Peter the Great and the founding of Russian Navy

The Imperial Russian Navy was the navy of the Russian Empire. It was formally established in 1696 from a smaller force that had existed before Peter I (later Peter the Great) founded the regular Russian Navy during the Second Azov campaign. It was expanded in the second half of the 18th century and by the early part of the 19th century, it reached its peak strength, behind only the British and French fleets in terms of size.

map_Russia under Peter the Great
Russia under Peter the Great

The building and expansion of the Imperial Navy partly helped Russia regained some territories and expanded to others

The Grandfather of the Russian Navy, 1688

A significant event occurred in June 1688.

But first, we should look at a previous story in order to know more about Peter’s personality. During this period, Peter was a co-Tsar but a secondary Tsar, the primary Tsar was his half brother Ivan V, with his half sister Sofia as regent.Sextant


His experience with a sextant is typical of his enthusiastic, self-guided education. In 1687, when Peter was fifteen, Prince Jacob Dolgoruky, about to leave on a diplomatic mission to France, mentioned to the Tsar that he had once owned a foreign instrument “by which distance and space could be measured without moving from the spot.” Unfortunately, the instrument had been stolen, but Peter asked the Prince to buy him one in France. On Dolgoruky’s return to Moscow in 1688, Peter’s first question was whether he had brought the sextant. A box was produced and a parcel inside unwrapped; it was a sextant, elegantly made of metal and wood, but no one present knew how to use it.

The search for an expert began; it led quickly to the German Suburb and soon produced a graying Dutch merchant named Franz Timmerman, who picked up the sextant and quickly calculated the distance to a neighboring house. A servant was sent to pace the distance and came back to report a figure similar to Timmerman’s. Peter eagerly asked to be taught.

Franz Timmerman
Franz Timmerman

Timmerman agreed, but declared that his pupil would first need to learn arithmetic and geometry. Peter had once learned basic arithmetic, but the skill had fallen into disuse; he did not even remember how to subtract and divide. Now, spurred by his desire to use the sextant, he plunged into a variety of subjects: arithmetic, geometry and also ballistics. Pages of his exercise books have survived and they show how he started from elementary principles. On the first pages he wrote down the three arithmetical rules: addition, subtraction and multiplication, with sums worked out to illustrate them. On other pages he wrote out the rules concerning latitudes and for calculating the flight of a bomb fired from a mortar. He applied himself with great industry, mastering the rudiments, and boldly pressing on to more advanced problems. And the further he went, the more paths seemed to open before him. He became interested again in geography, studying on the great globe which had belonged to his father the outlines of Russia, Europe and the New World.

Timmerman was a makeshift tutor even tough he could teach Peter the sciences of fortifications and artillery; he had spent twenty years in Russia and was out of touch with the latest technology of Western Europe. Yet to Peter he became a counselor and friend, and the Tsar kept the pipe-smoking Dutchman constantly at his side. Timmerman had seen the world, he could describe how things worked, he could answer at least some of the questions constantly posed by this tall, endlessly curious boy. Together, they wandered through the countryside around Moscow, visiting estates and monasteries or poking through small villages.

One of these excursions in June 1688 led to a famous episode which was to have momentous consequences for Peter and for Russia. He was wandering with Timmerman through a royal estate near the village of Ismailovo. Among the buildings behind the main house was a storehouse which, Peter was told, was filled with junk and had been locked for years. His curiosity aroused, Peter asked that the doors be opened and, despite the musty smell, he began to look around inside.

Tower and Cathedral built in the 1670s in Royal Izmaylovo Estate
Tower and Cathedral built in the 1670s in Izmaylovo Estate

In the dim light, a large object immediately caught his eye: an old boat, its timbers decaying, turned upside down in a corner of the storehouse. It was 6m long and nearly 2m wide, about the size of a lifeboat on a modern ocean liner. This was not the first boat Peter had ever seen. He knew the cumbersome, shallow-draft vessels which Russians used to transport goods along their wide rivers; he also knew the small craft used for pleasure boating at Preobrazhenskoe. But these Russian boats were essentially river craft: barge-like vessels with flat bottoms and square sterns, propelled by oars or ropes pulled by men or animals on the riverbank, or simply by the current itself. This boat before him now was different. Its deep, rounded hull, heavy keel and pointed bow were not meant for rivers.

Botik discovery
Peter discovering old boat at Royal Izmaylovo Estate

“What kind of boat is it?” Peter asked Timmerman.

“It is an English boat,” the Dutchman replied.

“What is it used for? Is it better than our Russian boats?” asked Peter.

“If you had a new mast and sails on it, it would go not only with the wind, but against the wind,” said Timmerman.

“Against the wind?” Peter was astonished. “Can it be possible?”

He wanted to try the boat at once. But Timmerman looked at the rotting timbers and insisted on major repairs; meanwhile, a mast and sails could be made. With Peter constantly pressing him to hurry, Timmerman found another elderly Dutchman, Karsten Brandt, who had arrived from Holland in 1660 to build a ship on the Caspian Sea for Tsar Alexis. Brandt, who lived as a carpenter in the German Suburb, came to Ismailovo and set to work. He replaced the timbers, calked and tarred the bottom, set a mast and rigged sails, halyards and sheets. The boat was taken on rollers down to the Yauza and launched.

Before Peter’s eyes, Brandt began to sail on the river, tacking to right and left, using the breeze to sail not only into the wind, but against the lazy current. Overwhelmed with excitement, Peter shouted to Brandt to come to shore and take him aboard. He jumped in, took the tiller and, under Brandt’s instruction, began to beat into the wind. “And mighty pleasant it was to me,” the Tsar wrote years later in the preface to his Maritime Regulations.

The true origin of this famous boat, which Peter called “The Grandfather of the Russian Navy,” is unknown. Peter believed that it was English; one legend says that originally it was sent as a gift to Ivan the Terrible by Queen Elizabeth I. Others think that it was built in Russia by Dutch carpenters during the reign of Tsar Alexis. What is important is that it was a small sailing ship of Western design. Thereafter, Peter went sailing every day.

Recognizing its significance in his own life, Peter was determined that the boat – named St. Nicholas, often called “Peter’s botik” or Peter’s small boat – be preserved. In 1701, it was taken into the Kremlin. In 1722, when the long war with Sweden was finally over, Peter commanded that the boat be brought from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. Weighing a ton and a half, it would have to be dragged partway over log corduroy roads, and Peter’s orders for its care were specific: “Bring the boat to Schlüsselburg. Be careful not to destroy it. For this reason, go only in daytime. Stop at night. When the road is bad, be especially careful.”

On 30 May 1723, Peter’s fifty-first birthday, the celebrated boat sailed down the Neva and out into the Gulf of Finland to be met there by its “grandchildren,” the men-of-war of the Russian Baltic Fleet.

Today, Peter’s botik (small boat) is the most prized exhibit of the Central Navy Museum on Vasilevsky Island, Saint Petersburg.

Botik at museum
St. Nicholas in Navy Museum, St Peterbourg

In 1997, the boat left Russia for the first time to be displayed at the World Financial Center, New York City.

Botik in navy parade, 30-Jul-2017, St Peterbourg
St. Nicholas in navy parade, 30-Jul-2017, St Peterbourg

The first fleet, 1689-1693

The Yauza was narrow, the breeze was often too light to provide maneuverability and the boat constantly went aground. The nearest really large body of water, nine miles across, was Pleshcheyevo Lake, near Pereslavl, eighty-five miles northeast of Moscow. Peter might be an irresponsible youth larking about in the fields, but he was also a tsar and he could not travel so far from his capital without some serious purpose. He quickly found one. There was a June festival at the great Troitsky Monastery, and Peter begged his mother’s permission to go there and participate in the religious ceremony. Natalya agreed, and once the service was over, Peter, now beyond the reach of any restrictive authority, simply headed northwest through the forest to Pereslavl. By prearrangement, Timmerman and Brandt were with him.

Standing on the lake bank, with the summer sun beating down on his shoulders and sparkling on the water, Peter looked out across the lake. Only dimly, in the distance, could he make out the farther shore. Here, he could sail for an hour, for two hours, without having to tack. He longed to sail at once, but there were no boats, nor did it seem possible to drag the English boat this far from Ismailovo. He turned to Brandt and asked whether it would be possible to build new boats here on the shores of the lake.

“Yes, we can build boats here,” replied the old carpenter. He looked around at the empty shoreline and the virgin forest. “But we shall need many things.”

“No matter,” said Peter excitedly. “We shall have whatever we need.”

Peter’s intention was to help build the boats at Pleshcheyevo Lake. This meant not just another quick, unauthorized visit to the lake, but obtaining permission to live there for an extended period. He returned to Moscow and laid siege to his mother. Natalya resisted, insisting that he remain in Moscow at least until the formal celebration of his name day. Peter stayed, but the day afterward he and Brandt and another old Dutch shipbuilder named Kort hurried back to Pleshcheyevo Lake. They chose a site for their boatyard on the eastern shore of the lake, not far from the Moscow-Yaroslavl road, and began building huts and a dock beside which to moor the future boats. Timber was cut, seasoned and shaped. Working from dawn until dark, with Peter and other workmen sawing and hammering vigorously under the direction of the Dutchmen, they laid the keels for five boats—two small frigates and three yachts, all to have rounded bows and sterns in the Dutch style. In September, the skeletons of the boats began to rise, but none was finished when Peter was forced to return to Moscow for the winter. He left unwillingly, asking the Dutch shipwrights to stay behind and work as hard as possible in order to have the boats ready by spring.

The chance discovery of this old boat and Peter’s first sailing lessons on the Yauza were the beginning of two compulsive themes in his personality and his life: his obsession for the sea and his desire to learn from the West. As soon as he was tsar in power as well as name, he turned toward the sea, first south to the Black Sea, then northwest to the Baltic. Impelled by the will of this strange sea-dreamer, the huge landlocked nation stumbled toward the oceans. It was strange and yet it was also partly inevitable. No great nation has survived and flourished without access to the sea. What is remarkable is that the drive sprang from the dreams of an adolescent boy.

As Peter sailed on the Yauza with Brandt beside him at the tiller, his new fascination for the water coincided and intermingled with his admiration for the West. He knew that he was in a foreign boat, taking lessons from a foreign instructor. These Dutchmen who had repaired the boat and were showing him how to use it came from a technically advanced civilization, compared to Muscovy. Holland had hundreds of ships and thousands of seamen; for the moment, Timmerman and Brandt represented all this. They became heroes to Peter. He wanted to be near the two old men so they could teach him.

In 1689, Peter complied with his mother’s wish to marry Eudoxia Lopukhina. But the honeymoon was brief. In early spring, only a few weeks after his marriage, Peter was restlessly watching the ice beginning to break on the Yauza. Knowing that soon it would be melting on Pleshcheyevo Lake, he strained to get away from his wife, his mother and his responsibilities. At the beginning of April 1689, he burst free and hurried to the lake, anxious to see how Brandt and Kort had progressed. He found the lake ice breaking, most of the boats finished, ready to be launched and needing only some coils of good rope for rigging the sails. On the same day, he wrote exuberantly to his mother, asking for ropes, slyly stressing that the sooner the ropes arrived, the sooner he would be able to come home to her.

During the same year, 1689, Regent Sofia was overthrown, but Peter still did not begin to rule. For five more years, the Tsar turned his back on governing Russia, blithely returning to the adolescent life of Pleshcheyevo Lake, of soldiers and boats.

Peter did not forget his boats. To speed the work at Pleshcheyevo Lake, twenty Dutch shipwrights from the famous shipyard at Zaandam in Holland had been contracted early in 1691 to come to Russia. When Peter returned to Pleshcheyevo Lake, he found these men working with Karsten Brandt on two small thirty-gun frigates and three yachts. Peter stayed with them only three weeks, but the following year he visited the lake four times, twice remaining for more than a month. Equipped with an “imperial decree” from Prince-Caesar Romodanovsky to build a warship from the keel up, Peter worked from dawn to dusk, eating in the boatyard and sleeping only when he was too tired to work. Oblivious to everything else, he refused to go to Moscow to receive the visit of an ambassador from Persia. Only when two senior members of his government traveled to the lake to persuade him of the importance of the event did Peter reluctantly consent to lay down his tools and go with them to Moscow. Within a week, he was back at the lake.

In August 1691, he persuaded his mother and sister Natalya to visit his boatyard and fleet. His wife, Eudoxia, came with the other ladies, and during the month they were there Peter enthusiastically maneuvered his little fleet of twelve ships before their eyes. Sitting on the small hill that rises from the shore, the ladies could see the Tsar, dressed in a crimson coat, standing on deck, waving his arms, pointing and shouting orders—all thoroughly mysterious and disquieting to women not far removed from the terem.

Peter remained at the lake that year until November. When he did finally return to Moscow, an attack of dysentery kept him in bed for six weeks. He became so feeble that there were fears for his life. His comrades and followers were alarmed: If Peter died, nothing could prevent the return of Sophia and exile or even death for themselves. But the Tsar was only twenty-one, his constitution was strong, and toward Christmas he began to recover. By late January he was once again spending his evenings in the German Suburb. Near the end of February, Lefort gave a banquet in Peter’s honor, and at dawn the next day, without having slept, Peter rode off to Pereslavl to work on his boats through the whole of Lent.

His visits that year, 1693, were to be Peter’s last extended periods at Pleshcheyevo Lake. Twice, in subsequent years, he passed by the lake on his way to the White Sea, and still later he went there to check on artillery materials for the Azov campaign. But after 1697 he did not return until he was en route to Persia in 1722. After a quarter of a century, he found boats and buildings neglected and rotted. He gave orders that what remained should be carefully preserved, and for a while an effort was made by the local nobility.

boat_Fortuna on shore of Pleshcheyevo
The Fortuna on the bank of Pleshcheyevo Lake

In 1783, a fire destroyed all the boats except the one named Fortuna (Russian: Фортуна), 7.2m long, 2.4m wide, with 8 oars, and capacity of 8 persons. Evidence suggests that the Fortuna in fact was built by Peter among the fleet of some 100 boats. In 1803 the boat was placed in a new brick structure that became the center of the Botik estate, considered one of Russia’s earliest local history museums. Fortuna is a small oak sloop with a rounded prow and stern, and a single mast that could accommodate a gaff rig as well as a triangular foresail. It was steered by a tiller attached to a rudderpost.

boat_Fortuna in Veskovo Museum near Pereslavl-Zalessky
The Fortuna in the Botik Museum near Pereslavl-Zalessky

In the nineteenth century, every spring, all the clergy of Pereslavl would board a barge and, attended by a crowd of people in many boats, sail to the middle of the lake to bless the water in memory of Peter.

Pleshcheyevo Lake and the fleet he built there were only a short chapter in his naval education. Sailing his boats on the lake, he thought of the sea. Already, before his last visit to Pereyaslavl, he was planning to visit Archangel.

Archangel, 1693-1694

On 11 July 1693, Peter left Moscow for Archangel with more than 100 people, including Francis Lefort.

Archangel did not lie directly on the coast of the White Sea. Rather, it was situated thirty miles up the river, where the ice formed even more quickly than in the salt water of the ocean itself. From October to May, the river running past the town was frozen hard as steel. But in the spring, when the ice began to melt first along the White Sea coasts, then along the rivers inland, Archangel began to stir. Barges loaded in the interior of Russia with furs, hides, hemp, tallow, wheat, caviar and potash floated in an endless procession north down the Dvina. At the same time, the first merchant ships from London, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Bremen, convoyed by warships to guard against the roving French corsairs, pushed their way through the melting ice floes around the North Cape to Archangel. In their holds, they brought wool and cotton cloth, silk and lace, gold and silver objects, wines, and chemicals for dying cloth. In Archangel, during the hectic summer months, as many as a hundred foreign ships might be seen lying in the river, discharging their Western cargoes and taking on Russian ones.

Already, on the first day of his arrival, he was anxious to put to sea. He hurried to the quay where lay a small twelve-gun yacht, the St. Peter (Svyatoy Pyot), which had been built for him. He boarded her, studied her hull and rigging and waited impatiently for a chance to test her qualities on the open sea.

His opportunity came soon after. A convoy of Dutch and English merchantmen was sailing for Europe. Peter aboard the St. Peter would escort it through the White Sea to the edge of the Arctic Ocean. On a favorable wind and tide, the ships weighed anchor, unfurled canvas and steered down the river, past the two low forts which guarded the approaches from the sea. By midday, for the first time in history, a Russian tsar was on salt water. As the low hills and forests receded into the distance, Peter was surrounded only by the dancing waves, the ships rising and falling on the deep green water of the White Sea, the creak of timbers and the whistle of wind in the rigging.

All too soon for Peter, the convoy reached the extreme northern point where the White Sea, still relatively landlocked, broadens out into the vast Arctic Ocean. Here Peter reluctantly turned back.

Peter had no intention of quitting Archangel until the expected fleet of Dutch merchantmen arrived from Amsterdam. Meanwhile, his days passed joyfully. From the window of his house on Moiseev Island he could see ships arriving and departing on the river. Eagerly, he boarded and inspected every ship in port, questioning the captains for hours, climbing the masts to study the rigging and examining the construction of the hulls. The Dutch and English captains lavished hospitality on the youthful monarch, inviting him to drink and dine with them on board. They talked of the wonders of Amsterdam, the great shipbuilding center of Zaandam, the courage of Dutch seamen and soldiers in resisting the ambitions of Louis XIV of France. Soon, Holland became Peter’s passion.

Even as the summer was ending, Peter had decided to return to Archangel the following year, but there were things he wanted to change. It depressed him that, except for his own small yacht, there was in this Russian port no Russian ship manned by Russian seamen. With his own hands, he laid the keel of a vessel larger than the little St. Peter, and commanded that it be finished during the winter. In addition, wanting a truly ocean-going Western ship, he asked Lefort and Vinius to order a Dutch-built frigate.

In mid-September, the Dutch merchant convoy arrived. Peter welcomed it and at the same time said goodbye to Archangel with a huge celebration organized by Lefort. There were banquets lasting a week, balls and salvos of artillery from the forts and the ships at anchor. The return to Moscow was slow. The barges were moving upriver now, dragged not by animals but by men pulling ropes along the shore. While the watermen strained and the barges moved slowly, the passengers got out and walked along at the edge of the forest, sometimes shooting wild ducks and pigeons for their dinner. Whenever the fleet passed a village, the priest and peasants came to the royal barge to present fish, gooseberries, chickens and fresh eggs. Sometimes, standing on the barges at night, the travelers would see a wolf on the bank. By the time they reached Moscow in mid-October, the first snow had fallen in Archangel. The harbor was closed for winter. Particularly Archangel has a new and significant facility: a shipbuilding yard.

In the spring of 1694, Peter returned to Archangel. This time, twenty-two barges were needed to carry the 300 people of Peter’s suite down the river. The barges also carried twenty-four cannon for the ships, 1,000 muskets, many barrels of powder and even more barrels of beer. In high spirits at the thought of going to sea again, Peter promoted several of his older comrades to high naval ranks: Fedor Romodanovsky was made an admiral, Ivan Buturlin a vice admiral and Patrick Gordon a rear admiral. None except Gordon had ever been on a boat, and Gordon’s nautical experience had been as a passenger on ships crossing the English Channel. Peter himself took the title of skipper, intending to captain the Dutch frigate ordered from Holland.

In Archangel, Peter’s little yacht, St. Peter, lay at the jetty, rigged and ready for sea. The Dutch frigate had not arrived, but the new ship which he had begun the summer before was finished and waiting in stocks for him to launch. Peter grabbed a sledgehammer, knocked away the props and delightedly watched the hull splash down into the water. While the new ship, christened St. Paul (Svyatoy Pavel), was being fitted with masts and sails, Peter decided to pass the time by visiting the Solovetsky Monastery, which lay on an island in the White Sea. On the night of 10 June, he boarded the St. Peter, taking with him the Archbishop Afanasy, a few comrades and a small group of soldiers. They left on the tide, but at the mouth of the Dvina the wind dropped, and it was not until the following morning that they sailed, on a freshening wind, out into the White Sea. During the day, the sky darkened and the wind began to rise. Eighty miles out from Archangel, a full gale burst over the tiny ship. Howling wind ripped the sails from masts and booms, and mountainous green seas rolled over the deck. The yacht pitched and rolled in giant waves, threatening to capsize; the crew, experienced sailors, huddled together, praying. The passengers, assuming that they were doomed, crossed themselves and prepared to drown. Drenched, the Archbishop struggled to pass among them on the rolling deck, giving the Last Sacrament.

ship_Khu truc Frigate Apostol Pyotr
The St. Peter

Peter, braced at the helm in the wind and spray, received the Last Sacrament, but did not give up hope. Each time the ship rose on one great wave and fell into the deep trough that followed, Peter struggled with the rudder, trying to keep the bow into the wind. His determination had an effect. The pilot crept aft and shouted in Peter’s ear that they should try to make for the harbor of Unskaya Gulf. With the pilot assisting him at the helm, they steered through a narrow passage, past rocks over which huge seas were boiling and hissing, into the harbor. At about noon on 12 June, after twenty-four hours of terror, the little yacht anchored in calm waters off the small Pertominsk Monastery.

The entire ship’s company rowed ashore to give thanks for their salvation in the monastery chapel. Peter rewarded the pilot with money and presented the monks with gifts and additional grants of revenue. Then, as his personal thanksgiving, he made with his own hands a wooden cross ten feet high and carried it on his shoulder to the spot on the shore where he had landed after his ordeal. It bore his inscription in Dutch: “This cross was made by Captain Peter in the summer of 1694.”

A few years later, Peter ingeniously used his near-miraculous escape in this storm to reinforce his case that he must visit the West, an idea which most Russians opposed. He revealed that during the height of the tempest he had vowed to St. Peter, his patron saint, that if his life was saved he would travel to Rome to give thanks at the tomb of his namesake apostle in the Holy City. Now, he declared, he had to fulfill his vow. Peter’s visit to Rome, scheduled for the last part of the Great Embassy, never took place. He was en route in 1698 when he was called hurriedly back to Moscow by news of the last revolt of the Streltsy.

Outside the anchorage, the storm raged for three more days. On the 16th, the wind dropped, and Peter again set sail for the Solovetsky Monastery, the most famous in northern Russia. He spent three days at Solovetsky, pleasing the monks by his devotions before their holy relics. His return to Archangel was on calm seas, and his arrival was hailed with jubilation by his anxious friends, who knew about the storm and feared for the survival of the St. Peter and its passenger.

A few weeks later, the new ship which Peter had launched was ready for sea. Now, with the smaller St. Peter, Peter had two ocean-going ships, and when the new Dutch-built frigate arrived from Amsterdam, his fleet would increase to three. This happy event took place on 21 July, when the frigate Holy Prophecy (Svyatoye Prorochestvo) sailed into the estuary of the Dvina and anchored off Solombola. Under the command of Captain Jan Flam, who had already made thirty voyages to Archangel, she was a sturdy, round-nosed Dutch warship with forty-four cannon ranged along her upper and middle decks. Burgomaster Witsen, hoping to please the Tsar, had seen to it that the cabins were wood-paneled, with elegant polished furniture, silk hangings and handsomely woven carpets.

Along with her cannon and luxurious furnishings, the Holy Prophecy brought another Western gift to Russia. When the ship anchored at Archangel, the great red-white-and-blue banner of Holland floated from her stern. Peter, admiring the ship and everything about her, immediately decided that his own naval flag should be modeled after it. Accordingly, he took the Dutch design – three broad horizontal stripes, red on top, white in the middle and blue on the bottom – and simply changed the sequence. In the Russian flag, white was on top, then blue, then red. This naval flag quickly became the flag of the Russian empire (as distinct from the imperial standard of the tsar, which was the double eagle) and remained so until the fall of the dynasty in 1917.

