Peter I "the Great" was the son of Tsar Alexei
and Alexei's second wife Natalya. On Alexei's death when Peter was not quite four, Alexei's oldest son Fyodor III
, who had been designated the heir by his father, became Tsar. Feodor's death in 1682
without any designated heirs made things more difficult. Alexei's older living son (Ivan, aged 16, but nearly blind
and quite lame
) would normally have become tsar, but when a crowd of Moscow residents were asked by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church who they wanted, they cried out for Ivan's half-brother, the 10-year-old Peter, who was healthy
As Ivan did not want to be tsar anyway, that would have been that, except for Ivan's older sister Sophia. She did not want Peter and his mother to knock her side of the family out of power, so she or her supporters orchestrated a rebellion of the Streltsy soldiers in Moscow. Peter witnessed the bloody murder of members of his family in the Kremlin, and many historians attribute his lifelong distaste for spending time in Moscow and his eventual building of a new Russian capital in St. Petersburg to this event. When the rebellion quieted, Peter I and Ivan V were crowned co-tsars, but Sophia held the power, and Peter spent most of his time outside Moscow, in Alexei's favorite place to hunt near the village of Preobrazhenskoe.
Here Peter got a weird education. He had always loved to play soldier, and here he had the space to gather other boys and form mock armies. Sophia did not object to supplying him with cannon and other equipment (perhaps she hoped he'd get himself killed), and noblemen and servants alike could join Peter's army. He started out as a drummer boy rather than making himself commander at the beginning, and though he eventually accepted promotions, he never allowed himself to be treated any differently than his other soldiers. During these years he also learned some carpentry, stonemason skills, printing, and blacksmithy. And in June 1688, he discovered in an old storehouse an old boat, meant for seagoing instead of the flat-bottomed Russian river boats. His interest in restoring and sailing it started off a lifelong interest in sailing and naval affairs. (This boat is now in a Navy Museum in Russia.)
In 1689, after Peter had expressed criticism of Russia's military campaigns under Sophia's favorite Vasiliy Golitsyn, things started to get tense between Peter and Sophia. On a tip (false, as it turned out) that Sophia and the Streltsy were going to attack him, Peter fled Preobrazhenskoe and took refuge in Russia's most famous monastery. Forced to choose sides, Russia's most powerful gradually trickled in to support him, and once the Streltsy colonels showed up, Peter was able to have Sophia put in a convent. However, he really left the ruling of the country to his mother and their family for another few years, spending much of his time on rivers and lakes sailing, and hanging out with Western Europeans in their settlement just outside Moscow. He did marry a woman chosen by his mother, Eudoxia Lopukhina, but the two never got along and Peter avoided her company as much as possible. (The two did have a son, Alexei.)
Peter had always been very tall (a foreign visitor once saw the two Tsars together shortly after they were crowned, and assumed there was one year's age difference between them instead of six), and was also conspicuous because he suffered from facial tics and seizures. Some attribute this to the trauma of the Streltsy rebellion, others to brain damage suffered when he had a long attack of high fever in the winter of 1694. The seizures would calm down if he lay his head in the lap of a woman he was comfortable with and relaxed until he fell asleep. Because of the unpredicability of these seizures, he was shy with new people.
In 1695, Peter led another Russian army to attack the Ottoman Empire's vassals, the Crimean Tatars who raided the Russian borders. In the second year of this campaign, Peter's newly built ships were able to come down the river and help capture the fortress of Azov. This convinced Peter more than ever of the importance of ship-building, and he resolved to go to Europe, so that he could find more allies against the Turks and recruit more ship-building experts.
The Great Embassy of 1696 was the first time a reigning Tsar had left the country except for war. Peter actually traveled semi-incognito, as "Peter Mikhailov," and his friends Francis Lefort, Fyodor Golovin, and Prokofy Vosnitsyn were the official ambassadors. However, the secret that the Tsar was also with the travelers leaked out pretty quickly. In Riga, the capital of Swedish-held Livonia, the reception was not complimentary enough for Peter, leaving him with a grudge against Sweden. He visited Courland, Brandenburg, Holland (where he actually worked in the shipyards of the Dutch East India Company by special arrangement), England (meeting one of his heroes, William III), Vienna, and had planned to visit Venice and Rome but was called back by news of a rebellion of the Streltsy in Russia. (He was not able to gain any anti-Turkish support, but he did recruit a lot of workers for his shipyards and other places.)
The rebellion had been put down by the time Peter arrived home after a year and a half away, but Peter was convinced that Sophia was behind this. He interrogated Streltsy members under torture and never found convincing proof that she had instigated anything, but the corpses of executed men were hung outside her window at the convent and she was forced to actually take religious vows. At this time Peter also started to disband the Streltsy, exiling its members to remote areas of Russia and forming his own new armies.
On getting back from Western Europe, Peter also did his best to make Russians adopt the modern things he had seen there. He made his nobles shave off their beards (traditionally, to be clean-shaven was a sin in the Russian Orthodox church) and forced them to wear Western clothes (though the traditional Russian clothing was much more practical during the harsh winters). He also got fed up for the final time with his wife, who was scared of foreigners and their ways, and he tried to persuade/push her into a convent (so that he could marry again, as a nun was "dead to the world" and her husband treated as a widower.) And he changed to the Julian calendar in 1700, which was what England used at the time, though in 52 years England would adopt the Gregorian calendar, leaving Russia with the Julian system until 1917.
