Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Peter the Great

On the very day when the Grand Monarch watched his army cross the Rhine under the generals—Turenne and Conde—a man was born possessed of the same strong individuality as Louis XIV, a man whose rule was destined to work vast changes in the mighty realms to the extreme east of Europe.

On 30th May, 1672, Peter, son of Alexis, was born in the palace of the Kreml at Moscow. He was reared at first in strict seclusion behind the silken curtains that guarded the windows of the Terem, where the women lived. Then rebellion broke out after his father's death; for Alexis had children by two marriages, and the offspring of his first wife, Mary Miloslavski, were jealous of the influence acquired by the relatives of Nathalie Naryshkin, Peter's mother.

Peter found a strange new freedom in the village near Moscow which gave him shelter when the Miloslavski were predominant in the State. He grew up wild and boisterous, the antithesis in all things of the polished courtier of the western world, for he despised fine clothing and hated the external pomp of state. He ruled at first with his half-brother Ivan, and had reason to dread the power of Ivan's sister, Sophia Miloslavski, who was Regent, and gave lavish emoluments to Galitzin, her favourite minister. There was even an attempt upon Peter's life, which made him something of a coward in later times, since he was taken unawares by a terrible rising that Sophia inspired and escaped her only by a hurried flight.

The rising was put down, however; Sophia was sent to a convent, and Galitzin banished before Peter could be said to rule. He did not care at first for State affairs, being absorbed by youthful pleasures which he shared with companions from the stables and the streets. He drilled soldiers, forming pleasure regiments, and had hours of delight sailing an old boat which he found one day, for this aroused a new enthusiasm. There were Dutch skippers at Archangel who were glad to teach him all they knew of navigation and the duties of their various crafts. The Tsar insisted on working his way upward from a cabin-boy—he was democratic, and intended to level classes in his Empire in this way.

Russian subjects complained bitterly of the Tsar's strange foreign tastes as soon as they heard that he was fond of visiting the Sloboda, that German quarter of his capital where so many foreigners lived. There were rumours that he was not Alexis' son but the offspring perhaps of Lefort, the Genevese favourite, who helped him to reform. When it was reported that he was about to visit foreign lands, discontent was louder, for the rulers of the east did not travel far from their own dominions if they followed the customs of their fathers, and observed their people's will. The Streltsy, a privileged class of soldiers, rose on the eve of the departure for the west. Their punishment did not descend on them at once, but Peter planned a dark vengeance in his mind.

The monarch visited many countries in disguise, intent on learning the civilized arts of western Europe, that he might introduce them to "barbarous Muscovy," which clung to the obsolete practices of a former age. He spent some time at Zaandem, a village in Holland, where he was busily engaged in boat-building. Then he was entertained at Amsterdam, and passed on to England as the guest of William III. He occupied Sayes Court, near Deptford, the residence of John Evelyn, the great diarist, and wrought much havoc in that pleasant place; for his manners were still rude and barbarous, and he had no respect for the property of his host. Sir Godfrey Kneller painted him—a handsome giant, six feet eight inches high, with full lips, dark skin, and curly hair that always showed beneath his wig. The Tsar disdained to adorn his person, and was often meanly clad, wearing coarse darned stockings, thick shoes, and studying economy in dress.

Peter continued his study of ship-building at Deptford, but the chief object of his visit was fulfilled when he had induced workmen of all kinds to return with him to Russia to teach their different trades. The Tsar was intent on securing a fleet, and hoped to gain a sea-board for his empire by driving back the Poles and Swedes from their Baltic ports. He would then be able to trade with Europe and have intercourse with countries that were previously unknown. But only war could accomplish this high ambition, and he had, as yet, no real skill in arms. An attempt on Azov, then in Turkish hands, had led to ignominious defeat.

Peter returned home to find that the Streltsy had broken out again. His vengeance was terrible, for he had a barbarous strain and wielded the axe and knout with his own hands. The rebellious soldiers were deprived of the privileges that had long been theirs, and those who were fortunate enough to escape a cruel death were banished. In future the army was to know the discipline that such soldiers as Patrick Gordon, a Scotch officer, had learned in their campaigns in foreign lands. This soldier did much good work in the organization and control of Peter's army. Their dress was to be modelled on the western uniforms that Peter had admired. He was ashamed of the cumbersome skirts that Russians wore after the Asiatic style, and insisted that they should be cut off, together with the beards that were almost sacred in the eyes of priests.

Favourites of humble origin were useful to Peter in his innovations, which were rigorously carried out. Menshikof, once a pastry-cook's boy, aided the Tsar to crush any discontent that might break out, and himself shaved many wrathful nobles who were afraid to resist. It was Peter's whim to give such lavish presents to this minister that he could live in splendid luxury and entertain the Tsar's own guests. Peter himself preferred simplicity, and despised the magnificence of fine palaces. He married a serving-maid named Catherine for his second wife, and loved her homely household ways and the cheerful spirit with which she rode out with him to camp. His first wife was shut up in a convent because she had a sincere distrust of all the changes that began with Peter's reign.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


Charles XII of Sweden was the monarch who had chief reason to beware of the impatient spirit of the Tsar, ever desirous of that "window open upon Europe," which his father too had craved. The Swede was warlike and fearless, for he was happy only in the field. He scorned Peter's claims at first, and inflicted shameful defeat on him. The Tsar fled from Narva in Livonia, and all Europe branded him as coward. By 1700, peace with Turkey had been signed in order that the Russians might march westward to the Baltic sea. Their repulse showed the determination of the Tsar, who had learnt a lesson from the humiliation he had endured. He began to train soldiers and sailors again, and sent for more foreigners to teach the art of war. The very church-bells were melted into cannon-balls that he might conquer the all-conquering Swedes.

