Feb 262012

(Lecture given by Dr Bruce Holl)
The First Romanovs (1613-1689)
– The Tsars of this period are of less interest than their followers
– There was during this period an increasing interest in things western, or in other words, a nascent interest in precisely the things that would obsess Peter I
– This was also the period of the development of a lower level aristocracy (as distinct from the old Boyars), often called in English as in Russian the Dvorianstvo, consisting of government officials who were awarded noble status for services rendered, and small-scale landowners
-Peter I “The Great” (Born 1672; Reigned 1689-1725)

  • Peter is known chiefly for the introduction of western technology, customs and culture to Russia
  • Thus he engendered the bi-polar controversy of The Westernizers vs. The Slavophiles
  • He forced certain customs on the nobles, such as the famous beard edict (requiring them to shave their long beards or pay a tax), western clothing, and also the custom of attending state functions with one’s wife
  • He established the modern Russian alphabet
  • Established (in a small way) printing presses
  • The first Russian newspaper was founded during his reign [Vedomosti, 1702]
  • Many of the first Russian theaters were developed during Peter’s reign and at his behest
  • Peter constructed a fleet using western technology and organization
  • He strengthened the military
  • He instituted a draft
  • He instituted promotion through merit
  • He embarked on territorial expansion through military campaigns
  • Such campaigns were almost constant during his reign
  • Peter invited western scholars, especially in the areas of the physical sciences, to come and teach in Russia
  • He founded the first institutions of higher learning in Russia [Petersburg Academy 1724]
  • He insisted that all noblemen serve the state in either the military, judicial or civil service and instituted a series of 14 ranks for each branch
  • He made it easier to become a noble through service
  • He founded the Senate, an advisory council
  • He founded the “Colleges,” forerunners of ministries
  • He weakened the power of the Orthodox church
  • Finally, he founded the city of Saint Petersburg in 1703. St. Petersburg was to be Russia’s new, modern, European Russian capital, city of tremendous western-style architecture, birthplace of modern Russian poetry and art, but constructed on a swamp in an area that regularly experiences floods


Personal Attributes & Peculiarities include:

  • Size and strength: David P. Willoughby [The Super-Athletes, London, 1970] writes: “When he reached maturity he stood 6 feet 8½ inches in height, and was so strong that he could break silver coins with his fingers” (p. 37)
  • He was noted for his constant love affairs and heavy drinking
  • He had a violent temper, manifested in cruel treatment of enemies and opponents
  • He loved physically unusual people, whom he “collected” – including a small African boy, one of two brought to him by his emissaries, who became the great-grandfather of Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)
  • Peter was interested in medicine – attended autopsies & dissections, treated himself (which may have hastened his death)
  • He traveled and lived incognito in western Europe, once (according to legend) enlisting in the German army after a night of drinking
  • He served during campaigns, especially early on, as non-commissioned artillerist, after he had disposed his troops and the battle had begun


The founding of Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703 on the site of a Swedish fortress. Since the 1580s, this area had been Swedish Ingria, a dominion of the Swedish Empire.

Sweden’s interest of the territory was strategic: as a buffer zone against Russian attacks on theKarelian Isthmus and present-day Finland; and Russian trade was to pass through Swedish territory. In addition, Ingria became the destination for Swedish deportees.

Swedish attempts to introduce Lutheranism were met with resistance by the Orthodox peasantry obliged to attend Lutheran services; converts were promised grants and tax reductions, but Lutheran gains were most of all due to voluntary resettlements from Savonia and Karelia.

In 1703, Peter took both the Swedish fortress of Nyenskans and the city of Nyen, on the Neva river, essentially reconquering Swedish Ingria.

Peter himself chose the site of the Saint Petersburg, laying the foundation stone for the Peter Paul Fortress and the city at its walls in May 1703. Building the fortress was a strategic decision as it provided a highly defensible stronghold while the war with Sweden continued.

This did not prevent Peter from beginning the planning and building of Saint Petersburg. The marshland was drained and the city spread outward from the fortress under the supervision of German and Dutch engineers whom Peter had invited to Russia. Peter restricted the construction of stone buildings in all of Russia outside St Petersburg so that all stonemasons would come to help build the new city. The building was done under adverse weather and in harsh conditions, and at the cost of a high mortality rate of the construction workers (constricted peasants, convicts, and prisoners of war).

In spite of the architectural planning and engineering, Saint Petersburg would continue to be subject to floods.

I would become known as the “Northern Venice” for its multiple canals and rivers. Initially, there were only 12 permanent bridges in Saint Petersburg. Boats were used to cross the Bolshaya Neva in the summer, and a pontoon brigde was also build then. In the winter, when the waterways were frozen over, they became reliable roadways for sleighs and pedestrians.

At the behest of the Tsar, houses in Petersburg were built in the European manner along the “red line” (that is, the curb or sidewalk) without traditional, pre-Petrine gardens fronting the houses.

Peter I also inogurated the “necklace” of palatial residences which now surround St. Petersburg. The Tsar founded the magnificent architectural ensemble at Peterhof, whose palaces and fountains were supposed to outshine Versailles. Peter gave his wife an old Swedish manor with hunting grounds, which was later transformed into the luxurious Tsarskoye Selo.

To highlight just how deeply Peter the Great’s reforms influenced Russian traditions, let’s point out that he was the one to introduce the Christmas Tree to Russia (in imitation of the German tradition) and the celebration of the New Year. Before that, the New Year was not a significant holiday, and was marked on September 1, when the Church cycle of feasts and fasts began.

Peter hired a large number of engineers, architects, shipbuilders, scientists and businessmen from all countries of Europe to come to Saint Petersburg. Substantial immigration of educated professionals eventually turned St. Petersburg into a much more cosmopolitan city than Moscow and the rest of Russia. Peter moved the capital to St. Petersburg from Moscow in 1712, nine years before the Treaty of Nystad officially ratified the Russian possession of the land and ended the Swedish domination of the Baltic area.

Peter’s efforts to push for modernisation in Moscow and the rest of Russia were misunderstood by the old-fashioned Russian nobility, causing a rift which would lead to multiple instances of unrest and rebellion, beginning with attempts on Peter’s on life.

Furthermore, this led to the everlasting conflict between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers.

The shift from Moscow to Saint Petersburg was also a shift in architectural trends from traditional Russian forms and structures to Western European designs and aspirations. The aristocracy and wealthy classes built new houses and bought new furniture, and progressively transformed themselves from the Muscovite Russian look to a “modern” European style.

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