Russian History in Medals: Peter the Great

by Olga Less

Medallic Art in Russia During the Reign of Peter the Great

Numismatic objects, be they medals or coins, have traditionally served as carriers of important political and historical information. The proliferation of medals in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe is truly remarkable. As easily portable attractive miniature sculptures, medals were not just collectibles—however aesthetically pleasing—but effective vehicles of propaganda.

Fig. 1. France. Portrait of Peter the Great. Engraving by G. Dupont after the original painting by Hyppolyte Delaroche. Ink on paper, mid-19th century. Peter the Great is depicted wearing a Russian regular army colonel’s uniform and an officer’s breastplate with a badge of the Preobrazhensky regiment (with patron St. Andrew).

Medallic art and production in Russia were introduced by Peter the Great (1696-1725) (Fig. 1) as part of his campaign of political and economic reforms to integrate Russia into the geopolitical fabric of early eighteenth-century Europe. Initially, Russian medals dedicated to seminal political events were commissioned from foreign workshops, usually German, by Peter’s diplomatic envoys or the tsar himself. Some European medalists would issue medals relating to ongoing events in Russian politics without any prior commercial arrangements with Russian officials. In the first quarter of the seventeenth century, the Moscow Mint started to employ a small number of outstanding European mint engravers (Solomon Gouin, Gottfried Haupt) as master die-sinkers. They were also assigned to provide instruction in die-stamp cutting to Russian apprentices.

The ANS collection of Russian medals from the time of Peter the Great consists mainly of medals relating to the events of the War with Sweden of 1700-1721 (or the Great Northern War). The die-stamps for this series were commissioned at the Augsburg workshop of the famous German medalist Philipp Heinrich Müller. The collection also contains later copies of these medals, commonly referred to as novodely, produced at the St. Petersburg Mint during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796) (Figs. 14, 15, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24). The Great Northern War series is not complete; out of twenty-eight medals, the ANS owns two original specimens in silver and five later copies in silver, bronze, and white metal. Another group of Russian medals of Peter the Great includes specimens, originating abroad, whose issuance was not prompted by requests from the Russian court. They are usually referred to as Rossica in Russian numismatic literature and are dedicated to major victories of the Russian troops in the military conflicts with Turkey and Sweden, visits of Peter the Great to European courts, and his birth and death (Figs. 3, 9, 10, 20, 21, 27, 28). The ANS also possesses a single example of a personal medal struck in honor of a Russian admiral who participated in the Great Northern War (Fig. 19). Early personal medals constitute a rather small separate category in the Russian cabinet, because the tradition of honoring an individual for personal accomplishments regardless of his social status was rare in Russia at that time. During the latter half of the eighteenth century, Russian personal medals would be issued in profusion.

Russian medals from the ANS cabinet not only reflect major historic events of the reign of Peter the Great but also provide a good overview of contemporary Russian medallic production. Peter the Great aimed to overhaul the old Russian monetary system as part of his social reforms. Instead of making coins of copper wire, Peter wanted to issue coinage based on European standards. Production of medals was part of a plan that included the establishment of a new mint. The St. Petersburg Mint became functional shortly before Peter’s death in 1725, but, even before that, the state had already assumed authority over medal issuance in Russia. Medals thus became instrumental in the propaganda efforts of Peter the Great in military and ideological battles with his opponents at home and abroad.

Seventeenth-Century Russia Before Peter the Great

During the reign of Peter the Great’s father, Tsar Alexey Romanov (1646-1676) (Fig. 2), Russian society continued to embrace a centuries-old, traditional way of life prescribed and regulated by the postulates of the Russian Orthodox religion. Yet it was also slowly turning toward the new trends in social development arriving from the West. These new ideas and influences did not, however, take a clear shape when Alexey first came to power in 1645. Alexey’s education serves as an example of this dichotomy. As a boy, he was surrounded by clerics who instilled in him a profound piety coupled with extensive knowledge of religious texts; his interests, however, reached beyond psalm books and church services. At eleven, he amassed a small library that included a grammar book and a dictionary published in Lithuania as well as a volume on cosmography. He received instruction in Greek and Latin. Among the toys he played with were a suit of armor and a horse, as well as musical instruments, maps, and “printed sheets” (engravings) of German manufacture. Alexey’s chaperon, boyar B. I. Morozov, introduced the young tsarevich and his brother to German fashions. Alexey became tsar of all Russia at sixteen after the loss of both parents. His reign was marked by a series of social and religious upheavals and military conflicts involving Sweden, Poland, Turkey, and Crimea. Peter would inherit these and many other unresolved political issues from his father.

Fig. 2. Russia. Unknown painter. Portrait of Tsar Alexey Romanov (1629-1676). Oil on canvas, circa 1670.

Despite the patriarchal character of his ruling style, which was deeply rooted in the Russian religious tradition, the need for social reforms was clear to Alexey. Important social regulations were introduced during his reign. Great effort was devoted to military reorganization: city guards were gradually replaced with regular infantry and cavalry troops, and foreign military specialists were employed to provide instruction in the latest developments of contemporary military theory. In 1647, a German book on military tactics was translated into Russian. In 1669, the first Russian naval ship was built by Dutch engineers in the Russian village of Dedinovo.

