Peter the Great Tours Western Europe Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Peter the Great made a trip to Western Europe incognito, the first Russian monarch to leave Russia since the tenth century. His exposure to Western technologies led him to selectively modernize Russia, and he returned with hundreds of European artisans, shipbuilders, and other skilled professionals.

Summary of Event

Born to Czar Alexis by his second wife Natalya Naryshkina in 1672, Peter was three years old when his father died. The death of his elder half brother Fyodor III Fyodor III[Fyodor 03] in 1682 brought Peter and his weak half brother Ivan Ivan V[Ivan 05] to the throne as joint heirs. However, for seven years his elder half sister Sophia Sophia actually ruled Russia. During this time Peter taught himself tactics, sailing, and mathematics, and foreign friends introduced him to Western ideas. In 1689, Peter confined Sophia in a convent and asserted his personal rule. Ivan V’s death in 1696 gave him undisputed sovereignty, and he decided to experience Western Europe himself. [kw]Peter the Great Tours Western Europe (Mar. 9, 1697-Aug. 25, 1698) [kw]Europe, Peter the Great Tours Western (Mar. 9, 1697-Aug. 25, 1698) [kw]Western Europe, Peter the Great Tours (Mar. 9, 1697-Aug. 25, 1698) Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 9, 1697-Aug. 25, 1698: Peter the Great Tours Western Europe[3060] Social issues and reform;Mar. 9, 1697-Aug. 25, 1698: Peter the Great Tours Western Europe[3060] Cultural and intellectual history;Mar. 9, 1697-Aug. 25, 1698: Peter the Great Tours Western Europe[3060] Europe;Mar. 9, 1697-Aug. 25, 1698: Peter the Great Tours Western Europe[3060] Russia;Mar. 9, 1697-Aug. 25, 1698: Peter the Great Tours Western Europe[3060] Peter the Great Grand Embassy Peter the Great Lefort, François William III of Orange

In March of 1697, Peter left Russia with an entourage of about 250 individuals. Choosing to travel incognito, he took the name Peter Mikhailov. The Grand Embassy, as the tour was called, was led by his friend and mentor General-Admiral François Lefort Lefort, François along with two professional diplomats. Peter’s companions were ordered to not treat him as the czar nor to admit that the czar was part of the embassy; to do so would mean punishment by death. These efforts were fruitless, however. In an age when the average man was about five feet, six inches tall, it was well known that the czar was a six-foot-seven-inch “giant.” Traveling as Peter Mikhailov gave Peter the Great more freedom to do as he wished, including avoiding many of the ceremonial functions he disliked, but his size and abrupt mannerisms meant that he was noticed, stared at, and followed, circumstances which at times annoyed and even enraged him.

Peter the Great's trip to Western Europe included a much-anticipated visit to Holland in the Dutch Republic to learn the art of shipbuilding.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

After leaving Russia, the Grand Embassy passed through Riga in Swedish Livonia, the duchy of Courland, the cities of Königsberg and Berlin, and the electorate of Hanover. Though well received and lavishly entertained along the way, Peter was anxious to reach Holland, which was among the most prosperous states in Europe and which had the second largest navy in the world. Seafaring was one of Peter’s passions, so at the Zaandam shipyards, and later in Amsterdam, he took the role of a carpenter and forced some of his companions to work as well. Even though he was able to speak Dutch, his tenure as a workman in Zaandam was brief, partly because of the relentless crowds that followed him everywhere.

In Amsterdam, efforts were made to shield Peter from gatherings of the curious. He visited military, educational, and commercial sites and was able to recruit several hundred specialists for the Russian military. He also met the European ruler he most admired, Stadtholder William William III (king of England)[William 03 (king of England)];Peter the Great and of Orange (William III), who happened to be in Holland, which he much preferred to his English kingdom.

After nearly five months in Holland, Peter crossed to England in January of 1698 with a few companions, leaving most of the embassy with Lefort and the ambassadors, who were negotiating a treaty with the Dutch. While in London, Peter visited Parliament and the Royal Society and was entertained by King William III and various members of the nobility. His natural curiosity led him to become interested in the Society of Friends, or Quakers. He met William Penn, Penn, William with whom he conversed in Dutch, and attended several Quaker meetings. Peter also received a delegation of Anglican clergy, who tried, unsuccessfully, to convert him, and visited the University of Oxford and admired its Bodlean Library.

