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Peter The Great

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia, appears to us in a two-fold character that of benefactor and that of tyrant. One historian says of him : "If I were called upon to name the man, who since Charlemagne, has rendered the greatest services to his country, I should select Peter the Great." He entered upon his inheritance when Russia was in a deplorable condition. At that time it was an inland country, more Asiatic than European, isolated from the rest of the world, hemmed in and surrounded by hostile nations, with no army nor navy, which could be relied upon, and with no, access to the sea. The people were still semibarbarous, most of them isolated tribes, living among the snows and morasses and forests, utterly ignorant and with not the slightest knowledge of European arts.

After a troublesome reign he left the country improved as only a man of his ability and power could improve it. True it was but partially redeemed from barbarism, but he had made it a political power which foreign Nations had cause to fear, and he bequeathed to his successors a policy under which the country has been steadily improving from that time to ours. He left it with seaports on the Black Sea and the Baltic. With a large and well disciplined army instead of the Streltzi, one of the evils of ancient Russia, about which more will be said later.

That the genius and policy of Peter the Great has raised Russia to her present exalted position no one doubts.

The story of how he came to be ruler of Russia is both interesting and romantic. Peter's father was Alexis Michaelwitz, whose reign extended from 1645 to 1675. Alexis Michaelwitz was married twice. By his first wife he had two sons, Feodor and Ivan, and four daughters, one of whom, Sophia, played a very important part in Peter's life. By his second wife Alexis had only two children —a son and a daughter-Peter and Natalie. By the Russian law the Czar elected his successor, and naturally the eldest son. was given the preference; after him the next son and so on. Thus it may be seen that between Peter and the Russian throne were really two lives. If he had lived in England there might have been more, but by the ancient laws and usages of the Muscovite monarchy women were excluded from the throne. In-deed, not only were the daughters themselves excluded, but great care was taken that they should have no sons to inherit the throne. They were forbidden to marry, and in order to make marriage impossible, before they arrived at a marriageable age, they were placed in a con-vent and forced to pass the rest of their lives in seclusion.

When Alexis Michaelwitz died his son Feodor succeeded him. Feodor was sickly and lived only a short time. On his death-bed he designated Peter his successor, passing over his lawn brother Ivan, for the reason that Ivan was so feeble and infirm that he seemed wholly unfit to reign over such an Empire. In 1682 at the age of ten Peter became Czar of Russia.

His half-sister, Sophia, an ambitious and unscrupulous woman, who during Feodor's illness had obtained strong influence at court, and especially over the Streltzi, was greatly displeased that Peter should have been chosen Czar. For she thought that her own brother Ivan, if he had succeeded, would have been unable to take any charge of the Government; but Peter she knew in a few years would be able to govern the Empire by himself and would probably be influenced by his branch of the family, who were hostile to her. Accordingly, she instigated the report that Feodor had been poisoned by friends of Peter who desired to make him Czar. So many people believed this that the small ruler's mother was forced to flee with him to a celebrated family retreat, the Monastery of the Trinity. As it was, both she and her child barely escaped with their lives. A compromise was now effected by which Ivan was proclaimed Czar, not to reign alone, but in conjunction with his brother Peter, and Sophia was appointed Regent.

When Peter was seventeen he began to show extraordinary ability and a strong will. For this reason, it is thought, Prince Galitzin, Chancellor at the time, and a very able statesman, with the aid of the Streltzi and the cabals of Sophia, plotted against his life. It is said that two of the imperial guards, when Galitzin was giving his orders to them, horrified at the thought of the crime they were called to commit, fled to Peter in the night and warned him of his danger. He again took refuge in the convent of the Mother of Trinity. On his way thither he passed the detachment of the Royal Guards despatched to kill him.