Military reorganizations and associated interest in the latest war technology prompted a considerable influx of foreigners into Russia, Moscow in particular. They were treated with a great deal of suspicion by the Muscovites and were segregated into the compound commonly referred to as the German Settlement (or Nemetskaya Sloboda). The German Settlement would later exert a great influence on Peter the Great in his daring plan to make Russia a power equal to the great European empires of the early eighteenth century.

Peter the Great, the third monarch of the Romanov dynasty, was born in the Moscow Kremlin on May 30, 1672. Peter’s mother, Natalya Naryshkina (Fig. 3, obv.), was brought up in the household of the wealthy boyar A. S. Matveyev, who welcomed Western influences, if only in the décor of his residence. From early childhood, Peter was surrounded by a multitude of objects of foreign manufacture. His nursery was filled with music boxes and instruments, not unlike the items that once belonged to his father. Gradually, musical toys were replaced with toy weapons: artillery pieces, pistols, and horse-drawn cannons (Fig. 4). The impressive toy arsenal amassed by the small boy was probably his response to the uncertainty and physical danger in which Peter found himself at the age of four, after his father’s death in 1676.

Fig. 3. Germany. Peter Paul Werner, WM medal commemorating the birth of Peter the Great. This specimen is a retrospective medal first issued during the reign of Catherine II showing profile portraits of Peter’s parents, Tsar Alexey and Tsaritsa Natalya. Copy by an unknown master, latter half of the 19th century. Diakov 1.4. (ANS 1907.31.2) 66 mm.

Fig. 4. Russia. Model of a 17th-century cannon. Wood, bronze, paint.

Alexey was married twice, which left two mutually hostile clans, Miloslavsky and Naryshkin, with claims to the Russian throne upon his death. The animosity of the two cliques escalated rapidly, as it was unclear who would assume power. Alexey’s brother, the sickly Tsar Fyodor, died in 1682, and Tsarevna Sophia (Peter’s older half-sister), supported by the Russian city guards, became regent under the dual rule of the underage Peter and his brother Ivan. The violent power struggle brought about by this conflict deeply affected Peter as a young child. He witnessed massive bloodshed and mutilations instigated by the Miloslavskys and carried out with cruel fervor by the guards. This experience probably strengthened his desire to form a disciplined regular army that would implicitly follow his orders. Unlike his predecessors, Peter chose not to rely upon the loosely formed regiments of city guards known as the Streltsy (Fig. 5). In Peter’s mind, the Kremlin was associated with great danger, fear, and violence (not unfamiliar to many a Russian before and after). Consequently, this medieval Russian castle, with all its “dungeons and dragons,” was completely abandoned by him. In 1712, St. Petersburg, founded on the territories gained in the war with Sweden, became the new, modern capital of the young Russian empire.

Fig. 5. Russia. Streltsy. Lithograph, 19th century.

Peter’s Childhood Military Campaigns

Driven out of the Kremlin, young Peter and his mother moved to his late father’s favorite summer retreat on the outskirts of Moscow, where, from the age of five, Peter was surrounded by an enormous entourage of several hundred people, from noblemen to low servants. Regardless of their social status, many of them were recruited for his military and navy “campaigns” in the nearby villages, fields, rivers, and woods (Fig. 6). By the 1690s, a number of Peter’s playmates were receiving professional army training, conducted by foreign officers from the German Settlement, some of whom, like Scottish general Patrick Gordon or Franz Lefort from Geneva (Fig. 7), would remain Peter’s close friends and advisers throughout their lives. Alexander Menshikov, a low-level aristocrat who became the young tsar’s best personal friend and an extremely influential politician (Fig. 8), also participated in the early military exercises of Peter’s motley crew assembled from foreign officers and young Russian recruits from all walks of life.

Fig. 6. Russia. Peter’s childhood military campaigns. Miniature from P. N. Krekshin’s History of Peter I. Watercolor on paper, first half of the 18th century.

Fig. 7. Germany [?]. Portrait of Franz Lefort (1656-1699). Engraving by P. Schenk. Ink on paper, 1698

Fig. 8. Russia. Unknown painter, Portrait of Alexander Menshikov (1670-1629). Oil on canvas, first half of the 18th century.

Peter’s excursions into nearby woods and fields with toy weapons was more than mere child’s play; it was also an early realization of self-defense, a preparation for his revenge against the rebellious half-sister backed by Streltsy, and the embryonic stage of the creation of the regular army. During this time, Peter’s lifestyle became what it would be like for the rest of his reign, forward thinking and always searching for new knowledge and experience in all of the practical sciences (military, navigation, shipbuilding, mathematics, and geography). Soon enough, the skills honed in these seemingly childish games would be used in the wars with Turkey and Sweden over the control of seaports in the south and north of Russia.

European Travels

The rebellious regent Sophia was overthrown in 1689 and sent by force to a convent to become a nun. In 1696, Peter became the sole ruler of Russia after the death of his brother Ivan. One year later, the young tsar undertook a prolonged journey to Europe. He traveled under the fictitious name of Pyotr Mikhailov, posing as a member of the Great Russian Imperial Embassy, which consisted of two hundred and fifty emissaries. The main goal of the embassy was to forge alliances with major European powers—Prussia, France, the Netherlands, England, and Austria—against Turkey. However, this diplomatic mission did not secure any military or political support, because Europe was on the brink of the War of Spanish Succession.

