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Great Northern War #11 Seminal Moment

King Charles XII of Sweden

Charles XII – King of Sweden during the Great Northern War

The Great Northern War was an important turning point in Russian history. While many do not consider it a very seminal or nexus point in the country’s history, I am of a very different opinion. If just a few things go wrong for Peter the Great, Russia would have been a whole different country today.

Sweden in the late-1600’s and early 1700’s was one of the most powerful countries militarily in all of Europe. After Peter I took control of the Russian throne in 1689, he decided that the Russian army needed serious upgrading and westernization. He understood that there were many enemies out there who would love to take control of the vast resources found in Russia. Many in Europe viewed the country as a backwater Oriental weakling. Peter saw this and made preparations for war which was to be part of Russian life for almost his entire reign.

The Great Northern War saw its beginnings in 1700 with the alliance of Denmark–NorwaySaxony and Russia. They were up against the young Charles XII of Sweden and his allies which included the Ottoman EmpireHolstein–GottorpPolish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and with some back and forth allegiance, the Cossack Hetmanate.

Early on in the war, the Russian’s and their allies underestimated Charles who was a mere 18 years of age when the Great Northern War began. He crushed the Danes and Norwegians along with Saxony early on leaving only Russia left to defeat. When he started his war with Russia, Charles XII had already given Peter I a crushing defeat at the First Battle of Narva. Luckily for Peter, Charles decided against pressing on instead heading south to knock out Poland. Peter now had time to regroup and rebuild his army. He learned from his prior mistakes and made sure he would never let Charles beat him like that again.

At home, Peter I was deeply unpopular among the conservatives throughout the country. From the boyar class down to the lowly peasant, his westernization program was met with disdain and hatred. In 1707, it reached a boiling point with the Bulavin Rebellion (which will have a podcast episode coming up on September 8th, 2013). With Peter off fighting with Charles XII in the Great Northern War, the rebellion was difficult to control. It is here we come up with a nexus moment that is found throughout history.

Charles had begun his invasion of Russia with a goal of taking Moscow in 1707. Strangely enough, Bulavin never made a connection with Charles and his invading army or the Ottoman Empire which would have loved to get back at Peter. There is very strong evidence that had these groups hooked up, Peter would have been in deep trouble.

The big seminal moment of course comes during the Battle of Poltava in 1709. Had Peter lost this battle, his hold on Russia would have been very tenuous. The Great Northern War became a win for Peter and allowed him to deal with internal issues. Unfortunately for the peasant class, the way Peter dealt with things was to become more oppressive.

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Peter I – #2 Best Russian Ruler

Peter I

Tsar Peter The Great

Peter I, better known to the world as Peter the Great, thrust Russia onto the world stage by westernizing it despite bitter opposition from both the boyars and the population at large. His immense personality and 6′ 8″ stature was an imposing figure over the vast Russian Empire, an empire he helped create. Peter I guided Russia towards Europe and away from its Oriental past. He also set the stage for Catherine the Great, Alexander I and II who were to take their country to its pinnacle.

Peter does not go without some major criticisms, issues that keep him from being my selection as the best ruler of all time. The large number of deaths that he caused with the building of St. Petersburg comes to mind. His parenting of his son, Alexei, who was to be his heir, was dismal. His son died in prison, having been convicted of trying to overthrow his father. Because of this, he threw the issue of succession into a gray area. This problem was “solved” by Paul I in a way that helped cause the demise of the Romanov dynasty under Nicholas II.

Even with these not so small issues, Peter, according to historian James Cracraft, led a cultural revolution that replaced the traditionalist and medieval social and political system with a modern, scientificEurope-oriented, and rationalist system.

His victories over Charles XII in the Great Northern War put Russia into the forefront as a global power. That and the numerous reforms to the government and to society, with the Table of Ranks being one of his major accomplishments. When Peter died on February 8, 1725, he had ruled Russia either alone, or with his half brother and sister Ivan and Sofia for forty two years. His mark on Russia continues to this day and has influenced all of the rulers of Russia after him.

