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Peter The Great

Peter The Great


Peter The GreatPeter I. of Russia has made a greater impression on the popular imagination than even his great work in the world might alone have won. By bringing Russia within the circle of European powers he altered the balance of empire. For Russia itself he introduced a new civilization, which has scarcely yet really amalgamated with the old. But bis own eccentricity, or combination of civilization with barbarism, has made him a picturesque figure in the annals of the world. Yet the epithet Great" cannot be justly denied to the man who gave his country seaports, commerce, fleets, and manufactures, arts and educational institutions and who changed the despised and barbarous Muscovy into the Russia, with whose ambitious schemes and preponderating force all Europe is deeply Concerned. The exploits which Peter achieved were mainly due to his own force of character, rather than to the favorable coincidence of circumstances. If it be true that the secret of greatness lies in energy of the will, in resolute endurance, and in self-sacrifice, there are few historical personages in whom its elements have been more strongly developed than in the imperial organizer of the Russian power.


Peter the Great was the third son of the Czar Alexis Michaelovitch, and was born at :Moscow on the 30th of May, 1672. On the death of his eldest brother, the Czar Feodor, in 1682, Peter was nominated to the succession, in exclusion of his brother Ivan, who was set aside on account of incapacity. Soon after, a terrible mutiny of the guards- secretly fomented, it has been said, by the Princess Sophia, the adult sister of Ivan and Peter effected a revolution in court by massacring the Mariskins, Peter's maternal kindred and adherents; and after much bloodshed and threats of a civil war, the two princes were nominated joint czars, under the tutelage of Sophia. She held the regency, and strove not only to keep Peter as long as possible from the exercise of power, but to render him unfit for it, by giving him a purposely defective education, and by placing in his way, as he grew up, every temptation to idleness and sensuality. Much of the coarseness, the vice, and the savage violence which deformed Peter's career in after life, may be traced to the taints thus early given to his moral system.


Peter grew dissatisfied with the rule of Sophia, who, with considerable abilities, displayed great ambition. When eighteen he married against her will, and claimed a seat at the council-board, from which, on account of violent altercations between them, she procured his exclusion, and an open rupture was the consequence. Peter took the resolution of arresting and imprisoning bis sister, who, on her part, is said to have fanned a conspiracy with Prince Vassili Galitzin against her brother's life, or, at least, against bis liberty. The chief of the guard, with six hundred of his men, was engaged in the plot, and Peter with difficulty escaped to the monastery of the Trinity." He was there joined by loyal subjects from all quarters, so that he was soon enabled to seize all the suspected persons. By force of torture a confession of the conspiracy was obtained; Sophia was confined for life in a nunnery Galitzin was banished to Siberia; and in 1689 Peter took the reins of the government in his own hands.


He now strove hard to repair the defects of his education; he acquired, almost entirely by self-leaching, a knowledge of severn foreign languages; be studied earnestly the mechanical arts, especially such as related to shipbuilding, his ultimate object being to give Russia ships and commerce, though, when he began bis reign, she possessed no seaport except Archangel, in the White Sea. He endeavored also to form a body of troops on the model of the armies of the civilized nations of western Europe. He exercised them in hostilities against the Turks and Tartars on the south--eastern. frontier, during which he gained the important city of Azoph. In 1697, having provided for the safety of his empire, and left troops under the best foreign officers who had aided him in his reforms, so as to curb any revolutionary movements of the discontented part of his subjects, he resolved by foreign travel to learn in various countries the arts which he thought most essential to the state, especially naval and military tactics.


The first country which he made any stay was Holland. At Amsterdam he took up his quarters in the Admiralty· yard, in order to survey all that was passing in that scene of business. In the disguise of a Dutch skip¢r he went to the famous ship.building village of Zaandam, where he worked as a common carpenter and blacksmith, clad and fed like his fellow·workmen. He did not, however, confine himself to the mechanical arts. He often went to Amsterdam to attend the anatomical lectures of the celebrated Ruysch. He studied natural philosophy, astronomy and geography; and he sought out able men in various professions, whom he sent into Russia. Nor was be inattentive to what was passing on the Continent in war and politics. He engaged to support the election of Augustus of Saxony to the throne of Poland, and issued orders to his armies on the Turkish frontier.


In 1698 he paid a visit to England! where he was treated with politic attention by King William III. He took lip his lodgings and worked in the English government dock.yard at Deptford. Here he obtained valuable instruction in naval affairs, but without neglecting other useful matters. The variety of religiol1s sects in England and Holland attracted his notice, and probably gave him those ideas of the benefits of religious toleration upon which he always acted in his intercourse with foreigners. When leaving England, King William made him a present of a fine yacht, completely equipped. He returned in it to Holland, carrying with him a number of naval officers, and other persons distinguished in various arts and professions. Thence he proceeded with his ambassadors to Vienna, for the purpose of viewing the military discipline of the Austrians, and strengthening his alliance with that court against the Turks.