Peter, who first went to Germany, then to the Netherlands and England, was mainly interested in perfecting his skills in artillery, shipbuilding, and navigation. He received private instruction in artillery from a German army general and worked in the shipyards at Saardam and Amsterdam. Seen by the refined European aristocrats as an immature barbarian prone to excessive drinking and lacking fine manners, Peter nevertheless paid considerable attention to royal art collections and developed an interest in numismatics while visiting the medal and coin cabinets of the European kings and princes. Peter’s close advisers and collaborators, themselves avid collectors of fine art and numismatic items, made several purchases of medals during their European travels, including a 276-piece collection of bronze medals dedicated to the life and deeds of Louis XIV, which was sent from Paris to Russia in 1716.

In the late 1690s, Russia did not yet have an established medal-making industry. Most medals reflecting events of contemporary Russian history were either executed in Europe on commission from Russian emissaries or issued by local medalists to commemorate important victories of the Russian army in the hopes of attracting future orders from the tsar or his associates. Russia was slowly rising to prominence in the modern European political landscape, and medals served as a vehicle of propaganda and glorification of the military and political accomplishments of the young Russian monarch.

Russo-Turkish War of 1686-1700: The Capture of Azov

Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Russia intensified its attempts to acquire control of the Black Sea and expand its southern territories. The Russo-Turkish War of 1686-1700 was part of the European struggle against the military aggression of the Ottoman Empire, and it started after Russia joined the “Holy League” in 1684 together with Austria, Poland, and Venice. The Crimean campaigns of 1686 and 1687, under the leadership of Prince Golitsyn, were unsuccessful. His attack on the Turkish fortress of Azov in 1695 was a fiasco due to the lack of strong military leadership and insufficient experience in the capture of fortified targets. For an effective siege, more artillery and a naval fleet to block the fortress from the sea were needed. Soon after the first failed attempt to take Azov, preparations for the second campaign began. In Moscow and Voronezh, a fleet of two large ships, twenty-six galleys, and more than a thousand small vessels was completed in the fall of 1695. On July 19, 1696, the fortress of Azov was conquered.

Since the Great Embassy failed to attract the support of major European powers for the war with Turkey, Russia turned to Poland, Saxony, and Denmark to secure their alliance in the later war against Sweden to help gain access to the Baltic Sea. However, before embarking on a new military campaign, Russia needed to sign a peace treaty with Turkey. In the Treaty of Carlowitz (1699), the Ottoman Empire surrendered Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia to the Hapsburgs, much of Greece to Venice, and Moldavia to Poland. In the Treaty of Constantinople, signed in 1700, Russia gained control over Azov. This event was commemorated by a medal that belongs to the Rossica group and was executed in Germany by the famous Münzmeister Georg Friederick Nürnberger and his associate Georg Hautsch (Fig. 9). On the obverse of this silver medal, Peter the Great is depicted as a magnificent European emperor, laureated and draped in the royal mantle over a suit of armor. The reverse features a rich and dynamic composition depicting Peter in pseudo-Russian attire seated on the right, leaning on a shield with the Russian double eagle and holding a parchment in his left hand, before the kneeling chained female figure in the city crown symbolizing Azov, who is being presented to him by an armored soldier. Behind Peter is Ceres with a cornucopia, alluding to the rich and fertile southern Russian territories gained as a result of the treaty. Laden with symbolism borrowed from the classical sources, this medal is a wonderful example of the ebullient baroque style dominant in the arts of the late seventeenth century and well suited for the glorification of a victorious and virtuous ruler. The legend of the medal emphasizes the young monarch’s generosity and justice toward the enemy: QVA VICIT VICTOS PROTEGIT ILLE MANV. Claud. [BY THE SAME HAND BOTH WINS, AND PROTECTS THE DEFEATED. Claudius]. Characteristically, early Russian medals issued in Europe would have Latin legends, thus rendering them more important in the European context, because the Western power elite was intended to be the primary recipient of the information presented by the medals.

Fig. 9. Germany. Georg Friederick Nürnberger and Georg Hautsch, AR medal, “Peace at Carlowitz,” 1701. Diakov 12.1. (ANS 0000.999.53417) 41 mm.

Another medal commemorating historic events involving the capture of Azov dates to 1698 and is dedicated to the disbanding of the Streltsy Guards, first formed in the 1540s and 1550s. (Fig. 10.) Initially, free tradespeople and the rural populace would be recruited for Streltsy. Later, this military service became lifelong and hereditary. The Streltsy Guards lived in secluded settlements and received money and bread allowances from the State Treasury. By 1681, there were 55,000 Streltsy, including 25,000 in Moscow alone. Within the Streltsy units, there was a clear division between a few wealthy individuals and the poor majority, who suffered from frequent salary delays and participated in the peasant uprisings of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Those who were on top of the hierarchy supported the government and actively participated in the power struggle between the Miloslavsky and Naryshkin clans, demonstrating open hostility toward any foreign innovations. After the fall of the regent Sophia in 1689, Peter’s government brutally suppressed the Streltsy’s military and political influence by way of interrogations under torture and mass executions in which, allegedly, Peter personally participated. It was hard for Peter to forget the childhood memories of the murders of his relatives committed by the inebriated Streltsy rampaging through the rooms of the Kremlin. Peter removed eight Moscow Streltsy regiments and transferred them to the southern territories of Russia, particularly to Azov, where they organized an uprising. It was subsequently suppressed and their disbandment ordered.