Sophia, when charged with her crime, denied it, but circumstances were too strong against her. The sympathy of all seemed to be with Peter, and even the Streltzi, her strongest adherents, deserted her. The Chancellor Galitzin fell with her. Peter banished him to Siberia and confined his sister in a convent for the rest of her life, took up the reins of Government, young as he was, and ruled in conjunction with his brother Ivan.

Peter is one of the most precocious characters in history. At eighteen he was a man, with a man's stature and a man's mind, although his sister Sophia had done her best to weaken and enfeeble both. She had caused him to be surrounded by seductive pleasures. She had had him removed to a palace in a small village at a distance from Moscow, and had appointed fifty boys as his playmates and companions. They were placed under no constraint, but were allowed to indulge themselves in any way they might chose. Sophia thought that they would spend their time in such manner as to grow up idle, vicious, and worthless. In fact, she hoped that Peter would impair his health to such an extent by his indulgences as to be brought to an early grave.

Few boys surrounded by such temptations would have escaped the snare so adroitly laid for them; but Peter escaped it. Whether it was because of his own good sense, or because of the instruction and counsel of his former teacher, Menesius, or both combined, will never be known, but escape it he certainly did. In fact, he improved to the best of his ability the opportunities by which he was surrounded. He organized his play-mates into a military company, and learned with them all the tactics and practiced all the discipline of a camp. As years went on Peter contrived to introduce higher and higher branches of military art into his school, and finally, as the boys grew older, established professors of the different branches. The result was that when he was called upon to leave the place, the institution had become a well-organized and well-disciplined military school, and continued to be so for a number of years.

It was greatly on account of the energy and ability shown in managing this school that so many of the nobles attached themselves to Peter's cause, and he was enabled to depose his sister Sophia and take up the reins of Government at the exceedingly early age that he did.

At the beginning of his reign the Government was really in the hands of his courtiers and nobles, but as he grew older and felt stronger in his position, he gradually assumed more of the duties of the Czar. He was fortunate in meeting two able men, who held under him positions of great trust and honor, and without whom he could not have carried out as he did his plans of development and progress. The name of the first of these men was Le Fort ; that of the second, Menshikoff. It was through Le Fort, whom Peter met at a dinner at the house of the Danish embassador, that he learned of the superior military discipline of Germany and France and of the splendid mercantile power of England and Holland. Peter realized that on these two things would the greatness of his country depend. A strong army would make his throne secure; an efficient navy would protect his commerce one of the great sources of National wealth.

He took a great liking to Le Fort, and transferred him to his own service. A regiment was organized, with Le Fort as Colonel, and drilled under a discipline similar to that of the Western nations. A change was also made in the uniform of the soldiers composing it. Peter was anxious to learn these new tactics, and having no false pride, he entered the regiment as a drummer and worked his way gradually from corporal to sergeant and so on through all the grades. From this small beginning the whole imperial army was gradually re-formed and improved under the compact and scientific military discipline of Western Europe.

Pleased with this improvement of his army, Peter now suggested to Le Fort that they should introduce, in the same way, the elements of the Western arts and industries that they should bring from Holland, England, France, Germany, and other European Nations, artisans, and mechanics, whose superior methods and processes might be learned by the Russians. Le Fort replied that in order to do this it would be necessary to make several changes in the laws of the land, especially in the laws relating to the intercourse with other nations. The tariff on foreign goods must be lowered. Peter readily agreed to this. The change produced a two-fold result. First more foreign goods were imported. The people gradually came to live and dress better and to improve in their tastes, and Russian trades-men were compelled to adopt Western methods in order to compete with Western trade. Secondly, the revenue of the country was increased. The tax on goods was less, but the importation was so much greater that the deficiency was more than made up. Peter took this money and with it supported the artisans and mechanics, who came in from other countries, until they were established in their trades.

