Peter the Great : His Services to Russia – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Alfred the Great : The Saxons in England
Queen Elizabeth : Woman as a Sovereign
Henry of Navarre : The Huguenots
Gustavus Adolphus : Thirty Years’ War
Cardinal Richelieu : Absolutism
Oliver Cromwell : English Revolution
Louis XIV : The French Monarchy
Louis XV : Remote Causes of Revolution
Peter the Great : His Services to Russia
Frederic the Great : The Prussian Power

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers
John Lord

Topics Covered
State of Russia on the accession of Peter the Great
The necessity for a great ruler to arise
Early days of the Czar Peter
Accession to the throne
Origin of a navy
Seizure of Azof
Military reform
Peter sets out on his travels
Works as a carpenter in Holland
Peter visits England
Visits Vienna
Completion of the apprenticeship of Peter
He abolishes the Streltzi
Various other reforms
Opposition of the clergy
War with Charles XII. of Sweden
Battle of Narva
Siege of Pultowa
Peter invades Turkey
His imprudence and rashness
Saved by the sagacity of his wife Catherine
Foundation of St. Petersburg
Second tour of Europe
Misconduct and fate of Alexis
Coronation of Catherine I.
Character of Peter
His great services to Russia

Peter the Great : His Services to Russia

A. D. 1672-1725.

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. I do not say that he is one of the most interesting characters that has shone in the noble constellations of illustrious benefactors whom Europe has produced. Far otherwise: his career is not so interesting to us as that of Hildebrand, or Elizabeth, or Cromwell, or Richelieu, or Gustavus Adolphus, or William III., or Louis XIV., or Frederic II., or others I might mention. I have simply to show an enlightened barbarian toiling for civilization, a sort of Hercules cleansing Augean stables and killing Nemean lions; a man whose labors were prodigious; a very extraordinary man, stained by crimes and cruelties, yet laboring, with a sort of inspired enthusiasm, to raise his country from an abyss of ignorance and brutality. It would be difficult to find a more hard-hearted despot, and yet a more patriotic sovereign. To me he looms up, even more than Richelieu, as an instrument of Divine Providence. His character appears in a double light,–as benefactor and as tyrant, in order to carry out ends which he deemed useful to his country, and which, we are constrained to admit, did wonderfully contribute to its elevation and political importance.

Peter the Great, painting by Paul Delaroche

Peter the Great, painting by Paul Delaroche

Peter the Great entered upon his inheritance as absolute sovereign of Russia, when it was an inland and even isolated state, hemmed in and girt around by hostile powers, without access to seas; a vast country indeed, but without a regular standing army on which he could rely, or even a navy, however small. This country was semi-barbarous, more Asiatic than European, occupied by mongrel tribes, living amid snow and morasses and forests, without education, or knowledge of European arts. He left this country, after a turbulent reign, with seaports on the Baltic and the Black seas, with a large and powerfully disciplined army, partially redeemed from barbarism, no longer isolated or unimportant, but a political power which the nations had cause to fear, and which, from the policy he bequeathed, has been increasing in resources from his time to ours. To-day Russia stands out as a first-class power, with the largest army in the world; a menace to Germany, a rival of Great Britain in the extension of conquests to the East, threatening to seize Turkey and control the Black Sea, and even to take possession of Oriental empires which extend to the Pacific Ocean.

Nobody doubts or questions that the rise of Russia to its present proud and threatening position is chiefly owing to the genius and policy of Peter the Great. Peter was a descendant of a patriarch of the Greek Church in Russia, whose name was Romanoff, and who was his great-grandfather. His grandfather married a near relative of the Czar, and succeeded him by election. His father, Alexis, was an able man, and made war on the Turks.

Peter was a child when his father died, and his half-brother Theodore became the Czar. But Theodore reigned only a short time, and Peter succeeded him at the age of ten (1682), the government remaining in the hands of his half-sister, Sophia, a woman of great ability and intelligence, but intriguing and unscrupulous. She was aided by Prince Galitzin, the ablest statesman of Russia, who held the great office of chancellor. This prince, it would seem, with the aid of the general of the Streltzi (the ancient imperial guards) and the cabals of Sophia, conspired against the life of Peter, then seventeen years of age, inasmuch as he began to manifest extraordinary abilities and a will of his own. But the young Hercules strangled the serpent,–sent Galitzin to Siberia, confined his sister Sophia in a convent for the rest of her days, and assumed the reins of government himself, although a mere youth, in conjunction with his brother John. That which characterized him was a remarkable precocity, greater than that of anybody of whom I have read. At eighteen he was a man, with a fine physical development and great beauty of form, and entered upon absolute and undisputed power as Czar of Muscovy.

In the years of the regency, when the government was in the hands of his half-sister, he did not give promise of those remarkable abilities and that life of self-control which afterwards marked his career.

