Peter the Great Modernized Russia and Opened its Path to Power

An extremely rare mint state Peter I Rouble 1723 sold for $63,250 at a May 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001, it didn’t seem to faze me. After reading all the literature on this pernicious disease, I was convinced of two things: First, surgery was the best option and second, the skill of the surgeon was the critical variable to ensure a positive result. I had heard the finest surgeon for this kind of procedure was a doctor at Johns Hopkins named Patrick Walsh and I had a connection that got me an appointment in June of that year.

After waiting in line behind the governor of Connecticut and the king of Spain, my operation was scheduled for Sept. 5 (it was a long line and Walsh performed only four procedures a week). Strictly by chance, I watched 9/11 unfold on CNN while recuperating in a rental recliner in a Baltimore hotel room.

PepsiCo made a healthy donation to a special research fund and invited Dr. Walsh to be a guest speaker at a boondoggle in 2003 in St. Petersburg, Russia, that coincided with the city’s 300-year anniversary. Pepsi-Cola had been the first western brand sold in the USSR (1972) since Chairman Don Kendall had a theory that trade was a better alternative than nuclear war. Since the Russians were short of hard currency, we traded Pepsi concentrate for Stolichnaya vodka. By the time I got to Europe, there were 26 Pepsi-Cola bottling plants in Russia.

St. Petersburg was always intriguing to me since it had been founded by Peter the Great in 1703. Peter (1672-1725) became ruler of Russia in 1682 (yes, he was 10 years old), at first jointly with his half-brother as co-Tsar and his mother as regent. In 1696, he became sole ruler of a vast empire. Seven years later, he founded St. Petersburg on the estuary of the River Neva and this new city, fortress and port by the Baltic Sea gave Russia direct access to Europe. This opened new opportunities for trade and military conquest, so Peter boldly made his new city Russia’s capital, stripping the title from the ancient seat of Moscow.

An admirer of Western palaces, Peter employed European architects to design the government buildings, palaces, houses and university in the fashionable baroque style. Labor was no problem with 30,000 peasants, Russian convicts and Swedish prisoners of war available for the construction gangs. More than 100,000 died, but those who survived could earn their freedom.

Peter proceeded to use his unchallenged power to make significant changes in Russia by founding the Russian navy and reforming the army along European lines, developing new iron and munition industries to equip it. By 1725, Russia had a first-rate army of 130,000 men. His court system was also transformed, adopting French-style dress. New colleges forced the nobility to educate their children and established a meritocracy for promotion. However, he treated rebels ruthlessly and adopted an aggressive foreign policy that gave him control of the Baltic Sea.

Although Peter wisely forged diplomatic ties with Western Europe, he failed to form an alliance against the Ottomans. His enlightened reforms established him as a powerful emperor of a vast empire and monarchy that survived until the bloody Russian Revolution in 1917.

“I built St. Petersburg as a window to let in the light of Europe!” Not a bad legacy and certainly superior to what has occurred in the past 100 years.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Americans Increasingly Shunning Artificial Sweeteners, Chemicals

This vintage “Double Dot” Pepsi-Cola radio, possibly one-of-a-kind, realized $4,312.50 at a June 2005 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

PepsiCo stock dropped recently when they canceled a meeting with bottlers to address the declining sales of Diet Pepsi. According to Nielsen (the experts in market share), sales of Diet Pepsi have dropped a staggering 12 percent in the last three months as consumers complain about the taste. The primary culprit appears to be replacing aspartame, an artificial sweetener, with sucralose, a sugar substitute.

Everybody still remembers the fiasco in mid-1985 when the Coca-Cola Company introduced “New Coke,” the unofficial name of a reformulated Coke. After the furor that ensued with customers (“Don’t f— with my Coke!”), they quietly withdrew the product.

Taste is one issue, but in 1969 the artificial sweetener cyclamate was banned due to concerns about it being a carcinogen. These concerns were later allayed, but not before products in all supermarkets and other distribution channels were withdrawn and destroyed. Now, sugary soft drinks will probably die a slow death due to effects of obesity, diabetes and political pressure (Philadelphia is poised to implement a 1.5 cent-per-ounce tax on sugary and diet beverages). Many schools already have banned them.

The bigger point is that the things we eat and drink today are remarkably safe (though maybe not necessarily healthy), especially when compared to items sold before the Food and Drugs Act of 1906. This led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

The real improvements in what we ingest today are simply stunning when compared to that of the 17th century and for many years after. Virtually nothing escaped the devious wiles of that era’s food adulterers. Usually, the primary focus was stretching more expensive items. Sugar was stretched using gypsum, plaster of paris, sand dust and other forms of “daft” (as such additives were collectively known). Butter was bulked out with tallow and lard.

A tea drinker might unwittingly take in anything from sawdust to powdered sheep’s dung. In The Victorian House, a bestselling social history of Victorian domestic life, Judith Flanders writes how “tea” shipments might have been half tea and the rest common dirt and sand.

Sulfuric acid was added to vinegar for extra “sharpness,” chalk helped somehow in milk, and turpentine in gin gave it a little kick. Copper arsenite was used to make vegetables greener and lead chromate gave bakery products a golden glow. Bread was a particularly attractive target. In The Nature of Bread, Honestly and Dishonestly Made, Joseph Manning, M.D., reports it was common for bakers to add bean meal, chalk, white lead, slaked lime and bone ash to every loaf they made.


Still, I hope the Pepsi folks don’t get too creative with Diet Pepsi. It tastes fine to me. It looks like the problem is they only substituted one artificial sweetener for another … taking out aspartame and adding sucralose from high-fructose corn syrup.

Maybe they didn’t get the memo that consumers in growing numbers are rejecting artificial sweeteners and chemicals (in all foods and beverages). Or maybe their subscription to Chemical Week expired. When consumers want artificial additives, they can go to CVS or Sherwin-Williams.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].