During his absence from Russia the old Muscovite soldiers had mutinied, but were put down by the Scotch General Gordon, whom Peter had left in command of his new troops. Peter hurried back to Russia. His first care was to inquire into and punish the rebellion; and this he performed with the most unrelenting severity. Two thousand of the rebels were executed, many of whom were hung in front of the apartments of Sophia. No evidence of being concerned in the outbreak could be obtained against this princess by all the efforts of promises and torture; yet she was obliged to take the veil, and passed the remainder of her life in strict confinement.


Peter now proceeded with renewed vehemence in the changes of manners address, as well as the introduction of useful arts, which he forced upon his barbarous subjects. He sought to put an end to the Oriental seclusion of women,and the Oriental dress of men. For the full beard and long caftan were substituted the close-shaved face and the frock-coat of Western Europe. In his zeal for doing good he was frequently injudicious in choosing times and seasons for the work and the least show of opposition irritated him into ferocity, which was fearfully aggravated by the habit of drunkenness, which he had acquired during his neglected youth.


In 1700, Frederic of Denmark, Augustus of Poland and Peter of Russia united in forming that confederacy against Charles XII., the young King of Sweden, which proved a source of so much glory to himself, and of so many disasters to his enemies. Peter's motive in taking a part in it was to recover the provinces of Ingria and Carelia, which bad formerly belonged to Russia. For this purpose he marched a large army, with which he laid siege to Narva. Charles hastened to its relief with a very inferior force, but of excellent troops, whereas the Russians were mostly an undisciplined crowd; and he obtained a complete victory. The dethronement of the Czar was the Swedish king's avowed object; but, said Peter, II Though my brother Charles affects to act the Alexander, I trust he will not find me a Darius." Peter was not of a character to be dispirited by a single failure. He melted down the great bells of his churches to repair his lost artillery, and exerted himself with vigor to recruit and discipline his troops. He likewise fitted out a flotilla to command the lake Peipus and its borders, which proved highly serviceable.


Charles XII. neglected the coast of the Baltic and Peter took advantage of this to pour his troops into Ingria, Carelia, Livonia, and Esthonia. The place where the river Neva enters the Gulf of Finland appeared to him a proper spot for a port, by means of which he might obtain a share of the navigation of the Baltic. A morass surrounded with forests, in 60° north latitude, was the uninviting site which he chose for a new capital of his empire. The first erection was a fortress on an island, the foundation of which was laid in May, 1703. A hut for his own residence on a neighboring island, a larger wooden house for his favorite Mentchikoff, and an inn, were the first buildings of St. Petersburg. Such was the eagerness with which he pursued his design, with all the resources of despotic power, that in less than nine years from these rude commencements the seat of empire was transferred from Moscow to st. Petersburg. No less than 100,000 lives are said to have been sacrificed in raising the future capital of Russia among the swamps, where with characteristic pertinacity of purpose and indifference to human suffering, he urged on the completion of the work, though made aware of its perils and its difficulties.


In 1704, the Czar took Narva by assault. On this occasion, his soldiers committed the usual excesses in a captured town, but he was active in restraining them and restoring order. Entering the town·hol1se, whither many of the citizens had retired for refuge, he laid his bloody sword upon the table, crying, My sword is not stained with the blood of the people of Narva, hut with that of my own soldiers, which I have shed to preserve your lives." It does not appear, indeed, that be was ever cruel to a vanquished foe. In 1709 he defeated Charles XII. in the decisive battle of Pultowa. The war between Sweden and Russia, however, was not ended till the peace of Nystad in 1721, when Russia added to her dominions Ingria, Esthonia, and Livonia. Her empire was thus firmly planted along the coast of the Baltic; and her influence upon Poland, and other Eastern countries of Europe, was developing itself into paramount ascendancy.


Peter was less fortunate in his wars against the Turks. In his campaign on the Pruth, in 1711, his army was surrounded by the enemy and he was only saved by the dexterity of Catherine, who succeeded in either bribing or persuading the grand Vizier of the Turks into a negotiation, by which the Russian army was permitted to retire and peace was restored, though at the price of the restoration of Azof.


