Story of Russia - R. Van Bergen

The Successors of Peter the Great

Peter's strong hand had stifled the opposition to his reforms, but with his death it reappeared. There were, therefore, two parties in Russia: the men who had assisted the dead czar, Menzikoff, Apraxine, Tolstoï, and others, such as the members of the secret Court who had witnessed the violent death of Peter's only son. They dreaded the succession of Peter's grandson, the boy who, although only twelve years old, might order an investigation of his father's death. These men held the power and decided that, since Catherine had been crowned as Empress, it was she who should succeed. Thus the former maid servant, not even a native Russian, became Empress of all the Russias. There were some protests in favor of Peter's grandson, but they were disregarded.

Menzikoff who was the cause of Catherine's rise, fancied himself all-powerful, and there was jealousy among Peter's associates. Menzikoff sent one of them, Tolstoï, to Siberia, but Catherine would not consent to the punishment of the other friends of the late czar. She was honest in carrying out Peter's unfinished projects. He had planned the marriage of his daughter Anne to the Duke of Holstein: the wedding took place; he intended to send an exploring expedition to Kamtschatka; she engaged the services of a Danish captain, Bering, who discovered the sea and strait named after him. The Academy of Sciences was opened in 1726. She, however, changed the Senate into a Secret High Council, which met under the presidency of the empress.

Catherine died in 1727, and on her deathbed appointed Peter's grandson, then fourteen years old, as her successor. In case of his death, the throne would go to Anne, and next to Elizabeth. During his minority these two daughters assisted by the Duke of Holstein, Menzikoff, and some other high officers, would constitute a Board of Regents.

Menzikoff had taken precautions. He had obtained her consent that the young heir, Peter II, should marry one of his daughters, a young lady two years older than the boy. He showed, in his letters to Peter, that he looked upon him as his son. He also intended his own son to marry the boy's sister Natalia. There was one member of Peter the Great's family who did not approve of Menzikoff's schemes, Elizabeth, the young czar's aunt, then seventeen years old. Not long after Catherine's death, Menzikoff fell ill; he was compelled to keep to his rooms, and in that time Elizabeth roused her nephew's suspicions. Peter left Menzikoff's palace and when Catherine's favorite tried to resume his authority, he was arrested and exiled to his estates. Soon after he was sent to Siberia, where he died two nears later, in 1729.

The Dolgorouki family succeeded, but its head committed the same mistakes, besides showing a tendency to undo the work of Peter the Great. The young czar was growing weary of the Dolgorouki when, in January 1730, he caught cold and died after a brief illness.

It was during his short reign that Prussia, Austria, and Russia, first seriously discussed the partition of Poland. A treaty was signed between Prussia and Russia whereby the two powers agreed to select and support a candidate for the throne of that kingdom which was to illustrate the truth that "a kingdom divided against itself cannot exist."

Peter's death left Russia without a male heir. There were, as we have seen, two daughters from his marriage with Catherine. Anne, who had married the Duke of Holstein, had died in 1728, leaving a son also named Peter. Elizabeth, the other daughter, was in St. Petersburg, quietly engaged in establishing a party of her own. There were, besides, two other parties having claims upon the throne. Ivan, the weak-minded half-brother of Peter the Great, had been married and had left two daughters, Anne, Duchess of Courland, and Catherine, Duchess of Mecklenburg.

The decision rested with the Secret High Council. Dolgorouki's claim, that Peter II had made a secret will leaving the throne to his bride, was laughed to scorn. The members of the High Council saw an opportunity to secure most of the autocratic power for themselves, and resolved to offer the throne to Anne of Courland, provided that she subscribed to the following conditions: That the Secret High Council should always consist of eight members, all vacancies to be filled by themselves; that she could make neither war nor peace, nor appoint an officer above the rank of colonel, without the consent of the Council; that she could not condemn a noble to death, nor confiscate his property, without a trial; and that she could neither appoint a successor, nor marry again without the approval of the Council. She was also to sign an agreement whereby she would forfeit the crown "in case of my ceasing to observe these engagements." The Council also decided upon moving the capital back to Moscow.

