Saturday, December 14, 2013

Peter the Great of Russia

Fig.1: The greatest thing about Peter the Great is that 
Johnny Depp could easily play him in a bio-pic.
Every country has a polarizing figure who transforms a nation's fortunes by saying, "And now for something completely different!" In Russia, that figure would be Peter the Great (fig.1). In some ways, he continued Russia's normal routine of expanding their landmass at the expense of ethnic groups who had at least forty different words for "snow." He even waged war against the powers of Sweden and Ottoman Turkey for seaports that weren't clogged with ice all the time, something all Russian sailors and synchronized swimmers could get behind. But Peter becomes controversial because he often looked to that dastardly West for inspiration on how to rule and, even more alarmingly, how his people should act. His obsession for the ways and customs of places like England, France, and Germany frightened his stoically conservative citizens who had been wearing their babushkas the same way forever! While Peter is still considered "Great," many Russians can't help but say that word in the same manner as, "Great, my frostbitten picky toe needs to be amputated!"

Peter's ascension to the throne wasn't assured upon his birth in 1672, but luckily he had a little help from a friend called genetics. The three most eligible heirs of Peter's father, Tsar Alexei, all had issues: Fyodor was physically disabled, Ivan was both physically and mentally disabled, and Sofia had the biggest disability of them all in 17th century Russia: she had lady parts. Feodor III did succeed his father in 1676, but just had to die six years later. Many nobles were tempted to place ten-year-old Peter on the throne, but the military made a big stink about it (they have managed to have a say in everything Russian since Russia), and they decided to make both Ivan V and Peter co-tsars under the regency of their sister Sofia. She used this unprecedented power given to a female to get all controlling and manipulative, and wouldn't approve any decision, from the agreements the tsars made with diplomats to their need for an air hockey table in the throne room, without her absolute say-so (women... Amiright, fellas?). This went on until 1689 when Peter, now at the edge of seventeen, did everyone a favor and forced Sofia into a convent where she could nag the Lord above all she wanted. Russia vowed to never give someone of the female persuasion so much power ever again (spoiler alert: they actually would, but it worked out a lot better).

Fig.2: Add some comic relief characters and a 
monkey, and you've got the theatrical poster 
for Pirates V!
Ivan V died in 1696, allowing Peter to become the one and only Tsar of All Russia. His first order of business was to try to gain an outlet to the sea; as the profitable empires of England, Spain, and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies proved, becoming a maritime power was the key to economic success. He looked south and decided to take on that dang-blasted Ottoman Empire for control of vital ports along the Black Sea. He created the Imperial Russian Navy, and sent ships to capture the obviously Russian-sounding fortress at Azov (fig.2). It took a few tries for the navy to get the hang of destroying the enemy ships instead of watching the dolphins frolicking in the waves, but eventually they were able to focus and take the Turkish port that summer.

Obviously, the Ottomans were none too pleased about this, and Peter knew Russia would have a tough time taking on the Turks all by his lonesome. So he embarked on a year-long journey throughout Europe, going door-to-door to his fellow monarchs to ask them to sign his Anti-Ottoman petition, and to boost his daughter's Girl Scout Cookie sales as well. Peter made many friends throughout the West, especially King William III of England, with whom he had a sleepover and played Sega Genesis until sunrise. Unfortunately, no one was willing to help in the fight against the Ottomans; the days of crusading against the Muslims had ended about the hundred years prior, as Europeans found that it was easier (and thus, much more fun) to convert and/or kill the indigenous peoples of the Americas instead.

Fig.3: Russian nobles don't look half-bad all cleaned up.
But the trip wasn't a total loss, at least not in Peter's eyes. He was given the opportunity to work incognito in shipyards belonging to the Dutch East India Company in the Nether-regions, where he gained valuable insight on shipbuilding, naval tactics, and hocking loogies off the poop deck, which was successfully transferred to Russia's brand new navy. He also observed many Western customs that he deemed superior to the Russian traditions of the day. Upon his return, he ordered the Russian nobility (called boyars) to stop wearing robes and beards like that creepy, unemployed, soap-opera watching neighbor we all have, forcing them to adopt the trimmed, sharp-dressed-man look preferred elsewhere in Europe (fig.3). To reinforce the issue, Peter issued a tax that charged each bearded man one hundred rubles, plus an additional ruble for every time his wife complained about his scratchy face. Increased trade with the West encouraged many Russians to adopt French and English fashion, including that big hair look that became the cause of many lost keys back in those days. Most of the boyars shook their heads at what they saw as the dismantling of their culture, but it was too late. Once the ball of Westernization starts rolling, it's only a matter of time before your language comes up with a way to say "Биг Мак."

