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François le Fort

François Le Fort dressed in his vice-regal robes

François Le Fort dressed in his vice-regal robes made of sliver thread embroidered with gold, trimmed with marten and sable. The jewelled silk cloth on the table with its dragon motifs was one of several gifts from the Chinese Emperor Kang Xi© Collections des MAF de la Ville de Geneve

Just over three hundred years ago the Russian tsar, Peter I, stood on a small island in the delta of the Neva river, surrounded by bogs, and ordered the construction of a new city in this dreary spot which he had recently reconquered from the Swedes.

It was the start of an era which saw Russia expand eastwards and southwards, and change from what its western neighbours regarded as a country of barbarians into one of the great powers of Europe.

The tsar, known to posterity as Peter the Great, was a passionate westerniser. And his enthusiasm was fired by the man who was probably the closest friend he ever had, François Le Fort, citizen of Geneva.

Le Fort arrived in Russia in 1676 at the age of 20 to take up military service; at that time Peter was only 4. It is not known when the two first met, but their friendship started some time in the late 1680s. It was probably nurtured by the similarity in their temperaments and tastes: Le Fort had a reputation as a skilful and indefatigable soldier, a generous host and a hard drinker - qualities which Peter appreciated rather more than did the Calvinists whom Le Fort had left behind in Geneva.

The German philosopher Leibnitz, who spent several years in Russia and knew Le Fort well, described him thus in a letter to a friend in Brandenburg:
"It was he who put the plans for travel and reform into the tsar's head. He is a heroic drinker - no-one can compete with him... Having started in the evening, he doesn't set aside his pipe and his glass until three hours after sunrise. Notwithstanding, he is a man of very lively mind."

Le Fort urged Peter to make Russia strong and open her to the world, because that was the only way to create the trade and industry that would make her wealthy. He warned Peter that without a fleet and without ports trade could not flourish.

Peter took the advice to heart. His enthusiasm for ships became so great that he learnt the skills of shipbuilding himself. He had the first Russian navy built at Voronezh on the Don in 1695. Its first campaign was against the Turks in the Crimea. Peter captained one of the ships, but the admiral was François Le Fort. The flagship was named the Elephant, after the Le Fort coat-of-arms.

Back in 1689 Le Fort had already persuaded Peter to send a mission to China, to demonstrate that Russia was open to the east, and to find new markets for Russian goods. Two treaties were subsequently signed with the Chinese.

Eight years later, it was under Le Fort's influence that Peter embarked on his "Great Embassy", which took him to the major countries of western Europe in order to see the latest technological achievements and to learn new skills. Peter accompanied the embassy in disguise; the official leader of the embassy was - François Le Fort.

Peter showered his favourite with gifts, including a sumptuous palace in Moscow. He also named him viceroy of the Grand Duchy of Novgorod.

Despite his robust constitution, Le Fort suffered for several years from the effects of wounds he had received in battle, and died in 1699.

But his spirit lived on, as Peter continued to implement the reforms he had called for. He updated the calendar, he changed the dress code, he forbade beards, he simplified the alphabet and the numerals.

And he founded St Petersburg, his "window towards Europe". As the imperial capital from 1712 until 1918, it oversaw Russia's expansion and modernisation. It attracted artists, scholars, scientists, soldiers and businessmen from all over Europe.

The Swiss were not the least among them.

An invaluable source of information in German about the Swiss in Russia is the series Beiträge zur Geschichte der Russlandschweizer, published by Hans Rohr Verlag of Zurich.

The Institut national de recherches historiques sur les relations de la Suisse avec l'Etranger at the Château de Penthes in Geneva has a rich collection of information about the contribution made by Swiss in foreign countries, including Russia.

Resources: DVD