St Petersburg & Russia

Peter the Great in Holland

Holland has a special historical connection with Peter I the Great (1672-1725). When he came to power at the end of the 17th century, the new tsar was determined to modernise Russia - that archaic, isolated backwater which had missed out on the European Renaissance. To achieve this, he turned his sights on the West. The Dutch Republic was at that time a leading European power, this was Holland’s Golden Age: the perfect model for Russia.


What interested the tsar above all was Holland’s commercial fleet and shipbuilding industry. Still aged only 25, the Russian ruler undertook his first Great Embassy in 1697: a journey to various European countries, including the Netherlands, to study and learn. Amsterdam burgomaster Joan Huydekoper, who had previously met Peter’s father Alexis in 1664, arranged for Peter to work at a shipyard. Under the pseudonym Pyotr Mikhailov, he was able to see how the windmills and the shipbuilding industry of Zaandam operated, working incognito at Lijns Teeuwisz. Rogge’s shipyard. The tsar planned to spend an entire winter here.


Gerrit Kist, who lived in a labourer’s house in Zaandam at Krimpenburgh 23, had worked as a smith in the Moscow shipyards. Somewhat reluctantly, Kist agreed to let his simple wooden house on the dyke to the tall tsar. The widow who had been Kist’s tenant, was paid off for the while. It did not take long for the Hollanders to realise that Pjotr Mikhailov was in fact the Russian tsar. Wherever he went, groups of people would stand, calling out and pointing. As the tsar walked down Zuiddijk one day, young boys threw.

‘rotten apples and pears, grass and other rubbish; he was hit in the neck by a stone, which caused him severe pain. At the sluice in Horn someone threw a clump of earth and grass at his head.’


Shocked town officials provided him with extra protection. But when they invited him to the launch of a large ship, and he saw the huge crowd that had gathered, he slammed the door shut angrily. They had gone too far. After only eight days in Zaandam, Peter returned to Amsterdam - although he was almost unable to find his boat amid the hordes of onlookers. Not until later the following year did Peter return to settle his overdue rent.


While in Amsterdam, Peter worked and lived at the Dutch East India Company shipyard. Besides shipbuilding, he also learned about watch-making, about making coffins, etchings, post-mortems, paper making and silk spinning. He investigated the art of gardening and book printing. The anatomist Frederik Ruysch even showed Peter how to pull teeth, and he visited a dissection performed by Herman Boerhaave.

Tall story?

While in Amsterdam, Peter the Great paid a visit to a friend. A maid was busy cleaning the stairs leading up to the front door. Peter asked to pass, but the maid told him he would have to wait until she had finished. When Peter mentioned that he was the tsar of Russia and really needed to go inside, the maid replied that “even if you’re a burgomaster of Amsterdam, you still can’t pass.”


In 1698, the ship on which the tsar had worked was launched: the Pieter en Paul. In fact Peter was not entirely satisfied by the Dutch method of shipbuilding. They were not methodical enough, and so he travelled on to England in the hope of learning more about theory. Later, in 1717, Peter returned to the Republic a second time.


Peter’s travels paid off handsomely. Back in Russia, the tsar introduced Western clothes and hairstyles, cartography, new tools, weapons and fire extinguishers. From Leiden, the tsar brought two mercury thermometers made by Daniel Fahrenheit. He commissioned the physician Nicolaes Bidloo to build Russia’s first military hospital. To set up the Academy of Science (1726) he invited Professor Willem Jacob 's Gravesande to Russia from Leiden. Peter filled Russia’s first museum, the Kunstkammer, with natural history collections he had bought from Frederik Ruysch, Levinus Vincent and Albertus Seba.


When the tsar decided around 1700 to build a new capital city, he looked to the Republic for inspiration. Amsterdam’s pattern of streets and canals were his model. St Petersburg is constructed on a series of islands linked by over 500 bridges. Dutch influences are evident in his own first residence in the new city, and in the original Winter Palace. The Admiralty was adorned with a Dutch weathervane and the church at the Peter and Paul Fortress has obvious Dutch Protestant style elements.


The tsar also put his newly acquired expertise in shipbuilding to good use. At Olonets shipyard on the Svir on 24 March 1703, Peter laid the keel of the frigate Shtandart. This and seven smaller vessels formed the core of the Russian navy. Under Peter the Great, a school of navigation was founded and a seaman’s academy. Many Dutch seafaring terms entered the Russian language at this time, like the word for bowsprit (boegspriet). Peter even considered starting a course of lessons in Russian Dutch, until vociferous objections led him to abandon the plan.

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Closed on 27 April (Kingsday)
Open on Christmas Day (25-12) &
1 January 11 a.m.- 5 p.m.

The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

Photo Roy Beusker Fotografie

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