Eighteenth-Century Europe

By Leonard W. Cowie | Go to book overview
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XIV.
THE EMERGENCE OF RUSSIA

Peter the Great (1694-1725)

DURING the first quarter of the eighteenth century Russia was under the rule of the dynamic, forceful Czar Peter I. As a boy, he had received very little formal education, but through realistic war-games with his friends developed a taste for military matters. Later, sailing boats led him to acquire an equal interest in shipbuilding and naval warfare. Indeed, he had a passion for things practical all his life. He boasted in later years that he was proficient in fourteen trades, which included stone-masonry, carpentry, joinery, cobbling and printing. He acted as court dentist, keeping in a little bag the teeth he extracted, and courtiers were terrified of falling ill lest he should want to use forceps or knife on them. He enjoyed beheading criminals and soundly birching disobedient servant-girls. Seven feet tall with an amazingly powerful frame, Peter combined a violent and unstable temperament with an active and shrewd intelligence. Above all, he was devoted to what he conceived to be the good of Russia and gave himself to the service of the State with all his strength.

From the beginning of his reign, Peter devoted himself to the continuance of the policy, already initiated by his predecessors, which sought to make Russia a great western power. In 1697 he himself went with fifty Russian noblemen to study and gain experience in western Europe. What he saw there of the way in which wealth, trade, manufactures and knowledge could bring power and prosperity to a nation convinced him that Russia urgently needed to learn from the west so as to match it in these things and be strong enough to survive as a great power. He came back with at least 750 technicians of various nationalities to work in Russia and purchased quantities of military and naval material.

Upon his return, he was able to reorganize his army. He raised new guards regiments to form an up-to-date professional force, effectively trained on European lines by foreign officers. Other regiments followed, based on a system of conscript levies, and when Peter died Russia had a standing army of 210,000 men,

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