In 1717, the Czar, accompanied by Catherine, now his wife, visited France, where they were received with Battering attentions. He opened to the Regent, Duke of Orleans, a plan calculated for the advantage both of France and Russia, in which were comprised peace with Sweden, the humiliation of Denmark, and the disturbance of England but that prince's close connection with the English king prevented his concurrence in it.


Soon after Peter's return a domestic event took place, which was one of the calamities of his reign, and has left a foul stain on his memory. His son Alexis, born in 1690, was the sole offspring of his first marriage with Eudocia Lopukin. Peter seems never to have felt any affection for him, and treated him with a harshness that rendered him always uneasy in his presence. He compelled Alexis to renounce all claim to the succession for that prince, trained to sympathize with his mother's foudness for the old Russian ways, had declared his intention that, shouto he come to the crown, he would abolish all that his father had done. He was tried on a charge of high treason and was condemned to death. Two days after this, Alexis died in prison. It was said that he sickened when sentenced, and that his illness was natural. Many mysterious circumstances, however, attended his death and there are strong grounds to suppose that he was poisoned.


Peter's second and favorite wife, Catherine, was a Livonian peasant girl, who married a Swedish soldier and became a prisoner of war to Peter's favorite general, Mentchikof. The captor made her his mistress, but Peter saw her and fell in love with her this love was redoubled after she had saved his life and he openly married her. He thought proper to give a public demonstration of his affection and gratitude to his beloved Catherine, by the august ceremonial of placing upon her head with bis own hands the imperial crown. This coronation took place at Moscow, in May, 1724, with extraordinary pomp.


Peter had undergone a severe attack of illness some time before this period, the effects of which seem never entirely to have left him. His activity, however, was unremitted; and he was particularly assiduous in forming useful and ornamental establishments for his new capital, one of which was an Academy of Science. He died on the 28th of January, O. S., 1725. The Swedish peasant whom he had married ruled Russia after his death.


Peter the Great was of lofty stature, and of commanding but rude and ferocious countenance. It is easy to collect anecdotes of coarse debauchery, of almost frantic cruelty, and injudicious obstinacy from the acts of his long reign. But to estimate him fairly, he and his deeds must be taken for all in all, and their grand result upon his country's fortune must be considered. Russia at his accession did not possess a single ship of war, and he left it with forty ships of the line and four hundred galleys. He converted a seditious and half-disciplined militia into a regular army, capable of meeting the best troops in Europe. He introduced a police into the great towns, which rendered them secure and comfortable abodes. He was the creator of a great number of institutions for the promotion of learning and the useful arts and sciences, among which may be mentioned colleges at the principal cities, an academy of marine and navigation, a medical college, a botanical garden, an astronomical observatory, and an imperial library. His last words were, I trust that in respect of the good. I have striven to do my people, God will pardon my sins.




Peter Alexiovitch bad received an education that tended still more to increase the barbarity of this part of the world. His natural disposition led him to caress strangers, before he knew what advantages he might derive from their aquaintance. Lefort, a Swiss adventurer, was the first instrument he employed to change the face of affairs in Muscovy. His mighty genius, which a barbarous education had hitherto checked, but not destroyed, broke forth all of a sudden. He resolved to be a man, to command men, and to create a new nation. Many princes before him had renounced crowns, wearied out with the intolerable load of public affairs but no man had ever divested himself of the royal character, in order to learn the art of governing better: this was a stretch of heroism which was reserved for Peter the Great alone.


He left Russia in 16s18, having reigned as yet hut two years, and went to Holland, disguised under a common name, as if he had been a menial servant of that same Lefort, whom he sent in quality of ambassador-extraordinary to the States General. As soon as he arrived at Amsterdam, he enrolled his name among the shipwrights of the admiralty of the Indies, and wrought in the yard like the other mechanics. At his leisure hours he learned such parts of the mathematics as are useful to a prince,-fortification, navigation, and the art of drawing plans. He went into the work men's shops, and examined all their manufactures: nothing could escape his observation. From thence he passed over into England, where having perfected himself in the art of ship-building, he returned to Holland, carefully observing every thing that might tum to the advantage of his country. At last, after two years of travel and labor, to which no man but himself would have willingly submitted, he again made his appearance: in Russia, with all the arts of Europe in his train. Artists of every kind followed him in abundance. Their were seen, for the first time, large Russian ships in the Baltic, and on the Black Sea and the ocean. Stately buildings, of a regular architecture, were raised among the Russian buts. He founded colleges, academies. printing-houses and libraries.


The cities were brought under a regular police. The dress and customs of the people were gradually changed, though not without some difficulty; and the Muscovites learned by degrees the true nature of a social state. Even their superstitious rites were abolished i the dignity of the patriarch was suppressed; and the Czar declared himself the head of the Church. This last enterprise, which would have cost a prince less absolute than Peter both his throne and his life, succeeded almost without opposition, and insured to him the success of all his other innovations.