In his earlier youth he had been surrounded with seductive pleasures, as Louis XIV. had been, by the queen-regent, with a view to control him, not oppose him; and he yielded to these pleasures, and is said to have been a very dissipated young man, with his education neglected. But he no sooner got rid of his sister and her adviser, Galitzin, than he seemed to comprehend at once for what he was raised up. The vast responsibilities of his position pressed upon his mind. To civilize his country, to make it politically powerful, to raise it in the scale of nations, to labor for its good rather than for his own private pleasure, seems to have animated his existence. And this aim he pursued from first to last, like a giant of destiny, without any regard to losses, or humiliations, or defeats, or obstacles.

Chance, or destiny, or Providence, threw in his path the very person whom he needed as a teacher and a Mentor,–a young gentleman from Geneva, whom historians love to call an adventurer, but who occupied the post of private secretary to the Danish minister. Aristocratic pedants call everybody an adventurer who makes his fortune by his genius and his accomplishments. They called Thomas Becket an adventurer in the time of Henry II., and Thomas Cromwell in the reign of Henry VIII. The young secretary to the Danish minister seems to have been a man of remarkable ability, insight, and powers of fascination, based on his intelligence and on knowledge acquired in the first instance in a mercantile house,–as was the success of Thomas Cromwell and Alexander Hamilton.

It was from this young man, whose name was Lefort, whom Peter casually met at dinner at the house of the Danish envoy, that he was made acquainted with the superior discipline of the troops of France and Germany, and the mercantile greatness of Holland and England,–the two things which he was most anxious to understand; since, as he believed, on the discipline of an army and the efficiency of a navy the political greatness of his country must rest. A disciplined army would render secure the throne of absolutism, and an efficient navy would open and protect his ports for the encouragement of commerce,–one of the great sources of national wealth. Without commerce and free intercourse with other countries no nation could get money; and without money even an absolute monarch could not reign as he would.

So these two young men took counsel together; and the conviction was settled in the minds of each that there could be no military discipline and no efficient military power so long as the Streltzi–those antiquated and turbulent old guards–could depose and set up monarchs. They settled it, and with the enthusiasm of young men, that before they could get rid of these dangerous troops,–only fit for Oriental or barbaric fighting,–they must create a regiment after their own liking, large enough to form the nucleus of a real European army, and yet not large enough to excite jealousy,–for Sophia was then still regent, and the youthful Peter was supposed to be merely amusing himself. The Swiss “adventurer”–one of the most enlightened men of his age, and full of genius–became colonel of this regiment; and Peter, not thinking he knew anything about true military tactics, and wishing to learn,–and not too proud to learn, being born with disdain of conventionalities and precedents,–entered the regiment as drummer, in sight of his own subjects, who perhaps looked upon the act as a royal freak,–even as Nero practised fiddling, and Commodus archery, before the Roman people. From drummer he rose to the rank of corporal, and from corporal to sergeant, and so on through all the grades.

That is the way Peter began,–as all great men begin, at the foot of the ladder; for great as it was to be born a prince, it was greater to learn how to be a general. In this fantastic conduct we see three things: a remarkable sagacity in detecting the genius of Lefort, a masterly power over his own will, and a willingness to learn anything from anybody able and willing to teach him,–even as a rich and bright young lady, now and then, when about to assume the superintendence of a great household, condescends to study some of the details of a kitchen, those domestic arts on which depend something of that happiness which is the end and aim of married life. Many a promising domestic hearth is wrecked–such is the weakness of human nature–by the ignorance or disdain of humble acquirements, or what seem humble to fortunate women, and yet which are really steps to a proud ascendency.

We trace the ambition of Peter for commercial and maritime greatness also to a very humble beginning. Whether it was a youthful sport, subsequently directed into a great enterprise, or the plodding intention to create a navy and open seaports under his own superintendence, it would be difficult to settle. We may call this beginning a decree of Providence, an inspiration of genius, or a passion for sailing a boat; the end was the same, as it came about,–the entrance of Russia into the family of European States.

It would seem that one day, by chance, Peter’s attention was directed to a little boat laid up on the banks of a canal which ran through his pleasure-grounds. It had been built by a Dutch carpenter for the amusement of his father. This boat had a keel,–a new thing to him,–and attracted his curiosity, Lefort explained to him that it was constructed to sail against the wind. So the carpenter was summoned, with orders to rig the boat and sail it on the Moskva, the river which runs through Moscow. Peter was delighted; and he soon learned to manage it himself. Then a yacht was built, manned by two men, and it was the delight of Peter to take the helm himself. Shortly five other vessels were built to navigate Lake Peipus; and the ambition of Peter was not satisfied until a still larger vessel was procured at Archangel, in which he sailed on a cruise upon the Frozen Ocean. His taste for navigation became a passion; and once again he embarked on the Frozen Ocean in a ship, determined to go through all the gradations of a sailor’s life. As he began as drummer in Lefort’s regiment, so he first served as a common drudge who swept the cabin in a Dutch vessel; then he rose to the rank of a servant who kept up the fire and lighted the pipe of the Dutch skipper; then he was advanced to the duty of unfurling and furling the sails,–and so on, until he had mastered the details of a sailor’s life.

