Grand Monarchs, called Tsars (or Caesars), ruled the vast and savage land of Russia. During the Middle Ages Russia had been ruled first by the Normans, and then for two centuries by Tartars from Asia.
At last these men from Asia were overthrown by the Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, as he was called -- and well he deserved his title, for he literally threw his troublesome barons to the dogs! However, like Charles V before him, Ivan the Terrible voluntarily ended his days (1584) in the garb of a monk!
The next famous Tsar was the enlightened despot, Peter the Great (1689-1725). His great aim was to "build a bridge between Europe and Asia," and make Russia a more modern country. To help him to do this, he spent two years travelling in Europe, working with his own hands as a ship's carpenter, attending lectures on surgery, inspecting flour and paper mills and printing presses, and visiting the hospitals, museums, and libraries. In England, the courts of Westminster, with the many lawyers in their wigs and gowns, greatly surprised him. "Why," said he, "I have but two lawyers in my empire, and one of them I mean to hang when I return!"
Peter was, however, in far too great a hurry to force Western ideas and customs upon his subjects. The terrorized Russians secretly loathed the "reforms," especially when they were made to cut off their long beards and adopt European dress.
Till Peter's time Russia had been a land-locked empire without access to the open sea, for the White Sea was icebound and the Caspian Sea an inland lake. To gain outlets On the sea meant war upon his neighbours. "War is the occupation of kings," Peter had once told his barons; "hunting is for slaves."
Now the Swedes at this time had a great king and a great Baltic empire; while the Turks were in command of the Black Sea. So Peter fought with Swedes and Turks. In spite of several reverses, in the end he took Azov from the Turks, and so gained an outlet towards the Black Sea; and he seized the Baltic lands of Sweden and built a great city, "to open a window towards the West."
The new city arose above the marshes of the Neva as if by magic, built in a year at the cost of many thousands of lives. St. Petersburg, with "its colossal squares, its spires and minarets sheathed in barbaric gold and flashing in the sun," was indeed the great despot's monument.
Thus did Peter make modern Russia. "In a single reign, by the action of one man, Russia passed from obscurity to a place among nations." Yet he remained a ruffian to the end. He even murdered his own son a few years before he himself died. "Forgive all!" were his last Words, scribbled on a scrap of paper.
Some years after Peter's death, Russia and her neighbours shamefully divided up another Slav land, Poland. That unhappy, unruly land, whose great king had just before Peter's time saved Vienna from the Turks (i683), was blotted out from the map.
Meantime Russia was also expanding across Asia, till in due course she reached the Pacific in one direction and the borders of India in another.