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Catherine II – #4 Best Russian Ruler

Catherine II

Catherine posing for the painter Rokotov.

Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great makes it to #4 on my list as best Russian ruler. Born in 1729 in Stettin, Prussia as Sophia Augusta Fredricka, she was betrothed to the orphaned grandson of Peter the Great whom she married in 1745. This loveless marriage was to produce one son, likely not her husband’s, a boy who would become Paul I. The one most associated with fathering Paul was Sergei Saltykov.

Her early years in the court of Empress Elizabeth were difficult. The empress was a controlling women who had little tolerance for independent thinkers such as Catherine. She wrote a autobiography of the times in the court of Elizabeth which showed how isolated she felt.

When Elizabeth died, Catherine’s husband, now known as Peter III, assumed the throne. He proved to be extremely unpopular in the court as he ended the war with Prussia and immediately declared was on Denmark. To make things worse, he alienated the house guard units and the influential Russian Orthodox Church. There was one issue that made Catherine nervous and that was the very real threat of her being divorced and sent to a convent as he had taken and flaunted his mistress Yekaterina Dashkova.

On July 9, 1762, Peter III was deposed and strangled to death. Some believe Catherine was in on the murder but that is highly unlikely. The new empress was crowned on October 3rd of the same year and quickly consolidated her power. She quickly began to focus the early years of her reign on the promotion of administrative efficiency and expansion of educational opportunities. Catherine was also a patron of the arts as seen by her founding of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Her international flair culminated in the victorious Russo-Turkish which was somewhat tarnished by a domestic rebellion. Emelian Pugachev led thousands of disgruntled Cossacks and serfs in 1773-75. The city of Kazan was burned by the rebels but their army was eventually brutally quashed by the Russian army.

She did much to raise the world’s image of Russia and greatly improved the administration of local laws and taxes within the country. While she has numerous flaws, overall Catherine made Russia a better place than she left it. Unfortunately, her son Paul I, would unravel much of her work and put the Romanov dynasty on a death spiral that would culminate with the abdication of Nicholas II in 1917.

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Elizabeth I – #7 Best Russian Ruler


Elizabeth I of Russia

Portrait of Elizabeth I of Russia

Elizabeth I (Episodes 40 & 41), daughter of Peter the Great and his wife Catherine I, was one of the most liked of the Russian Tsar’s because of her refusal to execute anyone during her reign. She also led Russia through two of Europe’s most important conflicts, the War of Austrian Succession (1740–8) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Elizabeth spent huge sums of money on  The Winter Palace and the Smolny Cathedral which are some of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

She was born on December 29, 1709 to Peter the Great and his wife Catherine but their marriage was not announced until 1712. This caused Elizabeth’s enemies to later use this issue to claim that she was illegitimate. Her father’s intention was to have her marry young Louis XV of France but they declined as they felt that her mother’s low birth status was below them. Her eventual betrothal was to one Prince Karl Augustus of Holstein-Gottorp, son of Christian Augustus, Prince of Eutin. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Prince Karl died a few days after the betrothal.

When Peter II came to power in 1727, Elizabeth was banished from the court. Peter, the grandson of Peter the Great was controlled by the old boyar family the Dolgorukii’s who despise Peter the Great’s reforms. When Tsarina Anna took control, she was still not allowed to take part in the court. Her anger stewed in her but there was little she could do. If she married below her status, she would lose everything. But, much to her chagrin, no noble family would approach her as she had no standing at the Russian court. Because of this, she was said to have had numerous affairs with commoners over the years.

When she finally deposed Ivan VI in 1742 and had him locked up, with the help of the  Preobrazhensky Regiment, she asked them, “”Who do you want to serve? Me, the natural sovereign, or those who have stolen my inheritance?” Elizabeth decided right away to clean up the corruption and get rid of the German advisers that many in the Russian hierarchy despised.

She then began to rule her country by starting with the signing the Treaty of Åbo, which arch enemy Sweden which ceded much of Finland to the Russian empire. Elizabeth was smart to surround herself with brilliant advisers, none more so than Aleksey Petrovich Bestuzhev-Ryumin. His deftness in foreign negotiations were important factors in helping Russia expand its borders.

