Czar of Russia who created the Imperial Russian navy. Peter was born on 30 May 1672 in Moscow to Czar Alexsei Mikhailovich and his second wife Natalia Naryshkina. He assumed the throne in April 1682 but faced opposition from the family of his father’s first wife and did not reign unchallenged until September 1689.
In his youth Peter was exposed to western culture and expressed a great interest in all things military, especially naval technology. His passion for the sea and a strong Russian navy became a key part of the reform program that he instituted during his reign.
In 1697 Peter visited the great dynastic states of western Europe, where he learned about the most modern maritime technology. He returned home in 1698 and firmly committed himself to reforming Russia. Although part of his plan was the introduction of western culture and more efficient government machinery, the czar’s paramount concern was modernizing the army and creating a navy utilizing the newest technology. Peter considered these necessary if he was to pursue the expansionist foreign policy that he desired.
The czar used the contacts he had made during his European travels to solicit the services of western European, particularly English, shipwrights and engineers in constructing Russia’s first true navy. The new ships participated in the Great Northern War against Sweden during 1700–1721. Peter’s goal here was to secure an ice-free port in the Baltic Sea for trade with the West, which Russia sorely needed as it had no major harbor accessible during the winter months. Russia’s victory in the war gave rise to the Baltic port of St. Petersburg, which became the capital of Russia until 1917.
The Russian navy was founded in the seventeenth century. According to legend, the sight of foreign ships in the Russian port of Arkhangelsk in 1693, and the memory of a small boat built by his father, inspired Tsar Peter I (Tsar, 1682–1725) to make Russia a naval power. Not until 1696, however, when Ottoman naval forces thwarted his attempts to capture Azov, did Peter (known as Peter the Great) act on this ambition. Within two years he had assembled 86 warships and about 500 galleys on the Sea of Azov. Under Swiss command and manned largely by Greeks, this force blockaded Azov. It proved useful largely as a decoy; while the Turks destroyed the fleet, Russian ground forces captured the fortress.
Peter built on this ignominious beginning. In 1698 he hired over 700 shipbuilders and carpenters from Holland and England to build a new fleet. In 1701 he founded a school for mathematics, physics, and navigation in Moscow, which would become the Russian Naval Academy. Two Russian warships were launched the following year, and Peter laid the keel for a 26-gun warship. Russian ships soon appeared on the Neva River, on Lake Ladoga, and on Lake Peipus.
Progress was slow. The naval school and most Russian ships had to be staffed with foreigners because of a lack of trained Russian seamen. In 1713 only 9 of 81 officers in the Baltic Fleet were Russian; over a quarter were British. To make up for inexperience, Russian naval commanders developed the so-called mosquito strategy: Only when Russian forces outnumbered the opponent by 50 percent would they attack.
Victories were few and far between. Yet the Russian navy made its first “overseas action” at Abo, Sweden, in 1713 and claimed its first “deep-sea victory” at the Battle of Oesel Island in 1719. At Peter’s death in 1725, the Russian navy numbered at least 34 ships of the line and nearly 800 galleys. If not yet of great power, the navy was at least a force with which to be reckoned.
Not all of Peter’s reform program was successful, but the naval portion certainly was. The Russian navy was no longer a ragtag collection of poorly equipped, rotting vessels. By 1724 the Russian navy comprised 34 ships of the line, 15 frigates, and 114 other vessels, all manned by 28,000 men.
Peter died on 8 February 1725, in St. Petersburg, the city that his navy had helped to make a reality.
Hughes, Lindsey. Russia in the Age of Peter the Great. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.
Phillips, Edward J. The Founding of Russia’s Navy: Peter the Great and the Azov Fleet, 1688–1714. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas. The Image of Peter the Great in Russian History and Thought. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1985.