Peter was wild with excitement. He rushed to the river when the ship was sighted, hurried on board and climbed or crawled through every inch of rigging and lower deck.

Within a week, the new frigate was ready to sail under the command of her new captain. Peter had arranged that his small Russian fleet should accompany to the Arctic Ocean a convoy of Dutch and English merchantmen returning home. Before sailing, Peter had arranged that the disposition of the fleet and the signals for directing its movements should be according to techniques which he himself had devised. The newly commissioned St. Paul, with Vice Admiral Buturlin aboard, was in the van, followed by four Dutch ships laden with Russian cargoes. Then came Peter’s new frigate, with Admiral Romodanovsky and the Tsar himself as captain (although Jan Flam was at his elbow). After this, four English merchantmen and, in the rear, the yacht St. Peter, bearing General Gordon, the new rear admiral. Gordon’s seamanship was meager; he almost steered his ship aground on a small island, thinking that the crosses in a cemetery on shore were the masts and yardarms of the vessels ahead of him.

Peter’s fleet escorted the convoy as far as Svyatoy Nos on the Kola Peninsula, east of Murmansk. Here, the White Sea broadened out into the gray waters of the Arctic Ocean. Peter had hoped to sail farther, but a strong wind was blowing, and after his earlier experience, he allowed himself to be persuaded to turn back. Five guns were fired to signal that the escort was turning back, and the Western ships disappeared over the northern horizon. Peter’s three small ships returned to Archangel, the Tsar held a farewell banquet and, on 3 September, reluctantly started back for Moscow.

Thus, within six years since Peter’s discovery of a strange boat, for the first time Russia had an ocean-going fleet, departing from a Russian port and coming back to a Russian port, commanded by Russian admirals (Gordon was a foreigner but wore Russian rank and received Russian salary).

Azov Fleet and Azov campaigns, 1695-1696

Peter was now twenty-two, in the prime of his young manhood. His most extraordinary quality, even more remarkable than his height, was his titanic energy. He could not sit still or stay long in the same place. He walked so quickly with his long, loose-limbed stride that those in his company had to trot to keep up with him. When forced to do paperwork, he paced around a stand-up desk. Seated at a banquet, he would eat for a few minutes, then spring up to see what was happening in the next room or to take a walk outdoors. When he had been in one place for a while, he wanted to leave, to move along, to see new people and new scenery, to form new impressions. The most accurate image of Peter the Great is of a man who throughout his life was perpetually curious, perpetually restless, perpetually in movement.

In the winter of 1695, Moscow was surprised at the announcement that Russia would embark the following summer on a renewed war against the Tatars and their overlords, the Ottoman Empire.

Russia and the Ottoman Empire became adversaries due to strange reasons. Poland had been at war with Ottoman, and was defeated. In 1686, the Poles sought a Russo-Polish alliance. Both sides achieved their objectives, an both sides also paid a heavy price. Poland formally ceded Kiev to Russia, giving up forever her claim to the great city. In return, Russia agreed to declare war on the Ottoman Empire and launch an attack on the Sultan’s vassal, the Khan of the Crimea. For the first time in Russian history, Muscovy would join a coalition of European powers in fighting a common enemy. War with the Turks meant an abrupt change in Russian foreign policy. Up to this time, there had never been hostilities between sultan and tsar.

So, when Peter was still a small child, twice Russia attacked Azov, and twice Russis was defeated

Now, Peter had a significant reason to attack Azov again. He dreamed of creating a naval sea-going fleet. But Russia’s only seaport was frozen solid six months of the year. The nearest sea, the Baltic, was still firmly gripped by Sweden, the dominant military power in Northern Europe. Only one avenue to salt water remained: to the south and the Black Sea. But to got to the Back Sea, Peter to occupy the impeding Azov Fortress, from here his fleet went to the Azov Sea then the Black Sea.

map_Ottoman 1683
The Ottoman Empire in 1683

But there were other reasons, too. Russia was still at war with the Ottoman Empire, and every summer the horsemen of the Tatar Khan rode north to raid the Ukraine. In 1692, an army of 12,000 Tatar cavalry appeared before the town of Neimerov, burned it to the ground and carried away 2,000 prisoners to be sold in the Ottoman slave marts. A year later, the number of Russian prisoners mounted to 15,000.

In addition, there was a diplomatic reason for a resumption of hostilities with the Turks and Tatars. Moscow’s ally King Jan Sobieski of Poland, judging that Russia had contributed nothing of consequence in the common war against Turkey, had threatened to make a separate peace with the Ottoman Empire which would ignore Russia’s interests completely.

The Azov campaign, then, was the desire to suppress the Tatar raids and the need to make a military effort to satisfy the Poles. This time the two prongs of the Russian attack would fall on either side of the peninsular stronghold. The dual objectives would be the mouths of the rivers Dnieper and Don, where Turkish forts blocked Ukrainian Cossack or Russian access to the Black Sea. The Russian army would travel south by water, using barges as vehicles of supply. Altogether there were 31,000 men in three divisions, commanded by the Russian Avtonom Golovin, the Swiss Francis Lefort, and the Scot Golovin. To avoid jealousy, none of the three was named supreme commander; each division was to operate independently, and the three generals were to make overall decisions in council in the presence of the twenty-three-year-old Bombardier Peter.

The fortress town of Azov stood on the left bank of the southernmost branch of the Don, about 25 km upstream from the Sea of Azov. Taken by the Turks in 1475, it became the northeastern link in their absolute control of the Black Sea and served as a barrier to any Russian advance down the Don. They had fortified the town with towers and walls, and, as part of the barrier system, two Turkish watchtower forts were situated a mile upriver from the city, with iron chains stretched between them across the river to prevent the light Cossack galleys slipping past the town and out into the sea.

For lack of men, the Russian siege works did not completely encircle the land side of Azov. Between the end of the Russian trenches and the river was an open gap through which Tatar cavalry maintained communication with the Azov garrison. And the siege was rendered even less effective by lack of ships to control the river. Peter could only watch helplessly when twenty Turkish galleys came upstream and anchored near the town to deliver supplies and reinforcements to the Turkish garrison.

Increasingly, the problem of divided command hampered the Russian siege operation. Lefort and Golovin both resented General Gordon’s superior military experience and tended to side together in council to overrule the veteran Scot. Peter also grew impatient with the course of the siege and, together with Lefort and Golovin, forced a decision to launch a sudden major assault in an effort to take the town by storm. Gordon argued that to take a fortress of this strength they must advance the trenches closer to the walls so that the troops could be protected until the moment of attack and not be lengthily exposed on the open ground before the walls. His warnings were brushed aside, and on 15 August the attack was made and it failed, as predicted.

A final attack was no more successful than the first, and on 12 October, with the soldiers’ morale very low and the weather growing colder, Peter raised the siege. That he planned to return the following year, however, was indicated by the fact that he left the two watchtower forts strongly garrisoned by 3,000 men.

On 2 December, the army reached Moscow. Making no excuses, acknowledging failure, Peter threw himself into preparations for a second attempt. He had been thwarted by three mistakes: divided command, a lack of skilled engineers to construct efficient siege works and an absence of control of the sea at the river mouth to seal off the fortress from outside help.

The first defect was easiest to rectify: The following summer, a supreme military commander would be named.

Peter attempted to remedy the second problem by writing to the Austrian Emperor and the Elector of Brandenburg for competent siege experts to aid in defeating the infidel Turk.

Far more difficult was the third factor, a fleet to control the river. And yet Peter decided he had to provide one, and demanded that by May – in five short months – a war fleet of twenty-five armed galleys and 1,300 new river barges be built for transporting troops and supplies. The galleys were to be not merely shallow-draft river craft but respectable sea-going men of war fit to defeat Turkish warships on the estuary of the Don or even on the open waters of the Sea of Azov.

After the occupation of the Azov fortress, the Boyar Duma looked into Peter’s report of this military campaign. It passed a decree on 20 October 1696 to commence construction of a navy. This date is considered the official founding of the Imperial Russian Navy.

The effort appeared impossible. Not only was the time ridiculously short, but these particular five months were the worst time of the year. Rivers and roads were frozen by ice and snow, the days were short as winter night came early, men working in the open air would hammer and saw with fingers numbed by cold. And there was no seaport, no shipbuilding site. Peter would have to build his ships somewhere in the interior of Russia and float them downriver to bring them into position to fight the Turks.

Moreover, in the Russian heartland there were no real shipwrights. Russians knew only how to make river boats, simple craft 30m long by 6m wide, fitted together without the use of a single nail, used for one voyage down the river and then broken up for timber or firewood. Peter’s plan, then, was to build the shipyards, assemble the workmen, teach them to mark, cut and hew the timber, lay the keels, build the hulls, step the masts, shape the oars, weave the ropes, sew the sails, train the crews and sail the whole massive fleet down the River Don to Azov. All within five winter months!

But Peter went to work. As a shipbuilding site, he chose the town of Voronezh on the upper Don, nearly 500 km below Moscow and 800 km above the sea. Thus Voronezh has been considered to be the cradle of the Imperial Russian Navy. The town had several advantages. Sheer distance made it secure from the threat of Tatar raids. It was situated above the line of the treeless steppe and lay in a belt of thick virgin forest where timber was readily available. For these reasons, Voronezh had been a site for building the simple barges which carried goods to the Don Cossacks. On the low eastern bank of the river at Voronezh, Peter built new shipyards, expanded the old ones and summoned huge numbers of conscripted unskilled laborers. Belgorod province, where Voronezh lay, was commanded to send 27,828 men to work in the shipyards. Peter sent to Archangel for skilled carpenters and shipbuilders, routing foreign and Russian artisans out of their winter indolence, promising that they would finish by summer. He appealed to the Doge of Venice to send him experts in the construction of galleys. A galley ordered from Holland and newly arrived at Archangel was cut into sections and brought to Moscow, where it served as a model.

In the middle of Peter’s Herculean effort, on 8 February 1696, Tsar Ivan suddenly died. Feeble, uncomprehending and harmless, gentle Ivan had passed most of his twenty-nine years as a living icon, presented at ceremonies or dragged forward in moments of crisis to calm an angry mob. The difference between restless, energetic Peter and his silent, passive half-brother and co-Tsar was so great that there remained great affection between them. Ivan’s death had no active political significance, but it put a final, formal seal on Peter’s sovereignty. He was now sole Tsar, the single, supreme ruler of the Russian state.

When Peter returned to Voronezh, he found vast activity and confusion. Mountains of timber had been cut and dragged to the building yards, and dozens of barges had already taken shape. But there were endless problems: Many of the ship’s carpenters were slow in arriving from Archangel; many unskilled laborers, improperly housed and badly fed, deserted; the weather varied between thaws which turned the ground to mud and sudden new freezes which turned the river and the roads to ice.

Launching ship at Novorezh
Launching ship at Novorezh

Peter hurled himself into action. He slept in a small log house next to the shipyard and rose before dawn. To crew the new armada, Peter sent for boatmen from even the most distant Russian rivers and lakes. To man the war galleys, he created a special marine force of 4,000 men culled from many regiments.

A single officer, the boyar Alexis Shein, had been appointed commander-in-chief of the expedition. Shein was not an experienced military commander, but he came from a distinguished family, his judgment was considered sound and his appointment silenced those conservative Muscovites who grumbled that a Russian army commanded by a foreigner could never succeed. Lefort, although no seaman, was made admiral of the new fleet, while Peter took the title of naval captain rather than artillery bombardier.

On 1 May, the boyar Alexis Shein, the generalissimo, boarded his commander’s galley and raised on its stern a great embroidered banner bearing the Tsar’s arms. Two days later, the first ships weighed anchor and the long procession of galleys and barges began the voyage down the Don. Peter, starting later with a battle squadron of eight fast galleys, overtook the main fleet on 26 May. By the end of the month, the entire fleet of barges and galleys had reached the Russian-held watchtower forts above Azov that the Tatar did not care to destroy becaused they had not thought the Russians would come back so soon.

Fighting began immediately. Finally, the Russians won the battle.

Taking Azov
Taking Azov

On receiving news of the victory, Moskva gave way to rejoicing. The Muscovites had grown accustomed to defeats; a victory, especially over the great Ottoman Porte, was unbelievable. The Patriarch wept with joy as he read the official report, and then ordered the great bell to be rung.

Azov was now a Russian town, and Peter ordered the immediate razing of all the siege works. Under the supervision of the Austrian engineers, he began reconstruction of the town’s own fortified walls and bastions. The streets were cleared of ruins and rubble, and the mosques were transformed into Christian churches.

Next, Peter needed a harbor for his new Don River fleet. Azov itself was too far upstream, and the mouths of the Don were treacherous: too shallow in some spots, too deep in others. For a week, Peter cruised along the nearby coasts of the Sea of Azov seeking an anchorage, sleeping on a bench of one of his new galleys. Finally, he decided to build a harbor on the north shore of the sea, nearly 50kms from the mouth of the Don. The site lay behind a point known to the Cossacks as Tagonrog, and here Peter ordered the construction of a fort and harbor which were to become the first real naval base in Russian history.

Taganrog today
Tagonrog today

On 10 October, the Tsar joined his troops at Kolomenskoe, an immense building, constructed entirely of wood, regarded by Russian contemporaries as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Standing on a bluff overlooking a bend in the Moscow River, it was an exotic jumble of shingled onion domes, tent roofs, steep pyramidal towers, horseshoe arches, vestibules, latticed stairways, balconies and porches, arcades, courtyards and gateways. A separate three-storied building, with two peaked towers, served as the private apartment of Peter and his half-brother Ivan. Although from the outside it seemed a crazy quilt of old Russian architecture, the palace had many modern features. Alexis had often received foreign ambassadors at Kolomenskoe rather than at the Kremlin.

Kolomenskoe Palace
Kolomenskoe Palace

From Kolomenskoe Palace, for the triumphal army marched into the capital, itself stretching many kilometers. At its head rode eighteen horsemen, followed by a six-horse carriage bearing Peter’s aged tutor, the Prince-Pope Nikita Zotov. Then came fourteen more horsemen before the gilded carriage of Admiral Lefort. Fedor Golovin and Lev Naryshkin were next, then thirty cavalrymen in silver cuirasses. Two companies of trumpeters preceded the royal standard of the Tsar, which was surrounded by guards with pikes. Behind the standard, in another gilded carriage, rolled the commander-in-chief, Alexis Shein, followed by sixteen captured Turkish standards, their shafts reversed and their banners trailing in the dirt.

And where, amidst all this gorgeous assemblage of flashing colors, of prancing horses and marching men, was the Tsar? To their amazement, Muscovites finally saw Peter not on a white horse or in a golden carriage at the head of his army, but walking with other galley captains behind the carriage of Admiral Francis Lefort. He was recognizable by his great height and by his German captain’s uniform. On foot, the victorious Tsar walked through his capital the 15 km miles from Kolomenskoe.

The Navy, 1696-1698

Azov was only a beginning. Those Russians who hoped that now after a great victory, the first in three decades, Peter would quietly settle down to rule – as his father, Alexis, and brother Fedor had done – soon learned of the two huge projects and ideas bubbling in their master’s mind. The first was the creation of a navy, and the second, the construction of a sea-going fleet. These two projects complemented each other, and were fused together. What Peter wanted were real warships, not just the galleys he had built for the single purpose of supporting a land campaign and sealing off a fortress from the sea. By taking Azov, Peter had won access only to the Sea of Azov; entry into the Black Sea itself was still blocked by the powerful Turkish fortress at Kerch astride the strait between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, and to force this strait, Peter would need a fleet of sea-going ships.

Scarcely had the Moscow triumph been celebrated when on 20 October 1696 Peter summoned his council of boyars and announced his plans to colonize Azov and Tagonrog and begin the construction of a navy. A stream of edicts flowed from this historic meeting. Three thousand peasant families and 3,000 Streltsy with their wives and children were uprooted and dispatched to Azov as military colonizers. Twenty thousand Ukrainian laborers were drafted and sent to Tagonrog to build the naval harbor. The new ships themselves were to be built at Voronezh, where the present shipyards would be vastly expanded; from there, the finished vessels would be floated down the Don. Responsibility for building the ships was allocated. All who could afford to help—church, landowners, merchants—would join the state in paying the costs. The state itself would build ten large ships. Every great landowner would build one ship. Every large monastery would build one ship. All these ships were to be fully constructed, equipped and armed within eighteen months. The government would provide the timber, but the landowners or church officials were to provide everything else: ropes, sails, cannon, fittings.

The order allowed no exceptions. The Patriarch owned private estates containing 8,761 serf households; he was required to provide one ship for eight thousand households, and to join in a company, adding his remaining 761 households to those of two metropolitans, an archbishop, and twelve monasteries, to produce another ship. Peter’s closest colleagues participated on the same terms; the Tsar’s favour was never an excuse for smaller contributions.

Enforcement was harsh. Failure meant immediate confiscation of property. When the merchants of Moscow and other cities, feeling that their allocation of twelve ships was too much for them, petitioned the Tsar for a lighter burden, their share was increased to fourteen. Usually, the ships were built at Voronezh without the landowners or merchants actually taking personal charge of construction. They simply paid the necessary costs and hired foreign shipbuilders from the German Suburb to perform the skilled work.

In July 1696, while still laying siege to Azov, Peter had instructed his minister to request the Doge of Venice “to send to Moskova for the purpose of our mutual Christian campaign, thirteen worthy shipwrights, able to build every kind of seagoing vessel.” The Venetian shipwrights arrived in the following January, and others came from Holland, England, Denmark, and Sweden. In the first half of 1697 no fewer than fifty Western shipwrights reached Moskva and went on to work at Voronezh. But these foreigners were only a cadre. To construct the fleet that Peter envisaged would require many more shipbuilders and, once the ships were afloat, many naval officers to command them. At least some of these would have to be Russian.

On 22 November 1696, a few weeks after the shipbuilding effort was announced, Peter declared that he was sending 61 Russians – most of them young and sons of the noblest families – to Western Europe to study seamanship, navigation and shipbuilding. Twenty-eight were sent to Venice to study the famed Venetian galleys; the rest were dispatched to Holland and England to study the larger ships of the two great maritime powers. Peter himself drew up the syllabus for study: The Russian students were to familiarize themselves with charts and compasses and other tools of seafaring, to learn the art of shipbuilding, to serve on foreign ships, starting at the bottom as common sailors, and, if possible, to participate in naval warfare. None was to return to Russia without a certificate signed by a foreign master attesting to the student’s proficiency.

Peter’s command fell on horrified ears. Some of those selected were already married – Peter Tolstoy, the oldest of the students, was fifty-two when sent abroad – and they would be uprooted from wives and children and sent into the temptations of the Western world. Their parents feared the corrupting effect of Western religion, and their wives feared the seductive arts of Western women. And all had to travel at their own expense. But there was no recourse; they had to go. None returned to Russia to become distinguished admirals, but their years abroad were not wasted. Tolstoy employed his knowledge of the West and his facility in the Italian language to effective use as ambassador to Constantinople. Boris Kurakin became Peter’s leading ambassador in Western Europe. Yury Trubetskoy and Dmitry Golitsyn became senators, Golitsyn being regarded as one of the most erudite men in Peter’s Russia. And these fifty were but the first wave.

In the years that followed, scores of Russian youths, commoners as well as noblemen, were routinely sent abroad for naval training. The knowledge they brought home helped to change Russia.

The Great Embassy departed, 1697

The massive building program for the Azov fleet and the sending of dozens of young Russians abroad to learn seamanship were not the greatest shocks that awaited Russia in the wake of Peter’s victory over the Turks. Two weeks after the dispatch of the first naval apprentices, the Foreign Ministry made another, even more dramatic announcement:

The Sovereign has directed for his great affairs of state that to the neighboring nations, to the Emperor, to the Kings of England and Denmark, to the Pope of Rome, to the Dutch states, to the Elector of Brandenburg, and to Venice shall be sent his great Ambassadors and Plenipotentiaries: the General and Admiral Francis Lefort, General Fedor Golovin and Councilor Prokofy Voznitsyn.

The Great Embassy (in Russian: Великое посольство, Velikoye posolstvo) would number more than 250 people, and it would be absent from Russia for more than eighteen months. As well as giving its members an opportunity to study the West at first hand and to enlist officers, sailors, engineers and shipwrights to build and man a Russian fleet, it would enable Westerners to see and report their impressions of the leading Russians who made the trip. Soon after the announcement, two almost unbelievable rumors raced through Moscow: the Tsar himself meant to accompany the Great Embassy to the West, and he meant to go not as Great Lord and Tsar, autocrat and sovereign, but as a mere member of the ambassadors’ staff. Peter, who stood six feet seven inches, intended to travel incognito.

The Great Embassy was one of the two or three overwhelming events in Peter’s life. The project amazed his fellow countrymen. Never before had a Russian tsar traveled peacefully abroad; a few had ventured across the border in wartime to besiege a city or pursue an enemy army, but not in time of peace.

In fact, there was a sound diplomatic reason for the Embassy. Peter was anxious to renew and if possible strengthen the alliance against the Turks. As he saw it, the capture of Azov was only a beginning. He hoped now to force the Strait of Kerch with his new fleet and attain mastery of the Black Sea, and to accomplish this he must not only acquire technology and trained manpower, he must have reliable allies; Russia could not fight the Ottoman Empire alone.

Also, Peter went because of his desire to learn. The visit to Western Europe was the final stage of Peter’s education, the culmination of all he had learned from foreigners since boyhood. They had taught him all that they could in Russia, but there was more, and Lefort was constantly urging him to go. Peter’s overriding interest was in ships for his embryo navy, and he was well aware that in Holland and England lived the greatest shipbuilders in the world. He wanted to go to those countries, where dockyards turned out the dominant navies and merchant fleets of the world, and to Venice, which was supreme in the building of multi-oared galleys for use in inland seas.

The best authority on his motive is Peter himself. Before his departure, he had a seal engraved for himself which bore the inscription, “I am a pupil and need to be taught.”

Peter in his incognito
Peter in his incognito

As for his decision to travel incognito – implemented by his command that all mail leaving Moscow be censored to prevent leakage of his plan – it was intended as a buffer, a façade, to protect him and give him freedom. Anxious to travel, yet hating the formality and ceremony that would inevitably inundate him should he journey as a reigning monarch, he chose to travel “invisibly” within the Embassy ranks. By giving the Embassy distinguished leadership, he could assure a reception consistent with persons of rank; by pretending that he himself was not present, he gave himself freedom to avoid wasted hours of numbing ceremony. In honoring his ambassadors, his hosts would be honoring the Tsar, and meanwhile Peter Mikhailov could come and go, and see whatever he liked.

If Peter’s purpose seems narrow, the impact of this eighteen-month journey was to be immense. Peter returned to Russia determined to remold his country along Western lines. The old Muscovite state, isolated and introverted for centuries, would reach out to Europe and open itself to Europe. In a sense, the flow of effect was circular: the West affected Peter, the Tsar had a powerful impact upon Russia, and Russia, modernized and emergent, had a new and greater influence on Europe. For all three, therefore—Peter, Russia and Europe—the Great Embassy was a turning point.