This might have been the beginning of a more liberal government for Russia, since it diminished the power of the czar and the people would have benefited by the increased rights of the nobles, as was the case in England. It was the nobility who objected, from fear that the power might be absorbed in the families of the Council members. Anne of Courland accepted the conditions and came to Moscow. There she received letters from the enemies of the Council imploring her to disregard her promises. On the 25th of February, 1731, the Council was in session when an officer appeared summoning them before the czarina. Upon arrival in the apartment, they found about eight hundred persons presenting a petition that Anne might restore autocracy. She read it and seemed astonished: "What!" she exclaimed, "the conditions sent to me at Mittau were not the will of the people?" There was a shout of "No! no!" "Then," she said, addressing the Council, "you have deceived me!" Anne was a true daughter of the czars. She began by exiling the principal members of the Council to their estates; when she saw that there was no opposition, they were sent to Siberia; and when no one remonstrated, other members were condemned to a cruel death.

Anne was thirty-five years old when she was crowned as czarina. She had been in Germany so long that she preferred to surround herself with Germans who did serve her well, but they naturally aroused the jealousy and hatred of the Russian nobles. In 1733, Augustus II, King of Poland, died. Russia, Prussia, and France, each had a candidate. Austria and Russia favored Augustus III of Saxony, and Louis XV of France supported his father-in-law Stanislas Leszcinski.

This candidate secretly proceeded to Warsaw, where he was elected by a vote of 60,000 against 4,000. A Russian army crossed the frontier, whereupon Stanislas withdrew to Dantzig and the Russians proclaimed Augustus III. The war spread and a Russian army of 20,000 men advanced as far as Heidelberg in Baden. It ended in 1735, by the Peace of Vienna, but Russia became involved in a war with Turkey, as an ally of Austria.

In 1736, the Russians took Azof and ravaged the western Crimea. In the following year they laid waste its eastern part, and in 1739 they gained a great victory at Savoutchani. Austria was not anxious to have Russia as a close neighbor, and arranged the Peace of Belgrade. (1739.) Russia surrendered all the conquests, except a small tongue of land between the Dnieper and the Bug. Sweden threatened war, but it was averted. The following year, 1740, Anne died, leaving the throne to her infant son, Ivan of Brunswick.

Anne Ivanovna introduced western luxury into Russia. Prior to her arrival, fashions were unknown, and people used to wear their clothes until they were worn out. Soon after restoring autocracy, she returned to St. Petersburg where she endeavored to establish a court in imitation of that of France. She could compel her nobles to appear in the costume of the west, and, unless they were very wealthy, make them sacrifice estates and serfs to pay his increased expenses, but of the refinement which creates fashion, there was none. One of her guests, a procurator-general was so intoxicated at one of her receptions that he insulted one of Anne's most trusted advisers; she was a witness, but only laughed heartily.

The young nobles benefited by the German influence at Court, since they received a better education. A law was made requiring them to study from their seventh to their twentieth year, and to serve the government from that age until they were forty-five. Between the age of twelve and sixteen they were made to appear before an examining board, and any one failing to pass the second time in catechism, arithmetic, and geometry, was put into the navy. In the schools for young nobles,—the serfs received no instruction of any kind,—the course of studies was enlarged after the German system.

Anne's infant son, Ivan, was three months old, when he succeeded to the throne as Ivan VI. Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine, was twenty-eight years old; tall and masculine, bright and bold, daring on horseback as well as on the water, she had made a host of friends among the high officials and the Guards. She found an able adviser in the French Minister at St. Petersburg who was anxious to destroy the influence of Germany. The Swedes went so far as to begin a war, proclaiming the desire to deliver "the glorious Russian nation" from the German yoke. Elizabeth decided that the time had come to act, when the regiments devoted to her were ordered to the frontier. In the night of October 25, 1741, she went with three friends to the barracks. "Boys," she said to the men, "you know whose daughter I am?" "Matuska," (little mother), they replied, "we are ready; we will kill all of them." She said that she did not wish any blood to be shed, and added: "I swear to die for you; will you swear to die for me?" They made the oath. When she returned to the palace, the regent, the infant czar, and the German members of the Government were arrested. Ivan VI was sent to a fortress near the Swedish frontier. The Germans were brought before a court and condemned to death, but Elizabeth commuted the sentence to exile. After this she went to Moscow, where she was crowned as czarina. Her next act was to send for her nephew, Peter, the son of her sister Anne of Holstein. He came and entered the Greek Church, when he was proclaimed as heir to the throne as Peter Feodorovitch.