Her handling of the major European conflict, the Seven Years War helped elevate Russia in the eyes of Europe. The main reason for Elizabeth’s intervention in the war was her deep dislike for the Prussian ruler, Frederick the Great. She would have succeeded in crushing him except that she died before she was able to complete the job.

During her reign she had to come up with an heir to her throne as she was childless. Her selection was Peter of Holstein-Gottorp her nephew. Next up was the choice of a bride which was settled on when Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst was selected and given the Russian name of Catherine in honor of Elizabeth’s mother. The child the two supposedly had would be known as Paul and will come up in the future as one of the worst rulers of Russia.

When Elizabeth died in December of 1761 (Old Calender), Russia had expanded greatly and had taken center stage in European politics. Her refusal to execute anyone led her to be loved by the people. While extravagant in her personal life, she did expand support for the arts and was one of the most prolific of the rulers in the building of churches.


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Winter Palace Catches Fire

Winter Palace Fire

The fire at the Winter Palace in 1837

On December 17, 1837, the Winter Palace caught on fire. The official home of the Tsar’s of Russia, it was first built starting in 1711 commissioned by Tsar Peter the Great. The first Winter Palace was designed by Domenico Trezzini, a Swiss-Italian architect. Trezzini’s most famous work that still stands today is the Peter and Paul Cathedral.

Peter I, as he was want to be, soon grew tired of the building and commissioned a second one to be built. This time he switched architects to Georg Mattarnovy. It was in this version of the Winter Palace that Peter was to die in 1725.

Peter II, decided in 1727 to redo the building his grandfather had begun. This time he brought back Trezzini who decided to make it a far grander palace. The third version of the Winter Palace was completed in 1728 but Peter decided to move the court to Moscow. With his death in 1730, Anna I decided to move the court back to St. Petersburg. She wanted a more grandiose palace so she called in  Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli to make it so.

It was under Elizabeth I that the palace really took shape. At a cost of over 2.5 million rubles, it was truly spectacular. But under Catherine the Great, things really became extravagant. Incredible art pieces were installed throughout. The Hermitage was built adjacent to the Winter Palace by Catherine in 1764 to hold the overflow of art.

More art poured into the Winter Palace after taking many masterpieces from Napoleon’s ex-wife Josephine. Alexander I and Nicholas I continued to upgrade things with the latter being responsible for the rebuilding after the fire in 1837. It now contains 1,500 rooms, 1,786 doors and 1,945 windows which is staggering to say the least.

Because of its size, after the assassination of Alexander II, it was deemed to be too big to protect the last two Tsar’s. The the Palace of Gatchina was now the primary home, some 40 miles from St. Petersburg. Nicholas II decided that this didn’t suit him and his family and moved them to  Tsarskoe Selo.

Under Soviet and current rule, the Winter Palace is part of the overall Hermitage museum. It attracts over 3.5 million visitors each year. It is a marker for the decadence of the Russian Tsar’s and a monument to incredible art. Hopefully, in the not to distant future I will be able to visit the Winter Palace which I understand was not very far from where my ancestors lived.

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Persian Interactions with Russia

One of the greatest praises one can get is when someone takes your idea and runs with it. Mike Rakshan did just that with his new podcast, The History of Persia. His obvious passion for the subject is likely due to his being of Persian descent like mine being because of my Russian descent. You can tell in his voice that this is a project that comes from the heart which makes it a great listen. Also, thanks for the shout out at the beginning of the podcast. Much appreciated.

Interactions between Russia and the Persian’s (present day Iran) have persisted from the time that people inhabited the land of the Rus until present day. Through Persia the Russians were exposed to the religion of Islam and it is thought that Persian emissaries came to the court of Vladimir the Great to present their religion to him although some believe it was Bulgarian Muslim’s who made the presentation.