Peter in Holland, 1697

In the second half of the seventeenth century, Holland was at the peak of its world power and prestige. With its dense, teeming population of two million hard-working Dutchmen crowded into a tiny area, Holland was by far the richest, most urbanized, most cosmopolitan state in Europe. Not surprisingly, the prosperity of this small state was a source of wonder and envy to its neighbors, and often this envy turned to greed. On such occasions, the Dutch drew on certain national characteristics to defend themselves. They were valiant, obstinate and resourceful, and when they fought – first against the Spaniards, then against the English and finally against the French – they fought in a way which was practical and, at the same time, desperately and sublimely heroic. To defend their independence and their democracy, a people of two million maintained an army of 120,000 and the second-largest navy in the world.

Holland’s prosperity, like its freedom, rested on ingenuity and hard work. In most European nations of the day, the vast majority of the people were tied to the land, engaged in the simple process of feeding themselves and creating a small surplus to feed the towns and cities. In Holland, one Dutch peasant – by producing larger crop yields per acre, by somehow extracting more milk and butter from his cows and more meat from his pigs – was able to feed two of his non-farming fellow citizens. Thus, in Holland more than half the population was freed for other activities, and they bustled into commerce, industry and shipping.

Commerce and shipping were the source of Holland’s enormous wealth. The seventeenth-century Dutch were a trading, sea-faring people. The great sister ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, situated at the twin mouths of the Rhine, were at the junction of Europe’s canals, its most important rivers and the oceans of the world. Almost everything passing in and out of Europe, up and down Europe’s coast and across the sea passed through Holland. English tin, Spanish wool, Swedish iron, French wines, Russian furs, Indian spices and teas, Norwegian timber and Irish wool flowed into the Netherlands to be graded, finished, woven, blended, sorted and shipped out again on the watery highways.

To carry these goods, the Dutch had a near-monopoly on the world’s shipping. Four thousand Dutch merchant ships – more merchant ships than those possessed by the rest of the world combined – sailed the world’s oceans. As ships sailed ceaselessly to and fro, goods and profits piled up and the Dutch merchant republic became richer and richer. Wealth bred confidence, confidence bred credit, credit bred more wealth, and Holland’s power and fame spread farther. Holland was the true model of the rich, successful mercantile state, a commercial paradise to which young men came from all over Protestant Europe, especially England and Scotland, to learn the commercial and financial techniques of Holland’s supremacy.

At Pereslavl, at Archangel, at Voronezh, talking with Dutch shipwrights and sea captains, Peter had often heard the name of Zaandam. This Dutch town, ten miles north of Amsterdam, was said to build the finest ships in Holland. In the fifty private shipbuilding yards, as many as 350 ships a year were constructed, and so rapid and expert were the Zaandamers reputed to be that from the moment a keel was laid until the vessel was ready for sea, not more than five weeks were allowed to pass. Over the years, Peter’s desire to visit and learn to build ships in Zaandam had taken firm root. Now, as he traveled across Germany, he told his comrades that he meant to remain in Zaandam through the autumn and winter learning shipbuilding. When he reached the Dutch frontier, he was so impatient that he hired a boat and, leaving most of the Embassy behind, sailed straight down the river, passing through Amsterdam without even stopping to rest.

Early on Sunday morning, 18 August, Peter and his six companions were sailing along a canal approaching Zaandam when the Tsar noticed a familiar figure sitting in a rowboat, fishing for eels. It was Gerrit Kist, a Dutch blacksmith who had worked with Peter in Moscow. Overjoyed to see a familiar face, Peter boomed out a greeting. Kist, snatched from his thoughts and raising his eyes to see the Tsar of Russia sailing by, almost fell out of his boat. Steering for the bank and jumping from his boat, Peter hugged Kist excitedly and swore him to secrecy regarding his presence. Then, finding that Kist lived nearby, the Tsar immediately announced that he would stay with the blacksmith. Kist had many objections, arguing that his house was too small and plain for a monarch, and proposing instead the house of a widow who lived just behind his own house. With an offer of seven florins, the widow was persuaded to move in with her father.

Thus, within a few hours Peter was happily settled into a tiny wooden house consisting of two small rooms, two windows, a tiled stove and a curtained, airless sleeping closet so small that he could not fully stretch out. Two of his companions stayed with him; the other four found nearby quarters. The house rented by Peter, called “Peter House”, is now the oldest wooden houses in Holland as it is preserved properly.

Ngoi nha Pyotr cu ngu o Zaandam Ha Lan 2
Peter House in Zaandam. Only a part was rented.


House at Zaandam_inside
Peter House in Zaandam – Indoor furniture

Because it was Sunday, the shipyards were closed, but Peter was intensely excited and found it impossible to sit quietly and do nothing. He went out into the streets, which were filled with people strolling on a summer Sunday afternoon. The crowd, attracted by the news that a strange boat had arrived carrying foreigners in exotic costumes, began to notice him. Annoyed, he tried to find refuge at an inn, but there also people stared at him. It was only the beginning.

Early Monday morning, Peter hurried to a store on the dike and bought carpenter’s tools. Then he went to the private shipyard of Lynst Rogge and, under the name Peter Mikhailov, signed himself up as a common workman. He began working happily, shaping timbers with his hatchet and constantly asking the foreman the name of every object he saw. After work, he began visiting the wives and parents of Dutch shipbuilders still in Russia, explaining to them that he worked side by side with their sons and husbands, declaring with pleasure, “I, too, am a carpenter.” He called on the widow of a Dutch carpenter who had died in Russia, to whom he had previously sent a gift of 500 florins. The widow told him that she had often prayed for a chance to tell the Tsar how much his gift had meant to her. Touched and pleased, Peter sat down and had supper with her.

Peter at Zaandam (Polytechni Exhibition 1872)
Peter in Zaandam

Despite Peter’s wish that no one learn his identity, the secret quickly began to evaporate. On Monday morning, Peter had ordered his companions to shed their Russian robes for the red jackets and white canvas trousers of Dutch workmen, but, even so, the Russians did not look like Dutchmen. Peter’s own great height made real anonymity impossible, and by Tuesday everyone in Zaandam knew that “a person of great importance” was in town. They cause noise and disturbance trying to see the Tsar by their eyes. The Burgomaster issued an order forbidding Zaandamers to trouble or insult “distinguished persons who wish to remain unknown.”

Even though Peter’s secret was out, he still tried to maintain his incognito. He refused an invitation to dine with the leading merchants of Zaandam and declined to eat fish cooked in the special Zaandam style with the Burgomaster and his councilors. To both these invitations, Peter replied that there was no one of importance present; the Tsar had not yet come. When one leading merchant came to Peter’s comrades to offer a larger house with a garden filled with fruit trees which would be more suitable for them and their master, they replied that they were not noblemen but servants, and that their present accommodations were ample.

News of the Tsar’s appearance in Zaandam spread rapidly across Holland. Two merchants who had met Peter at Archangel hurried to Zaandam. Seeing him at his house on Thursday morning, they came out, pale with emotion, and declared, “Certainly, it is the Tsar, but how and why is he here?” Another acquaintance from Archangel told Peter of his amazement at seeing him in Holland in workman’s clothes. Peter replied simply, “You see it,” and refused to say anything else on the subject.

On Thursday, Peter bought a sailboat and installed a new mast and bowsprit with his own hands. When the sun rose on Friday, he was sailing on the Ij. That afternoon, after dinner, he went sailing again, but as he cruised on the Ij, he saw a large number of boats putting out from Zaandam to join him. To escape, he steered for shore and jumped out, only to find himself in the middle of another curious crowd, pushing to see him and staring at him as if he were an animal in the zoo. In anger, Peter cuffed one spectator on the head, provoking the crowd to shout at the victim, “Bravo! Marsje, now you have been knighted!” By this time, the numbers of people in boats and on the shore had grown so great that Peter secluded himself in an inn and would not return to Zaandam until darkness fell.

The following day, Saturday, Peter had intended to observe the interesting and delicate mechanical operation by which a large, newly constructed ship was dragged across the top of a dike by means of rollers and capstans. To protect him, a space had been enclosed with a fence so that he could watch without being crushed by the crowd. By Saturday morning, however, the news of Peter’s anticipated presence had brought even larger crowds of people from as far as Amsterdam; there were so many that the fences were trampled down. Peter, seeing the windows and even the roofs of the surrounding houses jammed with spectators, refused to go, even though the Burgomaster came in person to urge him. In Dutch, Peter replied, “Too many people. Too many people.”

On Sunday, crowds came from Amsterdam, boatload after boatload. In desperation, the guards on the Zaandam bridges were doubled, but the crowd merely pushed them aside. Peter did not dare step outside all day. Pent up indoors, his anger and frustration smoldering, he pleaded with the embarrassed town council for help, but it could do nothing with the torrent of strangers which was growing every minute. As a last resort, he decided to leave Zaandam. His boat was brought from its normal mooring to a place near the house. By vigorous use of his knees and elbows, Peter managed to force his way through the crowd and climb on board. Although a high wind which had been blowing since morning had now reached the proportions of a storm, he insisted on leaving. A stay in the rigging parted as he cast off, and for a moment the boat was in danger of foundering. Nevertheless, despite the urging of experienced seamen, Peter sailed away, arriving three hours later in Amsterdam. Here, too, a crowd of Dutchmen pressed against one another to see him. Once again, several of them caught blows from the angry Tsar. Finally, he made his way to an inn which had been reserved for the Great Embassy.

This was the end of Peter’s long-dreamed-of visit to Zaandam. Trying to work in an open shipyard or move freely about the town was plainly impossible, and Peter’s intended stay of several months was reduced to an actual stay of a single week. Later, he sent Menshikov and two other members of his party back to Zaandam to learn the special technique of making masts, and he himself returned for two brief visits, but the education in Dutch shipbuilding that Peter had planned for himself was to take place not in Zaandam but in Amsterdam.

o O o

Water and ships were everywhere in Amsterdam. Turning every corner, a visitor caught sight of masts and sails. The waterfront was a forest of spars. Along the canals, pedestrians stepped over ropes, iron rings for mooring boats, pieces of timber, barrels, anchors, even cannon. The whole city was a semi-shipyard. And the harbor itself was crowded with ships of every size – the small, gaff-rigged fishing boats just back at midday from an early morning’s catch; the big, three-masted East India Company merchantmen; and seventy- or eighty-gun ships-of-the-line, all showing the typical Dutch.

And at the eastern end of the harbor, in a section called Ostenburg, lay the Dutch East India Company dockyards with the great wharves and shipbuilding ramps where the company’s ships were constructed. Row on row, the great, round, bulbous hulls of the East Indiamen took shape, up from the keel, rib by rib, plank by plank, deck by deck. Nearby, veteran ships returning from long voyages were overhauled—first, the rigging and masts were removed, then the hulls were dragged into shallow tidal water and rolled on their sides. There they lay like beached whales while carpenters, fitters and other workmen swarmed over them, scraping their bottoms of rich layers of marine growth, replacing their rotten planks and melting fresh tar into the seams to keep out the sea.

Dockyard of East India Co. 17th Century
Dockyard of East India Co. in 17th Century

It was to this dockyard, a special seamen’s paradise within the larger paradise that was all of Amsterdam, that Peter came to spend four months.

Peter’s return to Amsterdam had been forced by the crowds in Zaandam, but he would have returned in any case to greet his own Great Embassy, which was just arriving. The ambassadors had been received in royal style at Cleves near the frontier, and four large yachts and numerous carriages had been placed at their disposal. The city fathers of Amsterdam, understanding the potential significance of this Embassy in terms of future trade with Russia, decided to receive it with extraordinary honors.

Peter had a chance to talk to the extraordinary man who was Burgomaster of Amsterdam, Nicholas Witsen. Cultured, wealthy, one of his passions was ships, and he took Peter to see his collections of ship models, navigational instruments and tools used in shipbuilding. Witsen was fascinated by Russia and for a long time, along with his other duties and interests, Witsen had acted as the unofficial minister of Muscovy in Amsterdam.

During the months that Peter was in Amsterdam, the Tsar and the Burgomaster spoke daily and Peter turned to Witsen with the problem of the crowds in Zaandam and Amsterdam. How could he work quietly, learning to build ships, surrounded by curious, staring strangers? Witsen had an immediate suggestion. If Peter remained in Amsterdam, he could work in the shipyards and docks of the East India Company, which were enclosed by walls and barred to the public. Peter was delighted by the idea, and Witsen, a director of the company, undertook to arrange it. The following day, the board of directors of the East India Company resolved to invite “a high personage present here incognito” to work in its shipyard and, for his convenience, to set aside for him the house of the master ropemaker so that he could live and work undisturbed inside the shipyard. In addition, to assist him in learning shipbuilding, the board ordered the laying of the keel of a new frigate, 100 feet or 130 feet long, whichever the Tsar preferred, so that he and his comrades could work on it and observe Dutch methods from the very beginning.

That night, at the formal state banquet given the Embassy by the city of Amsterdam, Witsen told Peter of the decision reached by the directors earlier in the day. Peter was enthusiastic and, although he loved fireworks, he could scarcely restrain himself through the rest of the meal. When the last skyrocket had burst, the Tsar jumped to his feet and announced that he was leaving for Zaandam right then, in the middle of the night, to fetch his tools so that he could start work in the morning. Attempts by both Russians and Dutchmen to stop him were useless, and at eleven p.m. he boarded his yacht and sailed away. The following morning, he was back and went straight to the East India Company shipyard in the Ostenburg section. Ten Russian “volunteers” went with him, while the rest of the “volunteers” were scattered by Peter’s command around the harbor, learning the trades of sailmaker, ropemaker, mast turning, the use of block and tackle, and seamanship. Prince Alexander of Imeritia was dispatched to The Hague to study artillery. Peter himself enrolled as a carpenter under the master shipwright, Gerrit Claes Pool.

The first three weeks were spent in collecting and preparing the necessary timbers and other materials. So that the Tsar could see exactly what was being done, the Dutch gathered and laid out all the pieces before even laying the keel. Then, as each piece was fastened into place, the ship was assembled rapidly, almost like a huge model made from a kit. The frigate, 100 feet long, was called The Apostles Peter and Paul, and Peter worked enthusiastically on every stage of its assembly.

Frigate The Apostles Peter and Paul (Storck Abraham)
The frigate Apostles Peter and Paul (Abraham Stork)

Every day, Peter arrived at the shipyard at dawn, carrying his axe and tools on his shoulders as the other workmen did. He allowed no distinction between himself and them, and strictly refused to be addressed or identified by any title. In his afternoon leisure hours, he liked sitting on a log, talking to sailors or shipbuilders or anyone who addressed him as “Carpenter Peter” or “Baas [Master] Peter.” He ignored or turned away from anyone who addressed him as “Your Majesty” or “Sire.” When two English noblemen came to catch a glimpse of the Tsar of Muscovy working as a laborer, the foreman, in order to point out which one was Peter, called to him, “Carpenter Peter, why don’t you help your comrades?” Without a word, Peter walked over and put his shoulder beneath a timber which several men were struggling to raise and helped lift it into place.

Peter was happy with the house assigned to him. Several of his comrades lived there with him in the manner of a group of common workmen. Originally, the Tsar’s meals were prepared by the staff of the inn at which the Embassy was staying, but this bothered him; he wanted an entirely independent household. He had no fixed hours for meals; he wished to be able to eat whenever he was hungry. It was arranged that he should be supplied with firewood and foodstuffs and then left alone. Thereafter, Peter lighted his own fire and cooked his own meals like a simple carpenter.

Outside the shipyard, Peter’s curiosity was insatiable. He wanted to see everything with his own eyes. He visited factories, sawmills, spinning mills, paper mills, workshops, museums, botanical gardens and laboratories. Everywhere he asked, “What is that for? How does it work?” Listening to the explanations, he nodded: “Very good. Very good.” He met architects, sculptors and Van der Heyden, the inventor of the fire pump, whom he tried to persuade to come to Russia. He visited the architect Simon Schnvoet, the museum of Jacob de Wilde, and learned to sketch and draw under the direction of Schonebeck. He engraved a plate depicting a tall young man, who closely resembled himself, holding the cross high, standing on the fallen crescent and banners of Islam. At Delft, he visited engineer Baron von Coehorn, the Dutch Vauban, who gave him lessons in the science of fortifications. He visited Dutchmen in their homes, especially Dutchmen engaged in the Russian trade. He became interested in printing when he met the Tessing family, and granted one of the brothers the right to print books in Russian and to introduce them into Russia.

In Leyden, Peter visited the famous Dr. Boerhaave, who supervised a celebrated botanical garden. Boerhaave also lectured on anatomy, and when he asked Peter what hour he would like to visit, the Tsar chose six o’clock the following morning. He also visited Boerhaave’s dissection theater, where a corpse was lying on a table with some of its muscles exposed. Peter was studying the corpse with fascination when he heard grumbles of disgust from some of his squeamish Russian comrades. Furious, and to the horror of the Dutch, he ordered them to approach the cadaver, bend down and bite off a muscle of the corpse with their teeth.

In Delft, he visited the celebrated naturalist Anton van Leeuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope. Peter spent more than two hours talking with him and looking through the miraculous instrument by which Leeuwenhoek had discovered the existence of spermatozoa and had studied the circulation of blood in fish.

On free days in Amsterdam, Peter wandered the city on foot, watching the citizens bustling by, the carriages rattling over the bridges, the thousands of boats rowing up and down the canals. On market days, the Tsar went to the great open-air market, the Botermarket, where goods of every kind were piled up in the open or under arcades. Standing next to a woman buying cheeses, or a merchant choosing a painting, Peter observed and studied. He especially enjoyed watching street artists performing before a crowd. One day, he watched a celebrated clown juggling while standing on top of a cask, and Peter stepped forward and tried to persuade the man to come back with him to Russia. The juggler refused, saying he was having too much success in Amsterdam. In the market, the Tsar witnessed a traveling dentist who pulled aching teeth with unorthodox instruments such as the bowl of a spoon or the tip of a sword. Peter asked for lessons and absorbed enough to experiment on his servants. He learned to mend his own clothes and, from a cobbler, how to make himself a pair of slippers. In winter, when the skies were eternally gray and the Amstel and the canals were frozen, Peter saw women dressed in furs and woolens and men and boys in long cloaks and scarves go speeding by on ice skates with curved blades. The warmest places, he found, and the places where he was happiest, were the beer houses and taverns where he relaxed with his Dutch and Russian comrades.

Observing Holland’s immense prosperity, Peter could not escape asking himself how it was that his own people, with an endless stretch of steppe and forest at their disposition, produced only enough to feed themselves, whereas here in Amsterdam, with its wharves and warehouses and forest of masts, more convertible wealth had been accumulated than in all the expanse of Russia. One reason, Peter knew, was trade, a mercantile economy, the possession of ships; he resolved to dedicate himself to achieving these things for Russia. Another reason was the religious toleration in Holland. Because international trade could not flourish in an atmosphere of narrow religious doctrine or prejudice, Protestant Holland practiced the widest religious toleration in the Europe of that day. Throughout the seventeenth century, Holland served as Europe’s intellectual and artistic clearinghouse as well as its commercial center. Peter was intrigued by this atmosphere of religious toleration. He visited many Protestant churches in Holland and asked questions of the pastors.

o O o

Several times, Peter returned quietly to Zaandam to visit his comrades who were still working and learning there. Usually, he traveled there by water, or went sailing during his visit. Once, when he was sailing during a storm against advice, his boat capsized. Peter clambered out and patiently sat on the upturned bottom, waiting to be rescued.

Early in his visit, Peter met the leading Dutch admiral of the day, Gilles Schey. It was Schey who offered him the most striking and agreeable spectacle of his visit: a great sham naval battle on the Ij. The boat owners in northern Holland were invited to attend, and cannon were placed on all the craft able to carry them. Companies of volunteer soldiers were distributed among the decks and riggings of the larger boats, charged to simulate the fire of musketeers during the battle. On a Sunday morning, under a cloudless sky with a fresh wind, hundreds of boats assembled along the edge of a dike lined with thousands of spectators. Peter and members of his Embassy boarded the grand yacht of the East India Company and sailed toward the two fleets already ranged in opposing lines of battle. After a salute to the guest, the battle began. First, the two lines of ships fired salvos at each other; then a number of individual ship-to-ship engagements commenced. The battle, with its advance and retreat, its grappling and boarding, its smoke and noise, pleased the Tsar so much that he made his own ship steer for the place of hottest action. With the cannon thundering continually so that no one could hear, “the Tsar was in a state of rapture difficult to describe.” In the afternoon, a number of collisions forced the Admiral to signal both sides to break off the action.

In the painting by Abraham Storck below, Peter is shown standing in the yacht on the left, surveying the event, which attracted huge crowds. A trumpeter is also shown on board playing a fanfare. The Commander-in-Chief, Gillis Schey, sailed on the East India Company yacht shown in the centre of the painting, flying the East India Company flag. In the foreground are a number of small boats carrying people out to take a closer look at the Tsar and view the spectacle unfolding around them. A contemporary account states that Peter was so delighted with the whole performance that at his request it was repeated several weeks later. This provided Storck with another opportunity to make sketches and record the event.

Tap tran 01-Sep-1697 don Peter (Abraham Stork)2
Sham naval battle, 01-Sep-1697 (Abraham Stork)

Peter dined often with Schey and tried to persuade the Admiral to come to Russia to supervise construction of the Russian fleet and to take command when it put to sea. He offered Schey all the titles he might want, a pension of 24,000 florins, more for his wife and children in case they preferred to remain behind in Holland, and promised to make the arrangements himself with William. Schey declined, which did not in any way diminish Peter’s respect for him, and proposed another admiral to Peter as a man capable of supervising and commanding a navy. This was Cornelius Cruys, born in Norway of Dutch parents. With the rank of rear admiral, he was Chief Inspector of Naval Stores and Equipment of the Dutch Admiralty at Amsterdam, and in this capacity had already been advising the Russians in their purchases of naval equipment. He was exactly the kind of man Peter wanted, but, like Schey, Cruys showed little enthusiasm for Peter’s offer. Only the united efforts of Schey, Witsen and other prominent persons who understood that Cruys in Russia would have a powerful influence on Russian trade persuaded the reluctant Rear Admiral to accept.

Except for the time needed for his visit to The Hague and his trips to see various places and people in other parts of Holland, Peter worked steadily in the shipyard for four months. On 16 November, nine weeks after the laying of his frigate’s keel, the hull was ready for launching, and at the ceremony Witsen, in the name of the city of Amsterdam, presented the vessel to Peter as a gift. The Tsar, deeply moved, embraced the Burgomaster and immediately named the frigate Amsterdam. Later, loaded with many of the objects and machines Peter had purchased, she was dispatched to Archangel. Pleased as he was with the ship, Peter was even prouder of the piece of paper he received from Gerrit Pool, the master shipwright, certifying that Peter Mikhailov had worked four months in his dockyard, was an able and competent shipwright and had thoroughly mastered the science of naval architecture.

Nevertheless, Peter was disturbed by his instruction in Holland. What he had learned had been little more than ship’s carpentry – it was better than the ship’s carpentry he had learned in Russia, but it was not what he was seeking. Peter wanted to grasp the basic secrets of ship design; in effect, naval architecture. He wanted blueprints, made scientifically, controlled by mathematics, not simply a greater handiness with axe and hammer. But the Dutch were empirical in shipbuilding as in everything else. Each Dutch shipyard had its own individual rule-of-thumb design, each Dutch shipwright built what had worked for him before and there were no basic principles which Peter could carry back to Russia. In order to build a fleet a thousand miles away on the Don with a force of largely unskilled laborers, he needed something which could be easily explained, understood and copied by men who had never seen a ship before.