After having humbled an ignorant and a barbarous clergy, he ventured to make a trial of instructing them, though, by that means, he ran the risk of rendering them formidable; but he was too conscious of his own power to entertain any apprehension from that quarter. He caused philosophy and theology to be taught in the few monasteries that still remained. True it is, this theology still savors of that barbarous period in which Peter civilized his people. A gentleman of undoubted veracity assured me that he was present at a public disputation, where the point of controversy was whether the practice of smoking tobacco was a sin? The respondent alleged that it was lawful to get drunk with brandy, but not to smoke, because the holy Scripture saint, That which proceedeth out of the mouth defileth a man, and that which entereth into it doth not defile him.


The monks were not satisfied with this reformation. Hardly had the Czar erected his printing-houses, when these pious drones made use of them to publish declamations against their sovereign. One of them affirmed in print that Peter was Anti-christ; and his arguments were, that he deprived the living of their beards, and allowed the dead to be dissected in his academy. But another monk, who had a mind to make his fortune, refuted this book, and proved that Peter could not be Anti-christ, because the number 666 was not to be found in his name. The libeller was hroken upon the wheel, and the author of the refutation was made Bishop of Riazan.


The reformer of Muscovy enacted a very wholesome law, the want of which reflects disgrace upon many civilized nations. By this law, no man engaged in the service of the State, no citizen established in trade, and especially no minor. was allowed to retire into a convent.


The Czar not only subjected the Church to the State, after the example of the Turkish emperors, but, what was a more masterly stroke of policy, he dissolved a militia of much the same nature with that of the janizaries: and what the sultans had attempted in vain, he accomplished in a short time: he disbanded the Russian janizaries, who were called Strelitz, and who kept the czars in subjection. These troops, more formidable to their masters than to their neighbors, consisted of about thirty thousand foot, one-half of which remained at Moscow, while the other was stationed upon the frontiers. The pay of a Strelitz was no more than four roubles a year; but this deficiency was amply compensated by privileges and extortions. Peter at first formed a company of foreigners, among whom he enrolled his own name, and did not think it below him to begin the service in the character of a drummer, and to perform the duties of that mean office; so much did the nation stand in need of examples! By degrees he became an officer. He gradually raised new regiments; and, at last, finding himself master of a well-disciplined army, he broke the Strelitz, who durst not obey.


The cavalry were nearly the same with that of Poland, or France, when this last kingdom was no more than an assemblage of fiefs. The Russian gentlemen were mounted at their own expense, and fought without discipline, and sometimes without any other arms than a sabre or a bow, incapable of obeying, and consequently of conquering.


Peter the Great taught them to obey, both by the example he set them, and by the punishments he inflicted j for he served in the quality of a soldier and subaltern officer, and as czar he severely punished the Boyards, that is, the gentlemen, who pretended that it was the privilege of their order not to serve but by their own consent. He established a regular body to serve the artillery, and took five hundred bells from the churches to found cannon. In the year 1714 he had thirteen thousand brass cannon.


He likewise formed some troops of dragoons, a kind of militia very suitable to the genius of the Muscovites, and to the size of their horses, which are small. In 1738 the Russians bad thirty regiments of dragoons, consisting of a thousand men each, and well accoutered.


He likewise established the Russian hussars, and had even a school of engineers, in a country where, before his time, no one understood the elements of geometry.


He was himself a good engineer i but his chief excellence lay in his knowledge of naval affairs: he was an able sea captain, a skillful pilot, a good sailor, an expert shipwright, and his knowledge of these arts was the more meritorious, as he was born with a great dread of the water. In his youth he could not pass over a bridge without trembling: on all these occasions he caused the wooden windows of bis coach to be shut; but of this constitutional weakness he soon got the better by his con rage and resolution.


He caused a beautiful harbor to be built at the mouth of the Don, near Azof, in which he proposed to keep a number of galleys; and some time after, thinking that these vessels, so long, light and flat, would probably succeed in the Baltic, he had upwards of three hundred of them built at his favorite city of Petersburg. He showed his subjects the method of building ships with fir only, and taught them the art of navigation. He had even learned surgery, and, in a case of necessity, was able to tap a dropsical person. He was well versed in mechanics, and instructed the artists.


Yet the revenue of the czar, when compared to the immense extent of his dominions, was very inconsiderable. It never amounted to four-and-twenty millions livers of our money. But a man may always be accounted rich who has it in his power to accomplish great undertakings. It is not the scarcity of money that weakens a State; it is the want of hands, and of able men.