Sweden demanded the cession of the territory conquered by Peter the Great, and, since Elizabeth refused, the war continued. But Sweden was no longer the kingdom of Charles XII; the Russians were everywhere victorious, and by the Peace of Abo, in 1743, Sweden ceded South Finland and agreed to elect Elizabeth's ally, Adolphus of Holstein, as heir to the throne.

In 1740 the Emperor of Germany died, after obtaining from the powers the consent to set aside the Salic Law of succession, in favor of his daughter. This law restricted the right of succession to male heirs exclusively. In violation of the pledged word, several claimants appeared to contest the claim of his daughter Maria Theresa, and since almost every nation took sides, it was important to know what Russia would do. Elizabeth was undecided; at least, she played with both sides until 1746, when she entered into an alliance with Maria Theresa, while England promised subsidies in money. It was, however, 1748 before a Russian army of 30,000 men passed through Germany and took up a position on the Rhine. In the same year the war was ended by the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, without the Russians having been under fire.

Elizabeth hated Frederick the Great of Prussia. She claimed that "The King of Prussia is certainly a bad prince who has no fear of God before his eyes; he turns holy things into ridicule, and he never goes to church." The real reason was that Frederick had expressed his opinion about Elizabeth's private life, and she was not the woman to forgive his remarks. Then again, Frederick had an excellent army of 200,000 men; Elizabeth's chancellor, on that account, called Prussia "the most dangerous of neighbors, whose power it was necessary to break."

Russia, Austria, France, and Saxony, entered into a secret alliance against Prussia. Frederick found it out, and in 1756, began the famous Seven Years' War. The same year, 83,000 Russians under Apraxine crossed the frontier and seized East Prussia. A battle was fought; the Russians were the victors, but Apraxine fell back across the Niemen. France and Austria suspected treachery; Apraxine was arrested and the chancellor was dismissed and exiled. Fermor was appointed commander-in-chief.

The Russian army recrossed the frontier in 1158, took Königsberg and bombarded Küstrin on the Oder. Frederick with 32,000 men attacked the Russian army 89,000 strong at Zorndorf. The Russians fought stubbornly but were defeated with a loss of 20,000 men. Fermor was recalled, and succeeded by Soltykof who, in 1759, entered Frankfort on the Oder. Another battle was fought and Frederick was defeated by greatly superior numbers. He lost 8,000 men. Prussia was exhausted, but his enemies, too, began to feel the expense of the war. Elizabeth, however, was determined to humble the outspoken King when she died suddenly in 1761. She was succeeded by her nephew Peter Feodorovitch under the name of Peter III.

Elizabeth, although careless in her mode of living, was a stout supporter of the Greek Church. In 1742, she agreed with the Holy Synod to suppress all other churches, as well as the Mosques or Mahomedan temples in the south. This caused a revolt of the Mahomedans. The Jews were also expelled in some parts of the empire. A fever of fanaticism broke out, fifty-three raskolnik  in Russia, and one hundred and seventy-two in Siberia, burned themselves to death.

Count Ivan Schouvalof, one of Elizabeth's friends, believed in education and was given a free hand. He ordered that the priests and their children should attend school, on penalty of being whipped. He founded the University of Moscow, which has educated many learned Russians. To induce students to enter, he induced Elizabeth to make a law that all students should be tchins of the tenth grade, and the professors hold the eighth grade. He sent young men abroad to study and established higher schools in every Government. Schouvalof was also the founder of the Academy of Fine Arts at St. Petersburg.

That capital was growing; its population was 74,000 under Elizabeth. She built the Winter Palace and saw the plans for Tsarskoé Selo, the magnificent retreat of the Russian emperors. She reëstablished the Senate, as organized by Peter the Great.