Why did he condescend to these mean details? The ambition was planted in him to build a navy under his own superintendence. Wherefore a navy, when he had no seaports? But he meant to have seaports. He especially needed a fleet on the Volga to keep the Turks and Tartars in awe, and another in the Gulf of Finland to protect his territories from the Swedes. We shall see how subsequently, and in due time, he conquered the Baltic from the Swedes and the Euxine from the Turks. He did not seem to have an ambition for indefinite territorial aggrandizement, but simply to extend his empire to these seas for the purpose of having a free egress and ingress to it by water. He could not Europeanize his empire without seaports, for unless Russia had these, she would remain a barbarous country, a vast Wallachia or Moldavia. The expediency and the necessity of these ports were most obvious. But how was he to get them? Only by war, aggressive war. He would seize what he wanted, since he could attain his end in no other way.

Now, I do not propose to whitewash this enlightened but unscrupulous robber. On no recognized principles of morality can he be defended, any more than can Louis XIV. for the invasion of Flanders, or Frederic II. for the seizure of Silesia. He first resolved to seize Azof, the main port on the little sea of that name which opens out into the Black Sea, and which belonged to the Turks. It was undoubted robbery; but its possession would be an immense advantage to Russia. Of course, that seizure could not be justified either by the laws of God or the laws of nations. “Thou shalt not steal” is an eternally binding law for nations and for individuals. Peter knew that he had no right to this important city; but at the same time he knew that its possession would benefit Russia. So we are compelled to view this monarch as a robber, taking what was not his, as Ahab seized Naboth’s vineyard; but taking it for the benefit of his country, which Ahab did not. He knew it was a political crime, but a crime to advance the civilization of his empire. The only great idea of his life was the welfare of his country, by any means. For his country he would sacrifice his character and public morality. Some might call this an exalted patriotism,–I call it unmitigated Jesuitism; which seems to have been the creed of politicians, and even of statesmen, for the last three hundred years. All that Peter thought of was the end; he cared nothing for the means. I wonder why Carlyle or Froude has not bolstered up and defended this great hyperborean giant for doing evil that good may come. Casuistry is in their line; the defence of scoundrels seems to be their vocation.

Well, then, bear in mind that Peter, feeling that he must have Azof for the good of Russia, irrespective of right or wrong, went straight forward to his end. Of course he knew he must have a fight with Turkey to gain this prize, and he prepared for such a fight. Turkey was not then what it is now,–ripe fruit to be gobbled up by Russia when the rest of Europe permits it; but Turkey then was a great power. At that very time two hundred thousand Turks were besieging Vienna, which would have fallen but for John Sobieski. But obstacles were nothing to Peter; they were simply things to be surmounted, at any sacrifice of time or money or men. So with the ships he had built he sailed down the River Don and attacked Azof. He was foiled, not beaten. He never seemed to know when he was beaten, and he never seemed to care. That hard, iron man marched to his object like a destiny. What he had to do was to take Azof against an army of Turks. So, having failed in the first campaign, through the treachery of one Jacobs who had been employed in the artillery, he tried it again the next year and succeeded, his army being commanded by General Gordon, a Scotchman, while he himself served only as ensign or lieutenant. This port was the key of Palus Maeotis, and opened to him the Black Sea, on which he resolved to establish a navy. He had now an army modelled after the European fashion, according to the suggestions of Lefort, whose regiment became the model of other regiments. Five thousand men were trained and commanded by General Gordon. Lefort raised another corps of twelve thousand, from the Streltzi chiefly. These were the forces, in conjunction with the navy, with which he reduced Azof. He now returns to Moscow, and receives the congratulations of the boyars, or nobles,–that class who owned the landed property of Russia and cultivated it by serfs. He made heavy contributions on these nobles, and also on the clergy,–for it takes money to carry on a war, and money he must have somehow.

These forced contributions and the changes which were made in the army were not beheld with complacency. The old guard, the Streltzi, were particularly disgusted. The various innovations were very unpopular, especially those made in reference to the dress of the new soldiers. The result of all these innovations and discontents was a conspiracy to take his life; which, however, was seasonably detected and severely punished.

