Born in 1672, Peter the Great is one of Russia’s most famous tsars. With the help of his half-sister Sophia he ruled for 12 years from 1682 until 1694 when he finally got rid of the pesky whisper in his ear that was his power hungry half-sister, forcing her into a convent. Free to rule the Russian empire alone Peter the Great went on to lead Russia into battle in the Crimea and Swedish Finland. He created Russia’s mighty fleet and founded St. Petersburg. In between all this hard work, Peter also got up to a lot of travelling, shipbuilding, torture and of course drinking. Here are just some of the wilder stories that surround Russia’s hard-partying tsar.
Boys will be Boys
Peter the Great was one of the tallest leaders of his time, towering over everyone else with a height of six foot seven inches (two metres). He was a natural athlete and reputedly so strong and skilled with his hands that he could twist a silver platter into a scroll and he used to sleep sitting up. Peter was also a natural craftsman and was constantly busy making things. After he died, hundreds of homemade items such as chairs, model boats and crockery were found in his various residences. Many of these items can still be viewed today at the cabin of Peter the Great and at his palace at Strelna.
One of his other hobbies was dentistry and it is said that after his death a sack full of teeth that he had pulled out was found, although its current whereabouts are not known.
Peter the Cruel
It was not always fun and games at the house of Peter the Great however. Despite his love of revelry and joking around, Peter also had a cruel side. Peter loathed his timid and secretive son Alexis and regularly beat the poor lad and threatened to kill him. In the end Peter demanded that Alexis enter a monastery but the wily prince ran away to Vienna instead.
After a long manhunt across Europe, he was eventually found and brought back to Russia. Even though he swore never to attempt to seize power, in 1718 talk was heard of Alexis boasting about all the things he would do as tsar. Peter in a rage rounded up many potential plotters and tortured them in the prison inside the Peter and Paul Fortress. Eventually he brought in his own son for torture too, before having him killed.
Peter was also notoriously strict, he demanded that every teacher at the naval academy carry a whip, with which to beat unruly pupils. During the building of his beloved city it is thought that at least 100,000 serfs and slave labourers perished under the poor conditions in which Peter forced them to work.
He also banned the reign of the Boyars (old Russian dynastic families). And to kick the boot into the now demoted Boyars, Peter also made beards illegal (the boyars were easily recognised by their beards which were kept long in Orthodox manner). Beard patrols would knock on the houses of local bearded men and forced them to shave or pay the extortionate ‘beard tax’.
The Russian embassy tour
This beard persecution was part of Peter’s quest to bring western culture to Russia - in Europe smooth cheeks, bare chins and expertly twirled moustaches were all the rage. Peter was determined to bring the best of Europe to Russia and bring what was still a very mediaeval country into the renaissance. The new city which he founded (St. Petersburg) was going to be a showcase for the world’s best contemporary architecture and his window to the west.
In order to learn about what was going on in Europe, Peter and his entourage went on a grand tour. In Germany he spent time with soldiers learning about warfare and horrific torture techniques. In France he spoke French and met the giant named ‘Bourgeois’.
Peter loved people with some form of birth defect. Be they Siamese twins, dwarves or giants, he would invite them back to St. Petersburg to become part of his court. In the Kunstkamera you can see the skeletons and foetuses of many of the ‘freaks’ that Peter liked to collect, as well as his collection of thousands of other ‘curious’ items from across the world.
The tsar also famously spent considerable time in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam he went in disguise to work in a shipbuilder’s yard and learn the necessary skills that would lead to the foundation of Russia’s naval fleet. In the St. Petersburg naval museum you can still see one of the ships that Peter built himself. And wherever Peter and his posse went they would leave a right royal mess behind them.
Historical records tell of their three month stay at the home of Lord John Evelyn in England. After many nights of drunken insanity the gang left for Russia with the house looking like a bombsite. The Russian Empire was later billed for the damage, which included 300 broken windows, twelve broken doors, several broken pieces of walnut furniture, bed linen that had been cut to shreds, a blown-up kitchen floor and family portraits that had been used for target practice.
Back in Russia, Peter continued to host wild drinking parties at mon plaisir, a house specially designed for the purpose that he had in the grounds of his palace at Peterhof. Guests had to be winched up to the first floor dining room by a pulley (there were no stairs) and were not allowed to stop drinking or go to bed until Peter was ready to sleep. One German group of ambassadors recall being served brandy at breakfast, then having a four hour liquid lunch of wine served by the litre, before being put on weak horses with no saddles (for the tsar’s amusement) for an afternoon ride, before returning to the palace again for more drinking.
Amazingly Peter never seemed to succumb to hangovers and always woke up early. One of the German guests recalls waking up in the palace gardens to the sound of Peter randomly cutting down trees to make a new pathway. As you do.
His Royal Drunkenness
By the standards of Peter’s mad drinking group ‘the Most Drunken Synod’ such parties with dignitaries were tame. Formed in 1695, the Synod was a drunken parody of the Church’s ruling committee. Peter wrote up the group’s charter himself with the first commandment being that ‘members are to get drunk every day, and might never go to bed sober.’ The synod organised the wildest and wackiest parties imaginable.
Voltaire in his biography of Peter the Great tells of the festival that surrounded the election of a new 'pope'. First the ‘cardinals’ - dressed as various world leaders or Roman emperors - had an eight day drinking session, during which they were required to drink a teaspoon of vodka every 15 minutes (which to add some more fun was served up by naked servants).
When finally the new pope was chosen, Peter decided it would be hilarious to celebrate by arranging for the pope, who was also the court jester, to marry. As the pope was 84 years old, Peter chose an equally old widow for him. Russia’s four fattest men accompanied the couple to the church as they rode along on a cart drawn by roaring bears that were kept angry by being poked with metal spikes. At the church a blind and deaf priest (ironically wearing glasses!) blessed the couple before the oldies were stripped naked and led to their rooms to attempt to consummate the marriage.
Given that he took part in such crazy escapades it comes as no surprise that there were many peasants in rural Russia who were seriously convinced that Peter was the anti-Christ. However, it was also accepted by most people that Peter had left a positive legacy by defeating Sweden and claiming more land for the empire and bringing European culture to Russia.
In his last years unsurprisingly Peter suffered from terrible bladder problems. Legend has it that in the autumn of 1724, the heroic Peter was out on the Finnish gulf visiting a local ironworks. After spotting some local soldiers drowning just off the shore, Peter waded out into the freezing water to rescue them. This icy rescue combined with some rather disgusting problems with the tsar’s, ahem, piping is said to have shortened his life even further and on 8 February 1725 he died.