Persian merchants were major trading partners with the Kievan Rus back in the late 10th and early 11th century. While Constantinople was the biggest partner, Persians were not far behind. Through the time of the Samanid dynasty 819 – 999, Ghaznavids 963–1186 and the shared invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century trading continued.

Now under the thumb of the different Mongol Hordes, there was still some trade going on but because of how devastated the Persian population was, it went down to a trickle. As both countries struggled to shake off the domination, they began to evolve in different ways. But they did have a common enemy, the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman-Persian Wars were fought from about 1514-1823.

The Russians began to come into conflict with the Ottoman’s as they began their expansion south, beginning with the ascension to the throne by Peter the Great. His Great Embassy through Europe was to gather allies in his fight to take Ottoman territories (Episode 31)  like the base at Azov. When he saw the threat of the Swedes under Charles XII he signed a treaty with the Ottoman’s much to the dismay of the Persian leaders who were themselves were fighting wars with the Ottomans.

Moving to the more recent dealings,things between the USSR and the Shah of Iran were cool. Under Gorbachev, better relations with Iran were tried as a buttress against American influence in the Middle East. With Putin, conflicts arose between the Persian Iranians and Russia die to conflicts in the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, former members of the USSR were developing their independent energy resources which was opposed by Iran.

I look forward to hearing more about Persian history from Mike as it seems to be a long and interesting one.

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Battle of Narva

The Battle of Narva

The Swedish Victory at Narva by Gustaf Cederström – 1910

The Battle of Narva, a battle between Charles XII of Sweden and Peter the Great of Russia (Episodes 34 and 35) and was a major disaster for the Russians. While the Russian’s lost tens of thousands of men, Peter learned a valuable lesson. He knew that the Russian military needed to be modernized because it would continue to suffer defeats like this to his European enemies. One of the early battles of the Great Northern War, Narva was fought on November 30, 1700. Charles XII sent his small army to relive the troops stationed in Narva against a vastly larger Russian Army.

Peter the Great wanted to expand his empire to the north. He had put together an alliance with Denmark-Norway and August the Strong of Poland-Lithuania. Charles, with the help of the British Royal Navy and the Dutch Navy landed near Copenhagen to force the Danes and Norway out of the alliance in August of 1700. From there the Swedish army with backing of Estonian and Finnish troops headed to Estonia.

By early November, the Russian army, numbering about 35,000 men, surrounded Narva, which while in Estonia, was a part of the Swedish Kingdom. Charles XII decided to take his army of 10,000 to save his embattled comrades. Charles led the attack with his 8,000 troops (2,500 were inside the city) aided by General Carl Gustav Rehnskiold. Peter, for his part, had left Narva a few days before the Swedes arrived. Many in Europe at the time viewed this as an act of cowardice.

On the day of the battle, the weather was horrific with a blizzard blowing in the faces of the Swedish army. At midday, the winds switched and blew directly into the face of the Russians which caused Charles to take advantage and attack. The actual battle itself was a rout with Charles blowing through the undisciplined Russian army. While retreating the bridge over the Narova river collapsed with over 6,000 Russian soldiers falling into the frozen river and drowning.

Almost all Russian artillery pieces were lost during the battle leaving Russia indefensible. Had Charles decided to carry the war into Russia, there would have been no way for them to fight back. Shockingly, Charles decided against pressing the attack and turned southward to attack August the Strong of Poland-Lithuania to teach him a lesson. This delay was all Peter needed to regroup and learn from the terrible lesson taught to him be the loss at the Battle of Narva.

Four years later, Peter returned with 45,000 men, far better trained and equipped than before and took the town. The Swedish army was destroyed with most of the inhabitants killed. Russian losses were severe with over 10,000 killed or wounded.

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Battle of Krasnoi

The Battle of Krasnoi

Battle of Krasnoi, by Piter von Hess

The Battle of Krasnoi, while not well known, was a smashing victory for the Russian Army against the retreating Grand Armee of  Napoleon Bonaparte. Having been smashed in the Battle of Moscow, Napoleon believed he could first head to his supplies in Smolensk, then try to head to Minsk where another storage site was available. Unfortunately for Napoleon, the Russian winter came early and hard. His men were being battered by the sub-zero temperatures, snow and constant attacks by Cossack horsemen.

