ly the Russian streltsy/fire­arm infantry initiated an open revolt in Astrakhan in 1705, honouring Ch­rist­ian­ity. The revolt was crushed and hundreds of rebels were killed

The Tsar also brawled with the Church by organising a Club for his drinking mates. They “played” at being cardinals and bish­ops, and performed mock cere­m­onies, com­p­lete with drunkenness and endless feasts! This blas­phemous entertain­ment posed another relig­ious dilemma for Orthodox society.

Historian VM Zhivov said by challenging the Church’s power, Peter presented him­self as a semi-divine figure, above soc­iety. The emperor commanded divine pow­er, and society had the choice of either accepting his sup­eriority, or reject­ing it as a satanic en­t­erprise. The Tsar did indeed wield the power of life and death. The punishments for rebels’ in­ability to assimilate European practices, were nasty.

Map of Russia under Peter the Great
Note the expansion of Russian lands along the Baltic 

 Most importantly Russia was able to expand, drawing on the newly in­d­ependent Nether­lands for his inspir­at­ion, and become one of the most pow­erful coun­tries in the eastern hemis­phere. To improve his nation’s position, Peter the Great sought to gain more ocean outlets, the goal being to make Russia a great maritime power. The map showed the vital Baltic Sea region taken by Russia by 1721.


Student of History said...

Remember when we loved the Dutch Golden Age. Best science, arts, materials, explorers, ship building, flowers. No wonder Peter fell in love with the modern world.

Andrew said...

I like optional taxes such as parking fines and what a great optional tax was the beard tax. Being beardless, I would be quite happy to inform government of this wonderful way to raise taxes. The tax could be scaled depending on the length of the beard. Each morning you upload your photo to a database that automatically recognises your beard length and checks that you are paying the tax. Women would love this tax that they did not have to pay, although it would hit a bearded lady in a circus rather hard...sorry, got carried away. Good read about the Peter the Great. 6'6" would have attracted a lot of attention in those days.

Hels said...


Even when Peter was back in Russia, he kept in contact with many of the leading figures in Dutch society he'd befriended, eg Nicolaas Witsen (Amsterdam mayor), Christoffel van Brants (shipper owner, merchant), Albert Seba (apothecary) and Frederik Ruysch (physician and botanist). The young Tsar wanted to know everything about Dutch shipbuilding, instrument making, carpentry, etching, dissection, paper making, bookmaking and landscape garden design.


Hels said...


the people who intensely disliked Tsar Peter the Great were medieval aristocrats who did not want their world to be modernised. And the reactionary religious did not like the way he secularised religious schools, introduced the Julian calendar and took more control over the Orthodox Church.

The other 80% of the population didn't get a chance to express an opinion!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am on both sides of the coin here. I can see that most people are reactionary and resistant to change, often for good reasons. Also, if change has to come, people want it gradually and to have some control over it, not imposed on them via ukase. But on the other hand, the modern world has demonstrated that self-regulation of such things as medicine, food safety, and pollution control will not take place, but instead these things depend on firm laws, and even then there is endless searching for loopholes.

Luiz Gomes said...

Bom dia minha querida amiga. Fico imaginando como seria os dias atuais se eles ainda existissem?

DUTA said...

Ambition was his middle name, and to wish to modernize his country was a good sort of ambition.
The beard tax is not my cup of tea - it's a gross violation of human rights and freedom!

Hels said...


absolute rulers were everywhere during the era we are interested in. Think of Henry VIII changing much of Britain overnight to Protestantism, taking the monasteries over and punishing loyal Catholics. Or Louis XIV of France - during his 72 year reign, France's legislative body never met once.

So the Peter the Great certainly did not have to consult. Russia's legal system back then consisted largely of Peter's reforms, written up in a series of royal decrees. But he chose brute power to rule - he had 33% of the Swedish 32,000 soldiers killed, and a smaller number of his own boyars. Boyars who survived.. lost their titles and power base.

Hels said...


there ARE absolute rulers still in the world today, alas. Think of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But they are not role model states for the ideals of democracy, government by the people or protecting the rulers' enemies from being summarily executed.

Hels said...


agreed. Peter the Great brought in excellent reformations. My problem was his method of persuading the relevant part of his population about change being both inevitable and desirable. He personally tortured his own son to death for "conspiring rebellion" against Peter's plans.

Joseph said...

The Peter and Paul Fortress was the original citadel of St Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703. I am not sure how modern it was, but his official Peterhof palace was the first suburban site taken by the Tsar as his modern primary residence. And the important people who turned up for official receptions must have been awe struck. The canals were also stunning.

Hels said...


There are few cities in the world that are so beautiful, visitors remember them for the rest of their lives. Peter the Great knew about Amsterdam and Venice, and wanted St Petersburg to be built just as beautifully. I liked when Peter said he wanted to hack a window to Europe, which meant not just a port and a navy on the Baltic Sea, but also a city that lived in accordance with the highest and most modern European standards. No wonder he tried to live there most of the time.

Britta said...

Wow, Helen, thank you for teaching me such a lot about Peter the Great! So fascinating how he really worked to find out what European countries did - and then to enforce it unpitying.

I hear the Rolling Stones line "Sympathy for the Devil" - "Stuck around St. Petersburg /When I saw it was a time for a change"

As to the beard tax: he would roll in money at the moment! (Though now I see the religious background to beards).
Even Hercule Poirot waxed his beloved beard and wore a beard-trainer at night...

Before the pandemic I intended to visit St. Petersburg - but a friend of mine who had worked there for a couple of years at the Goethe-Institut talked me out of that - and she is not an anxious woman . "You," she said, "you are so flamboyant, you would be the first to be robbed." I still wonder...

Since Blogspot changed the design a bit, I still have troubles to shift a blog on my visible blog list - (though somewhere I even gave advice how to do it - and then forgot about it!) - so I am putting comments mostly under those I see, and forget without evil intention the others. So sorry! When I am back from Berlin, followed by the Netherlands (thank you for your information about them and Russia) I will try it once again to dive into the technical tour de force of handling the visible (!) blogroll.

Hels said...


even if we weren't blocked from travel because of the pandemic, I would still envy your location and find it to be totally conducive to fascinating visits. Just like Peter the Great, I planned to visit every corner of Europe and right around the Mediterranean.. and did a pretty good job so far. I too particularly loved Berlin, the Netherlands and St Petersburg... and my husband's city, Prague.

Britta said...

Wow, Helen - Prague is so beautiful! First time I was there in 1971 - so romantic, and husband could still buy old German books there. It has changed, but is stll such a beautiful place!

Hels said...


although my beloved did his schooling in Australia, he was still liable to be called up into the Czech army. But by 1991, everything was changing, politically and economically, and my mother in law wanted to see her old home, business and cousins again. The three of us had the best time ever!

Adamas said...

Peter was very intresting - and amazing - person. He - and Catherine II - were most impressing rulers of their time. However, I, as a descendant of the citizens of a rival empire, cannot like them :)
But they create St. Petersburg - one of intresting cities in Europe (Petersburg is not Russia - it is totally different). I was there some times - here is some photos, but text is in my very hard language:


Hels said...

Perfect Adam and welcome aboard!

I will read your posts carefully. My family is deeply Russian, so I realise I need to be exposed to other views.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - Peter the Great was extraordinary wasn't he - you've given us a great overview. His widow Catherine carried on his ideals. Cheers Hilary

Hels said...


Catherine I was the consort of Peter the Great, and only became the Empress of Russia from the time of his death (1725) until her own death (1727). Elizabeth was a more powerful and popular Empress of Russia, from 1741 until her death in 1762. Go women :)