Peter’s Great ‘Toy Army’
Published: May 7, 2014 (Issue # 1809)
Throughout St. Petersburg you can see references to “preobrazhensky” meaning “transfiguration”. These references are particularly frequent around Liteiny Prospekt and one could be forgiven for thinking that they are a reflection of the religious character of Russian society. Instead, they reflect the critical role that the Preobrazhensky regiment played in Russia’s history and its curious inception.
A favorite story told about Peter the Great is how he used to play soldiers and created his own “toy army” — his poteshnye voiska. The story is often told to reveal Peter’s ambition and his ability to organize his peers but the creation of this toy army is firmly rooted in the political rivalry of the late 17th century.
The death of Tsar Fedor III on April 27, 1682, caused a political crisis in Russia. The Romanov family was split into two factions with the obvious heirs to the throne still in their minority. Streltsy troops were spurred into rebellion by rumors, spread by the Mikhailovsky faction opposed to Peter the Great’s accession. On May 17, Streltsy troops broke into the Kremlin and killed in front of the 10 year old prince, Peter’s two uncles Kirill and Ivan Naryshkin. Although, Peter survived the attack, it had a deep impact on the tsarevich.
The political solution led to the regency of Sophia Alekseyevna during the minority of Peter the Great and Ivan V. It was this same year that Peter established his poteshnye voiska with which he played his war games.
Whether or not this was just a child wanting to play soldiers, the poteshnye voiska soon took on a much more serious nature and by 1683 the “troops” consisted not only of Peter’s friends and servants, but had also recruited a serving soldier and the toy army was organized into a unit of 100. By the time Peter was 13, the toy army was recruiting soldiers and foreign officers to provide military expertise and specific military training to the so-called “toy army.” Whether Peter intended it or not, he was creating a personal bodyguard which would form the basis of his later political authority.
The establishment and ongoing development of Peter’s toy army is also important for the insights it gives into Peter the Great’s own military education and his approach to military affairs. His military training focused on taking children at a young age and developing their physical strength and agility at the ages of 9 to 12 by playing games and doing gymnastic exercises. The next step was to develop children’s bravery by adding an element of danger to the games by climbing cliffs and ravines, walking on rickety bridges, playing on logs and pretending to be bandits. These games also included guard duty and reconnaissance. The next stage in developing children’s military abilities included teaching them to use weapons — Peter the Great could fire a canon when he was 12. Other technical skills were also taught and a greater focus was placed on discipline, honor and comradeship. Patriotism and purpose were also taught by teaching selective moments of Russia’s history and the dangers and ambitions of neighboring countries. From these classes, children were taught a love of their fatherland and a love for the army.
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