One thing that had been suggested to him by Augustus of Saxony was that Russia, Saxony and Denmark fight Sweden and regain the Swedish-held territory on the east and south coasts of the Baltic Sea -- what would be called the Great Northern War. Peter promised to join that fight as soon as he had made peace with the Ottoman Empire, and in late 1700 a thirty-year truce was made with the Turks and Peter joined in after Denmark and Saxony had already attacked Swedish cities. For Peter this war was particularly important, as quite a lot of the territory held by Sweden was historically Russian, and getting Russia a Baltic seacoast would make up for their failure to win access to the Black Sea from the Turks. For a man so enthusiastic about sea travel, the fact that Russia's only seaport was the frequently iced-in city of Archangel on the White Sea was annoying.
The Swedish beat the Danish quite quickly, and also defeated the Russians at Narva early in the war. However, Charles XII of Sweden decided the Russian troops were so bad that it would be safe to concentrate on fighting the Saxon troops in Poland. This gave the Russians time to regroup, and they actually captured the Neva River from the small garrisons of Swedish along it. Peter ordered the building of a fortress on an island in the Neva River not far from its mouth, and then a shipyard on the bank. This would grow into the city of St. Petersburg, an unpopular enterprise because the land was both prone to flooding and dangerously close to enemy-held territory; however, Peter was so stuck on the idea that he did things like outlawing the building of stone buildings anywhere else in Russia, so that any stonemason who wanted to work would have to come to St. Petersburg.
It took years for Charles to defeat Augustus's forces, but by 1707, Charles was ready to turn back to Russia. However, Peter's forces were a lot better trained by then. Charles had intended to march through Poland and straight to Moscow, but swathes of scorched earth in Poland, Lithuania, and western Russia kept Swedish forces from gathering food; in the fall of 1708 they were forced to turn south into the fertile Ukraine. They managed through the winter there despite Russian destruction of their supply reinforcements and the city of a rebellious Ukrainian leader. In 1709, however, Charles attempted to capture more supplies near the village of Poltava and the Russians were able to not only defeat the Swedish but chase them from the Ukraine into Turkish territory. There would be more battles, but this was the war's turning point. Even with Turkish support, the Swedish were not in shape to defeat the Russians. Charles died in 1718 and his successor signed a peace treaty a few years later. It was at the time of the peace that the Russian Senate voted Peter the titles of "Peter the Great" and "Emperor," the latter of which would be used by all following Romanovs.
During this period, the Tsar had found a new wife. She was born Martha, a Lithuanian orphan taken in by a Lutheran pastor, but then Russian troops conquered the area, she became a servant to one of the generals, and was baptized into the Orthodox Church as Catherine. He married her secretly in 1707 (after three children had already been born to them) and publicly in 1712. Eventually he had her crowned along with him, to leave no doubt of her status. They had 12 children, but only two reached adulthood.
Peter's son by his first wife, Alexei, had married and fathered a son, Peter, before his wife died in childbirth. Alexei was not the kind of son Peter wanted; he was unwarlike and not interested in Western ways. At one point, Alexei tried to shoot himself through the hand to avoid having to draw pictures of military fortifications for his father. Unsurprisingly, people who didn't like Peter looked to Alexei for leadership, and there were many who didn't like Peter. Conscripting soldiers and laborers to build St. Petersburg, and raising taxes to pay for wars and building, had caused a lot of grumbling.
In 1716 Peter sent a letter to Alexei, basically saying "shape up or I'll name someone else heir." Alexei claimed to be ill; an unhappy Peter told him he had the choice of doing what Peter wanted or becoming a monk. Alexei decided he would become a monk; Peter had not really thought anyone would take that choice and gave him six months to think it over while Peter was away. When the deadline drew near, Alexei fled the country with his Finnish mistress Aphrosina and took refuge outside Vienna under the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor. It was several months before the Russians could track him down, but when confronted the Emperor brought Russian envoys to the hiding place.
Threatened with separation from Afrosina, Alexei agreed to return to Russia and was promised mercy. It turned out, though, that Peter would only pardon Alexei for disobeying orders if Alexei gave the name of everyone who had helped or supported him -- Peter was concerned that there might be a conspiracy against him. Alexei gave names; Peter arrested them and ended up interrogating more and more people, including his ex-wife Eudoxia. Many who had made the slightest remarks against Peter were imprisoned or even executed. And Afrosina made the mistake of admitting to Peter that Alexei had rejoiced at reports that Peter's other children were ill or that there were rebellions in Russia, and talked about when he would be on the throne. Alexei was interrogated under torture to confirm these things, tried by a court organized by Peter, and on June 24, 1718, sentenced to die. He was not publicly executed, though, and may have died from aftereffects of torture rather than actually being executed.
After this difficult time and the end of the Great Northern War, Peter tried to concentrate on building trade and industry in Russia, bringing the country more out of medieval times and into the 18th century. He had been restricting the role of monasteries and the church throughout his reign, and started secular schools. He searched Russia to find old manuscripts and chronicles of history to preserve. He also tried conquering territory on the coast of the Caspian Sea and down into the Caucasus from the declining Persian Empire. During his later life, he suffered from urinary tract infections, and during his Caspian campaigns the symptoms got much worse. He seemed to recover for a while, but in late 1724 an inflammation of the bladder forced him to bed and was not treatable at the time. He died on January 28, 1725 and was succeeded by his second wife, Catherine I.
Sources: Robert K. Massie's Peter the Great: His Life and World and those listed in Monarchs of Russia