Peter's ambition had also been fired by a trivial ocurrence to build a navy. One day, in walking through his pleasure grounds, he discovered by the side of a small stream, a boat possessing to him a new thing a keel. His curiosity was aroused. Le Fort explained to him its use. Peter ordered the boat to be rigged and sailed on the River Moska. Then a yacht was built, manned by two men, and Peter frequently took the helm himself. This led to the building of five other vessels, which were sailed on Lake Peipus. Next a still larger vessel was procured, at Archangel, in which he sailed on the Northern ocean. Following his practice in the army, he first served as a common drudge on the vessel, gradually rising through the ranks, until he had mastered all the details of a sailor's life. In this way was stimulated his ambition to possess a navy and to secure seaports. He needed a fleet on the Volga to protect his lands from the Turks and the Tartars, and one on the Gulf of Finland to keep out the Swedes.

How was he to get the ports he desired? By war, and aggressive war at that. He first resolved to seize Azof, the chief city on the sea of that name. It belonged to the sultan of Turkey, who was then, not the "sick man of Europe," but a strong and powerful ruler. Peter knew he had no right to Azof; but he also knew it would be of immense advantage to Russia to possess it. So deterred by no scruples of right or wrong, he sailed down the River Don, with the ships he had built, and attacked the city. He was foiled in this first at-tempt, but not in the least daunted, he renewed the enterprise the next year and succeeded, his army being commanded by General Gordon, a Scotchman, while he himself served only as an ensign.

Peter's success at Azof greatly increased his interest in the building of his ships, and he determined to build a fleet to meet the Turks on the Black Sea. In order to do this he must have money. Never overscrupulous as to how he obtained what he wanted, he issued an order to the effect that besides the usual taxes, each noble should pay for the building of one ship. Many of the innovations made by the Czar had become very unpopular, and this forcing of contributions increased the discontent, anti resulted in a conspiracy to take his life. This, however, was detected and the plotters were severely punished.

Soon after this second attempt on the life of the Czar occurred his famous European tour. In 1697 he determined to see with his own eyes what arts and improvements of other Nations might be advantageously introduced into his Empire. In order that he might have more time in which to study these matters, and not be annoyed by the receptions, dinners, and parades which he knew would be given to the Czar of Russia, he decided to travel incognito, in the assumed character of a private person traveling in the train of an Embassy. Hereto-fore he had not been represented at any of the European courts. He now appointed an Embassy, at the head of which was Le Fort, and sent it to Holland, then the first mercantile State of Europe. On their way through Prussia these Ambassadors were fęted and banqueted to their heart's content. At Königsberg Peter left the Embassy to their revels, and went quickly and privately to Holland, where he hired a small room kitchen and garret and set to work as a journeyman carpenter, to learn the art of ship-building. Here he worked steadily for nine months, until he had mastered the principles of that industry. He learned also the Dutch language, and developed an unbounded curiosity and zeal to learn all which seemed desirable to know. Nothing new or strange escaped his eye. "What is dat?" was his constant query. He devoured every morsel of knowledge which fell in his way with unexampled voracity. "To see this barbaric monarch thus going to school," says our historian, "and working with his own hands, insensible to heat and cold and weariness, with the single aim of benefiting his countrymen when he should return, is to me one of the most wonderful sights of history."

Peter's favorite companion in his journeys around Amsterdam was Menshikoff the man who afterward became Prime Minister and Grand-Vizier of Russia, and furthered all of his sovereign's schemes with consummate ability. The ambitious Czar also made the acquaintance, in his wanderings, of several English ship carpenters. Through them he learned that the naval carpentry of their country had been reduced to a regular science, and with his characteristic eagerness he deter-mined to see for himself. King William was much pleased when he heard of his intentions, and provided him with an English escort. In England, as in Holland, Peter showed the same curiosity and desire to know all there was to be known on all subjects. Still keeping up his character of private gentleman, although to a great extent it had become known who he was, he visited all sorts of places. Dock yards, theaters, Quaker meetings, palaces, all were alike taken in by this indefatigable monarch. He was surprised at the law courts of Westminster. "Why," said he, referring to the legal gentle-men in wigs and gowns, "I have but two lawyers in my dominion and one of them I mean to hang as soon as I return."

