Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

Early Years of Peter the Great (Peter Alexievitch)

Feodor died childless, and should have been succeeded by his little brother Ivan, but the child was of unsound mind. The other son of Alexis, Peter, was the child of his last wife, and nine years old at the time. The question about the succession was discussed in the Council, and decided in Peter's favor, and his mother Natalia became Regent. Among Peter's half sisters was one, Sophia, twenty-five years old, who did not propose to submit to this decision. She took part in Feodor's funeral, in defiance of the law which forbade women to appear in public, and after it schemed and plotted to form a party in her favor. A rumor was spread that the czarina's brother had seized the throne and that Ivan had been murdered. The people of Moscow rose, and the streltsi marched to the kremlin where the appearance of Natalia with the two children made the mob hesitate. Unfortunately Prince Dolgorouki addressed the men in violent language; they seized him on their pikes and killed him. They then stabbed the czarina's foster father, Matvéef, in her presence, and sacked the palace, murdering many of its inmates. One of Natalia's brothers was thrown out of a window and caught on the points of the lances of the streltsi who were waiting below. Natalia's father and brother were taken from her; Cyril, the father, was sent to a monastery and her brother Ivan was tortured and cut to pieces, although the czarina went on her knees begging for his life. The streltsi acted under authority from Sophia when they committed these outrages. After this rioting had continued seven days, the streltsi sent their commandant Khovanski to the douma, to demand that there should be two czars, Ivan, with Peter as his assistant. The douma did not fancy the idea,—but there were the streltsi with their pikes, and they carried the day.

From this time it was Sophia who was the real czar. She reigned in name of the two half-brothers, and showed herself in public, insisting upon being present on every occasion. The Russians as a rule are not fond of new fashions; they did not like this, and objected so strongly that Sophia was forced to give way. Thereafter the two young czars sat in public on the throne, but it was constructed in such a manner that Sophia could hear and see without being visible.

She shocked every Russian by her manners until the streltsi began to speak of her as "the scandalous person." They hated her when she persecuted the raskolnik  or Old Believers, that is, the men who objected to the reforms of Nicon. At last she thought that it was not safe for her to remain at Moscow; she fled to the strong convent at Troïtsa, taking with her the czarina and the two little tsars, and there summoned the men-at-arms whom she could trust. Khovanski, the commandant of the streltsi, was summoned before her; he was arrested on the way, and put to death with his son. The streltsi were considering another revolt, when they were seized with a panic; instead of marching upon Troïtsa, they went there to beg her pardon. Sophia forgave them, but their leaders were executed.

Sophia trusted the government to two favorites, Prince Galitsyne who was at the head of Foreign Affairs, and Chaklovity whom she made commandant of the streltsi. Galitsyne tried hard to form an alliance among the Christian powers against the Turks and Tartars. His scheme failed because Louis XIV of France kept the whole of Western Europe in turmoil by his constant wars with the House of Austria, and the Christian princes had to look after their own interests. He was more fortunate in Poland where John Sobieski was king. A treaty of "perpetual" peace was concluded between Russia and Poland at Androussovo, in 1686, and an alliance was entered into against the Turks.

In 1687, an army of 100,000 Russians and 50,000 Cossacks marched against the Crimea. The Tartars had burned the steppes, and the Russians suffered such severe hardships that they were forced to retreat. The hetman of the Cossacks was accused of treachery, and deported to Siberia, when Mazeppa, who had been his secretary, was appointed hetman. In the spring of 1689, the Russians under Galitsyne and the Cossacks under Mazeppa started again for the Crimea, but they had no better success than before.

Peter, who was born in 1673, was then sixteen years old, but being tall and strongly built, he looked much older. He was bright and anxious to learn, and at an early age had shown that he possessed a will of his own. He had read much, but his tutor, a man named Zorof, had allowed him to have his own way, and when the boy grew up to be a man, he made that tutor "the arch-priest of fools." When the boy was tired, Zorof would allow him to put his work aside, and would read to him about the great deeds of his father Alexis, and of those of Ivan the Terrible, their campaigns, battles, and sieges; how they endured privations better than the common soldiers, and how they added other territory to Russia. He also learned Latin, German, and Dutch. He afterwards complained that his education was neglected, because he was allowed to do as he pleased. He chose his own companions, and as he did not like to be confined within the palace grounds, he roamed in the streets and often became acquainted with men whom he would not have met in the palace, Russians, Dutch, Swiss, English, and Germans. His usual attendants were Boris Galitsyne and other young nobles with whom he played at soldier. He pressed the palace servants into the ranks and had them drilled in European tactics. Peter took lessons in geometry and fortification; he constructed small forts which were besieged and defended by the young players. Sometimes the game became earnest; blows were given and received, when Peter took his share without a murmur, even when he was wounded as sometimes happened.

