Peter the Great and the First Russian Navy

Modernizing Russia Included Military Reforms Modeled on the West

Peter I’s lifelong efforts in creating a first class fleet enabled Russia, in part, to win the Great Northern War and earn him the title, Father of the Russian Navy.

In 1688, a teenage boy discovered an old wooden, one-masted ship at a royal estate in Izmailovo, near Moscow. The boy was the future Tsar, Peter the Great, and the boat would become the symbol of his passion. According to Feofan Prokopovich, as quoted by James Cracraft, “the botik…became the cause of his building a navy” By the time Peter died in 1725, the Russian navy, built on the British model, was viewed as a formidable entity in the newly aligned European spheres of power.

The Great Northern War and the Building of a Navy

James Cracraft concludes his brief summary of Peter’s military reforms by suggesting that, “…It was the navy, one way or another, that brought Peter, and then Russia, into Europe and the modern world.” During the tsar’s “Great Embassy” to Europe in 1697-1698, Peter, traveling incognito, learned first hand how to build ships in the naval yards of Amsterdam and London. He also enlisted the service of hundreds of experts, professionals who would go to Russia, help him to westernize, and train his own people.

Writing about Peter at the Dutch shipbuilding town of Zaandam, Suzanne Massie says that, “left in peace for three months, he learned how to build a frigate and received a shipbuilding certificate from the head of the dockyards.” Returning to Russia, Tsar Peter ordered the building of ships at Voronezh to be used against Turkey. The ill-timed Turkish War of 1710 put a stop to any southern fleet and Peter concentrated on the Swedes and the Baltic region.

The Baltic fleet was begun immediately after the Kronstadt naval base was completed in 1704, a year after the founding of St. Petersburg. Between 1708 and Peter’s death in 1725, Russia had built 54 ships of the line and had gained mastery of the Baltic. This was due, in part, to the Russian victory over the Swedish King Charles XII at Poltava in 1709.

Although the Great Northern War consumed most of Peter’s reign, the legacy was a strong Russia, usurping northern hegemony once held by Sweden ever since the end of the Thirty Years’ War. Much of this was due to Peter’s new navy which also opened greater doors for commercial relationships with Europe, notably England.

A Changing Europe in the late 1600s

Peter correctly deduced that success in every aspect of governance was tied to the building and maintaining of a navy. Creation of the Naval Academy was one aspect of preparing Russians in a competing mercantile world. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 may have marked the first phase of English maritime ascendancy, but one hundred years later the English navy was the most potent in Europe, a lesson Peter learned well. The naval wars with the Dutch under Charles II eliminated, partially, Dutch trade competition but also highlighted how far England had come as a maritime power.

Most certainly Peter the Great was aware of these complexities. The Russian navy was as necessary to the reform of Russia as any other attempt to westernize the land but served a far more crucial long term goal. Cracraft quotes a placard placed before Peter’s botik in the Peter and Paul Fortress, where it was briefly exhibited: “From the amusement of the child came the triumph of the man.” Nicholas Riasanovsky concludes that Peter, “…bequeathed to those who followed him the first Russian shipbuilding industry”

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