Peter found that, as he had been told, naval carpentry in England had been reduced to a science; the proportions of ships were determined by fixed principles, and they were built from drafts and models made by rule. Of course, Peter did not stay long enough in England to master fully this subject, but at every ship-yard he studied it attentively, and he learned enough of the method to assist him greatly in introducing ship-building into his own country.

From England Peter went to Vienna, sending before him 500 persons whom he had taken into his employ navy captains, surgeons, pilots, blacksmiths, and various other mechanics. He did not stay long in Vienna, whose military schools he had come to study, but hurried on to Moscow to suppress a rebellion.

The first thing he did on his return to Russia was to crush the Streltzi, who plotted against him and were hostile to reforms. After he had disbanded these rebellious soldiers, he changed the uniform of his entire army. He did away with the long skirts and the bushy beards.

He was aided in this undertaking by Menshikoff. Peter also wished to make private citizens shave their beards, but such an outcry was raised against the arbitrary measure that he compromised; all who could afford to pay a tax which he imposed were allowed to wear beards. The clergy and the serfs were exempted from this tax. Peter likewise changed the calendar, making January the first of the year. He abolished the old law of marriages, in which the young people had no choice, and he decreed that a marriage should not take place unless the contracting parties had known each other six months. Numerous other reforms were made, intended to civilize his people and to make his power as Sovereign more efficient and compact.

The greatest oppositions to Peter's reforms came from the Church with the Patriarch at its head. He was not an enemy of this organization, but he deter-mined to bring it more under his control. He decided to do this very cautiously. When the Patriarch then in office died, Peter refused to let the Bench of Bishops elect another, as was their custom. Instead he placed at the head of the Russian Church one of his own tried friends. This ecclesiastic was instructed to follow, as nearly as possible, the footsteps of his predecessors, the former Patriarchs, so as not to disturb the Church by any apparent outward change, but he was to regard Peter as its head. This naturally caused a great disturbance among the clergy throughout the Empire, as soon as they understood what had been done; but they could do nothing against the autocratic Czar and were forced to submit. Peter also decreed universal toleration of religion except to the Jesuits, and caused the Bible to be translated into the Slavonic tongue and to be freely circulated among the people.

While Peter was making these reforms at home he was meditating military operations abroad. Something has been said of his eagerness to obtain seaports. He now desired one on the Baltic. This, together with Charles XII's wild desire to ape Alexander, brought on a war between Russia and Sweden. Peter took the aggressive. With 6o,000 men he advanced on Sweden and met Charles at Narva with only 8,000 men. But Charles' troops were well trained and they had right on their side. Peter was disastrously defeated. He took his failure calmly, as he had done that of Azof, remarking "They have beaten us once, and they may beat us again; but they will teach us in time to beat them." The glorious victory of the Swedish soldiers turned Charles' head. He entered Poland, dethroned its King, invaded Saxony, and prepared to invade Russia with 8o,000 men.

Peter now showed himself a wily General. Not having enough forces to offer battle to the Swedes, he gradually retreated before them, luring them further and further into the cold and dreary provinces, destroying everything in his retreat so as to leave nothing for the support of the Swedish army. At the approach of a severe winter Charles found himself in a freezing-cold country, in the midst of enemies, his numbers dwindled to 25,000 men, and with no supplies, while Peter had 100,000 men and abundant resources. Still Charles would not give up the idea of marching on Moscow, to capture which he had invaded Russia. In order to obtain provisions he determined to besiege the town of Pultowa. This place was strongly fortified and well garrisoned. Charles advanced to the town, reconnoitered it on every side and began the siege. Menshikoff was at the head of the Russian forces nearest to the town. He advanced rapidly to the rescue. Then followed a series of skirmishes between the two armies. Menshikoff was on the whole the more successful. In July the Czar himself advanced on the Swedes with a large army. At the famous battle which followed Charles was ignominiously defeated. He could hardly collect a handful of followers with whom to flee into Turkey.

