Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

Peter the Great and His Reign

Peter the Great


Far from being discouraged by his defeat, Peter was more than ever resolved to have a port on the Black Sea. He introduced reforms in the army, and while doing this, he ordered a fleet of boats to be built on the Don, and set 26,000 men to work on them. He also sent to Holland and other parts of Europe for officers and gunners, and superintended everything. It was at this time that he wrote to Moscow that, "following the command God gave Adam, he was earning his bread by the sweat of his brow. When he was ready, the army and the boats went down the Don; Azof was blockaded by sea and by land, and forced to capitulate. When the news arrived at Moscow, there was general rejoicing, and even at Warsaw in Poland the people cheered for the czar. The army returned to Moscow under triumphal arches, the generals seated in magnificent sledges. A young officer, Peter Alexievitch, recently promoted to captain, was marching in the ranks.

Peter wished to make of Azof a Russian town in the shortest time possible. He secured from the douma an order by which three thousand families were moved to that port, and streltsi were dispatched to garrison it. The czar wanted a naval force, and moved by his energy, the Patriarch, the prelates, and the monasteries offered to give one ship for every 5,000 serfs owned by them. This example was followed by nobles, officials, and merchants, and once more Peter sent to the west for competent men to help build them. At the same time fifty young nobles were dispatched to Venice to learn shipbuilding.

When he was seventeen years old, Peter had married Eudoxia Lapoukine, whose relatives abhorred all that was new; Peter's wife shared their sentiments, so that his home life was far from happy. He had a son by her, named Alexis; after the fall of Azof, Peter secured a divorce, an act unheard of in Russia, where she remained czarina in the eyes of the people. Busy as he was, Peter left his son and heir in charge of his divorced wife, while he was making preparations for the long expected visit to the west of Europe.

He determined that an embassy should be sent, and that it should be worthy of Russia. Accordingly he appointed the Swiss Lafort and two Russian generals "the great Ambassadors of the Czar." Among their retinue composed of two hundred and seventy persons, was a young man Peter Mikhaïlof, better known as Peter Alexievitch. When the embassy came to Riga, that young man was insulted by the governor. Peter said nothing, but made a note of it for future use. At Königsberg, "Mr. Peter Mikhaïlof" was appointed master of artillery by the Prussian Colonel Sternfeld. The progress of the embassy was too slow for Peter who had an object in view. He went ahead to Holland where he hired a room from a blacksmith at Zaandam, bought a workman's suit, and went to work in a dockyard. He often visited Amsterdam where his good nature and passion to learn gained him the good-will of the people. Peter then crossed over to London where he spent three months. Competent men of every profession and trade were engaged by him everywhere. Returning to Holland, his ship was caught in a violent gale, which frightened even the sailors. Peter kept cool, and, smiling, asked them if they "had ever heard of a Czar of Russia who was drowned in the North Sea?"

Peter did not forget Russia's political interests. He talked with William of Orange, the great opponent of Louis XIV, and with other influential men, but he did not visit the court of France. After satisfying his curiosity, he went to Vienna where he intended to study strategy; but his stay was cut short by bad news from home.

Peter had met with a sullen, obstinate opposition in Russia. It was led by the priests who said, and perhaps believed, that Peter was the anti-Christ. It was a cause for complaint that Peter often wore clothes of a German fashion; was the Russian costume not good enough for him? Again, why did he not devote his time to war, as the other czars done? He had made a bargain with British merchants to import tobacco into Russia; what did the Russians want with this "sacrilegious smell?" But the climax was that a Czar of the Russias  should leave Holy Russia to go among heretics and heathens. Geography was not studied in the czar's empire, and all nations on earth were thought to belong to either of the two classes.

The trouble began among the streltsi who had been sent to Azof. These citizen soldiers looked upon their destination at the other end of the empire as an exile; which it may have been. Two hundred deserted and made their way back to Moscow and their families; they were promptly hunted down. When they returned to their regiments, they brought with them a secret proclamation from Sophia. "You suffer," she declared, "but it will grow worse still. March on Moscow! What are you waiting for? There is no news of the czar!" There was a rumor that Peter was dead and that his son Alexis had been murdered by the boyards. Four regiments revolted and left the ranks. Generals Gordon and Schein went after them with the regular troops, and after overtaking the mutineers, tried to bring them to reason. In reply they stated their grievances and persisted in their determination not to return to duty. The government troops then fired and scattered the streltsi. A number of them were arrested, tortured, and executed.

At this time Peter returned, furious at what had happened. He was determined to strike at the head of the opposition, the Russians who openly denounced innovations. He ordered that the face must be shaved. This was hitting every adult Russian in a tender spot, because the shaving of the face was considered in the light of a blasphemy. He began to enforce his orders at his court, sometimes acting as a barber himself, when he was none too gentle. A number of gibbets erected on the Red Square, reminded the bearded noble that the choice lay between losing the beard or the head. The Patriarch appealed to Peter, a holy eikon of the Virgin in his hand. "Why did you bring out the holy eikon? asked the czar. "Withdraw and restore it to its place. Know that I venerate God and His mother as much as you do, but know also that it is my duty to protect the people and to punish the rebels."

The gibbets did not stand as an idle threat. The Austrian Minister Korb was a witness of the executions, which he describes thus: "Five rebel heads had been sent into the dust by blows from an ax wielded by the noblest hand in Russia." Thus Peter did not hesitate to be his own executioner. It was like him to do his own work, regardless of what the people might think. A thousand men were sent to a gory grave, by the highest officers of the court; the executions lasted a week. The funeral of the executed was forbidden. Bodies were seen dangling from the walls of the kremlin for five months, and for the same length of time, the corpses of some of the streltsi hung from the bars of Sophia's prison, clutching the secret proclamation. Peter's divorced wife had joined Sophia's party; the two ladies had their head shaved and were confined in convents. The streltsi were dissolved and replaced by regular troops.