An extraordinary purpose now seized the mind of the Czar, which was to travel in the various countries of Europe, and learn something more especially about ship-building, on which his heart was set. He also wished to study laws, institutions, sciences, and arts; and in order to study them effectually, he resolved to travel incognito. Hitherto he had not been represented in the European courts; so he appointed an embassy of extraordinary magnificence to proceed in the first instance to Holland, then the foremost mercantile state of Europe. The retinue consisted of four secretaries, at the head of whom was Lefort, twelve nobles, fifty guards, and other persons,–altogether to the number of two hundred. As they travelled through Prussia they were received with great distinction, and the whole journey seems to have been a Bacchanalian progress. There were nothing lout, fêtes and banquets to his honor, and the Russians proved to have great capacity for drinking. At Königsberg he left his semi-barbaric embassy to their revels, and proceeded rapidly and privately to Holland, hired a small room–kitchen and garret–for lodgings, and established himself as journeyman carpenter, with a resolute determination to learn the trade of a ship-carpenter. He dressed like a common carpenter, and lived like one, with great simplicity. When he was not at work in the dock-yard with his broad axe, he amused himself by sailing a yacht, dressed like a Dutch skipper, with a red jacket and white trousers. He was a marked personage, even had it not been known that he was the Czar,–a tall, robust, active man of twenty-five, with a fierce look and curling brown locks, free from all restraint, seeing but little of the ambassadors who had followed him, and passing his time with ship-builders and merchants, and adhering rigidly to all the regulations of the dock-yards. He spent nine months in this way at hard labor, and at the end of that time had mastered the art of ship-building in all its details, had acquired the Dutch language, and had seen what was worth seeing of Amsterdam,–showing an unbounded curiosity and indefatigable zeal, frequenting the markets and the shops, attending lectures in anatomy and surgery, learning even how to draw teeth; visiting museums and manufactories, holding intercourse with learned men, and making considerable proficiency in civil engineering and the science of fortification. Nothing escaped his eager inquiries. “Wat is dat?” was his perpetual exclamation. “He devoured every morsel of knowledge with unexampled voracity.” Never was seen a man on this earth with a more devouring appetite for knowledge of every kind; storing up in his mind everything he saw, with a view of introducing improvements into Russia. To see this barbaric emperor thus going to school, 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 the Great Learns the Trade of Ship Carpentry at Zaardam After the painting by Felix Cogen

His chosen companion in these labors and visits and pleasures was also one of the most remarkable men of his age. His name was Mentchikof,–originally a seller of pies in the streets of Moscow, who attracted, by his beauty and brightness, the attention of General Lefort, and was made a page in his household, and was as such made known to the Czar, who took a fancy to him, and soon detected his great talents; so that he rose as rapidly as Joseph did in the court of Pharaoh, and became general, governor, prince, regent, with almost autocratic power. The whole subsequent reign of Peter, and of his successor, became identified with Prince Mentchikof, who was prime minister and grand vizier, and who forwarded all the schemes of his master with consummate ability.

After leaving Holland, Peter accepted an invitation of William III. to visit England, and thither he went with his embassy in royal ships, yet still affecting to travel as a private gentleman. He would accept no honors, no public receptions, no state banquets. He came to England, not to receive honors, but to add to his knowledge, and he wished to remain unfettered in his sight-seeing. In England, the same insatiable curiosity marked him as in Holland. He visits the dock-yards, and goes to the theatre and the opera, and holds interviews with Quakers and attends their meetings, as well as the churches of the Establishment. The country-houses of nobles, with their parks and gardens and hedges, filled him with admiration. He was also greatly struck with Greenwich Hospital, which looked to him like a royal palace (as it was originally), and he greatly wondered that the old seedy and frowsy pensioners should be lodged so magnificently. The courts of Westminster surprised him. “Why,” said he, in reference to the legal gentlemen in wigs and gowns, “I have but two lawyers in my dominions, and one of them I mean to hang as soon as I return.” But while he visited everything, generally in a quiet way, avoiding display and publicity, he was most interested in mechanical inventions and the dock-yards and mock naval combats. It would seem that his private life was simple, although he is accused of eating voraciously, and of drinking great quantities of brandy and sack. If this be true, he certainly reformed his habits, and learned to govern himself, for he was very temperate in his latter days. Men who are very active and perform herculean labors, do not generally belong to the class of gluttons or drunkards. I have read of but few great generals, like Caesar, or Charlemagne, or William III., or Gustavus Adolphus, or Marlborough, or Cromwell, or Turenne, or Wellington, or Napoleon, who were not temperate in their habits.

After leaving England, the Czar repaired to Vienna, via Holland, sending to Russia five hundred persons whom he took in his employ,–navy captains, pilots, surgeons, gunners, boat-builders, blacksmiths, and various other mechanics,–having an eye to the industrial development of his country; which was certainly better than driving out of his kingdom four hundred thousand honest people, as Louis XIV. did because they were Protestants. But Peter did not tarry long in Vienna, whose military establishments he came to study, being compelled to return hastily to Moscow to suppress a rebellion. He returned a much wiser man; I doubt if any person ever was more improved than he by his travels. What an example to tourists in these times! All travelling (except explorations) is a dissipation and waste of time unless self-improvement is the main object. Pleasure-seeking is the greatest vanity on this earth, for he who seeks pleasure never finds it; but it comes when it is a minor consideration.

The apprenticeship of Peter is now completed, and he enters more seriously upon those great labors which have given him an immortality. I am compelled to be brief in stating them.

The first thing he did, on his return, was finally to crush the Streltzi, who fomented treasons and were hostile to reform. He had wisely left General Gordon at Moscow with six thousand soldiers, disciplined after the European fashion. In abolishing the turbulent and prejudicial Streltzi, he is accused of great cruelties. He summarily executed or imprisoned some four thousand of them caught in acts of treason and rebellion, and drafted the rest into distant regiments. He may have been unnecessarily cruel, as critics have accused Oliver Cromwell of being in his treatment of the Irish. But, cruel or not, he got rid of troops he could not trust, and organized soldiers whom he could,–for he must have tools to work with if he would do his work. I neither praise nor condemn his mode of working; I seek to show how he performed his task.