Napoleon had arrived at Krasnoi on November 9th and decided to wait there for the armies of Marshall’s Davout and Ney. He also believed that there was no way for the Russian’s to be close as they must have also suffered greatly due to the cold and snow. How wrong he would prove to be. General Kutuzov and General Miloradovich were travelling on a parallel road to the south of the French. Scouts for the Russians believed that there were only a small number of French troops in Krasnoi so they decided to swing northward and smash them.

By the time all the French troops reached Krasnoi on November 15th, so did the Russian army. Instead of just attacking with a full assault, Kutuzov decided, after realizing that the whole of Napoleon’s army was there, that they should launch smaller attacks to harass the disorganized French. Having vastly larger number of soldiers and artillery, Kutuzov’s decision has baffled historians for years.

Day after day, the Russian’s and French fought valiantly but Napoleon’s men were by now starving, frustrated and tired. They had to get to one of their supply depots in the town of Orsha, some 25 miles away. Napoleon feigned a major attack which scared Kutuzov and Miloradovich into backing off. Instead, they decided to lob artillery fire into the French lines.

Finally, by November 18th, Marshall Ney, with 11,000 troop decided to attack Miloradovich and his 12,000 strong me. At first, Ney’s men broke through two lines of the Russian infantry before being repulsed by the third line. The French refused to surrender, with the remaining 2,000 soldiers heading into the forest. When Ney reunited with Napoleon at Orsha, he made it there with only 800 men.

What has puzzled historians and angered Tsar Alexander I was that Kutuzov refused to press his advantage and destroy Napoleon who was terribly weakened. While the Russians could claim a major victory, having captured 20,000 French soldiers, and killing between 6-13,000, it was a hollow victory as they should have crushed the French completely.

Kutuzov was smart not to have pressed his advantage as his men were exhausted and he was a general who was deeply concerned with the health and morale of his men. Because of that he was greatly loved by the Russian people which caused Alexander I to make him the Prince of Smolensk.

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Catherine the Great Passes Away

Catherine II

Catherine posing for the painter Rokotov.

On this day in 1796, Catherine the Great (aka Catherine II) passed away in her commode (Episode 51) at the age of 67. She was considered, along with Peter the Great, as one of the greatest leaders of the Russian Empire. Her son Paul I was to take over and reign for a little over four years. Paul despised his mother and did much to reverse many of her policies. He put into law that only male heirs to the throne were eligible setting up the way for the decline of the Romanov dynasty.

She was the wife of Peter III and upon his murder during a coup d’etat on July 16, 1762, she took control of the government. Born, Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, she was hand-picked by Empress Elizabeth (Episodes 40 and 41) the daughter of Peter the Great. The marriage was a disaster and likely was never consummated. Fearing that she would be sent to a nunnery and divorced, she decided along with her friends the Orlov brothers, to stage the overthrow. What helped her was the fact that Peter III was generally disliked and had sided with the Prussians during the wars going on at the time.

The era of Catherine’s reign is generally considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire although the vast majority of the people living in Russia at the time were incredibly impoverished. It was also the time of one of the greatest revolts in Russian history, the Pugachev Rebellion (Episode 47).

Her time as Empress of all of Russia was a time of great expansion and a instilling more European style into Russian society. Catherine was one of the few Russian leaders (post Peter the Great) to have no direct heritage to previous rulers (Catherine I was the other). She was also a great patron of the arts and commissioned the building of the Smolny Institute the only school of higher learning for women in Russia.

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Peter the Great – The Russia Augustus

Peter the Great was the Augustus of the Russian Empire. He single-handily moved the Russian people out of their dark Oriental age to an age where they joined the European community. The Turks and the Swedes tried and ultimately failed to bring him to his knees. He learned from mistakes and rarely made the same one twice. To follow this great man through my podcasts start here and start with Episode 27 – Peter Likes to Play War.

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