Since coming to power in 1689, the Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) had pushed ahead the forced modernisation of Russia. One country fascinated him in particular: France. He travelled there in 1717 at a time when the Regent sought closer Franco-Russian ties. Versailles was part of the voyage.
From 7 May to 20 June, Peter the Great stayed in Paris. His visit was both political and artistic. In 1703 he had begun the construction of a new city, Saint Petersburg, and since his victory in 1709 over Sweden at Poltava in Ukraine, Russia had become a European power. Peter was seeking diplomatic recognition and wanted to see the latest developments in Western Europe.
After staying first at the Louvre palace, he moved to the hôtel de Lesdiguières, one of the most sumptuous residences in the capital. For over a month he visited Paris and its surroundings. But Versailles was at the top of his list of places to see. From 24 to 26 May he stayed in the small apartments of the Duc de Bourgogne, and then from 3 to 11 June in the Trianon-sous-bois wing. Some girls were installed for his pleasure in the apartment of the pious Mme de Maintenon, to the great displeasure of Blouin, governor of the town! He was accompanied on his visit by the Duc d’Antin, Director of the King’s Buildings.
On the morning of 25 May, the Tsar sailed on the Grand Canal. He visited the Menagerie and then Trianon. He observed and noted everything that he wanted to reproduce in Saint Petersburg. Apart from the splendours of the Château, he was particularly struck by the urban planning of Versailles town, and adopted for his new city the grid layout and the three radiating avenues. He also approved of the width of the streets, so lacking in Paris, which he regarded as a dirty, constricted and ridiculously small capital.
He was particularly delighted to be in Versailles because in 1716 he had received a delegation of French artists led by Jean-Baptiste-Alexandre Leblond (1679-1719). A pupil of Le Nôtre, the latter reproduced in his residences the fountains of Versailles and Marly. An ornamentalist named Nicolas Pineau (1684-1754) accompanied him. Son of a sculptor working under Mansart, he went on to introduce French rocaille art in the Tsar’s Russian palaces, including Peterhof. Apart from Versailles, the Tsar visited the finest residences around Paris (Marly, Sceaux, Meudon, Petit-Bourg).
The visit of Peter the Great was also fruitful on the diplomatic front. In spite of difficult negotiations, France and Russia managed to seal their first agreement on 15 August in Amsterdam: two centuries of Franco-Russian friendship had begun.