The medal from the ANS collection commemorating the complete disbandment of Streltsy was executed by an unknown Western European medalist (Fig. 10). It displays Peter the Great’s shoulder-length profile portrait on the obverse and an allegorical scene on the reverse. Young Peter is portrayed, as on the previously illustrated specimen, as a glorious emperor, laureated and armored. His youthful appearance on the medallic portrait renders him somewhat immature (he was twenty-six years old at the time), yet his posture is confident and dignified. On the reverse, a finely executed relief depicts Heracles draped in the lion’s skin about to strike the Lernean hydra with a club; to the right, the winged figure of Fame is holding a laurel wreath above Heracles’ head; and in the background, a fortress labeled ASOF is seen on the right. The visual parallel to the Greek mythological hero Heracles employed by the artist is based upon the iconographic repertoire of the baroque familiar to a contemporary European audience. The Latin inscription in the exergue summarizes Peter’s recent domestic political successes in Crimea, which resonated as far as Western Europe: SEQUITUR TERRAQUE MARIQUE | GLORIA | 1698 [GLORY FOLLOWS HIM ON SHORE AND AT SEA]. Interestingly, the obverse legends of these medals do not contain the word “emperor” in Peter’s title. He is referred to as “great tsar” or “great duke of Moscow,” but not yet “Russian emperor.”

Fig. 10. Germany or Netherlands. Unknown master, AR medal, “Disbandment of Streltsy,” 1698. Diakov 9.3. (ANS 0000.999.53473) 36 mm.

The Great Northern War (1700-1721) and Associated Medals

The peace treaty with Turkey was signed on August 18, 1700, in Constantinople. Internal peace was thus restored, if only temporarily. Now Russia was ready for another war: this time, with the Swedish King Karl XII (Fig. 11). Russia fought the Great Northern War of 1700-1721 with Sweden to gain access to the Baltic Sea and regain control over the territories in the northwest that it had lost in 1613.

Fig. 11. Portrait of Karl XII (1682-1718). Engraving by J. S. Heifs. Ink on paper, early 18th century.

The Swedish army and navy were among the strongest in contemporary Europe. Russia was in no position to fight Karl XII alone and needed all the military support it could procure. Denmark, Poland, and Saxony entered the Northern Alliance with Russia in the war with Karl XII, hoping to regain their territories occupied by Sweden, while Russia hoped to obtain control of at least one Baltic sea harbor for navigation and trade.

The war was declared on July 13, 1700. The allies planned to surprise the young Swedish king with an unexpected attack. Karl XII foresaw their intentions and prevented the attack by bombarding Copenhagen, which forced Denmark, the only ally with a considerable fleet, to capitulate. Karl then moved his troops to the Baltic, causing the Polish army, intent on occupying Riga, to retreat. The first military contact of the Russian and Swedish armies in the Battle of Narva proved disastrous for Peter, whose army was ill-equipped to carry out a lengthy military campaign with a strong enemy seasoned in warfare. Later, Peter admitted that he had no clear military strategy for the campaign and that the enemy was stronger than he expected. Emerging victorious from the Battle of Narva, Karl XII dismissed Russia as a potential serious enemy in the war and concentrated his forces against the Polish troops, giving Peter time to reorganize the army. During this period, new recruits entered regular Russian army regiments, a fleet was built, borders and frontiers were fortified, and all artillery equipment was standardized. Due to the lack of metal, even church bells were used to manufacture cannons. Foreign officers were replaced by Russian natives. Eventually, the Russian army would emerge victorious from a long and grueling military conflict with Sweden that lasted over two decades.

Russian victories in the war against Sweden were the dominant theme of contemporaneous Russian medals. After the Battle of Poltava (1709), when a considerable military advantage over the Swedish army had been attained (Fig. 12), Peter the Great decided to commission a series of medals commemorating the events of the Great Northern War. During 1712 and 1713, the Scotsman Jacob Bruce (Fig. 13), one of Peter’s closest associates, personally negotiated on behalf of Peter the Great a large order of medal die-stamps from the famous German medalist Philipp Heinrich Müller. The medals of this series were intended for a limited, elite audience, usually aristocrats and foreign diplomats (thus the abundance of quotations from Ovid, Virgil, and Claudius used in the legends). They were also presented to royals during official visits of Russian diplomatic missions to European courts.

Fig. 12. Peter in the Battle of Poltava. Engraving by M. Martin the Younger. Ink on paper, first quarter of the 18th century. The print depicts triumphant Peter the Great on a white horse tramping over the vanquished Swedish troops.

Fig. 13. Portrait of Jacob Bruce (1670-1735). Engraving by an unknown artist. Ink on paper, circa 1710.