The battle of Pultowa is one of the famous battles of the world's history. Charles and Peter at the time it was fought were the greatest rulers and warriors of the day, and the long and bitter struggle between them had been watched by all Europe. Pultowa may be said to have decided the destinies of two Nations. Charles was hopelessly ruined and Peter was left free to take from him as much territory as he desired. The Czar of Russia was now able to open his seaports on the Baltic and to dig canals from river to river.

Peter had now conquered Sweden. Still another enemy remained Turkey. The Sultan had long been desirous of getting back the territory which had been lost at the beginning of Peter's reign, and already had declared war. Peter, flushed with victory, advanced into Turkey with 40,000 men, and was led into a trap similar to that in which he had caught and ruined Charles XII. He found himself in a hostile country, beyond the Pruth, between the Turks and Tartars, with a deep and rapid river in his rear. Two hundred thou-sand men attacked his 40,000. His army was almost annihilated. He could not advance, he could not retreat. In three days he lost 20,000 men. Driven to despair he shut himself up in his tent and refused to see anyone. He had a dread of being captured by the Turks, taken to Constantinople, and perhaps exhibited in a cage, as Bajazet had been.

At this critical period he was saved by Catherine, his wife. She suggested negotiations with the Turks. Collecting all her jewels and all the valuables she could find she sent them as a present to the Turkish General. This policy was successful. The war was brought to a close, though Peter lost Azof, and consequently was shut off from the Black Sea, and was also forced to with-draw from the vicinity of the Danube.

As early as 1702, during the Swedish War, Peter had fixed his eyes upon a morass, a delta, half under water, formed by the dividing branches of the Neva, as the site of his future capital. A poor place, one would say, for the capital of an Empire, but it was the only place available for opening a water communication with Europe, and he realized that before his country could become Europeanized it must have intercourse with European Nations. Here, as if by magic, St. Petersburg arose above the piles on the Neva, although, as one historian has said, "the hymn which solemnized the entrance into being of the newborn city was composed of the groans of 100,000 men, dying in agony, of want, misery, and despair." Here Peter the Great shows him-self in the character of tyrant, caring nothing for the lives of his workmen, so the city he desired was completed. Charles XII, when Peter was building St. Petersburg, was then in the flush of victory. It is said that he remarked when he heard of it, "It is all very well. He may amuse himself as he likes in building his city there, but by and by, when I am a little at leisure, I will go and take it away from him. Then if I like it, I will keep it; if not I will burn it down." This was before the battle of Pultowa. As we know Charles never carried out his threat and St. Petersburg still stands the capital of the Russians, a monument of Peter the Great's sagacity and tyranny.

In 1715 Peter decided to make another tour of Europe, this time accompanied by his wife. He was enthusiastically received and entertained at Paris, where he continued his study of the arts, sciences, and laws. From Paris he went to Berlin, where he was received with equal attention. Everywhere he commanded the respect due his station and abilities, although he was rough and uncouth in his ways. The one thing which marked him was his strength of character. He was plain, temperate, and straight-forward. Peter seems to have made a better impression than did his wife, who was fat, vulgar, and covered with jewels and crosses, although she was a very able women, and after Peter's death carried on his good work.

Catherine was not Peter's first wife. In his youth he had been married to Eudoxia, whom he had divorced, and by her had had one son, Alexis. This son, Alexis, was destined to become the hero of a most dreadful tragedy. He was as great a trial to Peter as Absalom was to David. He was weak, dissipated, and dissolute. He cared nothing for the reforms of his father, was in league with his enemies, and was totally unfit to be the future Czar of Russia. Peter remonstrated with him again and again, but vainly. At last his patience being exhausted, there seemed to be nothing left to be done but to disinherit his worthless son, for he knew that if Alexis came to the throne his own life-work would have been wasted. Arbitrary as was Peter's action in disinheriting his son, he violated no positive custom, for as yet there existed no laws regarding the order of succession, and in view of his motive of promoting the welfare of Russia this act must be reckoned among his most commendable measures.