Peter then turned upon the Cossacks of the Don, who had shown greater independence than pleased him. Prince Dolgorouki to whom the task was confided of bringing them to order, wrote to the czar after he had destroyed the Cossack camp: "The chief rebels and traitors have been hung; of the others, one out of every ten; and all these dead malefactors have been laid on rafts, and turned into the river, to strike terror into the hearts of the Don people and to cause then to repent."

Mazeppa, as we have seen, was at this time hetman of the Cossacks of Little Russia. In his youth he had been a page of John Casimir, king of Poland; it was then that he had that terrible adventure which is connected indelibly with his name. After he was cut loose from the back of the unbroken horse that had carried him in the steppes, he entered among the Cossacks, and rose from the ranks by betraying every chief who helped him. Although it was Sophia who made him hetman, he was among the first to declare for Peter. His enemies, of whom he had many, accused him before the czar, but Peter admired him, and delivered his accusers up to him; they did not live long after Mazeppa had them in his power.

It was Mazeppa's scheme to establish an independent kingdom, he had the support of the Cossacks who did not care to work but preferred to be supported by the people. The industrious classes longed to get rid of this burden, and looked toward the czar to set them free. The tribute which Little Russia paid to Moscow was quite heavy, and when it was rumored that Peter was going to war with Sweden, Mazeppa thought this was an opportunity to carry out his scheme. He entered into negotiations with Stanislas Leszcinski whom Swedish influence had placed upon the throne of Poland. Peter was informed of this in detail, but he did not credit it, beheaded one of his informants, and the others were tortured and sent to Siberia.

The war broke out, Charles XII, the romantic king of Sweden arrived in the neighborhood of Little Russia, and Peter called on Mazeppa to join the Russian army with his Cossacks. He pretended to be dying, but when the two hostile armies were drawing close, he crossed the Desna with his most trusted Cossacks to join the Swedes. Peter's eyes were opened; he gave orders to his general Menzikoff to take and sack Mazeppa's capital. This was done and Mazeppa's friends, who had remained behind, were executed. Mazeppa himself reached the Swedish camp. He was compelled to seek safety in Turkey, where he died miserably at Bender. His territory was annexed to Russia, the Cossacks lost all their privileges, and 1,200 of them were set to work on the Ladoga canal.

It was in 1700 that Peter, after concluding an alliance with Poland, determined to declare war against Sweden where young Charles XII had recently succeeded to the throne. Attacked at the same time by Russia, Poland, and Denmark, this young hero invaded the last-named country and compelled its king to conclude peace. After relieving Riga, Charles marched into Russia at the head of 8,500 men, and on the 30th of November defeated a Russian army of 63,000 men. This victory proved a misfortune, because it inspired the king of Sweden with contempt for Russian soldiers and made him careless, whereas Peter worked cheerfully and hard to profit from the lesson. While Charles was absent in Poland, his army was twice defeated.

Each of the two antagonists was worthy of the other's steel. Both were brave, but Charles was impetuous, whereas Peter acted upon cool judgment. The war continued until 1709 when Charles found himself in Little Russia, far away from supplies and reënforcements, in a Russian winter which happened to be exceptionally severe. In the spring he laid siege to Pultowa. The czar arrived on the 15th of June with 60,000 men; Charles had 29,000. On July 8, 1709, the battle of Pultowa was fought and Charles was defeated; he narrowly escaped being captured. With Mazeppa and the Pole Poniatowski, he made his way across the Turkish frontier, and remained until 1713, in the territory of the Sultan, whom he finally induced to declare war against Peter. This victory gave Peter the longed-for port on the Baltic, since Sweden was no longer in a condition to stop him.

What induced Sultan Ahmed III to risk war with Russia, was the hope of regaining Azof. Peter, on the other hand, hoped for an opportunity to capture Constantinople, the Czargrad of former times. He knew that he had the sympathy of the many Christians of the Greek Church, who were suffering under the yoke of the Turk. Trusting upon their support, Peter arrived on the bank of the Pruth with 38,000 exhausted soldiers. There he found himself surrounded by 200,000 Turks and Tartars. Peter gained a slight success, but not of sufficient importance to extricate or relieve him. Fearing an overwhelming calamity, Peter was prepared to make immense sacrifices in return for peace, and even to surrender Azof and the territory taken from Sweden, when his second wife Catherine had a happy thought. She collected all the money and jewels in the Russian camp, and sent them as a present to the Grand Vizier in command of the enemy, asking at the same time, what terms he would make. They were found unexpectedly reasonable: the surrender of Azof, the razing of the Russian forts erected on Turkish territory, and that Charles XII should be free to return to Sweden. Peter accepted eagerly, much as he regretted the loss of Azof and the failure of his schemes.

In 1713, a Russian fleet under Admiral Apraxine, with Peter serving under him as vice-admiral, captured several cities on the Baltic, and a Russian force entered north Germany. An alliance was formed against him and Peter decided to make an attempt at an alliance with France. In 1718, just as peace was being concluded with Charles XII, the King of Sweden, died and war broke out anew, lasting until 1721, when, by the Peace of Nystad, Sweden surrendered to Russia Livonia, Esthonia, and part of Finland. Peter had his way: Russia had open ports.

Peter was greatly pleased, and Russia rejoiced with him. The senate and Holy Synod conferred upon him the titles of "the Great, the Father of his country, and Emperor of all the Russias." In 1722, Peter led an expedition to the Caspian Sea. He captured Baku and five other important towns. He died three years later, in 1725.