Peter the Great modernized Russian army to enable it to cope with continuing foreign invasions. After Russia lost 10.000 men and most of its artillery against a much smaller Swedish force in the Battle of Narva in 1700, Peter rebuilt his army in a single year. He instituted new standards of discipline, ordered training for battle rather than for parade-ground manoeuvres, and armed his troops with British-made flintlocks to replace the swords, lances and halberds they had previously carried. He even ordered church bells to be melted down to cast new artillery.
Eight years later, the Swedes, who had postponed further conquests of Russia while invading Poland and Saxony, returned. They moved into the Ukraine and there, in 1709, were destroyed in what is considered to be one of the history’s most critical encounters, the Battle of Poltava. Sweden was forced to give Russia its lands on the eastern shore of the Baltic – the European mainland – and the threat of Swedish domination of Northern Europe was permanently ended.
After this victory, Peter continued to refine his army; he also brought the Church under state control and reorganized the civil service, setting up 14 grades to which anyone could aspire. Even a peasant, properly schooled, could rise from the 14th grade to the first. Moreover, every civil servant above the 11th grade automatically gained the right to own land and serfs; above the eighth grade, such status became hereditary. Travelling this egalitarian route to advancement, Ilya Ulianov, son of a serf and father of the 20th century revolutionary known as Lenin, managed to climb the ladder to the fourth grade and hereditary land entitlement. Thus Lenin himself was technically an aristocrat.
With the final victory over Sweden, Peter at last acquired his “window on the West”, a safe, year-round route through the Baltic Sea to rest of Europe. In expectation, he had already begun to build a port, the city known as Leningrad but originally named after…