Peter’s growing dissatisfaction with Dutch methodology in shipbuilding expressed itself in several ways. First, he sent word back to Voronezh that Dutch shipwrights working there were no longer to be allowed to build as they pleased, but were to be placed under the supervision of Englishmen, Venetians or Danes. Second, now that his frigate was finished, he resolved to go to England to study English shipbuilding techniques. In November, in one of his interviews with William, Peter mentioned his desire to visit England. When the king returned to London, Peter sent Major Adam Weide after him with a formal request that the Tsar be allowed to come to England incognito. William’s response elated Peter. The King replied that he was making a present to the Tsar of a superb new royal yacht, still unfinished, which, when completed, would be the most gracefully proportioned and fastest yacht in England. In addition, King William announced that he was sending two warships, Yorke and Romney, with three smaller ships, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir David Mitchell, to escort the Tsar to England. It was Peter’s decision that he should come alone, except for Menshikov and several of the “volunteers,” leaving Lefort and the majority of the Embassy in Holland to continue negotiating with the Dutch.

On 7 January 1698, after almost five months in Holland, Peter and his companions boarded the HMS Yorke, Admiral Mitchell’s flagship, and early the next morning set sail across the narrow strip of gray sea that separates the continent from England.

Peter in England, 1698

At the time of Peter’s visit, London and Paris were the two most populous cities in Europe. In commercial wealth, London ranked second to Amsterdam, which it was soon to succeed. Peter’s visit came at a pivotal moment of England transitioning to world power. England was bustling with the energy which would make the Royal Navy mistress of the seas. The wealth of England’s commerce still could not compete with the fertile soil of France, but England had an insuperable advantage: it was an island. Its security lay not in the chain of fortresses that Holland maintained, but in the waves and its fleet. And although fleets were expensive, they cost less than armies and fortresses. Louis XIV of France raised dozens of magnificent French armies, but to do so left his people crushed by taxes. In England, the taxes voted by Parliament hurt but did not crush. Europe was amazed by the resilience of the English economy and by the apparent wealth of the English Treasury. It was a system which could not fail to impress a visiting monarch anxious to lift his people up from a simple agrarian economy and into the modern world.

HMS Yorke was the largest warship Peter had yet sailed on, and during his 24-hour trip across the Channel he watched the handling of the ship with interest. Although the weather was stormy, the Tsar remained on deck through the entire voyage, constantly asking questions. The ship was pitching and rolling in the heavy seas, but Peter insisted on going aloft to study the rigging.

Early the next morning, the little squadron arrived off the Suffolk coast and was saluted by the guns of the coastal forts. At the mouth of the Thames, Peter and Admiral Mitchell transferred from the Yorke onto the smaller yacht Mary. This yacht, escorted by two others, sailed up the Thames and, on the morning of 11 January, anchored near London Bridge. Here, Peter transferred onto a royal barge and was rowed upriver to a landing quay on the Strand. He was met by a court chamberlain with a welcome from King William. Peter replied in Dutch, and Admiral Mitchell, who spoke Dutch, acted as translator. Peter admired Mitchell, and his first request to the King was that Mitchell be assigned as his official escort and translator throughout his stay.

Two days after the Tsar’s arrival, the King himself paid an informal visit.

On 23 January 1698, Peter – accompanied by Admiral Mitchell and two Russian companions – drove to Kensington Palace to pay his first visit to William as King of England. After his talk with the King, Peter was introduced to the heir to the throne, the 33-year-old Princess Anne, who would succeed William within four years. At William’s persuasion, the Tsar stayed on to witness a ball, although, to preserve his incognito, he watched through a small window in the wall of the room. He was fascinated by the construction of a wind dial which had been installed in the main gallery of Kensington Palace. Through connecting rods with a weathervane on the roof, the dial indicated which way the wind was blowing. Later, Peter would install an identical device in his own small summer palace by the Neva in Saint Petersburg.

It was also at this meeting that William persuaded Peter to sit for a portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller which contemporaries considered a remarkable likeness. Today, the original hangs in the King’s Gallery of Kensington Palace, where its being painted was suggested more than 300 years ago.

Peter I by Kneller
Tsar Peter I, 1698 (Sir Godfrey Kneller)

Peter’s one visit to Kensington Palace was the full extent of his ceremonial life in London. Stubbornly maintaining his incognito, he went about London as he pleased, frequently on foot even on wintry days. As in Holland, he visited workshops and factories, continually asking to be shown how things worked, even demanding drawings and specifications. He looked in on a watchmaker to buy a pocket watch and stayed to learn to dismantle, repair and reassemble the intricate mechanism. Impressed by the carpentry in English coffins, he ordered one shipped to Moscow to serve as a model. He bought a stuffed crocodile and a stuffed swordfish, outlandish creatures never seen in Russia. He made a single visit to a London theater, but the crowd stared more at him than at the stage and he retreated to hide behind his comrades. He met the man who had designed the yacht Royal Transport, being readied for him by the King, and was astonished to find the designer to be a young, hard-drinking English nobleman, very much a man after his own heart.

The sight in London that most attracted Peter, of course, was the forest of masts belonging to the ships moored in rows in the great merchant-fleet anchorage known as the Pool of London. For greater convenience and to escape the crowds that were now beginning to dog his excursions, on 9 February he moved his lodgings to Deptford, staying at Sayes Court, a large, elegantly furnished house provided for him by the English government. For Peter, its attractions were its size (it was large enough to hold his entire suite), the garden in which he could relax in privacy, and the door at the foot of the garden which opened directly onto the dockyard and the river.

Pyotr o Deptford 1698
At Dockyard Deptford. Left: Peter holding a saw; right: King William in proper attire

This was the crucial stage of his studies when he was mastering the principles which underlay all that he had learnt by practice in Russia and Holland, and he spent many hours in the building yards. He did not sign on as a ship’s carpenter or in any other capacity as he had done in Holland. But he could never stand watching others at work, and a journeyman-shipwright, employed there at the time, commented in later years that “the Tsar of Muscovy worked with his own hands as hard as any man in the yard.”

Dockyard Deptford (John Cleveley Sr)
Dockyard Deptford (John Cleveley, Sr.)

When not working at the dockyards, Peter hurried about London and its vicinity trying to see all the interesting places. He visited the Greenwich Naval Hospital, designed by Christopher Wren and called “one of the most sublime sights English architecture affords.” At the Greenwich Observatory, he discussed mathematics with the Royal Astronomer. At the Woolwich Arsenal, England’s main cannon foundry, Peter discovered in Master of the Ordnance Romney a fellow spirit with whom he could share his delight in artillery and fireworks. For Peter, the most interesting part of the Tower was the mint. Struck by the excellence of English coinage, and the technique by which the coins were made, he went back repeatedly. Two years later, when Peter began to reform Russia’s badly irregular coinage, the English system served as a model.

Peter’s feeling for William and his gratitude to the King grew even greater when the regal gift of the yacht Royal Transport was handed over to him on 2 March. He sailed in her the following day and as often thereafter as he could. In addition, William ordered that Peter be shown everything he wished to see of the English fleet. The climax came when the Tsar was invited to a special review of the fleet and a mock engagement off Spithead near the Isle of Wight. A naval squadron consisting of three ships took Peter and his suite on board in Portsmouth and carried them into The Solent off the Isle of Wight. There, Peter transferred to Admiral Mitchell’s flagship, Humber. On exercise day, the fleet weighed anchor; the great ships set their sails and formed opposing lines of battle. Broadsides roared out, shrouding the fleets in smoke and flame just as they would in a real battle, but on this day no cannonballs flew. Nevertheless, as the great ships maneuvered through the smoke, turning in unison to attack each other, Peter was jubilant. He tried to see and note down everything: the scurrying of the seamen to dress the sails, the orders to the helmsmen, the number and caliber and serving of the guns, the signals from the flagship to her sisters in the line. It was a momentous day for a young man who, scarcely ten years before, had first seen a sailboat and learned to tack it back and forth on the narrow Yauza. When the ships returned at night to their anchorage, their guns thundered a twenty-one-gun salute and the seamen roared out cheers for the youthful monarch who dreamed of the day he would fly his own banner in the van of a Russian fleet.

On 2 May, Peter reluctantly left London. Although he never returned to England, Peter had enjoyed his taste of English life. He found there much that he liked: informality, a practical, efficient monarch and government, good drinking and good talk about ships, gunnery and fireworks. Although he was not intimate with William, the King had opened every door, he had given Peter access to his shipyards, mint and gun foundries, he had displayed his fleet, he had allowed the Russians to talk with everyone and make notes. Peter was grateful and carried away the highest respect not only for English ship design and workmanship, but for the island as a whole.

The Southern Fleet, 1698-1699

From the hour of his return to Moscow, Peter had longed to see his ships being built at Voronezh. The Tsar desired to be on the Don, joining the Western shipwrights whom he had recruited and who even now were beginning to work in the shipyards on the riverbank.

He had made a first visit late in October. At Voronezh, in the shipyards sprawling along the banks of the broad and shallow river, Peter found the carpenters sawing and hammering, and he found many problems. There were shortages and great wastage of both men and materials. In haste to comply with the Tsar’s commands, the shipwrights were using unseasoned timber, which would rot quickly in the water. On arriving from Holland, Vice Admiral Cruys inspected the vessels and ordered many hauled out to be rebuilt and strengthened. The foreign shipwrights, each following his own designs without guidance or control from above, quarreled frequently. The Dutch shipwrights, commanded by Peter’s orders from London to work only under the supervision of others, were sullen and sluggish. The Russian artisans were in no better mood. Summoned by decree to Voronezh to learn shipbuilding, they understood that if they showed aptitude, they would be sent to the West to perfect their skills. Accordingly, many preferred to do just enough work to get by, hoping somehow to be allowed to return home.

The worst problems and the greatest sufferings were among the mass of unskilled laborers. Thousands of men had been drafted—peasants and serfs who had never seen a boat bigger than a barge or a body of water wider than a river. They came carrying their own hatchets and axes, sometimes bringing their own horses, to cut and trim the trees and float them down the rivers to Voronezh. Living conditions were primitive, disease spread quickly and death was common. Many ran away, and eventually the shipyards had to be surrounded by a fence and guards. If caught, deserters were beaten and returned to work. Although outwardly Peter was optimistic, the slowness of the work, the sickness, death and desertion of the workers, made him gloomy and despondent.

Despite Peter’s worries, the work moved forward although the shipyards were without machinery of any kind and all work was done with hand tools. Through the winter, ignoring the cold, Peter labored with his men. He walked through the shipyards, stepping over logs covered with snow, past the ships standing silent in the stocks, past the workers huddled around outdoor fires trying to warm their hands and bodies, past the foundry with its huge bellows driving air into the furnaces where anchors and metal fitting were being cast. He was indefatigable, pouring out his energy, commanding, cajoling, persuading. The Venetians building the galleys complained that they were working so hard they had no time to go to confession. But the fleet continued to grow. When Peter arrived in the autumn, he found twenty ships already launched and anchored in the stream. Every week, as the winter progressed, another five or six went into the water, or waited ready to be launched when the ice melted.

Launching ship at Novorezh
Launching ship at Vonorezh

Not content with his overall supervision, Peter himself designed and began to build, solely with Russian labor, a fifty-gun ship called the Predestination. He laid the keel himself and worked on it steadily, along with the boyars who accompanied him. The Predestination was a handsome, three-masted ship, more than 40m long, and working on it provided Peter with the happy sensation of having tools in his hands and with the knowledge that one of the ships which would eventually sail the Black Sea would be his own creation.

ship_Goto Predestinatsia = The Providence of God (Adriaan Schoonebeek) 2
The Predestination, Azov Fleet flagship

On 27 July 2014, a replica of the Predestination that was recreated exactly not only outside but also inside was launched in Vonorezh, the cradle of the Russian Navy.

ship_Goto Predestinatsia replica.jpg
The Predestination, replica

By spring, the fleet was ready. Eighty-six ships of all sizes, including eighteen sea-going men-of-war carrying from thirty-six to forty-six guns were in the water. In addition, 500 barges had been built for carrying men, provisions, ammunition and powder. On 7 May 1699, this fleet left Voronezh and the villagers along the Don saw a remarkable sight: a fleet of full-rigged ships sailing past them down the river. Admiral Golovin – who had made only one trip of several hours on the Baltic Sea – was in nominal command, with Vice Admiral Cruys in actual command of the fleet. All captains were foreigner except Peter who took the role of captain of the forty-four-gun frigate Apostle Peter.

On arriving at Azov on 24 May, Peter anchored his fleet in the river and went ashore to inspect the new fortifications. There was no doubt that they were needed: Again that spring, a horde of Crimean Tatars had swept eastward across the southern Ukraine, approaching Azov itself, burning, raiding, leaving behind desolate fields, charred farms, villages in ashes and the population stricken and fleeing. Satisfied with the new defensive works, Peter moved on to visit Tagonrog, where dredging and construction were under way for the new naval base. When the ships had assembled there, Peter took them to sea, where they began to drill in signaling, gunnery and ship-handling. Through most of July the maneuvers continued, culminating in a mock sea battle of the sort Peter had witnessed on the Ij in Holland.

The fleet was ready, and now Peter faced the problem of what to do with it. It had been built for war with Ottoman, to force a passage onto the Black Sea and to contest the right of the Turks to control that sea as a private lake. But the situation had changed. Prokofy Voznitsyn, an experienced diplomat, had remained in Vienna to salvage what he could for Russia from the negotiations which the allied powers, Austria, Poland, Venice and Russia, were about to begin with the partially defeated Turks. The problem was that, as the peace treaty would probably only confirm surrender of those territories actually occupied, Peter wanted the war to continue, at least for a while. It was, in fact, in order to press the war and seize Kerch, achieving entry onto the Black Sea, that he had labored so hard all winter to build his fleet.

In the peace congress, the English ambassador in Constantinople, instructed to do everything possible to broker a peace and free Austria for the impending contest with France, persuaded the weary Turks to be generous. Grudgingly, the Turks agreed to cede Azov to Russia, but refused absolutely to yield any territory not actually conquered, such as Kerch. Voznitsyn, isolated from his allies, could do nothing except refuse to sign the general treaty. Knowing that Peter was unready to attack the Turks on his own, he proposed instead a two-year truce, during which time the Tsar could prepare for more extensive offensive operations. The Turks agreed, and Voznitsyn wrote to Peter suggesting that the time also be used to send an ambassador directly to Constantinople to see whether Russia might gain by negotiation what she had so far failed to gain – and seemed uncertain of gaining in the future – by war.

All this happened during the winter of 1698-1699 while Peter was building his fleet at Voronezh. Now, with the fleet ready at Tagonrog and yet with the new Turkish truce making active use of it impossible, Peter decided to accept Voznitsyn’s suggestion. He appointed a special ambassador, Emilian Ukraintsev, the white-haired chief of the Foreign Ministry, to go to Constantinople to discuss a permanent treaty of peace. There was even in this plan a role for the new fleet: It would escort the Ambassador as far as Kerch, from where he would sail to the Turkish capital in the biggest and proudest of Peter’s new ships.

vo de 1

On 5 August, twelve large Russian ships, all commanded by foreigners except the frigate whose skipper was Captain Peter Mikhailov, sailed from Tagonrog for the Strait of Kerch. The Turkish pasha commanding the fortress whose cannon dominated the strait which linked the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea was taken unawares. One day, he heard the salvos of Peter’s saluting cannon and rushed to his parapet to see a Russian naval squadron on his doorstep. Peter’s request was that a single Russian warship, the forty-six-gun frigate Krepost (Fortress), be allowed to pass through the strait bearing his ambassador to Constantinople. The pasha at first un-muzzled his guns and refused, saying that he had no orders from his capital. Peter riposted by threatening to break through by force if necessary, and his men-of-war were joined by galleys, brigantines and barges carrying soldiers. After ten days, the pasha consented, insisting that the Russian frigate submit to an escort of four Turkish ships. The Tsar withdrew, and the Krepost sailed through the strait. Once on the Black Sea, her Dutch captain, Van Pamburg, put on all sail and soon left his Turkish escort behind the horizon.

ship_Krepost in 1699
The warship Krepost

The moment was historic: For the first time, a Russian warship, bearing the banner of the Muscovite Tsar, was sailing alone and free on the Sultan’s private lake. At sundown on 13 September when the Russian man-of-war appeared at the mouth of the Bosphorus, Constantinople was surprised and shaken. The Sultan reacted with dignity. He sent a message of welcome and congratulations and dispatched caiques to bring Ukraintsev and his party ashore. The Ambassador, however, refused to leave the ship and demanded that it be permitted to sail up the Bosphorus and carry him directly into the city. The Sultan bowed and the Russian warship moved up the Bosphorus, finally anchoring in the Golden Horn directly in front of the Sultan’s palace on Seraglio Point in full view of the Elect of God. For nine centuries, since the middle days of the great Christian empire of Byzantium, no Russian ship had anchored beneath those walls.

The Turks, staring out at the Krepost, were disquieted not only by the appearance but also by the size of the Russian ship—they could not understand how so large a vessel could have been built in the shallow Don—but were calmed to some extent by their naval architects, who pointed out that the vessel must be very flat-bottomed and would therefore be unstable as a gun platform in the open sea.

Ukraintsev was handsomely treated. Thereafter, in accordance with Peter’s orders to display to the fullest Russia’s new naval capacity, the Krepost was opened to visitors. Hundreds of boats came alongside and crowds of people of all classes swarmed aboard. The culmination was a visit by the Sultan himself, who, with an escort of Ottoman captains, inspected the ship in great detail.

Peter had made a sound decision when he assigned the big warship Krepost to the Ottoman capital city. From now on, the Ottoman Empire would look at Russia with more respect.

After negotiations, Russia and Ottoman reached an agreement, called the Treaty of Constantinople. It was not a treaty of peace but a thirty-year truce which abandoned no claims, left all questions open and assumed that on expiration, unless it was renewed, the war would begin again. The terms were a compromise. Russia was allowed to keep Azov and a band of territory to the distance of ten days’ journey from its walls. On the other hand, the forts on the lower Dnieper, seized from the Turks, were to be razed, and the land returned to Turkish possession. A zone of unpopulated, supposedly demilitarized land was to stretch across the Ukraine from east to west, separating the lands of the Crimean Tatars from Peter’s domain.

In June 1700, the Krepost returned to Russia, accomplishing a historic sea-going trips only 11 years after Peter discovered The Grandfather of the Russian Navy.

Ironically, the signing of a thirty-year truce with Ottoman largely negated the great effort which had gone into the fleet built at Voronezh. Long before the thirty years had passed, the crews would have been dispersed and the timbers of the ships rotted away. At the time, of course, in Peter’s mind the truce was only a postponement. Although his primary attention was beginning to turn to the Great Northern War with Sweden, the projects in the south, at Voronezh, Azov and Tagonrog, only slowed and did not come to a halt. Never in his lifetime did Peter give up the idea of an eventual thrust out onto the Black Sea; indeed, to the anger and despair of the Turks, the shipbuilding at Voronezh continued, new ships sailed down to Tagonrog and the walls of Azov grew higher.

Peter’s fleet was never used in battle and Azov’s walls were never attacked. The fate of ships and city was decided not in a battle at sea, as Peter had hoped, but by the struggle of armies hundreds of miles to the west. And in this struggle, the ships did serve their master. When Charles XII – invading deep into Russia – bid for a Turkish alliance in the months before Poltava, the fleet at Tagonrog was one of Peter’s strongest cards in persuading the Turks and Tatars not to intervene. In those critical months in the spring of 1709, Peter urgently strengthened the fleet and doubled the number of troops at Azov. In May, two months before the climactic battle at Poltava, he went himself to Azov and Tagonrog and maneuvered his fleet before a Turkish envoy. The Sultan, impressed by his envoy’s report, forbade the Tatar Khan to take his thousands of Tatar horsemen to Charles’ side. This effect of the Voronezh fleet alone justified all the effort expended on it.

Russia lost the Fortress-Town Azov and the Azov Fleet due to an unbelievabe blunder by Peter. In 1711, he led a large army of veterans from Poltava and his other Great Northern War victories into the Balkans. He aimed to humble the Ottomans in the same way he had the Swedes a few years before. Victory would secure useful allies in the Balkans, cement Russia’s ‘Great Power’ status and offer Peter the opportunity to finally gain control over the Swedish king, Charles XII, thus completing his victory over Sweden. Yet within a few months, an Ottoman army of 190.000 men had forced the Russian army of 38,000 men into a humbling surrender near the Pruth River. The war was the first time that Russia was strong enough to confront the Ottomans independently rather than as a member of an alliance. It marked an important stage in Russia’s development. However, it also showed the significant military strength of the Ottoman Empire and the limitations of Peter’s achievements.

Russia paid an unexpectedly small price. Peter had to return Azov. The Ottoman Grand Vizier itemized his principal terms: the Tsar was to give up all the fruits of his 1696 campaign and the 1700 treaty, Azov and Tagonrog were to be returned, the Black Sea fleet was to be abandoned, the lower-Dnieper forts destroyed. When Peter heard these terms, he was astonished. They were not light – he would lose everything in the south including a passage to the Black Sea – but they were far milder than he had expected.

Only by 1733 did Russia rebuild the Azoc Fleet (also called the Don Fleet) and used it to defeat the Ottomans. Then in 1774, Taganrog and Azov was pernamently ceded to Russia under the terms of Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji.

The start of the Great Northern War, 1700

The Great Northern War (1700-1721) was a conflict in which a coalition of Russia Denmark–Norway Saxony–Poland–Lithuania contested the supremacy of the Swedish Empire in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe.

The seeds of the Great Northern War lay in history and economics as well as in Peter’s longing for the sea. The struggle between Russia and Sweden for possession of the coastal lands on the Gulf of Finland was centuries old. Sweden had been the enemy of the city-states of Moscow and Novgorod since the thirteenth century. Karelia and Ingria, which spread north and south of the Neva River, were ancient Russian lands. During Russia’s Time of Troubles following the death of Ivan the Terrible, Sweden had occupied a vast belt of territory which even included Novgorod itself. In 1616, Sweden gave up Novgorod, but kept the entire coastline anchored in such fortresses as Nöteborg on Lake Ladoga, Narva and Riga, continuing Russia’s isolation from the sea.

map_Swedish Baltic
Swedish Baltic

Tsar Alexis had made an attempt to regain these lands, but he had been forced to abandon it. His more important wars were with Poland, and Russia could not fight Poland and Sweden simultaneously. Swedish possession of the provinces was reconfirmed by the Russian-Swedish Peace of Kardis in 1664.

Nevertheless, in Peter’s mind these were Russian lands, and Russia was suffering substantial economic loss from their being in foreign hands. Through the Swedish-held ports of Riga, Reval and Narva flowed a wide river of Russian trade, and on this trade Swedish handlers and toll collectors levied heavy duties, and the Swedish treasury fattened. Finally, of course, there was the pull of the sea. Peter understood that he could not make war on the Ottoman Empire, and realized that his access to the Black Sea was blocked. But here was the Baltic, its waves lapping a coast only a few miles from the Russian frontier, which could serve as a direct avenue to Holland, England and the West. Presented with a chance to repossess this territory by making war on a boy king in the company of Poland and Denmark, he found the temptation irresistible.