Russia, notwithstanding the women are fruitful and the men robust, is far from being populous. Peter himself, in civilizing his dominions, unhappily contributed to their depopulation. Frequent levies in his wars, which were long unsuccessful i nations transported from the coasts of the Caspian Sea to those of the Baltic, destroyed by fatigue, or cut off by diseases i three·fourths of the Muscovite children dying of the small-pox, which is more dangerous in those climates than in any other; in a word, the melancholy effects of a government savage for a long time, and even barbarous in its policy;-to all these causes it is owing that in this country, comprehending so great a part of the continent, there are still vast deserts. Russia, at present, is supposed to contain five hundred thousand families of gentlemen two hundred thousand lawyers; something more than five millions of citizens and peasants, who pay a sort of tax; six hundred thousand men who live in the provinces conquered from the Swedes the Cossacks in the Ukraine, and the Tartars that are subject to Muscovy, do not exceed two millions :-in fine, it appears that in this immense country there are not above fourteen millions of men i that is, a little more than two-thirds of the inhabitants of France.


While Peter was employed in changing the laws, the manners, the militia, and the very face of his country, he likewise resolved to increase his greatness by encouraging commerce, which at once constitutes the riches of a particular state, and contributes to the interest of the world in general. He resolved to make Russia the center of trade between Asia and Europe. He determined to join the Duna Dwina, the Volga, and the Don, by canals, of which he drew the plans i and thus to open a new passage from the Baltic to the Enxine and Caspian seas, and from these seas to the Northern Ocean.


The port of Archangel, frozen up for nine months in the year, and which could not be entered without milking a long and dangerous circuit, he did not think sufficiently commodious. From the year 1700, he had fanned a design of building a fort upon the Baltic Sea that should become the magazine of the North, and of raising a city that should prove the capital of his empire.


He was already attempting to find out a northeast passage to China, and the manufactures of Pekin and Paris were designed to embellish his new city.


A road of seven hundred and fifty-four versts long, running through marshes that were to be drained, led from Moscow to his new city. Most of these projects were executed by his own hands, and the two empresses who have successively followed him have even improved upon his schemes, when they were practicable, and abandoned none but such as it was impossible to accomplish.


He was always traveling up and down bis dominions, as much as his wars would allow him but he traveled like a legislator and natural philosopher, examining nature everywhere, endeavoring to correct or perfect her sounding with bis own hands the depths of seas and rivers, repairing sluices, visiting docks, causing mines to be searched for, assaying metals, ordering accurate plans to be drawn, in the execution of which he himself assisted.


He built, upon a wild and uncultivated spot, the imperial city of Petersburg, which now contains sixty thousand houses, and is the residence of a splendid court, where all the refined pleasures are known and enjoyed. He built the harbor of Cronstadt, on the Neva, and Sainte-Croix, on the frontiers of Persia; erected forts in the Ukraine and Siberia i established offices of admiralty at Archangel, Petersburg, Astrakhan, and Azof founded arsenals, and built and endowed hospitals. All his own houses were mean and executed in a bad taste; but he spared no expenses in rendering the public buildings grand and magnificent.


The sciences, which in other Countries have been the slow product of so many ages, were, by his care and industry, imported into Russia in full perfection. He established an academy on the plan of the famous societies of Paris and London. The Delisles, the Bulfingers, the Hermanns, the Bernouillis, and the celebrated Wolf, a man who excelled in every branch of philosophy, were all invited and brought to Petersburg at a great expense. This academy still subsists; and the Muscovites, at length, have philosophers of their own nation.


He obliged the young nobility to travel for improvement, and to bring back into Russia the politeness of foreign countries and I have seen some young Russians who were men of genius and of knowledge. Thus it was that a single man changed the face of the greatest empire in the universe. It is, however, a shocking reflection that this reformer of mankind should have been deficient in that first of all virtues, the virtue of humanity. Brutality in his pleasures, ferocity in his manners, and cruelty in his punishments, sullied the lustre of so many virtues. He civilized his subjects, and yet remained himself a barbarian. He would sometimes, with his own bauds, execute sentences of death upon the unhappy criminals and, in the midst of a revel, would show his dexterity in cutting off beads.


There are princes in Africa, who, with their own hands, shed the blood of their subjects but these kings are always detested as barbarians. The death of a son, whom he ought to have corrected, or at most disinherited, would render the memory of Peter the object of universal hatred, were it not that the great and many blessings be bestowed upon his subjects were almost sufficient to excuse his cruelty to his own offspring. -VOLTAIRE.


Peter The Great

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