Any understanding of modern Russia really must go back 200 years to Peter the Great. More specifically, to his travels to the West from which he brought back to his motherland feats of science, engineering, arts, culture and manners which permeate Russian society even today.
Pyotr Alexeyovich Romanov (born in Moscow June 9, 1672; died in St Petersburg February 8, 1725) made two long journeys to Europe during his reign as Tsar: for 18 months from 1697-1698 at the age of 25-26, and again in 1716-1717, at the age of 45. What he saw, whom he met, and what he brought back with him changed forever the Russian empire, creating, with the fundamentals of European society, a modern nation. His presence gave “civilized” society in Europe an important glimpse into the inner workings of its vast neighbor to the east.
Peter’s first trip West took him primarily to London and Amsterdam, largely in search of allies in his ongoing battles with the Turks. Amsterdam became the basis for the construction of St Petersburg, which began in 1703 shortly after his return. Immediately on his return, in September of 1698, Peter cut his beard and ordered the members of his entourage to do the same — a fashion statement meant to signal the birth of a modern Russia, based on a European model.
A warrior, traveler and prodigious consumer of knowledge, Peter at the age of 26 could already boast of military successes against the Turks, and by the time of his second visit West the Tsar could lay claim to an empire that encompassed four seas, having vanquished the Swedes at Poltova in 1709. But overseeing vast tracts of land paled in comparison with the sophistication he saw in the West and determined to replicate in Russia. Peter wanted a seat at their table, an ambition that continues to prevail two hundred years later; this was a central theme of his second visit to Europe, particularly to France, where he had been ostentatiously rebuffed from visiting the court of The Sun King Louis XIV during what is often referred to as the Golden Century (Louis’s reign lasted 70 years, ending with his death in 1715).
Retracing Peter’s Steps In France
The Chateau of Versailles mounted an exhibition during the summer commemorating Peter’s visit to France in May and June of 1717. A collaboration of Versailles and Russia’s Hermitage Museum, it was organized by the Russian Ambassador to France, Alexandre Orlov, and Mme Catherine Pégard, President of the Château of Versailles. Among the paintings, medals, clothing, jewelry and other paraphernalia of that 1717 visit, the exhibit included documents and accounts from court diarists such as the gossipy Louis du Rouvroy, Duc de Saint-Simon (kind of the Truman Capote of his day) recounting the visit, Peter’s quirks and personality.
As Peter spent much of his time roaming the streets of Paris and visiting everything related to the reign of Louis XIV, one wonders why Peter did not visit France during his first trip to the West, while Louis XV was still on the throne?
“Louis XIV did not want to welcome the Tsar to his court at the end of the 17th century,” Gwenola Firmin, Head Curator of paintings of the eighteenth century at the National Museum of the Chateaux of Versailles and Trianon, told me in an mail exchange for this blog. “On the one hand, there were diplomatic reasons and questions of political alliance; on the other hand, Louis XIV did not want to bring the Tsar into the concert of the European nations. And he absolutely did not want to recognize the Tsar as his equal.”
Louis’ successor — Louis XV — was just five years old when he ascended to the throne in 1715. The ruling regent Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, was more pragmatic than his cousin Louis XIV and actually extended an invitation to the Tsar to visit France and the young king. After decades of costly wars, the regent understood the need to discuss additional political and economic alliances to replenish France’s coffers and defenses.
(September, 2017, Versailles) Brooch featuring miniature portrait of the Tsar, part of the “Pierre le Grand: un Tsar en France” exhibit at Versailles during the summer. (Photo credit: S. Karabell)
“The Tsar’s visit in 1717 is considered to be the foundation of diplomatic relations between France and Russia,” Firmin continues. Indeed, the first treaty of friendship and commerce between France and Russia was signed August 15, 1717 in The Hague. “It is clear that relations between the two countries grew throughout the eighteenth century. And certainly in all fields – artistic, scientific, technological — Peter was inspired by the France of the Regency. It was a sort of technology transfer.”