Thus began the Great Northern War. For twenty years, two youthful sovereigns, Peter and Charles, would wrestle for supremacy in a conflict that would settle the fate of both their empires. Most battles were fought between the infantries and of Russia and Sweden, both there are also some skirtmished between the navies of both sides

The first naval battles, 1702

Peter, whose thoughts were never far from the sea, imaginatively devised a new means of attacking Swedish power in the Baltic provinces: by the use of small boats on the lakes and rivers. If Sweden had incontestable supremacy in larger, conventional ships of war, Peter would build swarms of smaller ships which could overwhelm the enemy squadrons by sheer weight of numbers. He began by building small naval craft, propelled by oars and a single sail, on Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake, where Sweden maintained a naval squadron of brigantines and galleys.

On 20 June 1702, at the southern end of the lake, 400 Russian soldiers in eighteen small boats attacked a Swedish squadron of three brigantines and three galleys. The Swedes were caught at a disadvantage; their ships were anchored and most of the crews were ashore pillaging a village when the Russian boats arrived. In the ensuing fracas, the Swedish flagship, a twelve-gun brigantine, was damaged, and the Swedes had to retreat. On 7 September, the same Swedish squadron was again attacked near Kexholm, this time by thirty Russian boats. With the Russians harrying his ships like jackals, the Swedish Admiral Nummers found his position untenable and decided to evacuate the whole of Lake Ladoga. The withdrawal of his fleet down the Neva opened the lake to unchallenged Russian movement and made possible an important Russian victory that autumn at Nöteborg.

Meanwhile, Peter’s men were employing the same tactics on Lake Peipus, south of Narva. On 31 May that year, four larger Swedish vessels were attacked by nearly a hundred Russian boats. The Swedes beat them off and sank three, but had to withdraw to the northern half of the lake. On 20 June and 21 July, two individual Swedish ships, running supplies and ammunition across the lake, were attacked by the Russian fleets. One went aground and was abandoned after the captain threw his guns over the side. The other was boarded and then blew up. As a result, the Swedes withdrew completely from Lake Peipus in 1702. The following year, they returned in strength, sank twenty of the Russian boats and recaptured mastery of the lake.

But in 1704, the Russians turned the tables once and for all. Catching the Swedish fleet moored up the River Embach at Dorpat, the Russians threw a boom across the mouth of the river and placed artillery on the shore. Beyond the boom, 200 Russian boats waited for any Swedish ship which might break through. When the thirteen Swedish ships came down the river, the current carried them helplessly against the boom, where the Russian shore batteries began blowing them to pieces. The Swedish crews landed, desperately stormed one of the batteries and finally fought their way back to Dorpat. But one by one the ships were destroyed and the Swedish naval presence on Lake Peipus was annihilated.

Later that year, both Narva and Dorpat were captured by the Russian army, resulting in the occupation of the whole of Ingria and Livonia.

In the spring of 1702, the Russians picked up intelligence in Holland that the Swedes were planning a larger attack on Archangel that summer. To make sure that his country’s only port remained in Russian hands, Peter resolved to go there himself. When he arrived, the defenses were put in order and the wait began. Almost three months passed while Peter occupied himself with shipbuilding, launching the Holy Spirit and the Courier and laying the keel of a new twenty-six-gun warship, the St. Elijah.

In August, the annual fleet of Dutch and English merchantmen arrived, far more numerous than usual, for all the trade which had previously come into Russia through the Swedish Baltic ports was now diverted to Archangel. Along with their goods, the thirty-five English and fifty-two Dutch ships brought news that the Swedes had abandoned any thought of an attack on Archangel that summer. Peter immediately departed for the south. Upon reaching the northern shore of Lake Ladoga, he mobilized forces in order to seize absolute control of the lake by capturing the Swedish fortress of Nöteborg at the point where Lake Ladoga empties into the Neva River.

fort_Oreshek Shlisselburg, Orekhovy island
A corner of Oreshek Fortress in front of Nöteborg

Nöteborg town was protected by the powerful Oreshek Fortress (also called Nöteborg Fortress) originally built by the city of Novgorod in the fourteenth century. The small Orekhovets (Orekhovy) Island on which it was situated, just at the point where the Neva flows out of the lake and begins its 70km course to the sea, was shaped like a hazelnut; thus its Russian name, Oreshka, and its Swedish name, Nöteborg (“Nut-fortress”). By dominating the mouth of the river at this vital juncture, the Fortress controlled all the trade which passed from the Baltic up to Lake Ladoga and through the Russian river network to the interior. Whoever controlled Nöteborg controlled trade as far as the Orient. In Russian hands, it served as a barrier to shield the Russian heartland from the Swedes. When the Swedes took it in 1611, it served them as a barrier to keep the Russians away from the Baltic. Now, its thick walls and galleries of brick and stone, its six great round white towers, were studded with 142 cannon. The Swedish garrison was small, only 450 men, but the swift current of the river made an enemy’s approach by boat difficult, even without being subjected to the additional hazard of flying cannonballs.

Peter was enthusiastic about the prospect of seizing the fortress. Once the Russian soldiers and siege guns were in place, the isolated fortress, which had no hope of help from a relieving army, was doomed. The lake was covered with fleets of small Russian boats poised to carry troops into an assault. The riverbanks—the south bank was 300 yards away—were lined with heavy siege mortars planted behind earthworks. A premature Russian assault with boats and scaling ladders was beaten off, but the mortars then began a steady devastating bombardment, methodically shattering the fortress walls.

On the third day of the bombardment, the wife of the Swedish commandant sent a letter to the Russian camp asking that she and the wives of the Swedish officers be allowed to depart. Peter himself replied, explaining in an ironically gallant tone that he disliked the thought of separating the Swedish ladies from their husbands; of course they could leave, he said, on condition that they took their husbands with them. A week later, after ten days of bombardment, the survivors in the fortress surrendered.

Peter was ecstatic at this capture of the first important fortress to be taken from Sweden by his new army and his new guns made from the melted-down church bells of Russia. As a symbol of its importance as the key to the Neva and thus the Baltic, he fixed the key to the fort surrendered to him by the Swedish commandant to the Western bastion of the fortress and renamed the fortress Schlüsselburg. The name, meaning “Key-fortress” in German, refers to Peter’s perception of the fortress as the “key to Ingria”. The city center and nearby fortress are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The fall of Nöteborg-Schlüsselburg was a blow to Sweden. It had shielded the Neva and the whole of Ingria against Russian advance from the east. Charles, at the time far way in Poland, recognized the significance when the news was brought to him by an unhappy Count Piper. “Console yourself, my dear Piper,” the King said calmly. “The enemy will not be able to drag the place away with them.” Nevertheless, on other occasions the King said grimly that the Russians would pay dearly for Nöteborg.

Sweden could never retake Schlüsselburg. The following year, Peter began to build Sankt Peterburg at the mouth of Neva River as a protective shield on the Guld of Finland.

In the spring of the following year, 1703, with Charles still in Poland, Peter determined “not to lose the time granted by God” and to strike directly at establishing a Russian coastline on the Baltic. An army of 20,000 men under Sheremetev’s command marched from Schlüsselburg down through the forest on the north bank of the river toward the sea. Peter followed by water with sixty boats brought from Lake Ladoga. The Neva is only 70 km long and is less a river than a broad, fast-flowing chute from the lake to the Gulf of Finland. On 11 May 1703, the Russian occupied a small Swedish garrison, Nyenskans, 10 km upriver from the gulf.

On the evening Nyenskans surrendered, word reached the Russian camp that a Swedish fleet was sailing up the gulf. Nine ships commanded by Vice Admiral Nummers appeared off the mouth of the Neva and announced their arrival to their countrymen at Nyenskans by firing two signal guns. In order to deceive the Swedish seamen, the signal was answered immediately. Uncertain, Nummers sent a boat up the river to investigate. The boat was captured. Three days later, still more puzzled, Nummers ordered two of his smaller ships, a three-masted brigantine and a galley, to enter the river and find out what was happening. The two vessels moved upstream through the treacherous, fast-moving water as far as Vasilevsky Island, where they anchored for the night.

Meanwhile, Peter and Menshikov had embarked two regiments of Guards in thirty large boats. Slipping down the Neva, they concealed themselves in the marshy waters among the numerous islands. At dawn on 18 May, they suddenly appeared, rowing to attack the Swedish ships from all sides. The battle was fierce, with the Swedes firing their cannon to smash the Russian boats crowding around them, and the Russians replying with grenades and musket fire. Eventually, Peter and his men succeeded in boarding the two ships and capturing the few Swedes left alive. The ships and prisoners were brought up to Nyenskans, now renamed Sloteburg. However minor, this was his first naval victory and his delight was unbounded. Admiral Feodor Golovin and Field Marshal Sheremetev then formally invested Peter and Menshikov with the insignia of the Order of St. Andrew.

With this victory, Peter regained – temporarily at least – the object for which he had declared war. He had occupied the length of the Neva River and regained access to the Baltic Sea. The province of Ingria was restored to Russia. In another triumphal entry into Moscow, one of the banners in the procession showed the map of Ingria with the inscription: “We have not taken the land of others, but the inheritance of our fathers.”

The Foundation of Saint Petersburg, 1703-1706

What Peter had won, he set about immediately to consolidate. Inspired by a visit to Amsterdam, he decided to build a major city on this barren marshland to better integrate Russia into Western Europe and secure a Baltic port – a port from which Russian ships and Russian commerce would sail out onto the world’s oceans. Thus, no sooner had he won his foothold on the Baltic than he began to build his city. To some, it seemed foolish, premature, a waste of energy. He had really only a toehold and an uncertain one at that – Charles was far away, but he had never been beaten in battle. One day, he would surely come to wrest away what Peter had taken behind his back. Then this city, so laboriously built, would be only another Swedish town on the Baltic.

When Peter came down through the forests and emerged where the Neva meets the sea, he found himself in a wild, flat, empty marsh. At the mouth of the Neva, the broad river loops north in a backward S and then flows westward into the sea. In the last five miles, it divides into four branches which intersect with numerous streams flowing through the marshland to create more than a dozen islands overgrown with thickets and low forests. In 1703, the whole place was a bog, soggy with water. In the spring, thick mists from melting snow and ice hung over it. When strong southwest winds blew in from the Gulf of Finland, the river backed up and many of the islands simply disappeared underwater. Even traders who for centuries had used the Neva to reach the Russian interior had never built any kind of settlement there: It was too wild, too wet, too unhealthy, simply not a place for human habitation. In Finnish, the word “neva” means “swamp.”

But in Peter’s eyes the river sweeping past in a swift and silent flood broader than the Thames at London was magnificent. It was on Hare Island (Russian: Заячий остров, Zayachy) that Peter decided to build a new and larger fortification to defend the newly seized mouth of the river.

The first digging began on 16 May 1703, the date of the foundation of the city of Saint Petersburg. The fortress, named after St. Peter and St. Paul (Petropavlovskaya Krepost), was to be large, covering the entire Hare Island, so that on all sides it would be surrounded by the Neva or its tributaries. The Russian workers had no tools except crude pickaxes and shovels. Lacking wheelbarrows, they scraped dirt into their shirts or into rough bags and carried it with their hands to the site of the rising ramparts.

Hare Island with Peter and Paul Fortress today
Hare Island with Peter and Paul Fortress today

Work on the fortress was intensive because in those early years Peter never knew when the Swedes would return. In fact, they returned every summer. In 1703, within a month of Peter’s occupation of the delta, a Swedish army of 4,000 approached from the north and camped on the north bank of the Neva. On 7 July, Peter personally led six Russian regiments, four dragoon and two infantry – in all, a force of 7,000 – against the Swedes, defeated them and forced them to retreat.

Throughout that first summer, too, the Swedish Admiral Nummers kept nine ships lying at anchor in the mouth of the Neva, blocking Russian access to the gulf and awaiting a chance to move against the growing Russian entrenchments upriver. Peter, meanwhile, had returned to the shipyards above Lake Ladoga to spur construction, and eventually a number of vessels, including the frigate Shtandart, arrived off the new fortress on the Neva. Unable to challenge Swedish’s stronger force, the ships waited here until the approach of cold weather forced them to withdraw. Then, Peter sailed the Shtandart out into the Gulf of Finland. The Shtandart (Russian: Штандартъ) was the first ship of Russia’s Baltic fleet and also the first flagship of the Imperial Russian Navy. In the great cabin there is a compass hanging over a table which can only be read from its underside. A Russian legend relates that this compass hung over Peter’s hammock and that when he woke up, he always checked the compass to ensure that the frigate was on course.

Drawing of the original frigate Shtandart

It was an historic moment, the first voyage of a Russian tsar on a Russian warship on the Baltic Sea. Although skim ice was already forming over the gray waves, Peter was eager to explore. On his right, as he sailed westward away from the Neva, he could see the rocky promontories of the coast of Karelia fading away northward toward Vyborg. On his left were the low, gently rolling hills of Ingria, stretching westward to Narva, beyond the horizon. Dead ahead, just some 25km from the Neva delta, he saw the island which came to be called Kotlin by the Russians and which was to be the site of the fortress and naval base Kronstadt. Sailing around the island and measuring the depth of the water with a lead line in his own hand, Peter found that the water north of the island was too shallow for navigation. But south of the island was a channel which led all the way to the mouth of the river.

On 4 September 1999, a replica of the frigate Shtandart was launched.

ship_Shtandart replicate 1999
The replica Shtandart in 1999

To protect this passage and to install an outpost fortification for the larger work he was building on Kotlin Island, Peter ordered that a fort be constructed in the middle of the water at the edge of the channel. It was difficult work: Boxes filled with stones had to be dragged across the ice and then sunk beneath the waves to form a foundation. But by spring a small fort with fourteen cannon rose directly from the sea.

map_St Peterburg
Saint Petersburg. At right margin: Nöteborg, at left margin: Kronstatd Navy Base.

From the beginning, Peter had intended that his foothold on the Baltic would become a commercial port as well as a base for naval operations. He encouraged commercial vessels to call on the new port. The first ship, a Dutch merchantman, arrived in November 1703, when the new port had been in Russian hands for only six months. Hearing of the ship’s arrival at the mouth of the river, Peter went to greet her and to pilot her upstream himself. The captain’s surprise at discovering the identity of his royal pilot was matched by Peter’s pleasure on learning that the cargo of wine and salt belonged to his old friend Cornelius Calf of Zaandam. The captain was invited to a banquet and was also rewarded with 500 ducats. To further honor the occasion, the ship itself was renamed Saint Petersburg, and was granted a permanent exclusion from all Russian tolls and customs duties.

Similar rewards were promised to the next two vessels to arrive in the new port, and before long a Dutchman and an Englishman anchored to claim their prizes. Thereafter, Peter did everything possible to encourage use of Saint Petersburg by foreign merchantmen. He reduced the tolls to less than half what the Swedes levied in the Baltic ports they controlled. He promised to send Russian products to England at very low prices, provided the English would pick them up in Saint Petersburg rather than Archangel. Later, he was to use his power as tsar to divert vast portions of all Russian trade away from its traditional path to the Arctic and toward the new ports on the Baltic.

To strengthen his grip on his new possession, Peter also made great efforts to build new ships in the Lake Ladoga yards. But the Ladoga waters were stormy and treacherous, and too many of these ships were foundering or going aground on the southern shore as they approached the Schlüsselburg fortress at the Ladoga end of the Neva River. The remedy, Peter decided, was to move the main shipyard to Saint Petersburg so that the Ladoga voyage could be avoided. In November 1704, he laid the foundation of a new construction yard on the left bank of the Neva, across the river and just downstream from the Peter and Paul Fortress. Originally, the Admiralty was only a simple shipyard. From the central section, which was used for offices and eventually became the headquarters of the Russian fleet, rose a tall, thin wooden spire, surmounted by a weathervane in the form of a ship. When the Admiralty was completely rebuilt of masonry and stone at the beginning of the nineteenth century, its rectangular shape, the central spire and the ship weathervane were retained as salient features. Today, as in the earliest days of Saint Petersburg, the twin spires of the Admiralty and the fortress cathedral, facing each other across the Neva, dominate the city’s skyline.

With the passage of time, Peter’s vision of Saint Petersburg grew broader. He began to see it as more than a fortress guarding the mouth of the Neva, or even a wharf and shipyard for commercial and naval vessels on the Baltic. He began to see it as a city. The ceaseless building operations required an appalling amount of human labor. To drive the piles into the marshes, hew and haul the timbers, drag the stones, clear the forests, level the hills, lay out the streets, build docks and wharves, erect the fortress, houses and shipyards, dig the canals, soaked up human effort. To supply this manpower, Peter issued edicts year after year, summoning carpenters, stonecutters, masons and, above all, raw, unskilled peasant laborers to work in Saint Petersburg.

Along with human labor, the materials with which to build the city had to be imported. The flat, marshy country around the Neva delta had few large trees to supply wood and was almost devoid of rock. The first stones for the new city came from demolishing the Swedish fort and town of Nyenskans upriver and bringing its materials downstream. For years, every cart, every carriage and every Russian vessel coming into the city was required to bring a quota of stones along with its normal cargo. A special office was set up at the town wharves and gates to receive these stones, without which the vehicle was not allowed to enter the city. Sometimes, when these rocks were greatly in demand, it required a senior official to decide the fate of every stone.

Peter had made a right decision in founding Saint Petersburg. The Swedes did return—but again and again they were beaten off. Through the centuries, none of the conquerors who subsequently entered Russia with great armies – Charles XII, Napoleon, Hitler – was able to capture Peter’s Baltic port, although Nazi armies besieged the city for 900 days in World War II. From the day that Peter the Great first set foot on the mouth of the Neva, the land and the city which arose there have always remained Russian. From the day that Peter the Great first set foot on the mouth of the Neva, the land and the city which arose there have always remained Russian.

Once the name of the city was changed as the new regime, seeking to honor its founder, decided to give Lenin “the best we had.” The new name, however, still sticks in the throats of many of the city’s citizens. To them, it remains simply “Piter.”

Sankt Peterburg is now recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site.

War on Russian land, 1707-1709

Peter hoped to obtain peace with Karl, so he had approached Holland, Austria, France, Prussia, Denmark, and England for mediation. But Karl would never yield over the Neva and its delta, and Peter was equally adamant, being prepared to fight to the end to retain Sankt-Peterburg. The war lay on Russia alone, and Peter could look to no one for help. All Europe expected that Karl would now annihilate the Russian armies and march to Moskova. All had given Peter up for lost.

At four o’clock in the morning on 27 August 1707, Charles XII of Sweden led his army to attack Russian by way of Poland. The grand total of the force preparing to march on Russia reached almost 62,000 men, drilled and honed into a formidable fighting machine.

The Russian forces were greater: 110,000 men. Disparity in numbers meant little except for the fact that in a protracted campaign the Russians could replace losses more easily than the Swedes.

Peter initiated a scorched earth policy, slowly retreating before the Swedes, destroying all food and crops, and refusing battle, leaving the Swedish army desperately short of supplies. Peter also always deployed his army to forestall the Swedish advance towards Moscow. While the Swedish army was waiting for supply, Charles became impatient so he led his army to march to the south in order to find food for his soldiers and grasses for his horses. Peter always moved his army to shield Moscow.

Eventually the opposing forcers gathered in Poltava, where a decisive battle occurred on 28 June 1709 with the presence of the Russian Tsar and the Swedish King. The Swedish army was crushed. Charles himself escaped to Turkish Moldavia, and remained in Turkey until 1714. In the meantime, Russian and her allies were free to dismember the Swedish Empire.

Peace still far away, 1711-1712

At the beginning of 1711, Peter’s interest was to make peace with Sweden. He had richly achieved his war aims. Saint Petersburg had been given its “cushion” to the north by the capture of Vyborg and the province of Karelia. It was secured from the south by the occupation of Ingria and Livonia. Two additional seaports, Riga and Reval, along with Saint Petersburg, had opened Russia’s Baltic “Window on the West” as wide as could conceivably be needed. There was nothing more that Peter wanted, and he sincerely desired peace. He was tired of war and had much to do in his own country.

The governing Council and the people of Sweden also wanted peace. Sweden was defeated, the war was ruinous and the only realistic prospect was that if it continued, it would get worse.

But peace did not come, primarily because the King of Sweden forbade it. To Charles, Poltava was only a temporary setback. New Swedish armies could be raised to replace the one lost. there was no question of concluding a peace which would leave an inch of Swedish territory in Russian hands. Everything, including the Tsar’s new capital on the Neva, must be returned. As the Tsar would not surrender it any other way, it must be wrenched back with the sword. Peter, accepting his opponent’s stubbornness, was equally determined not to give up Saint Petersburg. And so the war continued.

In 1711 and 1712, the new Russian and allied offensives against the crumbling Swedish empire were directed against the Swedish possessions in North Germany, but without results.

In the autumn of 1712, while Peter’s army was mired, Sweden, incredibly, was preparing a final offensive on the continent. But the coalition of Russia-Denmark-Saxony defeated the Swedes. Now, of all Charles’ once-great empire south of the Baltic Sea, only the ports of Stralsund and Wismar remained under Sweden.

The coast of Finland, 1713-

In 1713, Peter resolved to drive the Swedes out of Finland which was at that time a province of Sweden. He did not intend to keep the province, but any territory he took in Finland beyond Karelia would be useful for bargaining when peace negotiations began.

During Peter’s reign, there was a radical shift in warship design and naval tactics. In the 1690’s, the term “ship-of-the-line” first appeared when the confused melee of individual ship-to-ship duels was replaced by the “line” tactic—two rows of warships sailing on parallel courses and pounding each other with heavy artillery. The “line” imposed standards of design; a capital ship had to be powerful enough to lie in the line of battle, as compared to the smaller, faster frigates and sloops used for reconnaissance and commerce raiding. The qualifications were strict: stout construction, fifty or more heavy cannon and a crew trained in expert seamanship and accurate gunnery. In all these respects, Englishmen excelled.

The average ship-of-the-line carried from 60 to 80 heavy cannon placed in rows on two or three gundecks and divided, port and starboard, so that even a full broadside meant that only half the guns aboard a ship could fire at an enemy. Some men-of-war were even bigger, goliaths of 90 to 100 guns, whose crews, including marine sharpshooters posted in the rigging to pick off officers and gunners on the enemy decks, reached more than 800 men.

Apart from damage inflicted in battle, the effectiveness of warships was limited by the damage caused by time and the elements. Leaking hulls, loose masts, tattered rigging and parted lines were commonplace in ships at sea. For serious repairs, ships had to come into port, and the bases to support them were an essential element of seapower.

In winter – especially in the Baltic where ice made naval operations impossible – fleets went into hibernation. Aails, rigging, topmasts, spars, cannon and cannonballs were carried off and laid in rows or stacked in pyramids. In the spring, one by one, the hulls were careened – that is, rolled on one side so that rotten or damaged bottom planks could be replaced, barnacles scraped, seams recalked and tarred. This done, the ships went back to the quay, and the procedure of the previous autumn was reversed: Cannon, spars, rigging all came back on board and the hull became once more a warship.

Relative to England’s Royal Navy with its 100 ships of the line, the Baltic powers had smaller fleets, intended mainly for use against each other within the confines of that enclosed sea. Denmark was almost an island kingdom whose capital, Copenhagen, was wholly exposed to the sea. The Swedish empire when Charles XII came to the throne was also a maritime entity, its integrity resting on secure communications and freedom to move troops and provisions between Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Livonia and North Germany. From her new, strategically placed naval base built at Karlskrona in 1658 to curb the Danes and protect her sea communications with her German provinces, Sweden was able to control all the middle and upper Baltic. Even after Poltava had humbled the previously invincible Swedish army, the Swedish navy remained formidable. In 1710, the year after Poltava, Sweden had forty-one ships-of-the-line, Denmark had forty-one, Russia had none. The senior Swedish admiral, Wachtmeister, was primarily occupied against the Danes, but powerful Swedish squadrons still cruised in the Gulf of Finland and off the Livonian coast.

