In 1700, Peter the Great and his allies declared war against the King Charles XII of the Swedish Empire. Although young and inexperienced, Charles was able to successfully lead the Swedish resistance and attacks during the beginning of the war. Peter, however, gained the upper hand as the Great Northern War progressed. In 1709, Peter finally scored a brilliant victory against the Swedes when the Russian army was able to defeat them at the Battle of Poltava. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History during that time.
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The Young Tsar
Unlike his brothers, Tsar Peter was healthy and towered above everyone else at a height of 6’8”. He witnessed the Moscow Uprising of 1682 first hand and often suffered from seizures after this event. These experiences, however, did not stop him from living to the fullest.
The curious and intelligent Tsar was taught by the best tutors, including Count Nikita Zotov and the Scottish refugee-turned-mercenary Patrick Gordon. Both men would play a large role in their charge’s court and military later on. The Tsar also had the gift of attracting talented commoners whom he later used in his court and on the battlefield.
Peter had long been interested in the military, and he even tagged along the guards to serve as a lowly bombardier. He turned Preobrazhenskoye into his own military camp and held mock battles with his troops as practice. He experienced his first taste of war in the Azov campaigns against the Ottoman Empire in 1695. The Tsar’s experience and artillery, however, were inadequate, so he was forced to retreat to Moscow in early 1696.
It was fortuitous for Peter that he returned home at that time, as his sickly and senile half-brother (and co-ruler) Ivan V died on February 8, 1696. With his half-siblings Sophia and Ivan out of the way, he was now free to rule Russia as its sole Tsar. He and his troops went back to Azov in spring of the same year and successfully captured the area from the Ottomans. He established Taganrog as Russia’s first naval base and promoted his advisers Gordon and Franz Lefort as generals. After fortifying the area, Peter and his troops went home to Moscow as victors.
The Great Northern War
Ever curious, Peter went on a European tour between 1697 and 1698. He briefly stayed in the Netherlands where he trained (in disguise) as a shipwright. He learned whatever he could in Western Europe, and used these ideas to modernize the Russian government and military when he came back. It was also during his European tour that the idea of breaking the dominance of the Swedish Empire (and exact revenge for the Troubles) first took root.
Russia, together with its allies Poland and Denmark, launched their first attack against Sweden on August 19, 1700. The 18-year old Swedish king Charles XII was inexperienced, but he was able to defeat the Polish and Danish armies. Charles then led his army to Narva which was also besieged by Russian troops.
Despite being outnumbered and less experienced, Charles was able to relieve Narva and destroy the Russian camp stationed there. The Swedish king also captured Peter’s French commander and 145 Russian cannons as booty. The Tsar did not consider this a major defeat, but he learned from his mistakes and decided to lead some of his troops himself. He also appointed Boris Sheremetev as commander-in-chief of the Russian army.
After whipping the Russian army at Narva, Charles marched his troops to Poland to depose King Augustus II. He then elevated a puppet to the Polish throne but experienced a setback when the Swedish troops stationed in the Baltic were defeated by the Russians in December 1701. One by one, Swedish strongholds in Livonia soon fell to the Russians. By late 1702, Swedish Nöteborg was firmly in Russian hands. Peter renamed it Shlisselburg and fortified it as a crucial entrance to Lake Ladoga.
The Foundation of St. Petersburg and the Battle of Lesnaya
Peter, with the help of General Alexander Menshikov, then captured the fortress of Nyenskans from the Swedes on May 1, 1703. The Russians started the construction of the Peter and Paul fortress on Zayachy (Hare) Island more than two weeks later to secure the entrance of the Neva River. The Tsar stayed in the area for some time and oversaw the building of a shipyard and the expansion of the Russian navy himself. The area was later renamed St. Petersburg.
The Tsar led his troops back to Swedish-occupied Narva and captured it on August 9, 1704. Charles XII and around 44,000 Swedish troops took Peter by surprise when they matched through the northwestern Russia in January 1708. But Peter’s troops (under the leadership of Menshikov, Sheremetev, and the Cossack hetman Ivan Mazepa) were able to harass the Swedish army as they marched south.
The Russian army scored a crucial victory against the Swedes at the Battle of Lesnaya in September 1708. In this battle, the Russians were able to halve General Lewenhaupt’s troops who were supposed to bring supplies to Charles’s army. This victory was overshadowed when Peter received news that Ivan Mazepa had abandoned him and sided with Charles instead. The hetman had feared the Tsar’s interference and he had a feeling that his territory would be given away to Peter’s favorite, Alexander Menshikov. The enraged Tsar quickly dispatched Menshikov to Mazepa’s capital of Baturyn and had around 10,000 to 20,000 of its inhabitants massacred in retaliation.
The Battle of Poltava
In spring of 1709, Charles and the ill-equipped and reduced Swedish troops attacked the town of Poltava. Peter, who was expanding his navy in Azov, saw this as a provocation and immediately sent Sheremetev, Menshikov, and the Russian troops to Poltava. He and his wife, the Tsarina Catherine, joined them on June 4, 1709.
Peter, by then, had the upper hand. His troops were well-supplied and well-equipped, while Charles’s troops had been halved and were low on provisions and equipment. The Russians had set up camp near Poltava and fortified it with redoubts and ramparts. A wounded Charles, meanwhile, watched the Russians build fortifications from the Swedish camp. He summoned a war council, and despite the disadvantages, Charles’s generals decided to launch a stealth attack on the Russian camp.
It was supposed to be a stealth attack, but it did not turn out as Charles expected. The Russians prepared for the attack, and they quickly decimated a great number of Swedish troops when they tried to storm the redoubts. Some Swedish soldiers got lost along the way and did not even arrive as their comrades were being slaughtered.
As the day wore on, Peter decided to open the gates and face the Swedish troops head on. He and the trusty Sheremetev led the soldiers into battle. The Russians outnumbered the enemy, so the Swedes were easily decimated. Charles himself suffered another wound and had to flee on horseback south to the Ottoman Empire for safety.
Nearly 7,000 Swedish troops were slaughtered that day, while the remaining 2,700 were taken as prisoners. Rehnskiöld, Lewenhaupt, and Charles’s minister Carl Piper were among the prisoners of war who were taken to Moscow. Fresh from his victory at Poltava, Peter then traveled to Poland and restored his ally, Augustus II, to the throne.
Lieven, Dominic, ed. The Cambridge History of Russia: Imperial Russia, 1689-1917. Vol. II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Montefiore, Simon Sebag. The Romanovs: 1613-1918. New York, Vintage Books, 2017.
Oliva, L. Jay. Peter the Great. Englewood-Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970.