After disbanding rebellious soldiers, he sought to make his army more efficient by changing the dress of the entire army. He did away with the long coat reaching to the heels, something like that which ladies wear in rainy days; and the drawers not unlike petticoats; and the long, bushy beards. He found more difficulty in making this reform than in taking Azof, although aided by Mentchikof, his favorite, fellow-traveller, and prime minister. He was not content with cutting off the beards of the soldiers and shortening their coats,–he wished to make private citizens do the same; but the uproar and discontent were so great that he was obliged to compromise the matter, and allow the citizens to wear their beards and robes on condition of a heavy tax, graded on ability to pay it. The only class he exempted from the tax were the clergy and the serfs.

Among other reforms he changed the calendar, making the year to begin with January, and abolished the old laws with reference to marriage, by which young people had no power of choice; but he decreed that no marriage should take place unless an intimacy had existed between the parties for at least six months. He instituted balls and assemblies, to soften the manners of the people. He encouraged the theatre, protected science, invited eminent men to settle in Russia, improved the courts of justice, established posts and post-offices, boards of trade, a vigorous police, hospitals, and alms-houses. He imported Saxony sheep, erected linen, woollen, and paper mills, dug canals, suppressed gambling, and fostered industry and art. He aimed to do for Russia what Richelieu and Colbert did for France.

The greatest opposition to his reforms came from the clergy, with the Patriarch at their head,–a personage of great dignity and power, ruling an imperium in imperio. Peter had no hostility to the Greek religion, nor to the clergy. Like Charlemagne, he was himself descended from an ecclesiastical family. But finding the clergy hostile to civil and social reforms, he sought to change the organization of the Church itself. He did not interfere with doctrines, nor discipline, nor rites, nor forms of worship; but he unseated the Patriarch, and appointed instead a consistory, the members of which were nominated by himself. Like Henry VIII., he virtually made himself the head of the Church,–that is, the supreme direction of ecclesiastical affairs was given to those whom he controlled, and not to the Patriarch, whose power had been supreme in religious matters,–more than Papal, almost Druidical. In former reigns the Patriarch had the power of life and death in his own tribunals; and when he rode to church on Palm Sunday, in his emblazoned robes, the Czar walked uncovered at his side, and held the bridle of his mule. It is a mark of the extraordinary power of Peter that he was enabled to abolish this great dignity without a revolution or bloodshed; and he not only abolished the patriarchal dignity, but he seized the revenues of the Patriarch, taxed the clergy, and partially suppressed monasteries, decreeing that no one should enter them under fifty years of age; yea, he even decreed universal toleration of religion, except to the Jesuits, whom he hated, as did William III. and Frederic II. He caused the Bible to be translated into the Slavonic language, and freely circulated it. And he prosecuted these reforms while he was meditating, or was engaged in, great military enterprises.

I approach now the great external event of Peter’s life, his war with Charles XII., brought about in part by his eagerness to get a seaport on the Baltic, and in part by the mad ambition of the Swedish king, determined to play the part of Alexander. The aggressive party in this war, however, was Peter. He was resolved to take part of the Swedish territories for mercantile and maritime purposes; so he invaded Sweden with sixty thousand men. Charles, whose military genius was not appreciated by the Czar, had only eight thousand troops to oppose the invasion; but they were veterans, and fought on the defensive, and had right on their side. This latter is a greater thing in war than is generally supposed; for although war is in our own times a mechanism in a great measure, still moral considerations underlie even physical forces, and give a sort of courage which is hard to resist. The result of this invasion was the battle of Narva, when Peter was disgracefully beaten, as he ought to have been. But he bore his defeat complacently. He is reported as saying that he knew the Swedes would have the advantage at first, but that they would teach him how to beat them at last. I doubt this. I do not believe a general ever went into battle with a vastly overwhelming force when he did not expect victory. But the great victory won by Charles (a mere stripling king, scarcely nineteen) turned his head. Never was there a more intoxicated hero. He turned his victorious army upon Poland, dethroned the king, invaded Saxony, and prepared to invade Russia with an army of eighty thousand troops. His cool adversary, who since his defeat at Narva had been prosecuting his reforms and reorganizing his army and building a navy, was more of a wily statesman than a successful general. He retreated before Charles, avoided battles, tempted him in the pursuit to dreary and sparsely inhabited districts, decoyed him into provinces remote from his base of supplies; so that at the approach of winter Charles found himself in a cold and desolate country (as Napoleon was afterwards tempted to his ruin), with his army dwindled down to twenty-five thousand men, while Peter had one hundred thousand, with ample provisions and military stores. The generals of Charles now implore him to return to Sweden, at least to seek winter quarters in the Ukraine; but the monarch, infatuated, lays siege to Pultowa, and gives battle to Peter, and is not only defeated, but his forces are almost annihilated, so that he finds the greatest difficulty in escaping into Turkey with a handful of followers. That battle settled the fortunes of both Charles and Peter. The one was hopelessly ruined; the other was left free to take as much territory from Sweden as he wished, to open his seaports on the Baltic, and to dig canals from river to river.