Against the Russians, the Swedish fleet was able to do little. It could ensure the arrival of supplies and reinforcements, but once an army was committed to action on land, a fleet was not much help. At the time the Russians were besieging Riga, the entire Swedish fleet assembled off the mouth of the Dvina, but could contribute nothing to the town’s defense, and eventually Riga capitulated.

In the later phase of the Great Northern War, however, seapower became increasingly important. The only way to force an obdurate Sweden to make peace, Peter realized, was to reach across the Baltic Sea to threaten the Swedish homeland. One invasion avenue was directly across from Denmark to Sweden, a massive landing to be supported and covered by the Danish fleet; this projected assault occupied the Tsar during the summer and autumn of 1716. The other approach lay along the coast of Finland, then across the Gulf of Bothnia into the Aland Islands and thence toward Stockholm. It was this approach which Peter tried first, in the summers of 1713 and 1714.

Peter would have preferred to make this effort at the head of a powerful Russian sea-going battle fleet of fifty ships-of-the-line. But to lay the great keel beams in place, then add the ribs and planking, to cast the cannon, set the rigging, recruit and train the crews to sail and fight them so that they would do more damage to the enemy than to themselves, was a gigantic task. Despite the hiring of foreign shipwrights, admirals, officers and seamen, the project moved slowly. The herculean effort expended at Voronezh, Azov and Tagonrog was now fruitless; the construction of a new fleet on the Baltic had to begin from scratch.

Gradually, through 1710 and 1711, the big ships accumulated, but Peter still possessed too few to challenge the Swedish navy in a classic sea battle for control of the upper Baltic. Besides, once he had spent the immense effort in time and money necessary to build and equip the ships, he wanted to preserve them. Accordingly, he had given an order absolutely forbidding his admirals to risk the ships-of-the-line and frigates in battle unless the odds were overwhelmingly favorable. Thus, for the most part, the new big ships of Peter’s Baltic fleet remained in the harbor.

Although Peter continued to build ships-of-the-line at home and to order them from Dutch and English shipyards, the brilliant success of the Tsar’s naval campaigns in 1713 and 1714 in the Gulf of Finland was due to his employment of a class of ship never seen before in the Baltic, the galley. Galleys were hybrid ships. Usually around 15-30 meters feet long, a typical galley possessed a single mast and a single sail, but also numerous benches for oarsmen. Thus equipped, it combined the qualities of sailing ships and rowed vessels and could move in wind or calm. For centuries, galleys had been used in the enclosed waters of the Mediterranean, where the wind was freakish and unreliable. Even in the eighteenth century, on these sun-baked bays and gulfs, the naval tradition of the Persian emperors and Roman republic survived. A few small cannon had been added, but the galleys were too small and unstable to carry the heavy naval guns of larger ships. Accordingly, eighteenth-century galleys fought using the tactics developed in the days of Xerxes and Pompey: They rowed toward their enemy and grappled with him, deciding the issue with a hand-to-hand infantry battle conducted on crowded, violent, slippery decks.

In Peter’s time, the Ottoman navy was made up mostly of galleys. Officered by Greeks, manned by slaves, they were behemoths, the biggest carrying as many as 2,000 men divided between two decks of oarsmen and ten companies of soldiers. To fight the Turks in the confined waters of the Aegean and the Adriatic, the Venetians also built galleys, and it was to Venice that Peter sent numerous young Russians to learn the art of galley building. France kept some forty galleys in the Mediterranean, rowed by convicts sent to the galleys for life in lieu of execution. Surrounded by stormy seas, Britain had no use for galleys.

Peter had always been interested in galleys. They could be built quickly and inexpensively, of pine rather than hardwood. They could be manned by inexperienced seamen, soldiers who could double as naval infantrymen to board and attack an enemy. The largest would carry 300 men and five guns, the smallest 150 men and three guns. Peter had constructed galleys first at Voronezh, then at Tagonrog, and those built on Lake Peipus were used in the campaigns of 1702, 1703 and 1704 to drive a Swedish fleet from the lake. Galleys would be perfect to circumvent the Swedish advantage in big men-of-war in the Baltic. Given the nature of the Finnish coast, studded with myriad rocky islands and fjords fringed with red granite and fir trees, Peter could neutralize the Swedish fleet simply by conceding to it the open water while his more maneuverable shallow-draft galleys moved in the inshore coastal waters that the larger Swedish ships would not dare enter. Cruising along the coast, the Russian galleys could carry supplies and troops, almost invulnerable to the larger Swedish ships outside. And if the Swedes came in to meet them, the big ships might easily founder on the rocks, or if the wind dropped and left them becalmed, the Swedes would lie helpless before the Russian galleys rowing to attack.

Galley of Russia 1719
A big Russian galley in 1719

For Sweden, Russia’s surprising appearance as a Baltic naval power and Peter’s heavy reliance on galleys created a painful dilemma. When Peter’s galleys began splashing down from the construction ways, Sweden faced an entirely different kind of naval warfare. Already financially exhausted, Sweden lacked the means simultaneously to maintain its fleet against the Danes and to build a huge galley fleet to combat Russia. Thus it was that Swedish admirals and captains could only watch helplessly from their larger ships outside as Peter’s oar-driven, shallow-draft galley fleets moved inshore along the coastline, swiftly and efficiently conquering the coast of Finland.

The overall commander in these successful naval campaigns was General Admiral Fedor Apraxin, who usually also took personal command of the galley fleet. Vice Admiral Cornelius Cruys, the Dutch officer who had helped Peter build his fleet and train his seamen, customarily flew his flag on one of the ships-of-the-line, while the Tsar himself, always insisting on calling himself “Rear Admiral Peter Alexeevich” when afloat, switched back and forth between commanding squadrons of larger ships and fleets of galleys.

Apraxin impressed his foreign officers with his manner and skill. Apraxin’s relations with Peter, ashore and afloat, were conducted with a delicate blend of dignity and circumspection. At court, having given his word, and convinced of the merit of his case, Apraxin continued “even if opposed by the Sovereign’s absolute will to maintain the justice of his demand until the Tsar, in a passion, by his menaces enforces silence.” But at sea Apraxin would not give way to Peter. The General Admiral had never been abroad and had not himself been trained in seamanship and naval tactics until he was well along in years. Nevertheless he refused to submit even when the Tsar, as junior flag officer, differing in opinion, will endeavor to invalidate the General Admiral’s opinion by alleging his inexperience as never having seen foreign navies. Count Apraxin will instantly overrule the same invidious charge, to the utmost provocation of the Tsar; though afterwards he will submit with the following statement:

“Whilst I as Admiral argue with Your Majesty in quality of flag officer, I can never give way; but if you assume the [rank of] Tsar I know my duty.”

By the spring of 1713, the galley fleet was ready. At the end of April, Peter sailed from Kronstadt with a fleet of 93 galleys and 110 other large boats carrying between them more than 16,000 soldiers. Apraxin commanded the whole fleet; the Tsar commanded the vanguard. The campaign was an overwhelming success. Using the galleys to leapfrog the troops from one point on the coast to another, the Russian army worked its way steadily westward along the Finnish coast. It was a classic example of amphibious warfare: Whenever the Swedish General Lybecker positioned his force in a strong defensive position, the Russian galleys, hugging the coastline, would slip around behind him, row into a harbor and disembark hundreds or thousands of men, unfatigued by marching, with cannon and supplies. There was nothing the Swedes could do to stop them and nothing Lybecker could do except retreat. In an easy campaign Peter had thus captured the whole of southern Finland.

Early in May, dozens of Russian ships filled with soldiers appeared off Helsingfors (now Helsinki), a prosperous town with an excellent deep-water harbor. Faced with thousands of Russians suddenly arriving from the sea, the defenders could only burn their stores and abandon the town. Peter sailed immediately for the nearby port of Borga, and Lybecker abandoned it as well.

In a single summer, without the aid or encumbrance of any foreign ally, Peter had conquered all of southern Finland.

The Battle of Hangö (Gangut), 1714

At sea, the Swedish fleet remained supreme. In the open water, the Swedish ships-of-the-line could stand off and pound the Russian galleys to pieces with their heavy guns. The galleys’ only chance would be to tempt the bigger ships close inshore and then catch them there when the wind had dropped. This was exactly the fortuitous situation presented to Peter at the Battle of Hangö in August 1714.

In preparation for the naval campaign of 1714, Peter had nearly doubled the size of his Baltic fleet. By May, twenty Russian ships-of-the-line and almost 200 galleys were ready for action.

On 22 June, 100 galleys – mostly commanded by Venetians and Greeks who had had experience in the Mediterranean – sailed for Finland with Apraxin again in overall command and Peter as rear admiral serving as his deputy. Through the midsummer weeks, the Russian ships cruised off the coast of southern Finland, but did not dare venture beyond the rocky promontory of Cape Hangö at the western end of the gulf lest they encounter a formidable Swedish fleet which waited for them on the horizon. This was a major squadron including 16 ships-of-the-line, 5 frigates and a number of galleys and smaller vessels under the Swedish commander-in-chief, Admiral Wattrang, whose mission was to bar passage any farther westward in the direction of the Aland Islands and the Swedish coast.

For several weeks, this impasse continued. Wattrang had no intention of fighting a battle inshore, and the Russian galleys, unwilling to submit themselves to Wattrang’s big guns on open water, remained anchored at Tvermine, six miles east of Cape Hangö. Finally, on 4 August, Wattrang’s ships moved in toward the Russians and then, seeing the vast number of Russian sails, turned back to the open sea. The Russian galleys quickly pursued, hoping to catch at least some of the Swedish ships if the wind should drop. In the maneuvering that followed, most of the Swedish ships managed to withdraw out of reach.

But the following morning what Peter had hoped for finally happened. The wind died, the sea was becalmed, and on the glassy surface lay a division of the Swedish fleet commanded by Admiral Ehrenskjold. The Russians moved quickly to seize the advantage. At dawn, 20 Russian galleys left the protective waters of the coast and rowed outside to seaward of the motionless Swedish vessels. Realizing what was happening, Ehrenskjold’s ships lowered small boats, which under oars tried to tow their ships away. But the power of a few oarsmen in small boats could not match the coordinated strokes of the oarsmen in the Russian galleys.

That night, Apraxin’s main force, over 60 galleys, slipped between the Swedes and the coast, moving out to sea between the squadrons of Wattrang and Ehrenskjold. For refuge, Ehrenskjold withdrew up a narrow fjord and formed his ships into a line, head to stern, from one side of the fjord to the other. The following day, with the Swedish squadron isolated, Apraxin was ready to attack. First, he sent an officer on board the Swedish flagship to offer Ehrenskjold honorable terms if he would surrender. The offer was refused, and the battle began.

It was a strange and extraordinary contest between warships of two different kinds, one ancient and one modern. The Swedes had superiority in heavy cannon and skilled seamen, but the Russians had an overwhelming advantage in numbers of ships and men. Their smaller, more maneuverable galleys, decks loaded with infantry, simply charged the Swedish ships en masse, taking what losses they had to from Swedish cannon fire, closing in and boarding the immobile Swedish vessels.

Indeed, Apraxin launched his ships less like an admiral than a general sending in waves of infantry or cavalry. At two PM on 6 August 1714, he sent in the first wave of 35 galleys. The Swedes held their fire until the galleys were close, then raked their decks with cannon fire, forcing the galleys to fall back. A second attack by 80 galleys was also repulsed. Then, Apraxin’s combined fleet attacked, 95 galleys in all, concentrating on the left side of the head-to-stern line. Russian boarding parties swept over the Swedish vessels; one Swedish vessel capsized from the sheer weight of the men struggling on its deck.

Battle of Gangut
The Battle of Hangö (Gangut), 1714

Once the Swedish line was broken, the Russians rowed through the gap, swarming along the remainder of the line, attacking from both sides at once and seizing ship after ship of the immobile Swedish line. The battle raged for three hours with heavy casualties on both sides. In the end, the Swedes were overwhelmed, Ehrenskjold himself was captured, along with his flagship, the frigate Elephant, and nine smaller Swedish ships. But more important than these trophies, the Russians now held the Aland Islands.

There is a disagreement as to Peter’s whereabouts during the battle. Some have said that he commanded the first division of Apraxin’s galleys; others, that he watched the action from the shore. Hangö was not a classic naval action, but it was Russia’s first victory at sea, and Peter always considered it a personal vindication of his years of effort to build a navy, and a victory equal in importance to Poltava.

Elated, Peter meant to celebrate in the grandest style. Sending the bulk of the galley fleet westward to occupy the now unprotected Aland Islands, Peter returned with his Swedish prizes to Kronstadt. Then, on 20 September, he staged his triumph, leading the captured frigate and six other Swedish ships up into the Neva River while cannon boomed a 150-gun salute. The ships anchored near the Peter and Paul Fortress, and both Russian and Swedish crews came ashore for the victory procession. Ehrenskjold himself wore a new suit laced in silver which was a present from the Tsar. Peter appeared in the green uniform of a Russian rear admiral laced with gold. The senators questioned Peter on several points. After brief deliberation, they unanimously proclaimed that in consideration of his faithful service, the Rear Admiral was promoted to Vice Admiral, and the crowd broke into cheers of “Health to the Vice Admiral!”

Peter’s speech in thanks called his comrades’ attention to the changes wrought in only two decades:

“Friends and Companions: Is there any one among you who, twenty years ago, would have dared to conceive our covering the Baltic with ships built with our own hands or living in this town built on soil conquered from our enemies?”

When the ceremony ended, Peter boarded his own sloop and hoisted the flag of vice admiral with his own hands. That night, Menshikov’s palace was the scene of a huge banquet for Russians and Swedes alike. Peter, rising and turning to his Russian followers, he said directly to Ehrenskjold:

“Here you see a brave and faithful servant of his master who has made himself worthy of the highest reward at his hands and who shall always have my favor as long as he is with me, although he has killed many a brave Russian. I forgive you, and you may depend on my good will.”

Ehrenskjold thanked the Tsar and replied:

“However honorably I may have acted with regard to my master, I did only my duty. I sought death, but did not meet it, and it is no small comfort to me in my misfortune to be a prisoner of Your Majesty and to be used so favorably and with so much distinction by so great a naval officer and now worthily a vice admiral.”

Later, talking to the foreign envoys present, Ehrenskjold declared that the Russians had indeed fought skillfully, and that nothing but his own experience could have convinced him that the Tsar could make good soldiers and sailors out of his Russian subjects.

The victory at Hangö cleared not only the Gulf of Finland but the eastern side of the Gulf of Bothnia of Swedish ships. Admiral Wattrang now quit the upper Baltic entirely, being unwilling to risk his big ships against the unorthodox tactics of the Russian galleys. Thus, the way was open for the Russian fleets to continue their westward advance.

In September, a fleet of 60 galleys landed 16,000 men in the Aland Islands. Apraxin’s galleys kept working their way up into the Gulf of Bothnia. On 20 September, he reached Wasa, and from there he sent nine galleys across the gulf to attack the coast of Sweden, burning the Swedish town of Umean.

The success of the Finnish campaigns spurred Peter to increase his shipbuilding program. Later, near the end of the Tsar’s reign, the Baltic fleet consisted of 34 ships-of-the-line (many of them 60- to 80-gun vessels), 15 frigates and 800 galleys and smaller ships, manned by a total of 28,000 Russian seamen, and was the strongest naval power in the Baltic. This was a gigantic achievement; to complain that Peter’s fleet was still smaller than Great Britain’s is to overlook the fact that Peter began without a single ship; with no tradition, shipwrights, officers, navigators or seamen. Before the end of Peter’s life, some Russian ships were equal to the best in the British navy and, said an observer, “were more handsomely furnished.”

The only weakness that Peter could never overcome was his countrymen’s lack of interest in the sea. Foreign officers – Greeks, Venetians, Danes and Dutchmen – continued to command the ships; the Russian aristocracy still hated the sea and resented the imposition of naval service almost more than any other. In his love of blue waves and salt air, Peter remained unique among Russians.

The victory is even nowadays celebrated by the Russian Navy, which has a long tradition of always having one vessel named Gangut. The first series of Dreadnought battleships for the Imperial Navy was also named the Gangut class.

Attacking Sweden, 1714-1719

In 1714, England has a new king, Goerge I. Upon ascending the English throne, George I, who could not speak Enlgish, had every intention of using the great power of England to serve the purposes of Hanover. Now, with the Swedish empire seeming on the verge of collapse, he wanted to be present when the spoils were divided. Thus it was that in 1715, Hanover—but not England—entered the anti-Swedish alliance. As Vasily Dolgoruky, Peter’s ambassador in Copenhagen, explained this confusing situation to the Tsar:

“Although the English King has declared war on Sweden, it is only as Elector of Hanover, and the English fleet has sailed [to the Baltic] only to protect its merchants. If the Swedish fleet attacks the Russian fleet of Your Majesty, it is not to be thought that the English will engage the Swedes.”

Peter, whose policy for years had been to bring both Hanover and England into the war against Sweden, was delighted. And when he heard that the British Admiral Sir John Norris had arrived in the Baltic commanding 18 ships-of-the-line escorting 106 merchantmen, the Tsar was overjoyed and hurried to Reval with a Russian squadron of 19 warships.

Norris remained for three weeks while the admirals and officers of the two fleets entertained each other with gala festivities. During the visit, Peter examined the British ships from keel to topmast and Norris was allowed to freely inspect the Russian vessels. He saw three new sixty-gun ships built in Saint Petersburg which he described as “in every way equal to the best of that rank in our country and more handsomely furnished.”

At the end of the visit, Peter enthusiastically offered Norris command of the Russian navy, and although the Admiral declined, the Tsar gave his visitor his royal portrait set in diamonds.

Every summer thereafter until the death of Charles XII (in all, the summers of 1715, 1716, 1717 and 1718), Norris returned to the Baltic with a British squadron and the same orders: not to engage the Swedes unless British ships were attacked. Particularly Norris did not show hostile to Russia thanks to Peter’s displomacy and true admiration toward the British admiral in 1714.

As obstinate “Brother Charles” showed no sign of making peace, in 1716 Peter proceeded to attack Sweden by a coalition with Danemark, England and Prussia. As neither Norris nor the Danish Admiral Gyldenløve would consent to serve under the other, the Tsar was named as commander-in-chief.

On 16 August, Peter hoisted his flag on the Russian ship-of-the-line Ingria and signaled the fleet to weigh anchor. It was the noblest fleet of sail ever to appear in the Baltic: sixty-nine men-of-war—nineteen English, six Dutch, twenty-three Danish and twenty-one Russian warships—and more than 400 merchantmen, all under the command of a self-made sailor whose country had not possessed a single ocean-going ship twenty years before.

Yet, for all its majesty and overwhelming strength, it achieved little. The Swedish fleet, its 20 ships-of-the-line outnumbered three to one, remained in Karlskrona. Norris wanted to brave the fortress guns, enter the harbor and try to sink the fleet at its moorings, but the Danish Admiral, partly out of jealousy and partly because his government had secretly instructed him to withhold the fleet from risky action, declined.

Peter was frustrated and went back to the Swedish coast with two small frigates and two galleys to reconnoiter. He found that Charles XII had not wasted the time provided him by the allied delays; as Peter’s ships edged in close to shore to get a better look, cannon balls hit his ship. Another Russian ship suffered more serious damage. A troop of Cossacks landed from the galleys and captured some prisoners, who declared that the King of Sweden had an army of 20,000 men.

Charles had worked wonders. He had garrisoned and provisioned all the fortresses along the coast of Scania. At inland towns, reserves of infantry and cavalry were gathered, ready to counterattack an enemy bridgehead. A large reserve of artillery was held at Karlskrona, awaiting the King’s command. Charles had only 22,000 men – 12,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry – but he knew that not all the invaders could be brought across at once, and his hope was to attack and defeat the vanguards before they could be reinforced. If he himself was forced to retreat, he was prepared to follow Peter’s example and burn all the villages and towns of southern Sweden, confronting the invaders with a blackened desert. (It helped, in forming this plan, that Scania had been Danish until the mid-seventeenth century.)

In Zealand, through the early days of September, the preparation went ahead. The combined allied force totaled 51,000, with 29,000 Russian dragoons and 12,000 Danish infantrymen. The landing date, 21 September, was fixed. Then on 17 September, just before the regiments were to move to their embarkation sites, Peter suddenly announced that the invasion had been called off. It was too late in the year, he declared; the assault would have to wait until the following spring. Both George I of England and Frederick IV of Denmark, as well as their ministers, admirals and generals, were stunned by this unilateral decision. Frederick protested that postponement meant cancellation, as he could not possibly commandeer the merchant fleet of Denmark for two years in a row.

Nevertheless, Peter remained adamant. His allies had lost the summer through procrastination, he argued, and now the arrival of autumn made the expedition hazardous. He understood that Charles would meet the first invaders ashore with a pulverizing counterblow and explained that to repulse this stroke and gain a secure foothold which could be held through the winter, a large number of troops would have to be landed very quickly, a successful battle fought and at least two towns, Malmö and Landskrona, besieged and taken. If this operation failed, he asked, where were his troops to spend the icy winter?

The Danes replied that the soldiers could shelter in pits dug in the earth. Peter replied that this would kill more men than a battle. And how could his men find food and forage in the unfriendly province of Scania? Peter said:

“Thirty thousand Swedish troops are sitting at that table, who will not easily give place to uninvited guests.”

The Danes argued that provisions could be brought across the Danish islands. Peter said:

“Soldiers’ bellies, are not satisfied with empty promises and hopes but they demand ready and real storehouses.”

Further, he asked, how could the allies prevent Charles from burning and ravaging the country as he retreated north? How could they force him to stand and give battle? Might the allied armies not find themselves dwindling away in a hostile country in the dead of winter, just as Charles’ own army had dwindled away in the Russian winter? Instead of delivering the coup de grâce to Sweden, might they not be courting a disaster for themselves? Peter understood and had great respect for Charles.

“I know his way of making war. He would give us no rest, and our armies would be weakened.”

No, he repeated decisively, given the lateness of the season and the strength of the enemy, the invasion must be postponed until the following spring.

In the spring of 1717, Peter visited France. After that he wanted the negotiations to begin as soon as possible, although during the winter and spring of 1718 the most dangerous and important problem facing Peter was not the negotiations with Sweden but his relationship with his son, a drama which deeply overshadowed the effort to bring the war to an end. Partly for this reason, it was not until May that the two sides faced each other across a table. Two sides conducted a number of rounds of negotiation without reaching an agreement. Then, they were informed that King Charles XII had been killed on 30 November 30.

Peter was standing with a group of officers when he heard the news of the death of his great antagonist. His eyes filled with tears; wiping them away, he said, “My dear Charles, how much I pity you,” and ordered the Russian court into mourning for a week.

On ascending the throne, the new Queen of Sweden, Ulrika Eleonora, and Peter still disagreed with each other. The negotiations foundered.

Peter proceeded straightforwardly to try to beat the Swedes on the field of battle. The main effort of the 1719 campaign was to be a powerful amphibious attack on the homeland coast of Sweden along the Gulf of Bothnia.