At first Peter did not like the water; no Russian does; but he mastered his dislike. Once, when he saw a stranded English boat, he sent for a boat-builder to make him a sailboat and to teach him how to manage it. He took a great fancy to sailing, and often took his boat on the Yaousa, and afterwards on Lake Peréiaslaf, to the terror of his mother. Thus Peter grew up, healthy in body and strong of mind, until his ambitious half-sister Sophia began to think what would become of her when the boy should be czar. She had styled herself Autocrat of all the Russias and did not like the idea of surrendering the title. For some time she was appeased when her courtiers told her that the boy cared for nothing except to amuse himself.

When he was sixteen years old, Peter asserted himself. Sophia had ordered a triumphal entry for Prince Galitsyne and the army of the Crimea, when Peter forbade her to leave the palace. She paid no attention to his orders, but headed the procession of the returned army. Peter saw that this meant war to the knife, and left for Préobajenskoé.

As soon as she heard of this, Sophia determined to seize the throne. She intended to attack the palace, kill Peter's friends and arrest his mother, and after that to deal with the young czar as circumstances demanded. She sent for the commandant of the streltsi who agreed to sound the men. He told them that Sophia's life was in danger, and that she had fled to a convent. The latter part of the story was true, as she had in fact retreated to such a place, from which she sent letters to the streltsi to come to her rescue. The commandant failed to secure more than 500 men; the other streltsi told him that there should be an investigation.

Two of the streltsi went to Peter and reported to him what was going on, whereupon he moved to the famous Troïtsa monastery. The Patriarch, foreign officers serving in the army, his playmates, and even a regiment of streltsi came to him to offer their services. Peter issued orders for the arrest of Sophia's favorite, the commandant of the militia. She begged the Patriarch to interfere but met with a refusal. The commandant under torture confessed the plot, and was beheaded. Sophia's other friends were arrested; some were executed while others were sent to prison; she herself was confined in the convent where she had found a retreat. Peter was now the czar, although he conducted the government in his own name and in that of his weak-minded brother Ivan.

If Sophia had shocked the Russians by leaving the seclusion of the women's apartments, Peter's acts were likely to astonish them still more and to give offense. Rowing in a boat, instead of sitting in it surrounded by his grandees; working like a carpenter, instead of merely giving his orders through a courtier, and fighting with foreigners and grooms, were acts so unlike to what a czar should do, that Peter made a host of enemies. Little did he care! No sooner was he free to do as he pleased, than he rushed off to Archangel, the only port Russia could call her own, and there he saw salt water for the first time. He mingled freely with captains of the foreign merchant vessels and went out in their boats. On one occasion, he was out in a storm and came near being drowned; but this did not prevent "Skipper Peter Alexievitch," from putting out to sea again. Once he piloted three Dutch vessels. The young czar gave orders to construct a dockyard and to have boats built.

Peter longed for ports on an open sea, a sea that would not freeze in winter. There were three which Russia might reasonably hope to own some day, the Baltic, the Black, and the Caspian Sea. The Baltic belonged to Sweden, and Peter feared difficulties in that direction; but the Black Sea belonged to the Turks, and Peter quite understood that a war with the infidels would be popular in Russia. He wished to visit Western Europe; to see for himself the wonders of which he had heard foreigners speak; but he made up his mind not to go until he could appear as a victorious general.

Thus Peter made preparations for war with the Khan of the Crimea. He did not command his army; what he wanted, was to learn, and therefore he went as the gunner Peter Alexievitch. That did not prevent him from keeping a sharp eye on his generals. Chief-engineer Jansen received a sound whipping from him and deserted to the enemy. For this and other causes he was compelled to raise the siege of Azof and to fall back to Russia. His mother died in 1694. He returned to Russia in 1695, and notwithstanding his defeat, he ordered a triumphal entry into Moscow; but he felt very sore. The following year, 1696, his half-brother Ivan died, and Peter was the sole Autocrat of all the Russias.