But another enemy still remained, Turkey; who sought to recover her territory on the Black Sea, and who had already declared war. Flushed with conquest, Peter in his turn became rash. He advanced to the Turkish territory with forty thousand men, and was led into the same trap which proved the ruin of Charles XII. He suddenly finds himself in a hostile country, beyond the Pruth, between an army of Turks and an army of Tartars, with a deep and rapid river in his rear. Two hundred thousand men attack his forty thousand. He cannot advance, he cannot retreat; he is threatened with annihilation. He is driven to despair. Neither he nor his generals can see any escape, for in three days he has lost twenty thousand men,–one half his army. In all probability he and his remaining men will be captured, and he conducted as a prisoner to Constantinople, and perhaps be shown to the mocking and jeering people in a cage, as Bajazet was. In this crisis he shuts himself up in his tent, and refuses to see anybody.

He is saved by a woman, and a great woman, even Catherine his wife, who originally was a poor peasant girl in Livonia, and who after various adventures became the wife of a young Swedish officer killed at the battle of Marienburg, and then the mistress of Prince Mentchikof, and then of Peter himself, who at length married her,–“an incident,” says Voltaire, “which fortune and merit never before produced in the annals of the world,” She suggested negotiation, when Peter was in the very jaws of destruction, and which nobody had thought of. She collects together her jewels and all the valuables she can find, and sends them to the Turkish general as a present, and favorable terms are secured. But Peter loses Azof, and is shut out from the Black Sea, and is compelled to withdraw from the vicinity of the Danube. The Baltic is however still open to him; and in the mean time he has transferred his capital to a new city, which he built on the Gulf of Finland.

It was during his Swedish war, about the year 1702, when he had driven the Swedes from Ladoga and the Neva, that he fixed his eyes upon a miserable morass, a delta, half under water, formed by the dividing branches of the Neva, as the future seat of his vast empire. It was a poor site for a capital city, inaccessible by water half the year, without stones, without wood, without any building materials, with a barren soil, and liable to be submerged in a storm. Some would say it was an immense mistake to select such a place for the capital of an empire stretching even to the Pacific ocean. But it was the only place he could get which opened a water communication with Western Europe. He could not Europeanize his empire without some such location for his new capital. So St. Petersburg arose above the marshes of the Neva as if by magic, built in a year, on piles, although it cost him the lives of one hundred thousand men. “We never could look on this capital,” says Motley, “with its imposing though monotonous architecture, its colossal squares, its vast colonnades, its endless vistas, its spires and minarets sheathed in barbaric gold and flashing in the sun, and remember the magical rapidity with which it was built, without recalling Milton’s description of Pandemonium:–

“‘As bees
In spring time, when the sun with Taurus rides,
Pour forth their populous youth about the hive
In clusters: they among fresh dews and flowers
Fly to and fro, or on the smoothed plank,
The suburb of their straw-built citadel,
Now rubbed with balm, expatiate, and confer
Their state affairs: so thick the aery crowd
Swarm’d and were straighten’d; till, the signal given,
Behold a wonder!’

“The transfer of the seat of government, by the removal of the senate from Moscow, was effected a few years afterwards. Since that time, the repudiated Oriental capital of the ancient Czars, with her golden tiara and Eastern robe, has sat, like Hagar in the wilderness, deserted and lonely in all her barbarian beauty. Yet even now, in many a backward look and longing sigh, she reads plainly enough that she is not forgotten by her sovereign, that she is still at heart preferred, and that she will eventually triumph over her usurping and artificial rival.”

So writes a great historian; but to me it seems that the longing eyes of the Emperor of Russia are not turned to the old barbaric capital, but to a still more ancient capital,–that which Constantine, with far-seeing vision, selected as the central city of the decaying empire of the Romans, easily defended, resting on both Europe and Asia, with access to the Mediterranean and Black seas; the most magnificent site for the capital of a great empire on the face of the globe, which is needed by Russia if she is to preserve her maritime power, and which nothing but the jealousy of the Western nations has prevented her from twice seizing within a single generation. We say, “Westward, the star of empire takes its way.” But an empire larger in its territories than all Europe, and constantly augmenting its resources, although still Cossack, still undeveloped, has its eye on Eastern, not Western extension, until China herself, with her four thousand years of civilization and her four hundred millions of people, may become a spoil to be divided between the Emperor of Russia and the Empress of India; not as banded and united robbers divide their spoil, but the one encroaching from the West and North, and the other from the West and South.