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Peter disliked London’s crowds and was intensely interested in shipbuilding, so he was loaned an elegant townhouse, which belonged to the noted English author John Evelyn, Evelyn, John near the Deptford shipyards. Unfortunately, Peter and his comrades had no appreciation for Evelyn’s elegant townhome. They destroyed the house’s interior, breaking windows, burning the furniture, and tearing up Evelyn’s prized garden, obliging William III’s government to later reimburse Evelyn for his losses. Such raucous behavior, coupled with the Russians’ wild drinking bouts, confirmed the belief of many that Peter and his companions were brutes and savages.

As a young man, Peter had learned to smoke tobacco, despite the disapproval of the Orthodox Church. While in England, he negotiated a contract for Britain to sell tobacco in Russia. His new friend, a ship designer and drinking companion, paid to facilitate the monopoly, and British merchants were delighted at this new market. The mounting costs of the Grand Embassy were somewhat alleviated by this transaction.

In May of 1698, Peter left London in a twenty-gun yacht presented to him by William, and he returned to Amsterdam to rejoin the members of the embassy who had waited for him there. The party then traveled to Leipzig, Dresden, and Prague. During a two weeks’ stay in Vienna, Peter met with Emperor Leopold I Leopold I (Holy Roman Emperor)[Leopold 01 (Holy Roman Emperor)] , but while feted by the Austrian court was unable to achieve his objective: Austria’s promise to continue its campaign against the Turks. Instead, the Austrians were preparing to make peace. Frustrated by this, Peter prepared to go to Venice. However, in July, he learned that four regiments of the streltsy, the conservative, volatile Kremlin guards, had revolted and proclaimed his eight-year-old son Alexis czar. Abruptly, he jettisoned his remaining itinerary and returned to Moscow.

Shortly after arriving in Moscow in August, Peter brutally ended the revolt and personally executed some of the rebels. Distrust of the West among the nobles and the serfs ran deep in Russia. As the effects of Peter’s reforms extended into all segments of society, rumors persisted that the true czar had died somewhere in Europe and that the man who came back to Russia was an imposter, if not the Antichrist. Peter ignored but sometimes crushed all forms of opposition, and he then continued through sheer strength of will to turn Russia into a modern militaristic state.

Significance

Peter the Great’s tour of Western Europe, the first by a Russian sovereign since the tenth century trip to Constantinople by the princess of Rus, Saint Olga, was abruptly terminated by the streltsy revolt, but still, he was able to return to Russia with a wealth of knowledge and hundreds of professional workers. He modernized the Russian army and navy and built weapons’ factories. He decreed compulsory education for children of the nobility and altered the nobility’s social customs. Men, for example, had to cut their beards (symbols of male salvation) and dress in Western style, and women and girls had to give up their traditional seclusion and learn to dance, gamble, and live like Western European women.

Of the places he visited, Peter preferred Holland and England for their naval superiority and mastery of commercial matters. The informality of English and Dutch society pleased him as well, as it helped him put aside the constraints of monarchy and associate with men of all ranks, whose technical expertise he valued. When he began to build his new capital, St. Petersburg, in 1703, it was modeled on the city of Amsterdam.

Despite Peter’s efforts, however, the westernization of Russia was somewhat of a veneer; the lives of the upper classes were profoundly and positively changed by his edicts, but the majority of Russia’s population—the serfs—experienced few benefits from his reforms. Practically, Peter’s trip officially introduced Western Europe to Russia.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cracraft, James. The Petrine Revolution in Russian Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2004. An extensive study of more than 500 pages of Peter and his transformation of Russian’s traditional lifestyles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Jonge, Alex. Fire and Water: A Life of Peter the Great. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980. A concise biography, offering a good introduction to Peter’s life and reign for general readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Lindsey. Peter the Great: A Biography. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. Among the better studies of Peter, this work reflects updated scholarship on the enigmatic czar and his ties to the people whom he governed with an iron hand.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Massie, Robert K. Peter the Great: His Life and World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. This book of more than 900 pages is detailed and vividly written. It explores not only Peter and Russia but also his European contemporaries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Piotrowski, Harry. “Peter the Great.” In Great Leaders, Great Tyrants: Contemporary Views of World Leaders Who Made History, edited by Arnold Blumberg. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. A succinct comparison of the positive and negative aspects of Peter’s rule.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. The Image of Peter the Great in Russian History and Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. This work examines the changing image of Peter as a symbolic and mythical personality represented in eighteenth through twentieth century history and thought.

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Related articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Alexis; John Evelyn; Leopold I; William III. Peter the Great Grand Embassy

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