Over the course of two years, Philipp Heinrich Müller executed twenty-eight die-stamps for medals depicting important Russian victories in the Great Northern War from 1702 to 1714. The idea of the series was certainly inspired by the medallic history of Louis XIV, which enjoyed great popularity at the time and was often emulated by European rulers who ordered similar medal series. Müller was supplied with information about military victories, engravings with views of conquered cities, maps of fortresses, and a plaster medallion with Peter’s portrait for medal obverses. The ANS possesses seven of the twenty-eight medals of this cycle, two of which (Figs. 14, 15) appear to be original to the series (the former lacks Müller’s monogram “M” in the truncation of the shoulder of the bust; however, specimens bearing no monogram yet original to the series are known). The rest of the medals from this series are later copies of Müller’s die-stamps, with Peter’s bust on the obverse significantly reworked by Timofei Ivanov, who was active at the St. Petersburg Mint during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1791).

Fig. 14. Germany. Philipp Heinrich Müller, AR medal, “Victory at Schlüsselburg” (#1 in the Great Northern War series), 1713-1714. Diakov 15.8. (ANS 0000.999.53464) 45 mm.

Fig. 15. Germany. Philipp Heinrich Müller, AR medal, “Battle at Lesnaya” (#10 in the Great Northern War series), 1713-1714. Diakov 25.9. (ANS 0000.999.53458) 44 mm.

The iconography of Müller’s series of medals commemorating Russian victories in the Great Northern War epitomizes the baroque stylistic tradition in European medallic art. The bust of Peter the Great is invariably depicted on the obverse, draped in a royal mantle over a suit of armor, with the Latin legend PETRVS ALEXII FIL. D. G. RVSS. IMP. M. DVX. MOSCOVIÆ. Interestingly, Peter’s title in the obverse legend of this series includes “Russian Emperor,” which signifies his desire to be considered equal amongst his European counterparts and to demonstrate the growing military and naval might of the Russian state and its rapid territorial expansion. Müller’s workshop completed three types of medal obverses with Peter’s shoulder-length portraits in profile as well as two dies depicting him on horseback for medals commemorating battles at Lesnaya and Poltava. The medal dedicated to the Battle at Lesnaya contains an even longer title of Peter the Great on the obverse: PETRVS ALEXII FIL. D. G. RVSS. IMP. REX SIB. ASTR. CAS. M. DVX. MOSC. [PETER, SON OF ALEXEY, BY THE GRACE OF GOD, RUSSIAN EMPEROR, TSAR OF SIBERIA, ASTRAHAN, KAZAN, GREAT DUKE OF MOSCOW], emphasizing Peter’s power over vast territories in the north, east, and south of Russia.

The reverses of the medals feature finely rendered city views and geographic maps, as well as detailed battle scenes and mythological figures of ancient Greek and Roman deities who, while not engaged in the battle, are there to favor and protect the Russian troops. Brief accounts of the outcomes of the battles are given by inscriptions in the exergue. Some medals of this series also had an engraved edge containing a quote from Ovid alluding to the return of the territories that historically belonged to Russia. Another characteristic feature of Müller’s series is the use of chronograms in the legends for the identification of the year in which a particular event took place, a common practice at the time.

In 1716, all of the die-stamps were delivered to Russia, and several sets of medals of this series in silver and gold were struck at the Moscow Mint, with Peter’s personal oversight. During his visit to Paris in 1717, he presented several medals of this series to the officials who accompanied him on a sightseeing tour. The Paris Mint, in turn, issued a medal designed by Jean Duvivier, to commemorate Peter’s visit to the mint (Fig. 16). The shoulder-length portrait of Peter the Great in profile, draped in the magnificent ermine mantle, appears on the medal’s obverse. On the reverse, winged Glory with trumpets flies over a hilly landscape toward the rising sun. Latin legends complete the solemn effect of the medal, acknowledging Peter’s high status among European monarchs: on the obverse, the legend reads: PETRUS ALEXIEWITZ TZAR MAG. RUSS. IMP. [PETER ALEXEEVICH GREAT TSAR RUSSIAN EMPEROR]; on the reverse: VIRIS ACQUIRIT EUNDO [ADVANCING HE GROWS FORCEFUL]. Peter the Great was acclaimed “Emperor of All Russia” in October 1721, after the war with Sweden had ended. However, on this medal, executed four years earlier, he is already referred to as the “Russian emperor.” Though Europe was reluctant to recognize Peter’s imperial title, this medal serves as evidence of its gradual acceptance, particularly since it was issued by the Paris Mint. By 1717, Russia was winning the war against Sweden, thus validating Peter’s imperial claims.

Fig. 16. France. Jean Duvivier, AE medal commemorating the visit of Peter the Great to the Paris Mint, 1717. Diakov 52.1 (ANS 1951.109.1, gift of Serge V. Glad) 60 mm.

The first major victory of the Russian army against the Swedes in the north was the capture of Schlüsselburg in October 1702, under the command of B. P. Sheremetev. The reverse of the medal commemorating this event (Fig. 14) depicts the reclining figure of Neptune holding a trident and key and watching a bombardment of the city; a fortress in fire and smoke is visible in the background. The inscription in the exergue refers to the return of the territory that once belonged to Russia: POST ANN. XC. AB HOSTE | RECVP . D . XII OCTOB SV | MDCCII [AFTER NINETY YEARS TAKEN BACK FROM THE ENEMY. 12 OCTOBER (OLD STYLE) 1702].