Peter, after having realized the great objects to which he early aspired, after having founded a navy and reorganized his army, and added provinces to his empire, and partially civilized it, and given to it a new capital, now meditated a second tour of Europe, this time to be accompanied by his wife. Thirteen years had elapsed since he worked as a ship-carpenter in the dock-yards of Holland. He was now forty-three years old, still manly, vigorous, and inquiring. In 1715, just as Louis had completed his brilliant and yet unfortunate career, Peter first revisited the scene of his early labors, where he was enthusiastically received, and was afterwards entertained with great distinction at Paris. He continued his studies in art, in science, and laws, saw everything, and was particularly impressed with the tomb of Richelieu. “Great man!” apostrophizes the Czar, “I would give half of my kingdom to learn from thee how to govern the other half.” Such remarks indicate that he knew something of history, and comprehended the mission of the great cardinal,–which was to establish absolutism as one of the needed forces of the seventeenth century; for it was Richelieu, hateful as is his character, who built up the French monarchy.

From Paris, Peter proceeded to Berlin, where he was received with equal attentions. He inspired universal respect, although his aspect was fierce, his habits rough, and his manners uncouth. The one thing which marked him as a great man was his force of character. He was undazzled and unseduced; plain, simple, temperate, self-possessed, and straightforward. He had not worked for himself, but for his country, and everybody knew it. His wife Catherine, also a great woman, did not make so good an impression as he did, being fat, vulgar, and covered with jewels and orders and crosses. I suppose both of them were what we now should call “plain people.” Station, power, and wealth seem to have very little effect on the manners and habits of those who have arisen by extraordinary talents to an exalted position. Nor does this position develop pride as much as is generally supposed. Pride is born in a man, and will appear if he is ever so lowly; as also vanity, the more amiable quality, which expends itself in hospitalities and ostentations. The proud Gladstone dresses like a Methodist minister, and does not seem to care what kind of a hat he wears. The vain Beaconsfield loved honors and stars and flatteries and aristocratic insignia: if he had been rich he would have been prodigal, and given great banquets. Peter made no display, and saved his money for useful purposes. It would seem that most of the Russian monarchs have retained simplicity in their private lives.

The closing years of Peter were saddened by a great tragedy, as were those of David. Both these monarchs had the misfortune to have rebellious and unworthy sons, who were heirs to the throne. Alexis was as great a trial to Peter as Absalom was to David. He was hostile to reforms, was in league with his father’s enemies, and was hopelessly stupid and profligate. He was not vain, ambitious, and beautiful, like the son of David; but coarse, in bondage to priests, fond of the society of the weak and dissipated, and utterly unfitted to rule an empire. Had he succeeded Peter, the life-work of Peter would have been wasted. His reign would have been as disastrous to Russia as that of Mary Queen of Scots would have been to England, had she succeeded Elizabeth. The patience of the father was at last exhausted. He had remonstrated and threatened to no purpose. The young man would not reform his habits, or abstain from dangerous intrigues. He got beastly drunk with convivial friends, and robbed and cheated his father whenever he got a chance.

What was Peter to do with such a rebellious, undutiful, profligate, silly youth as Alexis,–a sot, a bigot, and a liar? Should he leave to him the work of carrying out his policy and aims? It would be weakness and madness. It seemed to him that he had nothing to do but disinherit him. In so doing, he would render no injustice. Alexis had no claim to the throne, like the eldest son of Victoria. The throne belonged to Peter. He had no fetters on him like a feudal sovereign; he could elect whom he pleased to inherit his vast empire. It was not his son he loved best, but his country. He had the right to appoint any successor he pleased, and he would naturally select one who would carry out his plans and rule ably. So he disinherited his eldest son Alexis, and did it in virtue of the power which he imagined he had received, like an old Jewish patriarch, from God Almighty. There was no law of Russia designating the eldest son as the Czar’s successor. No one can reasonably blame Peter for disinheriting this worthless son, whom he had ceased to love,–whom he even despised.

Having disinherited him, out of regard to public interests more than personal dislike, the question arises, what shall he do with him? Shall he shut him in a state-prison, or confine him to a convent, or make way with him? One of these terrible alternatives he must take. What struggles of his soul to decide which were best! We pity a man compelled to make such a choice. Any choice was bad, and full of perils and calumnies. Whatever way he turned was full of obstacles. If he should shut him up, the priests and humiliated boyars and other intriguing rascals might make him emperor after Peter’s death, and thus create a counter reformation, and upset the work of Peter’s life. If he should make way with Alexis, the curses of his enemies and the execrations of Europe and posterity would follow him as an unnatural father. David, with his tender nature and deep affection, would have spared Absalom if all the hosts of Israel had fallen and his throne were overturned. But Peter was not so weak as David; he was stern and severe. He decided to bring his son to trial for conspiracy and rebellion. The court found him guilty. The ministers, generals, and senators of the empire pronounced sentence of death upon him. Would the father have used his prerogative and pardoned him? That we can never know. Some think that Peter did not intend to execute the sentence. At any rate, he was mercifully delivered from his dilemma. Alexis, frightened and apparently contrite, was seized with a fit of apoplexy, and died imploring his father’s pardon.