Moscow, which consisted largely of wooden buildings, caught fire and was burnt in 1701, both palace and state offices falling to the ground. The capital had dreadful memories for the Tsar, who wished to build a new fort looking out upon the Baltic Sea. Its ancient churches and convents did not attract him, for religion was strongly associated in his mind with the stubborn opposition of the priesthood, which invariably met his plans for reform.

Petersburg rose in triumph on an island of the Neva when the estuary had been seized by a superb effort of the Tsar. It was on a damp unhealthy site and contained only wooden huts in its first period of occupation, but inhabitants were quickly found. The Tsar was autocratic enough to bid his boyards, or nobles, move there despite all their complaints. He built the church of St Peter and St Paul, and drew merchants thither by promises of trade. "Let him build towns," his adversary said with scorn, "there will be all the more for us to take."

The King of Poland had allied himself with Russia against Sweden, but proved faithless and unscrupulous as the contest waxed keen. Augustus had found some qualities in the Tsar which appealed to him, for he was boisterous in mirth himself and a hard drinker, but his principal concern was for the safety of his own throne and the security of his own dominions. After two decisive defeats, he was expelled from the throne of Poland by Charles XII, who placed Stanislaus Leszczynski in his place. This alarmed Peter, who had relied on Poland's help. The winter and cold proved a better ally of Russia in the end than any service which Augustus paid. The Tsar wisely drew the Swedish army into the desert-lands, where many thousands died of cold and hunger. He met the forlorn remnants of a glorious band at Poltava in 1709, and routed them with ease. Narva was avenged, for the Swedish King had to be led from the battlefield by devoted comrades and placed in retreat in Turkey, where he was the Sultan's guest. Charles' lucky star had set when he received a wound the night before Poltava, for he could not fight on foot and his men lost heart, missing the stern heroic figure and the commanding voice that bade them gain either victory or death.

Peter might well order an annual celebration of his victory over Sweden, writing exultantly to Admiral Apraxin at Petersburg some few hours after battle, "Our enemy has encountered the fate of Phaethon, and the foundation-stone of our city on the Neva is at length grimly laid." The Swedish army had been crushed, and the Swedish hero-king was a mere knight-errant unable to return to his own land. The Cossacks who had tried to assert their independence of Russia under the Hetman Mazeppa, an ally of Charles XII, failed in their opposition to the mighty Tsar. Augustus was recognized as King of Poland again after the defeat of the Swedish King at Poltava, as Stanislaus retired, knowing that he could expect no further support from Sweden. Peter renewed his alliance at Thorn with the Polish sovereign.

The new order began for Russia as soon as the Baltic coast fell into the possession of Peter, who was overjoyed by the new link with the west. He was despotic in his sweeping changes, but he desired the civilization of his barbarous land. He visited foreign courts, disliking their ceremony and half-ashamed of his homely faithful wife. He gathered new knowledge everywhere, learning many trades and acquiring treasures that were the gifts of kings. It was long before his ambassadors were respected, longer still before he received the ungrudging acknowledgment of his claims as Emperor. He had resolved to form great alliances through his daughters, who were educated and dressed after the manner of the French.

Peter did much for the emancipation of women in Russia, though his personal treatment of them was brutal, and he threatened even Catherine with death it she hesitated to obey his slightest whim. They had been reared in monotonous retirement hitherto, and never saw their bridegrooms till the marriage-day. Their wrongs were seldom redressed if they ventured to complain, and the convent was the only refuge from unhappy married life. The royal princesses were not allowed to appear in public nor drive unveiled through the streets. Suitors did not release them from the dreary empty routine of their life, because their religion was a barrier to alliance with princes of the west. Sophia had dared greatly in demanding a position in the State.

Peter altered the betrothal customs, insisting that the bridal couple should meet before the actual ceremonies took place. He gave assemblies to which his subjects were obliged by ukase or edict to bring the women of their families, and he endeavoured to promote that social life which had been unknown in Russia when she was cut off from the west. He approved of dancing and music, and took part in revels of a more boisterous kind. He drank very heavily in his later days, and was peremptory in bidding both men and women share the convivial pleasures of his court. National feeling was suspicious of all feminine influence till the affable Catherine entered public life. She interceded for culprits, and could often calm her husband in his most violent moods. Gradually the attitude changed which had made proverbs expressing such sentiments as "A woman's hair is long, but her understanding is short."

Peter's fierce impetuous nature bore the nation along the new channel in which he chose that it should flow. He played at being a servant, but he made use of the supreme authority of an Emperor. All men became absorbed in his strong imperious personality which differed from the general character of the Russian of his day. Relentless severity marked his displeasure when any disaffection was likely to thwart his favourite plans. He sacrificed his eldest son Alexis to this theory that every man must share his tastes. "The knout is not an angel, but it teaches men to tell the truth," he said grimly, as he examined the guilty by torture and drew confession with the lash.

St Petersburg became the residence of the nobles. They had to desert their old estates and follow the dictates of a Tsar whose object it was to push continually toward the west. Labourers died in thousands while the city was built and destroyed again by winter floods, but the past for Russia was divided from the future utterly at Peter's death in 1725.