In the spring of 1703, the fort Nienchanz (within the city limits of modern St. Petersburg) in the mouth of the Neva was seized by the Russians. Peter’s troops finally had reached the Baltic Sea. Two enemy ships were captured in that battle, the first Russian naval victory. Here, in May 1703, St. Petersburg was founded. Kronshlot, the base for the Russian fleet, as well as the fortress of St. Peter and Paul were built for the purpose of defending the Neva delta from possible future Swedish attacks. This event is reflected in one of the medals of Müller’s series, dedicated to the foundation of St. Petersburg and its harbor and shipyard (Fig. 17). The ANS Russian cabinet has a later copy of this medal whose die-stamps were completed by St. Petersburg Mint engraver Timofei Ivanov in the late eighteenth century (the medals of the Great Northern War series enjoyed a tremendous popularity among collectors and, as a result, old die-stamps wore out and broke quickly, and new sets of die-stamps were cut for replacement). The reverse of the medal depicts Minerva and Mercury (alluding to military successes of Russia leading to new commercial routes via the Baltic sea) seated on a cloud and holding a medallion with the portrait of Peter the Great, founder of St. Petersburg. The fortress bearing the inscription ST. PETERSBURG is depicted below.

Fig. 17. Russia. Philipp Heinrich Müller, AE medal, “Foundation of St. Petersburg” (1703, #4 in the Great Northern War series). Copy by Timofei Ivanov, latter half of the 18th century or later. Diakov 18.6. (ANS 1887.7.1, gift of Daniel Parish, Jr.) 45 mm.

Gradually, Peter began capturing one former Russian town after another on the western border. His army also ransacked Estonia, which had been providing Karl XII with shelter and food supplies. In 1704, the Russians captured Narva and Derpt and forced Karl’s troops to retreat to Revel and Riga. The medal issued to commemorate the victory at Narva (Fig. 18, rev.) features a very dramatic depiction of the battle, showing the bombardment of the city by Russian artillery batteries, firing cannonballs toward the enemy’s fortifications.

Fig. 18. Russia. Philipp Heinrich Müller, WM medal, “Capture of Narva” (1704, #8 in the Great Northern War series). Copy by Timofei Ivanov, latter half of the 19th century or later. Diakov 21.11. (ANS 1951.99.1, Gift of Serge V. Glad) 45 mm.

However, despite all the military successes of the Russian army, peasant uprisings throughout the country caused by Peter’s relentless war effort threatened to obliterate the importance of the northern victories. To expedite his peace efforts, Peter offered Sweden several towns previously occupied by the Russian army (naturally, excluding St. Petersburg). Sweden continued to decline any peace negotiations with Russia. The Polish king Augustus II of Saxony had signed a separate peace treaty with Sweden and had surrendered Poland to Karl XII, abdicating the Polish throne, which left Russia without allies. Peter’s repeated attempts at the peaceful resolution of the war thus failed.

The Second Phase of the Great Northern War

After the Polish capitulation in 1706, Karl XII planned an attack that would strike a fatal blow to Peter’s army. To that effect, he would use an army of 16,000 men under General Loewenhaupt, 14,000 troops under the command of General Liebecker, and a large fleet to inflict a crushing defeat on the Russians in the Baltic, then completely destroy the Russian troops in a final battle. In response, Peter fortified Moscow and St. Petersburg and ordered the avoidance of any military contact with Karl XII in Poland, in the hopes of enticing him to invade Russia. Swedish attacks on St. Petersburg were unsuccessful, and Karl XII relocated his army to Ukraine, relying on the promised support of the Ukrainian Cossacks and the Turks. However, the Russian army staged a series of preemptive attacks, destroying food, munitions, and supplies waiting there for the Swedes. The battle near the village of Lesnaya, which took place on September 28, 1708, had a devastating effect on the Swedish forces. A “Corps Volant” of 12,000 men led by Peter the Great completely defeated the army of the Swedish General Loewenhaupt. The Swedes lost 9,000 people, 7,000 ammunition wagons, and their belief in their own invincibility. Peter called the Battle of Lesnaya “the mother of the victory at Poltava.” The obverse of a silver medal from the ANS collection dedicated to the Battle of Lesnaya (Fig. 15) (which appears to be original to Müller’s series) bears the image of a victorious Peter the Great on horseback, galloping over military trophies; the head of a defeated lion beneath symbolizes the Swedish army. The reverse features the allegorical figure of Glory holding an oval shield inscribed with a quote from Ovid, referring to the losses sustained by the Swedes in the battle: CAPVT | EST | A CORPORE | LONGE | OVID [THE HEAD IS SEPARATED FROM THE BODY. OVID]. The map of the battle is seen in the background, and its outcome is succinctly summarized in the inscription placed in the exergue: DEVICTO LOWENHAVPT | CAESIS AVT CAPT . XVI . | MILL . SVEC [LOEWENHAUPT CONQUERED, 16,000 SWEDES KILLED OR CAPTURED].