In order for Peter to keep ties open with his bros to the west, he knew he needed another seaport to set up his extensive communication system of cup-and-string. Unfortunately those water hogs in Sweden wouldn't let anyone else play in the Baltic Sea; King Charles XII even encouraged his subjects to relieve themselves in the waves, just to mark their territory. Russia teamed up with Poland and Denmark to invade Swedish territory in 1700, beginning the Great Northern War (so named because it was sponsored by the Great Northern Popcorn Company). Things didn't start out too great for the allies: Russia suffered a large defeat at the Battle of Narva, the Swedes counter-invaded Poland and removed their king from the throne, and the Danish siege equipment made out of Legos was not nearly as effective as it was colorful and child-friendly.

But Peter was persistent, and his army captured a Swedish fort on the Baltic in 1703. On this site, he commissioned his new city of St. Petersburg, which was totally not named for himself. No one is that narcissistic. (*cough* Constantine *cough*) Anyway, despite reports that St. Petersburg is gloomy and bleak, it became a thriving seaport that only increased in prosperity once Peter moved the capital there in 1712. Built in a baroque architectural style popular in Western Europe, Peter wished for his new city to rival those of Paris, London, and Vienna in terms of culture, prestige, and oversized rats feeding on the rampant waste of the population (which is the true measure of wealth in a city). The longterm survival of St. Petersburg was assured after the Russian victory over the Swedish at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, forcing Charles XII to flee to the Ottomans all whiny and teary-eyed. Thus began Russia's unashamed dominance of Eastern Europe.

Fig.4: Contrary to popular belief, the Winter Palace is located in St. Petersburg, not in Narnia.
Peter's reign reached its peak when he was elevated from the rank of Tsar to Emperor in 1721, allowing him to use the gold-plated toilet in the royal restroom instead of that trashy silver one. Alas, like many other "the Greats" in history, Peter was unable to produce a worthy heir to continue his success.  Out of his eight sons (three of which named also named Peter, but like the city, totally not after himself), only one lived past the age of four. Unfortunately, that one, Alexei, was from Peter's failed first marriage, and the boy had been raised by his mother, as well as some begrudgingly beardless boyars, to hate his father with a passion and make faces at him when his back was turned. Peter never appreciated his son's attitude, and the final straw came in 1716 when Alexei decided to take his spring break in the Italian party town of Naples, instead of joining his father on the battlefield. Upon Alexei's return to Russia, he was tortured until he confessed to plotting against the Tsar, and died of his injures before being sentenced to death for treason. Remember that the next time you take your father's car out on a joyride without asking!

Fig.5: Even on his 
deathbed, Peter still 
looks Great!
Peter died in 1725, after over forty years on the throne. He was succeeded by his second wife, Catherine, who became the first undisputed female ruler of Russia. Peter's achievements have lasted to the present day, with Russia retaining the power in Eastern Europe, St. Petersburg still a vital seaport, and Russian men only wearing robes on their days off while making vodka in their bathtubs. However, with Russia's inherent sneer towards all things Western, Peter's obsession with Eurocentrism still induces many tsk tsks among the public. In Soviet Russia (where cold catches you! What a county!), St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad firstly to scorn that Western-leaning tsar, and secondly to honor Communist thinker and prolific songwriter, Vladimir Lenin (known as John Lennon in the West). The original name returned after the thaw of Communism in the region, but Peter's legacy remains frozen in the eyes of some Russian scholars, who prefer cranky tsars like Ivan the Terrible as the ideal ruler. But what do you really expect from a nation that continuously elects a man who hugs polar bars and goes on shirtless horseback rides in Siberia?

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