That summer, Peter’s fleet had a success. On 4 June 1719, a squadron of seven Russian men-of-war sailing from Reval had intercepted three smaller Swedish ships in the open sea. Outnumbered and heavily outgunned, the Swedish ships tried running for the Stockholm Skargard, the archipelago of islands and islets which screen the Swedish capital from the sea. The Russian ships overtook them, however, and after an eight-hour fight all three Swedish ships, including the fifty-two-gun Wachtmeister, were captured. The return of this squadron with its prizes to Reval was deeply satisfying to Peter. Here was a deepwater victory, unlike the galley action at Hangö.

On 30 June, Peter and the Kronstadt squadron arrived at Reval with the largest Russian men-of-war, including the 90-gun Gangut, the 70-gun ships St. Alexander, Neptunus and Reval and the 64-gun Moscow. Meanwhile, Admiral Norris had entered the Baltic with a squadron of 16 ships-of-the-line. Despite the potentially menacing presence of this English fleet, Peter’s men-of-war sailed toward Sweden on 13 July, followed a few days later by 130 galleys filled with soldiers. On 18 July, the entire Russian naval force anchored at Lemland in the Aland Islands, and on the evening of 21 July they put to sea. Fog and calm seas forced the big ships to anchor, but the galleys proceeded under oars and, with Apraxin in command, reached the first islands of the Stockholm Skargard on the afternoon of the 22 July.

For the next five weeks, Apraxin’s ships and the 30,000 men they carried wreaked havoc on the eastern coast of Sweden. Apraxin divided his force, sending Major General Lacy with 21 galleys and 12 sloops north up the coast, while moving the main body south. He landed a force of Cossacks to raid Stockholm, but their assault was repulsed—the Skargard was difficult, its narrow channels well defended, and a force of 4 men-of-war and 9 frigates in the Stockholm harbor kept the Russian galleys at bay.

Moving south, Apraxin again divided his ships into smaller squadrons to work along the coasts, burning small towns, industries and ironworks and capturing coast shipping. A number of Swedish merchant ships were captured, some of them loaded with copper ore taken from the nearby mines. These were sent back to Russia. In one cannon foundry, 300 cannon still undelivered to the Swedish army were seized and hauled away.

Meanwhile, to the north, Lacy’s force had been moving with similar devastating effect along the upper coast. He had destroyed factories and ironworks, storehouses and mills, and had burned three towns. The troops had fought three small battles, winning two and being repulsed in a third, at which point he turned back. A large quantity of iron, forage and provisions was seized, some taken aboard, and that which could not be carried away was thrown into the sea or burned. On the 31st Lacy and Apraxin departed for home.

The Battle of Grengam, 1720

In March 1720, after a reign of only seventeen months, Queen Ulrika Eleonora of Sweden abdicated her crown in favor of her husband, Frederick of Hesse, who was vigorously anti-Russian and determined to prosecute the war.

In May 1720, Sir John Norris appeared in the Baltic with a more powerful British fleet than ever before, 21 ships-of-the-line and 10 frigates. His orders this year were clearly hostile. If the Tsar refused England’s mediation, the British would destroy the Russian fleet. On 6 April, Stanhope had once again offered Veselovsky England’s services as a “mediator” between Russia and Sweden, and Veselovsky had curtly refused.

While Norris was in Stockholm, he paid his respects to the new King, Frederick I, who asked the Admiral to cruise in the sea area between the Hangö peninsula and the Aland Islands to prevent the passage of Russian galleys into the Gulf of Bothnia and a repetition of the preceding summer’s devastating raids against the coast of Sweden. But Norris had no more desire to clash with Peter’s galleys in these dangerous waters than the Swedish admirals had displayed. There were myriad rocks, ledges, fogs, fickle winds, poor charts and no pilots. An admiral who took big, ocean-going ships into such a maze would have half his bottoms ripped out by granite and lose the rest when the wind died and his becalmed behemoths faced a legion of Russian galleys rowing to the attack.

Accordingly, Norris suggested firmly that he take his ships in a different direction to see whether an attack might be made on Reval, now, like Kronstadt, a main base of the Russian Baltic fleet. With a combined fleet of 20 English and 11 Swedish men-of-war, Norris cruised off Reval, making an impressive naval demonstration, and sent a letter ashore addressed to the Tsar, again offering England’s mediation. The letter was returned unopened; Peter, understanding that Britain was now siding openly with his enemy, had left instructions not to accept any further communications from Norris or Carteret. Apraxin further warned the British Admiral to keep his ships out of range of the guns of Russian coastal fortresses. Faced with this rebuff, and deciding that the defenses of Reval were too strong, Norris disappeared over the horizon.

Meanwhile, as Norris was parading off Reval, Apraxin’s galleys had already outmaneuvered him and descended once again on the Swedish coast. Eight thousand men, including Cossacks, moved down the coast without opposition and penetrated as far as 45 km inland, leaving behind towers of smoke from burning towns, villages and farmhouses. Summoned by a desperate appeal from Frederick I, Norris hurried from Reval to intercept the Russian galleys, but they were already gone, slipping through the rocky islands and along the inshore waters of Finland where Norris dared not follow. The one exception had just the result Norris had feared: the Battle of Grengam.

Battle of Grengam
The Battle of Grengam, 1720

In retrospect, there seems something strange about the operations of Norris’ fleet. Although his ships in the Baltic were in a state of armed hostility, no British ship ever fired at a Russian ship. If Norris’ powerful men-of-war had ever caught Peter’s galley fleets in the open sea, the British ships with their greater speed and overwhelming gun power would have massacred the Russians. But the English, despite Norris’ orders from his civilian masters, were content to support Sweden merely by their presence, showing the flag in Swedish harbors and cruising in the central Baltic. It is hard to believe that an aggressive British admiral leading the finest seamen in the world could not have drawn some blood if he had wished to. It leaves a suspicion that Norris preferred not to engage the ships of the Tsar, whose admiration and generosity he had personally enjoyed when they had met five years before.

After the Battle of Grengam, both Swede and Russia claimed victory. They agreed on one point only: for Swedish frigates were captured by the Russians.

This was the last naval battle in the Great Northern War.

Victory, 1721

For George I, Norris’ failure was a serious embarrassment. Despite his maneuvers in isolating Russia and plucking away her allies, despite his employment of the British navy in the Baltic, neither his diplomacy nor his fleet had succeeded in helping Sweden or harming Russia. While British ships-of-the-line cruised the Baltic or lay in Swedish harbors, Russian galley fleets roved up and down the Swedish coastline, supporting landing parties which burned and ravaged where they chose. In England, the King’s opponents laughed at the fleet which was sent to defend Sweden but which somehow never managed to be present at the right time or place.

Soon afterward, Peter lifted his blockade of Swedish ports in the Baltic, allowing free passage of Dutch and English commercial shipping. In every way, the Tsar emphasized that his quarrel was not with England but with the King’s policy of using England to advance the interests of Hanover.

Disillusioned by the impotence of George I’s support, and aware that continuation of the struggle meant further Russian attacks along his coasts, Frederick of Sweden agreed to reopen negotiations.

Great Britain’s new desire for peace in the North did not entail a total abandonment of its Swedish ally. In April 1721, King George I wrote to King Frederick I that, in accordance with treaty obligations, a British fleet would enter the Baltic that summer. But George I begged that Sweden attempt to conclude a peace with Russia. The cost of sending a fleet every summer was prohibitive, George explained. A few weeks later, Norris’ 22 ships-of-the-line appeared, but throughout the summer the British squadron lay anchored in Stockholm Skargard, completely idle.

Meanwhile, with the negotiations deadlocked over Livonia and no military truce arranged, Peter once again launched his galley fleet against the Swedish coast. Five thousand soldiers under Major General Lacy landed 160 km north of Stockholm and attacked the fortified town of Gefle, but the town was too strong for Lacy’s strength and the Russian troops moved south, leaving a swath of destruction. Sundeval and two other towns were burned, along with nineteen parishes and 506 villages. Lacy defeated the Swedish force sent against him, while his galleys burned six Swedish galleys. On 24 June, having ravaged more than 600 km of Swedish coastline, Lacy was ordered to withdraw.

Lacy’s raid, although on a smaller scale than those of the preceding summers, appeared to be the last straw for Sweden. Frederick I finally accepted peace.

The main articles of the peace treaty which was signed on 14 September 1721 granted Peter the territories he had so long desired. Livonia, Ingria and Estonia were ceded “in perpetuity” to Russia, along with Karelia as far as Vyborg. The remainder of Finland was to be restored to Sweden.

News that peace had come after twenty-one years of war was received with jubilation in Russia. Peter was beside himself with excitement, and the celebrations which took place were prolonged and prodigious.

The celebration reached a peak on 31 October when Peter appeared in the Senate to declare that, in gratitude for God’s mercy in giving Russia victory, he would pardon all imprisoned criminals except murderers, and that he would annul all debts to the government and arrears of taxes accumulated over eighteen years from the war’s beginning to 1718. In that same session, the Senate resolved to offer Peter the titles of Peter the Great.

Peter responded:

“By our deeds in war we have emerged from darkness into the light of the world, and those whom we did not know in the light now respect us. I wish our entire nation to recognize the direct hand of God in our favor during the last war and in the conclusion of this peace. It becomes us to thank God with all our might, but while hoping for peace, we must not grow weaker in military matters, so as not to have the fate of the Greek monarchy [the Eastern empire of Constantinople]. We must make efforts for the general good and profit which may God grant us at home and abroad and from which the nation will receive advantage.”

Holland and Prussia immediately recognized Peter as Emperor of Russia. Sweden recognized Peter as emperor in 1723, and the Ottoman Empire recognized Empress Anne in 1739. King George I always refused to give his old enemy Peter the imperial title, and English recognition waited until 1742, fifteen years after the King’s death. In this same year, the Hapsburg Emperor recognized his Russian counterpart as an equal. France and Spain accepted the imperial title in 1745 and Poland in 1764.

The imperial title remained in use from Peter’s proclamation in 1721 until the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II in 1917.

Utilization of human resources

Throughout his life, merit, loyalty and dedication to service were the only criteria by which Peter chose, judged and promoted men. Nobleman or “pie seller,” Russian, Swiss, Scot or German, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant or Jew, the Tsar heaped titles, wealth, affection and responsibility on anyone who was willing and competent to serve. Sheremetev, Dolgoruky, Golitsyn and Kurakin were illustrious names long before their bearers devoted themselves to Peter’s service, but they owed their success not to blood but to merit.

On the other hand, father of Alexander Menshikov (Generalissimus, Prince of the Russian Empire, Governor of Saint Petersburg) was a clerk, father of Pavel Yaguzhinsky (Attorney General) was a Lutheran organist, father of Peter Shafirov (baron and raised to the rank of vice-chancellor) was a converted Jew, and father of Alexis Kurbato was a serf. Osterman and Makarov began as secretaries; Anthony Devier, the first Police Commissioner of Saint Petersburg, began as a Portuguese Jewish cabin boy whom Peter found in Holland and brought back to Russia. Nikita Demidov was a hard-working illiterate metalworker in Tula until Peter, admiring his energy and his success, gave him huge land grants to develop mines in the Urals. Abraham (or Ibrahim) Hannibal was a black Abyssinian prince brought as a slave to Constantinople where he was bought and sent as a present to Peter. The Tsar set him free and made him his godson, sent him to Paris to be educated, and eventually promoted him to General of the Artillery.

Anyone with a good idea could be rewarded and promoted. One foreign idea was presented to Peter in an anonymous letter found one morning on the floor of a government office. Normally, unsigned missives contained denunciations of high officials, but this letter was a proposal that Russia adopt a system of using stamped paper, that all formal agreements, contracts, petitions and other documents be required to be written on official paper bearing the duty-paid mark of an eagle in the upper left-hand corner. The paper should be sold only by the government; the income would accrue to the state Treasury. Enormously pleased, Peter enacted the measure at once and instituted a search for the anonymous writer. He was found to be a serf named Alexis Kurbatov, who had observed the use of Italian stamped paper. Peter handsomely rewarded Kurbatov and gave him a new government post, where his duty was to find further ways of increasing government revenues.

Under Kurbatov and his ingenious, fervently hated colleagues, new taxes were levied on a wide range of human activities. There was a tax on births, on marriages, on funerals and on the registration of wills. There was a tax on wheat and tallow. Horses were taxed, and horse hides and horse collars. There was a hat tax and a tax on the wearing of leather boots. The beard tax was systematized and enforced, and a tax on mustaches was added. Ten percent was collected from all cab fares. Houses in Moscow were taxed, and beehives throughout Russia. There was a bed tax, a bath tax, an inn tax, a tax on kitchen chimneys and on the firewood that burned in them. Nuts, melons, cucumbers, were taxed. There was even a tax on drinking water.

Abraham (or Ibrahim) Hannibal was a black Abyssinian (now Ethiopian) prince brought as a slave to Constantinople where he was bought and sent as a present to Peter. The Tsar set him free and made him his godson, sent him to Paris to be educated, and eventually promoted him to General of the Artillery. After his death, Hannibal gained immortality when he became the maternal grandfather of Alexander Pushkin and the central figure in Pushkin’s novel (only a forty-page fragment of which was completed) The Negro of Peter the Great.

The above-mentioned men began with nothing, but when they died, they were princes, counts and barons, and their names were inseparably entwined with Peter’s in the history of Russia.

There is no better example of Peter’s promotion by merit than the career of Ivan Neplyuev, one of Peter’s most famous “fledglings.” Neplyuev, the son of a small landowner in the Novgorod region, was summoned into service in 1715, when he was already twenty-two years old and the father of two children. He was sent to school in Novgorod to learn mathematics, then to the navigation school in Narva, then to the Naval Academy in Saint Petersburg. In 1716, he was one of thirty midshipmen serving with the Russian fleet in Copenhagen. From there, Neplyuev followed the Tsar to Amsterdam, whence Peter sent him to Venice to train aboard Venetian galleys. After two years fighting the Turks in the Adriatic and Aegean seas, Neplyuev went on to Genoa, Toulon, Marseilles and Cadiz, where he served six months in the Spanish navy. When he returned to Saint Petersburg in June 1720, he was ordered to come to the Admiralty for examination by the Tsar.

When his turn came, Peter was kindly and, extending his hand to be kissed, said:

“You see, brother, that I am tsar, yet there are callous places on my hands, because I wished to give you an example. Stand up, brother, and answer the questions. Do not be afraid. If you know, say so. If you do not know, say so, too.”

Neplyuev survived the examination and was given command of a galley.

Almost immediately, however, he was transferred and placed in charge of ship construction in Saint Petersburg. Upon taking the assignment, Neplyuev had been advised, “Always speak the truth and never lie. Even though things may be bad for you, the Tsar will be much angrier if you lie.” It was not long before the young shipbuilder had occasion to test this advice. Arriving late at work one morning, he found Peter already there. He considered running home and sending word that he was sick, but then he remembered the advice and walked directly up to Peter. “You see, my friend, that I am here before you,” said Peter, looking up. “I am to blame, Sire,” replied Neplyuev. “Last night, I was with people and I stayed up very late and I was late getting up.”

Peter seized him by the shoulder and squeezed it hard. Neplyuev was convinced that he was doomed. But the Tsar said:

“Thanks, my boy, for telling the truth. God will forgive you. All of us are human.”

But Neplyuev was not long in this assignment either. Because of his language skills, he was frequently used as a translator, and in January 1721, still only twenty-eight, he was sent as Russian ambassador to Constantinople, returning home in 1734 to enjoy the estates which Peter had granted him in his absence. Eventually he became a senator. In 1774, during the reign of Catherine the Great, he died at the age of eighty.

Peter also employed effectively the services provided by foreigners who help him modernize Russia in genral and found the Navy in particular. Of particular significance there were two men, widely divergent in background and style, who became even more important to him. These were the stern old Scottish mercenary soldier General Patrick Gordon and the charming Swiss adventurer Francis Lefort.

Patrick Gordon
Patrick Gordon

Patrick Gordon was born in 1635, and, at sixteen, he went abroad to seek his fortune. In 1660, a Russian diplomat in Europe made him a glittering offer: three years’ service in the Russian army, beginning with a commission as a major. Gordon accepted, only to find, on reaching Moscow, that the time clause of his contract was meaningless; as a useful soldier, he would not be allowed to leave. When he applied, he was threatened with denunciation as a Polish spy and a Roman Catholic and menaced with Siberia. Temporarily accepting his fate, he settled into Moscow life. Learning quickly that his best chance of promotion lay in marrying a Russian woman, he found one, and together they produced a family.

The years went by and Gordon served Tsar Alexis, Tsar Fedor and the Regent Sophia, fighting against Poles, Turks, Tatars and Bashkirs. He became a general and twice returned to England and Scotland, although the Muscovites made sure that this enormously valuable personage would come back to them by keeping his wife and children in Russia. In 1686, James II personally asked Sophia to release Gordon from Russian service so that he might return home; this royal request was refused, and for a while there was more talk of ruin and Siberia. Then King James wrote again declaring that he wished to appoint Gordon as his ambassador in Moscow; the appointment was also refused, with the reason that could not serve as ambassador because he was still on service with the Russian army and, indeed, was about to leave on a campaign against the Tatars. Thus, in 1689, Gordon, at fifty-four, was respected by all, enormously rich (his salary was a thousand roubles a year, whereas the Lutheran pastor was paid only sixty) and the preeminent foreign soldier.

It is not surprising that Gordon – courageous, widely traveled, battle-seasoned, loyal and canny – would appeal to Peter. What is surprising is that eighteen-year-old Peter appealed to Gordon. Peter was tsar, to be sure, but Gordon had served other tsars without any special feelings of friendship. In Peter, however, the old soldier found an adept and admiring pupil, and, acting as a kind of unofficial military tutor, he instructed Peter in all aspects of warfare. Gordon became not only Peter’s hired general, but a friend.

When Peter was yong, Gordon often helped him in his games with artillery and fireworks. The Tsar’s suppers with General Gordon were filled with discussions of new European drills and tactics to be taught to the troops. Thanks to Gordon’s instructions, Peter could later command his troops effectively on the battle fields.

No-one could intervene in Peter’s admiration toward Gordon. On 10 March 1690, the Tsar invited General Gordon to dine at court in honor of the birth of his son, the Tsarevich Alexis. Gordon accepted, but the Patriarch intervened, protesting vehemently at the inclusion of a foreigner at a celebration honoring the heir to the Russian throne. Furious, Peter deferred and the invitation was withdrawn, but the following day he invited Gordon to his country house, dined with him there and then rode back to Moscow with the Scot, conversing publicly throughout the ride.

The problem resolved itself a week later, when Joachim suddenly died. He left a testament urging the Tsar to avoid contact with all heretics, Protestant or Catholic, to drive them out of Russia and to eschew personally all foreign clothes and customs. Above all, he demanded that Peter appoint no foreigners to official positions in the state or army where they would be in a position to give orders to the Orthodox faithful. Peter’s response, once Joachim was buried, was to order himself a new set of German clothes and, a week later, go for the first time to dine as Gordon’s guest.

For Gordon, as it turned out, Peter’s friendship was decisive. Now the intimate friend and counselor of the youthful monarch, he gave up his dream of going back to pass his final years in the Highlands. He accepted the fact that he would die in Russia, and indeed, in 1699, when the old soldier finally died, Peter stood by his bed and closed his eyes.

Frank Lefort 2
Frank Lefort

Next, Peter became friendly with another foreigner of a quite different kind, the gay and gregarious Swiss soldier of fortune Francis Lefort. Over the next decade, Lefort was to become Peter’s boon companion and friend of the heart.

Francis Lefort was born in Geneva in 1656, the son of a prosperous merchant. His taste for the merry life quickly snuffed out any desire to become a merchant like his father, so he fled to Holland to join the Protestant armies fighting France. There, still only nineteen, the young adventurer heard tales of opportunity in Russia, and he embarked for Archangel. At 34, he was promoted to major general.

Peter was captivated by this formidably charming man of the world. Here was someone who sparkled in precisely the way to catch Peter’s youthful eye. Lefort was not profound, but his mind worked quickly and he loved to talk. His speech was filled with the West, its life, manners and technology. From 1690 on, Lefort was constantly in Peter’s company; they dined together two or three times a week and saw each other daily. Increasingly, Lefort endeared himself by his frankness, openness and generosity. Where Gordon gave Peter seasoned advice and sensible counsel, Lefort gave gaiety, friendship, sympathy and understanding. Peter relaxed in Lefort’s affection, and when the Tsar became suddenly inflamed at someone or something, lashing out physically at all around him, only Lefort was able to approach and seize the young monarch, gripping Peter in his powerful arms and holding him until he calmed.

In considerable part, Lefort’s success was due to his unselfishness. Although he loved luxury and its trappings, he was never grasping and took no steps to ensure that he would not be impoverished on the following day—a quality that endeared him even more to Peter, who saw to it that all Lefort’s needs were amply cared for. Lefort’s debts were paid, he was presented with a palace and funds to run it, and he was promoted rapidly to full general, admiral and ambassador. Most important to Peter, Lefort genuinely loved his life in Russia. He returned as a visitor to his native Geneva, bearing many titles and the Tsar’s personal testimony to the city fathers of the esteem in which he held this Genevois. But, unlike Gordon, Lefort never dreamed of returning permanently to his birthplace. “My heart,” he told his fellow Swiss, “is wholly in Moscow.”

Subsequently, Lefort received important assignments. We have seen above that in Peter second Azov campaign, Admiral Lefort was the fleet commander. In the Grand Ambassy that Peter accompanied incognito, General-Admiral and Novgorod Governor Lefort was the first Ambassador and Plenipotentiary. It was Lefort who encouraged Peter to make the trip.

It was in March during his second trip to Voronezh that the Tsar was stunned by a personal blow: the death of Francis Lefort. Both times Peter went to work on his ships that winter, Lefort remained in Moscow. At forty-three, his great strength and hearty enthusiasm seemed intact. As First Ambassador of the Great Embassy, he had survived eighteen months of ceremonial banquets in the West, and his prodigious drinking capacity had not deserted him during the feasts and roaring entertainments of the fall and winter in Moscow. He still seemed gay and in high spirits when he saw Peter off for Voronezh.

When Peter heard the news, the hatchet fell from his grasp, he sat down on a log and, hiding his face in his hands, he wept. In a voice hoarse with sobbing and grief, he said:

“Now I am alone without one trusty man. He alone was faithful to me. Whom can I confide in now?”

Peter took charge of the funeral arrangements himself: The Swiss was to have a state funeral grander than any in Russia except that for a tsar or a patriarch.

Peter understood what he had lost. All his life, he was surrounded by men trying to turn their rank and power in the state to their own personal profit. Lefort was different. Although his proximity to the sovereign had given him many opportunities to make himself rich by becoming a channel for favors and bribes, Lefort died penniless. There was so little money, in fact, that before Peter’s return from Voronezh the family had to beg from Prince Golitsyn the money to buy the elegant suit in which Lefort was to be interred.

Peter kept Lefort’s nephew and steward, Peter Lefort, in his service. He asked that Lefort’s only son, Henry, come to Russia, saying that he wanted someone from his friend’s immediate family always to be near him. In the years afterward, Lefort’s role was played by others. Peter always liked to have around him enormously powerful companion-favorites, whose devotion to the Tsar was mostly personal, and whose power came solely from their intimacy with him. Of these, the most prominent was Menshikov. But Peter never forgot Lefort.

And then, six months later, as if to make the last year of the old century an even more marked dividing point in Peter’s life, he lost a second of his devoted Western counselors and friends, Patrick Gordon. The old soldier had been in failing health. His last public appearance had been with his soldiers in September 1699, and in October he retired permanently to his bed. Near the end of November, as Gordon’s strength ebbed away, Peter visited him repeatedly. He came twice on the night of 29 November, with Gordon sinking rapidly. The second time, a Jesuit priest who had already given the Last Sacrament withdrew from the bedside when the Tsar entered. “Stay where you are, Father,” Peter said, “and do what you think fit. I will not interrupt you.” Peter spoke to Gordon, who remained silent. Then Peter took a small mirror and held it to the old man’s face, hoping to see a sign of breath. There was none. “Father,” said the Tsar to the priest, “I think he is dead.” Peter himself closed the dead man’s eyes and left the house, his own eyes filled with tears.

Gordon also was given a state funeral attended by everyone of importance in Moscow. The Russians came willingly, for the old soldier’s devotion to three Tsars and his services to the state were universally appreciated.

Peter soon felt Gordon’s loss, both professionally and personally. Gordon was Russia’s ablest soldier, with considerable experience in many campaigns. His value as a commander and counselor in the coming war with Sweden would have been great; had he been present, the disaster at Narva, only twelve months after his death, might never have happened. Peter also would miss the grizzled Scot at his table, where the old soldier loyally tried to please his master by matching drink for drink with men half his age. For both these reasons, a saddened Peter said at Gordon’s death:

“The state has lost in him an ardent and courageous servant who has steered us safely through many calamities.”

Cornelius Cruys
Cornelius Cruys

The third man with no less significance to Peter was Cornelius Cruys, born in Norway of Dutch parents. With the rank of rear admiral, he was Chief Inspector of Naval Stores and Equipment of the Dutch Admiralty at Amsterdam, and in this capacity had already been advising the Russians in their purchases of naval equipment. He was recruited by Peter in the Grand Embassy. Eventually, Cruys persuaded 200 Dutch naval officers to come to Russia. This group became the essential nucleus for the founding of a navy. Particularly Cruys was considered the architect of the Russian Navy in its infancy period.

In the founding of the Azov Fleet, Peter designated Golovin to be nominal commander, and Vice Admiral Cruys to be actual commander. Subsequently, Cruys was appointed to be the first Mayor (1698-1702), of the newly-built town of Taganrog, also the first base of the Russian Navy.

Cruys was the first person who measured and drawn the navigational maps of the Don River and Azov Sea.

Beginning, 1705, Cruys was the first Commander in Chief of the Baltic Fleet, and also served as chief architect of the Kronstadt Naval Base. This base played an important role in the naval Russian-Swedish naval battles, and also important in WW-II against the Nazi.

Promoted to full admiral in 1721, Cruys served in the Russian Navy until he died in 1727, two years after the death of Peter.

Throughout his stay in England, Peter was always on the lookout for qualified men for service in Russia. He interviewed scores and finally persuaded about sixty Englishmen to follow him. They included:

  • Major Leonard van der Stamm, the master shipwright at Deptford who had been collecting plans for Peter,
  • John Dean, a master shipwright, with whom Peter worked at Deptford, and for whom he developed a great affection, and
  • Captain John Perry, an hydraulic engineer who was to be responsible for constructing a canal to link the Volga and Don rivers. The case of John Perry who complained of inadequate salary payment was strange. Peter was known for his generous rewards to foreigners who rendered good services.
  • Professor Henry Farquharson, a mathematician from the University of Aberdeen who was to open a School of Mathematics and Navigation in Moscow.

Robert Erskine was also an important person. He engaged in medical studies in Edinburgh, Paris and Utrecht and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1703. He arrived in Russia in 1704. He was Peter’s personal physician, and one of the Tsar’s most powerful advisors. He was so influential that he was appointed the first director of the Saint Petersburg Kunstkamera and library. In 1716, the Tsar elevated him to privy councillor.

Việc trọng dụng người nước ngoài được thể hiện rõ vào năm 1717, khi Peter thành lập nội các gồm 9 bộ. Chỉ trừ bộ ngoại giao, thứ trưởng các bộ khác là người nước ngoài (Cornelis Cruys là Thứ trưởng Bộ Hải quân). Riêng Tướng Bruce là Bộ trưởng bộ Hầm mỏ và Công nghiệp.

Development of inland waterways

It was typical of Peter’s character that in the middle of a war, with a new army, a new navy, a new capital and a new national economy all under construction, he should also begin to dig a new system of canals at different points in Russia. It was not that they were unneeded. The distances in Russia were so vast and the roads so poor that commercial goods as well as individual travelers faced almost insurmountable obstacles in moving from place to place. This problem had always bedeviled the effort to bring products from deep inside the giant nation to the seaports for export; now, it presented itself even more acutely in the form of transporting the quantities of grain and other foodstuffs which were needed to feed Saint Petersburg. The solution had been provided in large part by nature, which had equipped Russia with a magnificent network of rivers – the Dnieper, the Don, the Volga and the Dvina. Although all these rivers except the Dvina flowed south, it still remained possible to haul goods northward, upstream, by the sheer brute force of human and animal labor. What remained was to connect this far-flung tracery of natural water routes with a system of canals which linked the rivers at vital points.

Peter’s first herculean effort was to try to link the Volga with the Don and thus, by his possession of Azov at the mouth of the Don, give most of the Russian heartland access to the Black Sea. For more than ten years, thousands of men labored to dig a canal and build stone locks, but the project was abandoned when Peter was forced to return Azov to the Turks.

The growth of Saint Petersburg inspired a second vision: linking the whole of Russia to the Baltic by connecting the Volga to the Neva. By extensive surveying, Peter located in the region of Tver and Novgorod a tributary of the Volga which ran within less than a mile of another stream which flowed, through many lakes and rivers, into Lake Ladoga, which emptied into the Neva. The key was a small canal at Vyshny-Volochok. It took 20,000 men four years to dig the canal with the necessary locks, but when it was finished, the Caspian Sea was linked by water with Saint Petersburg, the Baltic and the Atlantic Ocean. Thereafter, a stream of flat-bottomed barges loaded with grain, oak timbers and other products of southern and central Russia, along with the goods of Persia and the East, moved slowly but continuously across the face of Russia.

Naturally, there were difficulties and opposition. Prince Boris Golitsyn, assigned to oversee the first of these projects, grumbled that “God made the rivers go one way and it was presumption in man to think to turn them another.” The flow of river traffic was sometimes impeded when the stone locks of Vyshny-Volochok canal silted up and had to be redredged.

But this was a minor obstacle compared to the hazards faced on Lake Ladoga – the largest in Europe – as it surface sometimes whipped by wind into a violence worthy of an ocean, and often the waves overwhelmed the unwieldy, flat-bottomed river barges which had to have an exceptionally shallow draft to pass through the Vyshny-Volochok canal. When storm winds howling down from the north caught these clumsy river craft on the open lake, the boats either capsized or were driven onto the southern shore of the lake and broken in pieces. Every year, gale winds sank or drove ashore hundreds of barges, with the loss of their cargoes. Peter ordered the construction of a special fleet of lake boats with hulls and keels deeper than the shallow barges, to be used for the passage across Lake Ladoga. But this required unloading and reloading which were far too expensive and time-consuming with cargoes such as grain, hay and timber. His next move was to look for a way of avoiding the lake passage. In 1718, he decided to cut a canal through the swampy land along the southern shore of the lake from the River Volkhov to the mouth of the Neva at Schlüsselburg. The total distance would be 100km.

The project was first entrusted to Menshikov, who knew nothing of engineering, but was anxious to accept any assignment which might win him favor with Peter. A great deal of needless work was done squandering the lives of 7,000 workmen, who died of hunger and disease because of bad administration. The Tsar was on the point of abandoning the work when he encountered a German engineer, Burkhard Christopher von Munnich, who had had extensive experience building dikes and canals in North Germany and Denmark. Once Munnich took over, the work proceeded more efficiently. But by 1725, when Peter died, the Emperor had seen only 32km of the great canal (it was more than 20m wide and nearly 5m feet deep).

After Peter’s death, Menshikov frowned on the engineer, and it was not until 1732, in the reign of Empress Anne, that the canal was finished and Munnich triumphantly escorted the Empress in a procession of state barges along the entire length of the prodigious waterway.

waterway_five seas
Inland waterways linking the five seas

Today, the great canal system of Russia initiated by Peter forms a giant artery of commerce for the Soviet Union. The canals permit large ships to pass to and fro, up and down the rivers of Russia from the Black Sea and the Caspian to the White Sea and the Baltic. During the White Nights in Leningrad, one can sit on the Neva embankment and, after midnight, when the city’s bridges have gone up, watch a long procession of ocean-sized cargo ships pass like silent mammoths up the river, bound for the interior of Russia a thousand miles away.

Territorial expansion to Caspian Sea

With the signing of the Treaty of Nystad, Russia was finally at peace. Now, it seemed, the colossal energies which had been poured into military campaigns from Azov to Copenhagen could at last be turned toward Russia itself. Peter did not wish to be remembered in history as a conqueror or a warrior; he saw his place as a reformer. Yet, the celebrations in Saint Petersburg hailing the Peace of Nystad were still in progress when Peter ordered his army to prepare for a new campaign. The following spring, the army would march into the Caucasus against Persia. And, once again, the army would be personally led by the Emperor.

Frustrated in his hope of reaching India through Central Asia, Peter pressed ahead with his efforts to open the land route through Persia. One of the goals was petroleum in present-day Azerbaijan, which enriched Persia’s treasury. On the appearance, he was also anxious to persuade the Shah to divert the lucrative silk trade so that it should pass from Persia north into the Caucasus to Astrachan and thence along the Russian rivers to Saint Petersburg, rather than following its traditional route west from Persia through Turkey to the Mediterranean.

To seek this agreement, Peter appointed one of his most aggressive “fledglings,” Artemius Volynsky, a young nobleman who had served as a dragoon in the army and as a diplomatic assistant to Shafirov in negotiations with the Turks. Volynsky’s assignment, written in Peter’s own hand, was to study the “true state of the Persian empire, its forces, fortresses and limits.” He was to try especially to learn “whether there is not some river from India that flows into the Caspian Sea.” The Persians accurately saw in Volynsky the first tentative probe against Persia by the outreaching Russian Emperor. Accordingly, to prevent him from observing the general weakness and vulnerability of Persia, Volynsky was confined to his house. But they could not prevent the envoy from making a personal assessment when he was received at court.

Volynsky reported:

“… I am sure that it is rarely one can find such a fool, even among common men, not to say crowned heads. For this reason [the Shah] never does any business himself, but puts everything on his vizier, who is stupider than any cattle, but is still such a favorite that the Shah pays attention to everything that comes out of his mouth and does whatever he bids.”

Despite the restrictions placed on his movements, Volynsky managed to conclude a commercial treaty giving Russian merchants the right to trade and buy raw silk throughout Persia. He also saw enough to report to Peter that the state of decay in Persia was so far advanced that the Shah’s Caspian provinces must be ripe for plucking.

On his return, Volynsky was rewarded by appointment as Governor of Astrachan and Adjutant General of the Tsar. From Astrachan, Volynsky was tireless in urging that Peter seize the opportunity offered by the crumbling of the Persian empire. In addition to describing the prizes available to even a small army, he constantly warned that the Ottomans were advancing, and that if the Tsar did not take the Caucasus soon, Ottoman surely would do so.

Peter delayed until the war with Sweden was over. Then, at almost the moment the Treaty of Nystad was signed, an incident occurred which offered an excuse for intervention. A tribe of Caucasian mountaineers who had already proposed themselves as allies of Russia against the Persians decided not to wait and attacked the Persian trading center of Shemaha. At first, the Russian merchants in the town were unconcerned, having been promised that they and their shops and warehouses would not be touched. But the mountain tribesmen began looting indiscriminately, killing several Russians and carrying off half a million roubles’ worth of goods.

Volynsky immediately wrote to Peter that here was a perfect opportunity to move, on the grounds of protecting Russian trade and assisting the Shah to restore order in his dominions.

While Peter waited in Moscow for the coming of spring, further reports from Persia stimulated his anxiety. The Shah had been deposed in the face of an Afghan revolt; the new ruler was the Shah’s third son, Tahmasp Mirza, who was struggling against the Afghan leader Mahmud to keep his throne. The danger was that the Turks, who had clearly evident designs on the western Caucasus, might see the collapse of authority in Persia as an opportunity to seize the eastern Caucasus as well—and these provinces along the Caspian were precisely those which Peter had it in mind to pluck.

In Astrachan, Peter spent a month making final preparations for the campaign. An army of 61,000 men was assembling: including auxiliary forces of 20,000 Cossacks and 5,000 Kalmucks.

On 18 July 1722, Peter embarked with his wife, Catherine, and the Russian infantry at Astrachan and sailed 360 km down the west coast of the Caspian Sea, while the huge mass of cavalry was sent by land across the semi-desert Terek steppe.

Peter’s first important objective was Derbent, a town supposedly founded by Alexander the Great. Derbent’s significance was both commercial and military: It was an important trading center, and it also occupied a strategic position on the north-south road along the shore of the Caspian. It was here that the mountains came down closest to the sea; thus, the town situated in this narrow passage controlled all movement, military or commercial, to the north or south, and was called the Eastern Iron Gates. Derbent surrendered without a fight; indeed, as Peter approached, he found the governor waiting to present him “with the golden keys to the town and the citadel on a cushion of rich Persian brocade.”

Peter’s plan, now that Derbent was occupied, was on a typically grand scale. He meant to continue down the coast and seize Baku, 240 km to the south. Then, he intended to found a new commercial city still farther south, at the mouth of the Kura River, which would become an important center on his proposed new overland trade route between India, Persia and Russia.

Unfortunately, events were moving against him. The Persian governor of Baku refused to accept a Russian garrison, which meant that the city could be taken only by a major military effort. Although Peter’s army seemed sufficiently large to overcome any military opposition, he was worried about supplies.

Old view of Baku (Jean-Pierre Moynet, 1858)
Old view of Baku (Jean-Pierre Moynet, 1858)

A provisioning fleet from Astrachan had encountered a disastrous storm on the Caspian and never arrived at Derbent; supplies locally available were vanishing rapidly the longer the army stayed. Further, the August heat along the coast was taking a toll of men and horses. Soldiers had been eating the fruits and melons for which the Caucasus has always been famous, but in such quantities as to become sick, and many of the regiments were decimated. To cope with the sweltering heat, Peter had his head shaved and during the day wore a wide-brimmed hat over his naked skull. In the cool of the evening, he covered himself with a wig made from his own shorn hair.

More concerned than Peter about the suffering of his troops in this oppressive heat, the Empress even dared on one occasion to countermand his military orders. The Emperor had commanded the army to march and then retired to his tent to sleep. When he awoke, he found the soldiers still in camp. What general, he asked angrily, had dared to overrule his orders? “I did it,” said Catherine, “because your men would have died of heat and thirst.”

As he considered the situation of his army, Peter grew uneasy. He was a long way from the nearest Russian base at Astrachan, his seaborne supply line was not functioning, a number of potentially hostile tribesmen inhabited the mountains along his northern flank and there was always the danger that the Turks—who, unlike the Persians, constituted a serious military opponent—might march to protect their own interests in the Caucasus. Peter did not wish to repeat the experience on the Pruth. Thus, at a council of war, the decision was made to withdraw. A garrison was left behind at Derbent, and the main body of the army retreated north by land and water to Astrachan.

Peter reached the mouth of the Volga and Astrachan on 4 October 1722. Peter made it clear that, despite the abandonment of that summer’s campaign, he was not abandoning Russian ambitions on the Caspian Sea.

In November, he sent a combined naval and military expedition to capture the port of Resht (or Rasht, now in Iran), 800 km away on the south shore of the Caspian.

In July of the following summer, a Russian force captured Baku, thus securing the entire western coast of the great inland sea. Negotiations with the now helpless Shah resulted in Persia ceding Derbent to Russia along with three seaboard provinces of the eastern Caucasus. As Peter explained it to the Persian ambassador, if the Shah did not give up the provinces to Russia, which was his friend, then he would certainly lose them to Turkey, which was his enemy. The Shah was in no position to argue against this Russian logic.

The disintegration of the Persian empire and Peter’s military campaign along the Caspian Sea threatened once again to bring Russia into collision with the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan was quite willing that Peter take the Persian provinces on the Caspian side of the Caucasus, but he must not approach the Black Sea, which, since Azov had been returned to Turkey, was once again the Sultan’s private lake. Eventually, the Tsar and the Sultan amicably settled the matter by dividing up the Caucasus provinces of Persia. Inconveniently, the Persians did not accept this settlement, and continued intermittently fighting with both their powerful neighbors.

In 1732, Empress Anne, tired of the constant drain on her resources by these Caspian provinces (up to 15,000 Russian soldiers were dying every year of disease in the unfamiliar climate) and restored them to Persia.

It was not until the reign of Catherine the Great that the northern Caucasus was designated a Russian province, and not until 1813, in the time of Catherine’s grandson Alexander I, that Persia permanently ceded to Russia the coastal territories along the Caspian through which Peter the Great had marched on his final campaign. Thus fulfilled Peter’s dream.


Peter the Great’s fate was closely linked with the sea: he loved the sea all his life, and his death was related to the sea.

On 5 November, after inspecting the ironworks at Olonets and the work on the Ladoga Canal, Peter the Great returned to Petersburg, but decided almost immediately to travel by boat to visit another ironworks and armament factory at Systerbeck on the Gulf of Finland. The weather was typical of early winter in the North: gray skies, high winds and rough, icy seas. Beyond the mouth of the Neva, Peter’s yacht was approaching the fishing village of Lakhta when in the distance he saw a boat carrying twenty soldiers swept out of control by the wind and waves. As Peter watched, the boat was driven aground on a shoal. There, its keel stuck in the sand and the waves pounding its side, the little vessel began rolling back and forth, threatening to capsize. Those inside, obviously unable to swim, seemed incapable of doing anything to save themselves. Peter sent a skiff from his own yacht to assist, but his sailors were unable to refloat the grounded boat; the men inside, meanwhile, did little to help, being almost paralyzed by fear of drowning.

Watching impatiently, the Emperor ordered his own skiff to take him alongside the grounded boat. Unable to come close because of the waves, the Emperor suddenly jumped into the sea, plunging into the shallow icy water up to his waist and wading to the stranded boat. His arrival and presence galvanized the desperate men. Responding to his shouts, they caught lines thrown from the other boat, and, with the help of other sailors now in the water beside the Emperor, the stranded boat was pulled and dragged off the shoal. Blessing themselves for their salvation, the survivors were taken ashore to recover in the houses of the local fishermen.

Peter returned to his yacht to strip off his wet clothes and dress in something warm. At first, although he had been immersed in the icy water for a considerable time, it did not appear that this exposure had affected him. During the night, however, he came down with chills and fever, and within a few hours the pain in his intestine reappeared. From that moment on, the disease never relinquished its fatal grip.

At last, at six o’clock in the morning of 28 January 1725, Peter the Great, in the fifty-third year of his life and the forty-third year of his reign, entered eternity.

Significant milestones

1688. Peter discovered “The Grandfather of the Russian Navy”.

1689. For the first time in history, a boat of Dutch design was built in Russia, on the shore of Lake Pleschev. Eventually some 100 boats were built here.

1693. For the first time in history, a Russian tsar was on salt water, on the White Sea.

1694. For the first time in history, Russia had a sea-going fleet commanded by Russian admirals, departing from a Russian port and coming back to a Russian port.

1696. The Boyar Council voted to establish the Azov Fleet on 20 October 1696, the first fleet in history of the Russian Navy.

1697-1698. The Grand Embassy. Peter learned ship building. Russia purchased large amount of equipment, weapons, naval components, etc. More importantely, Russia recruited a large number of naval officers (including Read Admiral Cornelius Cruys) seamen, engineers, technicians, shipwrights, physicians and other specialists.

1698. The Admiralty was established. The first base for the Russian Navy was built at Taganrog, as a base of the Azov Fleet.

1699. For the first time in history, a Russian warship, bearing the banner of the Muscovite Tsar, was sailing alone and free on Ottoma private lake, the Black Sea.

1700. The Russians repulsed a Swedist fleet what attacked Arkhangelsk.

1701: The Naval Academy opened in Moskva. Sankt Peterbourg shipyard stared to operate.

1702. Russian infantry and navy occupied the fortress of Nöteborg, after that it was renamed Schlüsselburg.

1703. Launching of the first sea-going warship of the Baltic Fleet, the frigate Shtandart, commanded by Peter, to be used as a flagship of this fleet. The Baltic Fleet was established, Cornelius Cruys was its first commander. Russia had first naval victory against, however minor.

1704. The Kronshtadt Naval Base was built.

1706. The rank of admiral was officially was established.

1709. The Central Naval Museum was built.

1712. The galley shipyard was built. The first warship of the Baltic Fleet, the Pultowa¸was launched.

1714. Victory in the Battle of Gangut, with similar importance as the victory in the Battle of Poltava.

1715. The first Naval Hospital was established, in Saint Petersburg.

1716. The Naval Academy established in Saint Petersburg.

1720. The Battle of Grengam.

1721. Russia and Sweden signed the Nishtadt Peace Treaty. The treaty ratified Russian territory extending to the coast of Baltic Sea and essentially transforming Tzardom of Russia into Russian Empire.

Concluding remarks

Peter the Great created a navy from nothing, but it challenged and soon surpassed Sweden as the Baltic naval power, while in the Black Sea it became an essential tool in driving back the Ottoman Turks from the heartland of Europe. In battle it was surprisingly successful, and at times in the eighteenth century was the third largest navy in the world. By the second half of the 18th century, the Russian Navy had the fourth-largest fleet in the world after Great Britain, Spain and France.

Peter at a shipyard (Lemersoue 1709)

He was particularly interested in and even obsessed with the naval science. In 1697-1698 he not only studied shipbuilding in Amsterdam and Deptford but also worked on the shipyards to acquire and hone the practical skills for building his naval fleets. On coming back to Russia, he was at the head of the ship construction process for the Russian Navy as well as some sea fortresses. He took an active part in the formation of the merchant fleet and development of the navigation practice in Russia. More than 200 metallurgical enterprises opened during the reign of Peter the Great, made Russia the world’s leader in cast-iron melting, which helped meet the demands of the growing industry, army and fleet.

Peter the Great is an outstanding statesman, political and military figure, commander and skilful diplomat; the founder of the Russian Regular Army and Navy. Peter the Great went down in the Russian history as an outstanding statesman and military leader, who was able to feel and understand all the developmental tasks and needs that Russia faced at that time, and greatly contributed to Russia becoming a great power.

References and Bibiography

Gale, G. et al. (2005). “Leibniz, Peter the Great and the modernization of Russia”. Divinadio, 22 (autumn-winter).

Mir-Babayev, M.Y (2017). Peter the Great and Baku oil.

Encyclopedia Britannica. The reign of Peter I (the Great; 1689–1725).

Grey, I. (1960). Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia. J. B.Lippincott Company, Philadelphia & New York.

Kalinin, M. (no date). Peter the Great.

Karabell, S. (2017). Leadership in Russia: The Legacy of Peter the Great.

Massie, R.K. (1980). Peter the Great – His life and world. History Book Club, New York.

Matveichuk, A. (2010). Peter the Great’s plans for russian oil.

Nikiforov, L.A. (2018). Peter I , Emperor of Russia – Encyclopedia Britannica.

Trueman C N (2018). Peter the Great – Military Reforms.

Wikipedia. Peter the Great

Wikipedia. Russo-Persian War (1722–1723).

Wikipedia. Siege of Nöteborg (1702).

Compiled by Diệp Minh Tâm

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