In the north, the Russian army and navy successfully repelled Swedish attacks as well. The personal medal of admiral Fyodor Apraksin celebrates his successful naval defense of St. Petersburg against an attack of the Swedish fleet (Fig. 19). The reverse of the medal depicts a naval battle scene with the Russian legend [HE WHO] GUARDS THIS DOES NOT SLEEP, BETTER DEATH THAN DISLOYALTY. Apraksin, one of Peter’s close associates and a hero of the Northern War, was a connoisseur of medals and superintendent of the Moscow Mint. The original dies of Apraksin’s personal medal were executed by Solomon Gouin (obverse) and Gottfried Haupt (reverse), and were subsequently recut by a number of eighteenth-century mint engravers. The ANS specimen is a later copy of this medal by Samoila Yudin.

Fig. 19. Russia. Solomon Gouin and Gottfried Haupt, AE personal medal of admiral Fyodor Apraksin (1708). Copy by Samoila Yudin, latter half of the 18th century or later. Diakov 26.2. (ANS 1887.7.2) 53 mm.

The Battle of Poltava and the End of the Great Northern War

Now that Karl XII was left without ammunition and supplies and with no Ukrainian or Turkish allies to support him, Russian troops were ready to engage in the battle that would seal the fate of the Swedish army. On June 27, 1709, the Russians defeated the Swedish army in the Battle of Poltava, thanks to the innovative tactics of the Russian army generals who, for the first time in military history, introduced the use of redoubts in the battlefield. The cavalry troops under the command of Alexander Menshikov attacked Swedish cavalry and retreated under the protection of the redoubts. The pursuing Swedes came under fire from the Russian artillery protected by field fortifications. The Swedish army, unable to repel the multiple attacks by the Russians, fled the battlefield and finally capitulated. Out of 30,000 Swedish troops, over 9,000 were killed and 3,000 were captured by the Russians. The wounded Swedish king managed to escape, but died in battle before the end of the war. The victory at Poltava demonstrated the birth of a disciplined, professionally trained Russian army capable of defending its country’s territorial interests against one of the strongest and most powerful European armies of the age. Two medals from the Russian cabinet celebrating the victory in the Battle of Poltava were issued in Europe, one by Nuremberg medalist Georg Hautsch (Fig. 20) and the other by Peter Berg of Denmark (this attribution, however, remains to be confirmed) (Fig. 21). The reverse of the former features Peter the Great in the guise of St. George slaying the dragon, whereas that of the latter depicts a finely rendered neoclassical temple surmounted by an equestrian statue of the tsar flanked by war trophies; below are the statues of Fortune and Hercules with a burning altar at center. The inscription in the exergue refers to the occasion of the medal’s issue: OB DEVICTOS SVECOS | AD PVLTAV. MDCCIX. | D.29 IVN. ST. V. [IN MEMORY OF THE VICTORY OVER THE SWEDES AT POLTAVA. 1709, 29TH DAY OF JUNE (OLD STYLE)]. The emergence of medals such as these (belonging to the Rossica category) underscores the importance of the event they commemorate. Indeed, the Battle of Poltava played a crucial role in the establishment of Russia as an influential European power. Equally, these two medals can be regarded as the acknowledgement of this event’s political significance beyond Russian borders.

Fig. 20. Germany. Georg Hautsch, AR medal, “Battle of Poltava,” 1709. Diakov 27.13. (ANS 0000.999.53465) 43 mm.

Fig. 21. Denmark. Peter Berg [?], AR medal, “Battle of Poltava,” 1709. Diakov 27.12. (ANS 0000.999.53468) 43 mm.

The victories at Lesnaya and Poltava proved that Russia was stronger acting on its own behalf, rather than in alliance with other countries. The political situation in which Peter the Great found himself after the victory at Poltava only complicated matters and postponed the end of the war for another twelve years. In pursuit of their own political interests, Denmark and Saxony promptly renewed their ties with Russia. They were followed by Hannover and Prussia (where Augustus II assumed power), both of which also relied on the military and naval resources of the emerging Russian empire.

Despite the destruction of the Swedish army, Karl XII’s fleet was still largely intact. The military campaigns of the latter phase of the Northern War, complicated by the events in southern Russia, were largely confined to the Baltic. In the fall of 1710, Turkey declared war on Russia for the return of the Azov fortress and the removal of the Russian navy from the Black Sea. Besieged by an enormous Turkish army and left without the military support promised by Poland, the Russians were forced to sign the Prut Peace Treaty of 1711 and return Azov as one of its conditions.

In the north, the Russian navy was more successful. Between 1710 and 1718, Vyborg (Fig. 22, rev.), Riga, and Revel (now Tallinn) were captured by the Russians. In 1713, Helsinki and Abo (Fig. 23, rev.) were seized by the Russian fleet. The Swedes were forced to retreat to the western border with Finland. The shields bearing the names of the captured Baltic towns are prominently displayed on the reverse of the medal from Müller’s Northern War series (Fig. 24, rev.). On July 27, 1713, the Russians won the first brilliant naval victory at Gangout, where Peter exploited the advantage of galleys over sailing vessels in calm seas, a new tactic dynamically rendered on a 1715 engraving by A. Zubov (Fig. 25). Soon after, the size of the Russian fleet exceeded that of Sweden’s. In 1720, another important naval battle was won by the Russians at Grengam, when Russian sailors managed to board and take by force four Swedish vessels. The medal commemorating this event (Fig. 26, rev.) was executed by an unknown but most likely Russian die-sinker and was reissued several times by the St. Petersburg Mint. In 1721, Russian navy troops landed near Stockholm, which forced Sweden to sign a peace treaty.