Peter The Culture-Vulture
There was a real cultural transfer as well. Peter made sure to visit every vestige of the Grand Century: the Academy of Sciences (he was made an honorary member), the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, La Monnaie (the mint, still in existence today) the Royal Gobelins Manufactory, which created a set of tapestries for him which are still displayed at the Hermitage and traveled back to France for the exhibit at Versailles commemorating his visit. These French institutions became the basis for Russian academies and factories. Numerous artists, craftsmen, architects and engineers were recruited during the Tsar’s visit to help build St Petersburg as well as Peter’s Gate, the Tsar’s palatial residence on the bay of Finland. The list of workers imported from France included: architect Jean-Baptist L Blond, sculptor Nicolas Pineau, painters Jean-Marc Nattier and Jan-Baptiste Oudry.
Peter bought mountains of books while in France, and also imported French customs which lasted right up until the Russian Revolution, serving as a sort of bridge between the Grand Century and the Age of Enlightenment. “The use of French was imposed on the Russian court under Catherine II (at the time of the French Revolution),” Firmin points out. “This Tsarina actually corresponded with French philosophers, such as Diderot, whom invited to her court, and Voltaire, whose library she purchased upon the death of the writer.”
The artistic association worked two ways: during the French Revolution, court-aligned such artists as Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun would find work and refuge in the Russian court.
(September, 2017, Versailles) Peter the Great favored simple clothing. This wool and silk suit by an anonymous tailor was in stark contrast to the colorful lacy attire worn by members of the French court. The size of the garment indicates that Peter, at age 45, was quite tall and slim. (Photo credit: S. Karabell)
But for all the noblesse of his intellect and curiosity, Peter the Great’s personal conduct wasn’t what was expected of a leader. “The lack of decorum of the Tsar is indeed evoked by several chroniclers or writers of the time,” says Firmin delicately. The writers themselves are not so retrained. Diarists mention his penchant for cruelty bordering on sadism (allegedly, one of his past times was torturing his servants), barbaric gross behavior, drunkenness, debauchery and excesses of all sorts. Yet his personal tastes were simple: rather than stay in the Louvre where a suite had been set aside for him, the Tsar requested something less grand.
“The Tsar preferred the relative modesty of the Hotel de Lesdiguieres (note: a private residence near Bastille; built in 1580, it was destroyed in 1878), to the prestigious apartments of Anne of Austria in the Louvre. (note: since Anne was the mother of Louis XIV, it is safe to assume the apartments must have been pretty grand) Peter I often preferred, for his personal use, places of more modest size than the grand palaces,” Firmin says. His taste in clothes was also decidedly plain, copying the no-frills fashion he found in Amsterdam. A suit of clothes at the Versailles exhibition demonstrates both the tall stature of the man and a penchant for simplicity.
(September 2017) Louise Marie Jeanne Hersent’s 1838 painting recounts the encounter between the 7-year-old King Louis XV and the Tsar during Peter the Great’s visit toFrance on May 10, 1717. It was painted from written accounts provided by diarists at court. (Photo credit: S. Karabell)
Saint-Simon describes him as “tall, well-formed and slim…with a look both bewildered and fierce…wearing a brown unpowdered wig that did not cover his shoulders, a brown fitted suit with gold buttons, the jacket often left unbuttoned, and no lace whatever; his hat never on his head – even outdoors!” Despite this, Saint-Simon says there was no mistaking Peter’s “air of grandeur which came naturally to him.” And which was reproduced in numerous sketches, paintings, medallions and bits of memorabilia during his stay in France.
But it is Peter’s first encounter with the seven-year-old Louis XV in person that is perhaps most telling of the Tsar’s personality, and indeed gives us insight even today into the Russian character. Various paintings and engravings (painted from Saint-Simon’s verbal sketches) portray that visit of May 10, 1717, when Louis went to the Hotel Lesdiguieres to greet the Tsar: ”Peter picked up the little Louis XV and kissed him on both cheeks. He refused a gift of a diamond-studded sword, accepting instead two tapestries from the Goeblins factory.” Fast-forward 150 years to Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev’s exuberance and we realize that old traits die hard.
As does Peter’s stated ambition on his second transformative foray into the West. That grand ambition to transform Russia into a modern state with a strong army and navy capable of imposing itself on the world exists today. And the reluctance in Europe to invite Russia to its “court” of nations would seem to echo the concerns of Louis XIV.