This tragedy is regarded as the great stain on the reign of Peter. It shocked the civilized world. I do not wish to exculpate Peter from cruelty or hardheartedness; I would neither justify him nor condemn him. In this matter, I think, he is to be judged by the supreme tribunal of Heaven. I do not know enough to acquit or condemn him. All I know is, that his treatment of his son was both a misfortune and a stain on his memory. The people to decide this point are those rich fathers who have rebellious, prodigal, reckless, and worthless sons, hopelessly dissipated, and rendered imbecile by self-indulgence and wasteful revels; or those people who discuss the expediency and apparent state necessity for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, when the welfare of a great kingdom was set against the ties of blood.

After the death of Alexis, a few more years are given to the Czar to follow out his improvements, centralize his throne, and extend his territories both on the Baltic and in the East. The death of Charles XII. enabled him to take what Swedish provinces he needed to protect his mercantile interests, and to snatch from Persia the southern coast of the Caspian,–the original kingdom of Cyrus. “It is not land I want,” said he, “but water.” This is the key to all his conquests. He wanted an outlet to the sea, on both sides his empire. He did not aim at territorial enlargement so much as at facilities to enrich and civilize his empire.

Having done his work,–the work, I think, for which he was raised up,–he sets about the succession to his throne. Amid unprecedented pomp he celebrates the coronation of his faithful and devoted wife, to whom he also has been faithful. It is she only who understands and can carry out his imperial policy. He himself at Moscow, 1724, amid unusual solemnities, placed the imperial crown upon her brow, and proudly and yet humbly walked before her in the gorgeous procession as a captain of her guard. Before all the great dignitaries of his empire he gives the following reasons for his course:–

“The Empress Catherine, our dearest consort, was an important help to us in all our dangers, not in war alone, but in other expeditions in which she voluntarily accompanied us; serving us with her able counsel, notwithstanding the natural weakness of her sex, more particularly at the battle of Pruth, when our army was reduced to twenty-two thousand men, while the Turks were two hundred thousand strong. It was in this desperate condition, above all others, that she signalized her zeal by a courage superior to her sex. For which reasons, and in virtue of that power which God has given us, we thus honor our spouse with the imperial crown.”

Peter died in the following year, after a reign of more than forty years, bequeathing a centralized empire to his successors, a large and disciplined army, a respectable navy, and many improvements in agriculture, manufactures, commerce, and the arts,–yea, schools and universities for the education of the higher classes.

Whatever may have been the faults of Peter, history cannot accuse him of ingratitude, or insincerity, or weak affections,–nothing of which is seen in his treatment of the honest Dutchman, in whose yard he worked as a common laborer; of Lefort, whom he made admiral of his fleet; or of Mentchikof, whom he elevated to the second place in his empire. Peter was not a great warrior, but he created armies. He had traits in common with barbarians, but he bequeathed a new civilization, and dispelled the night of hereditary darkness. He owed nothing to art; he looms up as a prodigy of Nature. He cared nothing for public opinion; he left the moral influence of a great example. He began with no particular aim except to join his country to the sea; he bequeathed a policy of indefinite expansion. He did not leave free institutions, for his country was not prepared for them; but he animated thirty millions with an intense and religious loyalty. He did not emancipate serfs; but he bequeathed a power which enabled his successors to loosen fetters with safety. He degraded nobles; but his nobles would have prevented if they could the emancipation of the people. He may have wasted his energies in condescending to mean details, and insisting on doing everything with his own hands, from drummer to general, and cabin-boy to admiral, winning battles with his own sword, and singing in the choir as head of the Church; but in so doing he made the mistake of Charlemagne, whom he strikingly resembles in his iron will, his herculean energies, and his enlightened mind. He could not convert his subjects from cattle into men, even had he wished, for civilization is a long and tedious process; but he made them the subjects of a great empire, destined to spread from sea to sea. Certainly he was in advance of his people; he broke away from the ideas which enslaved them. He may have been despotic, and inexorable, and hard-hearted; but that was just such a man as his country needed for a ruler. Mr. Motley likens him to “a huge engine, placed upon the earth to effect a certain task, working its mighty arms night and day with ceaseless and untiring energy, crashing through all obstacles, and annihilating everything in its path with the unfeeling precision of gigantic mechanism.” I should say he was an instrument of Almighty power to bring good out of evil, and prepare the way for a civilization the higher elements of which he did not understand, and with which he would not probably have sympathized.

Who shall say, as we survey his mighty labors, and the indomitable energy and genius which inspired them, that he does not deserve the title which civilization has accorded to him,–yea, a higher title than that of Great, even that of Father of his country?


Journal de Pierre le Grand; History of Peter the Great, by Alexander Gordon; John Bell’s Travels in Russia; Henry Bruce’s Memoirs of Peter; Motley’s Life of Peter I.; Voltaire’s History of the Russian Empire under Peter the Great; Voltaire’s Life of Charles XII.; Biographic Universelle; Encyclopaedia Britannica,–article “Russia;” Barrow’s Memoir of the Life of Peter the Great; Schuyler’s History of Peter the Great.

Frederic the Great : The Prussian Power

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers