Russia had followed a different path to much of Western Europe for centuries. However, in the 1690s, Tsar Peter I of Russia wanted to learn more about the region and its navies. This led him to mount the Grand Embassy to Western Europe, in particular England. While there he would learn a lot – and one day that learning would help bring him to greatness. Brenden Woldman explains.

Peter the Great in Holland during the Grand Embassy. Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, 1910.

Peter the Great in Holland during the Grand Embassy. Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, 1910.

Like many young Russian students, twenty-five year old Peter Mikhailov left the confines of his homeland in 1697 to “both learn and experience” the culture and technological advances of Western Europe.[1] However, Peter’s joining of “The Grand Embassy” was one of intrigue and mystery for one major reason. “Peter Mikhailov” was nothing more than the alias of Russian Tsar Peter I. Peter, a man who appreciated the European ethos, wanted this incognito trip to bring back not only practical knowledge of Western Europe but also obtain ideas to turn Russia into a modern European nation.

The undercover aspect of his trip was quickly exposed, as the young Tsar was famously one of the tallest men in Europe, standing around six feet, ten inches. The physical reputation of Peter coincided with his social reputation, as Peter, who was known as a rambunctious “merrymaker”, left any place he visited in good spirits through a copious amount of alcohol consumption and partying. Nevertheless, the majority of the European populace did not notice that the leader of the Russian Empire was walking the streets of Europe as a commoner. These adventures led Peter to the Dutch Republic where he learned the art of merchantry and classical ship building while his ventures in Sweden led to the hiring of naval personnel and the sending of ambassadors to Russia.[2] Though the Grand Embassy was considered a success, one of the most important relationships was forged 10 years prior in 1687, when Russian ambassadors were treated coldly by the French government during a treaty signing.[3] After this treatment, Peter had a personal vendetta against the French, which led to an unlikely but resilient bond between Tsar Peter I of Russia and King William III of England.


Peter in England

William of Orange, the King of England since 1688 and the Dutch stadtholder, was a lifelong cynic toward the French. Once hearing of Peter’s hatred of the French (and his want to reopen economic relations with the Russians), the Prince of Orange was overjoyed to allow Peter to sail from the Dutch Republic and across the English Channel. With this most welcome invitation, Peter set sail and landed in England on January 10, 1698.

Peter’s love of Western culture only advanced during his time in England. His admiration of both England and the West was nothing new, as the young Tsar would send the sons of Russian noblemen to acquire a European education.[4] Peter was no different. During his time in England, Peter was given private tours of English historical and economic sites such as the Royal Society and the Tower of London to view the Royal Mint.[5] The young Tsar also viewed the English military Arsenal, as well as learning about English culture through artistic excursions in places such as Oxford, London, and Windsor.[6] In the realm of science, Peter visited the Royal Observatory at Greenwich due to his interest in using the stars for navigation.[7] However, Peter was shocked with the social and economic relations throughout England.

For the Tsar, England was home of a flourishing merchantry, a free press, an open government, and a cosmopolitan ambiance, which were all things Peter wanted to strive for in his own empire.[8] Hearing open debate among the people upon his visit to the English Parliament left the Tsar feeling elated, stating, “It is good to hear subjects speaking truthfully and openly to their King. This is what we must learn from the English”.[9] Yet, with all of the Tsar’s interests in Westernization, it was in fact one particular aspect of English culture that brought Peter there: the Royal Navy.


Learning about the Royal Navy

Peter left Holland having learned much about the art of shipbuilding but believed that the Dutch had no original theories about naval construction, unlike the English.[10] The young Tsar’s obsession with shipbuilding stemmed from the simple fact that Russia established a national navy in 1696, only two years prior. Needless to say, Peter needed advice on how to build a navy. King William III sent and subsequently gave Peter the Royal Transport, a ship used to carry prestigious guests from Holland to England and one of the most modern ships in the world.[11] This gift became a key example for Russian engineers to build up-to-date ships.

When Peter arrived in England, he moved into writer John Evelyn’s home in Deptford, south-east of London. The reason for Peter moving to a small house in Deptford was that it was close to the dockyards of King’s Wharf, where Peter regularly visited and studied the ships that were being built.[12] Moreover, the Tsar would repeatedly sketch the ships at the Deptford dockyards whilst also studying the “blueprints” of English naval architecture. However, the Russian Emperor did not spend his entire time studying English ships at King’s Wharf. To hone in on naval tactics for military conflict, Peter traveled to Portsmouth.

At Portsmouth, Peter reviewed the English warships, diligently noting the number and caliber of the guns on the ships while also studying mock naval battles tactics, logistics, and strategies, all of which the English specially arranged for the young Tsar just off the Isle of Wight.[13] With the new information about Western culture, naval architecture, and tactics learned in England, Tsar Peter I would return back to Russia and implement them in an attempt to make Russia a modern, European country.


What did Peter the Great take back to Russia?

Peter’s time in England came to an end on April 22, 1698. The immediate reaction by the English government of Peter after he left was one that supported the Russian stereotypes of the time. For the English, Peter was unintelligent, backwards, and frequently drunk. Even on his travels Peter’s party lifestyle could not subside, as he would regularly write about how he “stayed at home and made merry” to such a magnitude that John Evelyn made the British government pay compensation for three hundred and fifty pounds to cover the damage made by Peter’s “merrymaking”.[14] However, though the English may have thought Peter had learned nothing, the Tsar took his newfound knowledge and advanced Russia in profound ways.

The open policies and social relations between the government and the people in England highly influenced Peter in his later years when he implemented his highly influential Table of Ranks. Furthermore, English and Western culture helped shape the young Russian nobility for generations to come - throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. However, the knowledge of shipbuilding that Peter brought back to Russia helped change the country. When Peter returned to Russia, the Tsar established a large shipbuilding program in the Baltic Sea which, by his death in 1725, had 28,000 men enlisted in a Navy of nearly 50 large ships and over 800 smaller vessels.[15] It is also important to note that in Peter’s greatest fight, the Great Northern War against Sweden, the newly established Russian Navy was a key component to the Russian victory in the war. For Peter, the Grand Embassy and his travels in England were more than a mere adventure for a young ruler. They were instrumental in making Peter I into Peter the Great.


What do you think of the article? How important was Peter the Great’s time in England for his later successes? Let us know below.


[1] V. O. Kli︠u︡chevskiĭ, Peter the Great (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), 24.

[2] Lindsey A. J. Hughes, Russia in the age of Peter the Great (Hew Haven Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), 23-24.

[3] Hughes, Russia in the age of Peter the Great, 25.

[4] Kli︠u︡chevskiĭ, Peter the Great, 29.

[5] "Peter the Great," Royal Museums Greenwich | UNESCO World Heritage Site In London, July 21, 2016,

[6] Hughes, Russia in the age of Peter the Great, 25.

[7] "Peter the Great," Royal Museums Greenwich | UNESCO World Heritage Site In London, July 21, 2016,

[8] Hughes, Russia in the age of Peter the Great, 23.

[9] Kli︠u︡chevskiĭ, Peter the Great, 28.

[10] Ibid., 29.

[11] "Peter the Great," Royal Museums Greenwich | UNESCO World Heritage Site In London, July 21, 2016,

[12] Ibid.,

[13] Kli︠u︡chevskiĭ, Peter the Great, 28.

[14] Ibid., 29.

[15] "Peter the Great," Royal Museums Greenwich | UNESCO World Heritage Site In London, July 21, 2016,


Just who was Vladimir Lenin? While we know that he came to power after the Russian Revolution, much of his life is shrouded in myths and lies. Author Tanel Vahisalu explains all.

PS - you can find out about Tanel’s latest project on Russian history here.

A painting of Lenin by Isaak Brodsky -  Lenin in front of Smolny .

A painting of Lenin by Isaak Brodsky - Lenin in front of Smolny.

Ninety-three years after his death, Vladimir Lenin continues to make headlines. During 2017’s commemoration of the Russian Revolution, a poll conducted by the independent Levada Center demonstrated that 56 per cent of Russians believe Lenin played a positive role in history. What’s more, many of the remaining 44 per cent of Russians fail to see that Lenin was actually a supreme master of using fake news and mass manipulation.


The question becomes: How much do we actually know about Vladimir Lenin?

Despite a massive collection of history books, we still know surprisingly little about the man lining the pages. Perhaps that is because each of the 653 million volumes of Lenin’s published works – dated through to 1990 – contain fake biographies.


According to Russian historian, Dmitry Volkogonov, during Soviet times, there were at least 3,725 documents that were carefully collected and sealed within the cellars of Party archives that nobody was permitted to see. Many of these documents were said to be classified because they reveal the actual cause of Lenin’s death. Furthermore, many of the documents contain information about the true Ulyanov family tree, which was kept secret within the Soviet Union.

Bearing that in mind, let’s now turn to the most prevalent “alternative facts” of Vladimir Lenin.


Contrary to his official biography, Lenin was neither a Russian by ethnicity nor was he a peasant by descent.

Lenin’s mother, Maria Alexandrovna, had Jewish-Swedish roots. His great-grandfather, Moshe Blank, was known as a “mad Jewish merchant,” who had once set fire to 23 houses in his home village. Lenin’s grandfather, Alexander Blank, was a highly respected doctor and wealthy landowner, who bought an entire village near Simbirsk (today’s Ulyanovsk, Russia), along with 39 peasants and their farms.

The Ulyanov family was relatively affluent in local Simbirsk. Lenin’s father, Ilya was a high state official in the field of education. When he unexpectedly died, while Vladimir was 16, the family had sufficient income to easily support themselves. In fact, they even had servants.


Lenin was neither a kind-hearted, modest child nor was he a devoted revolutionary from a young age.

Already as a baby, Volodya – as he was called – stood out from his siblings. He began speaking at three and had trouble standing up on his weak feet. His head was larger than normal and he used to bang it against the floor in fits of rage. Lenin’s mother was sincerely worried about his cognitive development.

Lenin’s sister recalled - when their parents gave him a toy horse for his birthday – that he creeped away to a solitary space to tear its legs off, one by one. Volodya was a troublesome child, always fighting with his little brother, Dmitry, and purposely frightening his sister, Maria. It was documented that his parents found his behavior very disturbing.

Although Volodya grew up to be an extremely bright child, and was awarded a gold medal upon graduation, there is no evidence that he took any particular interest in revolutionary ideas prior to moving to Saint Petersburg in 1893.


In 1887, Lenin was neither expelled from university, nor was he detained in a Siberian prison camp.

A good example of “alternative facts” in Lenin’s official biography is the story about how the young revolutionary was expelled from Kazan University to a remote village of Kokushkino because of his revolutionary activity.

Truth be told, Volodya had only taken part in a peaceful student meeting and, when confronted about this, he wrote a voluntary resignation letter to the university. It is also worth mentioning that the village of Kokushkino was the same village that Lenin’s grandfather had bought. The Ulyanov family used it as their summer estate. So technically, he was “deported” to a nice vacation at his grandfather’s place.


While in Switzerland, Lenin was neither struggling to make ends meet nor did he have a happy marriage.

Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya lived as refugees in Western Europe for seventeen years, though neither of them had to work. They had several bank accounts in Zürich, and Lenin’s family regularly sent them money and packages of goods.

“In Zürich I messed around quite a bit an ended up in a … Swiss health resort”, Lenin joked in a letter he had written.

History has also revealed that Lenin had many relationships prior to Krupskaya, and he continued to have them during their marriage. The most famous of which was his affair with Inessa Armand, a political activist and family friend.


The cause of Lenin’s death was not cerebral atherosclerosis.

During his final years, Lenin suffered from loss of consciousness, paralysis, hallucinations, and epileptic seizures. His official death certificate stated his cause of death was cerebral atherosclerosis, yet two of his closest personal doctors refused to sign it.

No doubt that is because he likely died of syphilis, contracted at an early age and left untreated. In 1922, a number of doctors prescribed him salvarsan, which is a medication used only for treating syphilis. Additionally, a German physician who specialized in syphilis was summoned and commented: “Everyone knows for which brain disorder I am called”.


Taken together, if we look at Lenin’s life story, there is not too much that can be viewed as factual. Many of these “alternative facts” were perpetuated by Lenin during his lifetime, and were bolstered, posthumously, by Joseph Stalin and his successors to create a god-like cult figure for the Soviet Union.

Quite simply, Vladimir Lenin is the sad embodiment of the very problems that we face today – “post-truth politics” and manipulation based on “alternative facts”.

Learning from history, we would do well to question what we are told, and hold our political leaders accountable by calling truth to power.


Find out more about Tanel’s book, History of Russia in 100 Minutes, here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


Volkogonov, Dmitry. Lenin: A New Biography. The Free Press, 1994.

Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Harvard University Press, 2002.

Kolata, Gina. Lenin’s Stroke: Doctor Has a Theory (and a Suspect). The New York Times, 2012.

Roig-Franzia, Manuel. Medical Sleuths Discuss the Forensics of Death. The Washington Post, 2012.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

Do you know why the world nearly destroyed itself in a catastrophic nuclear war?

Two words – ‘Cold War’.

Get the book on Amazon


The Cold War was international affairs for the second half of the 20th century. Nuclear weapons testing, civil wars in all corners of the globe and the race for economic dominance were all key spheres of the Cold War, although they were just a few elements of an intriguing global puzzle. More so than the great battles between Carthage and Rome in Ancient times or the Napoleonic Wars, the Cold War defined our world. But, there was one key difference between the Cold War and earlier major wars. Due to advances in technology and communications, the Cold War touched most countries on earth.

This introduction to the Cold War tells the story of the great clash between the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist USA. It covers the period from 1945 to 1991 in one combined edition, neatly breaking the Cold War up into three parts.

Get the book on Amazon


The book starts by describing how two super-powers emerged out of the rubble of World War Two and includes the following:

·      How the Soviet Union and the USA quickly went from war-time allies to enemies

·      Events in East Asia - the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War

·      The most dangerous event of the early Cold War years, the Cuban Missile Crisis

·      The Vietnam War and its impact on the Cold War

·      The shocking power of nuclear weapons – and attempts to control them

·      Uprisings on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain

·      The super-powers as friends? Détente, Richard Nixon, and Leonid Brezhnev

·      The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

·      The rise of Ronald Reagan and his aggression in the early 1980s

·      How Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader

·      Glasnost, Perestroika, and how the Cold War ended


The approximately 250-page book is the perfect complement to the Cold War History audio series that is available as part of the ‘History in 28-minutes’ podcasts.

So come and join the past – get the book now!

Required History

The aim of the 'Required History' book series is to create approachable, succinct written introductions to some of the most interesting topics in history. They are designed for those:

·      That want to quickly learn about some of the world’s major historical events

·      Studying history. The books act as a perfect complement and overview to those undertaking high school and introductory college courses in history

·      Who enjoyed the audio podcasts and want to reinforce and further their knowledge

·      Learning English. The language and level of detail in the books are perfect for those in advanced English classes

All of the Required History books are designed to build on the audio podcasts available on the publisher’s website. They provide an extra layer of detail to the major historical events that the audio podcasts cover.