Then the question arose, What was to be done with his son? Should he confine him in a convent or shut him up in, a State prison or make away with him? Any choice would be bad. If he shut him up the scheming priests and boyars might make him Czar after Peter's death and so undo all his good work. If he should make away with Alexis the curses of his enemies and the disapproval of all Europe would follow him as an unnatural father. He knew that his son had been conspiring with the Muscovite party the party hostile to reforms against him, so he decided to bring him to trial for high treason. The Court found Alexis guilty. Whether his father would have concurred in this decision or would have used his prerogative and have pardoned him will never be known. Alexis, probably over-come with fright and repentance, was suddenly taken with a fit of apoplexy, and dieci imploring his father's forgiveness. This tragedy has always been regarded as a great stain on Peter's reign. He can, indeed, hardly be acquitted of the charge of unfatherly severity. Yet his position was undeniably a trying and difficult one. Fathers who have had the experience of dissolute and prodigal sons will be disposed to judge him leniently.

After the death of Alexis Peter fixed his hopes upon a second son, Peter Petrowitz, who had been borne him by Catherine. Again he was to be disappointed. A year after the tragic death of Alexis, Peter Petrowitz, who had never been very strong, died. This second bereavement completely prostrated the Czar. So deeply did he mourn for his son that he was seized with convulsions, to which he was subject when under any strong excitement. His face was distorted and his neck twisted in a most frightful manner. Even Catherine, who heretofore had been able to manage him in his attacks, could do nothing with him, her presence seemed only to recall to him his grief. Finally, one of his Ministers of State, after Peter had shut himself in his room for three days and three nights, refusing to see any one, spoke to him through the door and besought him to come out, saying there were several matters of State which needed his attention. Peter at last consented to have the door opened. His mind was diverted from his trouble and he suffered himself to be lead forth and to be given food.

Until the end of his reign Peter went on to complete the reforms he had undertaken in the internal condition of his Empire and sought in every way to strengthen his power and influence among foreign Nations. His only apprehension seems to have been that after his death the work he had begun would not be continued. He looked about anxiously for a successor, and at last deter-mined to leave the throne to his wife, Catherine. In order to secure her ascension to the throne he deter-mined to have her crowned during his life-time. He sent out printed forms to all parts of the country, asking that a solemn oath be given by all to acknowledge the right of the Czar to name his successor, and to support and adhere to anything this successor might do. He did not mention his intentions of electing Catherine. His people readily signed the paper.

The first step taken toward making public his intentions was the issue of a proclamation telling of his design and the reasons for it. He gave many instances in history where great rulers had raised their wives to reign with them. He spoke of Catherine's many services to him and to the State, calling her his "tried and trusted friend." He recalled to his people's mind her saving of his army at the time of the war with the Turks, in which he was so sore beset. Finally, in the year 1724, at Moscow, Catherine was declared Empress of Russia. This ceremony was not a mere empty proceeding. Legal steps were taken to transfer the supreme power into her hands at the death of the Czar. None too soon; for in less than a year after that time Peter died, on the 28th of January, 1725.

There is little to be added concerning the character of Peter, justly styled the Great. That he was tyrannical, was plainly not due so much to a lust of power as to the necessity of enforcing his measures, if he would accomplish the great work which he had projected. That he was coarse in his tastes and uncouth in his manners can hardly be urged against him as a fault, in view of the circumstances of his early life. His detractors have refused to see in his actions any higher motive than a personal ambition to make for himself a place and a name among the sovereigns of Europe; but the charge is ill supported by a careful study of all the details of his policy. But whatever may have been the controlling motive of Peter, no one disputes the fact that he laid the foundation of the greatness of the Russian Empire.

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