Fig. 22. Russia. Philipp Heinrich Müller, AR medal, “Vybarg Taken” (1710, #15 in the Great Northern War series). Copy by Timofei Ivanov, latter half of the 18th century or later (ANS 1925.146.8) 49 mm.

Fig. 23. Russia. Philipp Heinrich Müller, WM medal, “Capture of Abo” (1713, #24 in the Great Northern War series). Copy of Timofei Ivanov, latter half of the 19th century or later. Diakov 44.5. (ANS 1951.99.2, gift of Serge V. Glad) 46 mm.

Fig. 24. Russia. Philipp Heinrich Müller, AE medal, “Russian Victories in the Northern War” (1710, #23 in the Great Northern War series). Copy by Timofei Ivanov, latter half of the 18th century or later (ANS 1994.22.12, gift of Mark and Lottie Salton in memory of Felix Schlessinger) 46 mm.

Fig. 25. Russia. Battle at Gangout. Engraving by A. Zubov. Ink on paper, 1715.

Fig. 26. Russia. Unknown Russian medalist, AE medal, “Battle at Grengam” (1720). Copy by Mikhail Kuchkin, latter half of the 18th century or later. Diakov 56.9. (ANS 1936.40.9, gift of David M. Bullowa) 60 mm. The legend on the obverse of this medal reads: DILIGENCE AND BRAVERY EXCEED FORCE.

The peace treaty was signed in the small Finnish town of Nystadt in 1721. In St. Petersburg, grand celebrations with fireworks took place to commemorate the long-awaited end of the devastating war. Until his death in 1725, Peter the Great would celebrate this date as one of the great accomplishments of his reign, for not only did it mark the end of a lengthy war, but it also opened new trade channels and demonstrated to the world the strength of the young Russian empire.

Memorial Medals of Peter the Great

Upon Peter’s death in 1725, his second wife and successor to the Russian throne, Catherine I (who was crowned empress while Peter was still alive) issued an order to strike gold and silver medals in memory of the late tsar (Fig. 27). The medallic portrait of Peter the Great on the obverse is attributed to Anton Schultz, the Danish medalist who was employed at the Moscow Mint in 1724. On the obverse, Peter is depicted in the guise of a laureated and cuirassed Roman emperor, with a lion’s mask on the shoulder. The legend, in Russian, reads: PETER THE GREAT. EMPEROR AND AUTOCRAT OF ALL RUSSIA. The reverse displays an elaborate allegorical composition abounding with references to Peter’s entire reign. The armored figure of the emperor is shown taken away to heaven by Eternity, who holds a serpent in her right hand; below, a crowned female figure representing Russia is seated at left, with an orb and scepter on a cushioned stool with attributes of science, the arts, and trade beside her; in the background, a galley and a sailing ship are at sea. The legend, BEHOLD THE STATE I HAVE LEFT YOU IN, is adopted from the “Words on the Interment of Peter the Great,” by the archbishop of Novogorod Feofan Prokopovich, presented at the mourning ceremony in the St. Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. Most likely, Prokopovich himself conceived the design for the memorial medal reverse that alludes to Russia’s naval supremacy and control over the Baltic Sea gained in the war with Sweden. Two types of ships, a sail and a galley, are featured in reference to the victories at Gangout and Grengham. The emblems of military might, science, and commerce appear alongside the attributes of power, the scepter and orb. The female personification of Russia can also be interpreted as the image of empress Catherine I, whom Peter considered his only legitimate successor to the throne. This medal not only served as an act of veneration to the memory of the departed ruler but also reflected the ongoing struggle over the Russian throne. It also marked the emergence of a tradition of memorial medals in the ceremonial farewell to deceased Russian emperors. More than a decade after his death, a medal in memory of Peter the Great by Jean Dassier was issued in Europe (Fig. 28). Glorifying Peter’s accomplishments, the composition of the reverse of Dassier’s medal, quite monumental in its conception for such a small specimen (only thirty-nine millimeters in diameter), features seated figures of Neptune, pointing to the sailing ships in background, and Minerva, with her left hand outstretched toward the view of St. Petersburg in the background; the Latin legend above them reads: EX UTRIQUE MAGNUS [GLORIOUS AT SEA AND LAND].

Fig. 27. Russia. Anton Schultz, AE memorial medal of Peter the Great (1725). Copy by Samoila Yudin, latter half of the 18th century or later. Diakov 63.4. (ANS 0000.999.53462) 54 mm.

Fig. 28. Switzerland. Jean Dassier, AE memorial medal of Peter the Great. This medal was issued during the reign of the empress Elizabeth, Peter’s daughter, who tried to revive the spirit of her father’s social reforms. Diakov 63.12. (ANS 0000.999.53469) 39 mm.

Part of the Rossica group of Russian medals in the ANS collection, this small medal can serve as evidence of the wider appreciation and veneration of Peter the Great and his legacy. He transformed the medieval kingdom of Russia into a modern empire while serving the commonwealth of his country. Peter the Great redefined the concept of power, regarding it more as a ruler’s obligation than as a divine right, and he used that power to create a strong Russian state able to excel in all the aspects of a modern civilized society.


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