Old Time Tales - Lawton Evans

Stories of Peter the Great

Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, was such a remarkable character, both of body and of mind, that during his reign he did more for his country than any other czar that has ever ruled over it.

It was in the early history of Russia, when conditions were very crude and most of that country was half-civilized. It is said that his sister contrived to have him placed, when he was almost a child, under very evil influences, hoping that he might become a monster who would be so odious to his people that she herself could gain control of the government. This plan, however, did not succeed, for his removal from the court made him self-reliant and the influences by which he was surrounded rather disgusted than tempted him. From the very beginning he showed an interest in military affairs, and often played at soldiers with his companions.

In addition to this he became very much interested in all kinds of industries, particularly shipping. He cared little about his rank and went everywhere among the people, looking at the way things were made, and was often anxious himself to take a hand at the bench. He would make a companion of anyone, high or low, from whom he could learn anything. One day, when he was sixteen years old, he was wandering about one of his country estates and he saw an old building in the yard. He asked one of his servants what it was.

"It is a storehouse full of rubbish," was the answer he received.

Peter was curious to see this rubbish, and had the doors opened and went in. In one corner he saw a boat with the bottom upturned, very different from the kind of boats that were then used on the Russian rivers.

"What kind of a boat is that?" he asked. "It is an English boat," was the reply.

"What is the difference between an English boat and a Russian boat?" demanded Peter.

His guide said, "If you fit this boat with sails it can go not only with the wind, but against the wind."

Peter was incredulous at this statement and demanded to know how a boat could be steered against the wind. Determined to find out, he had the boat taken from the storehouse, but it proved to be too rotten for use. He sent for an old boat builder and demanded that the boat be put in order and fitted with sails and launched on a neighboring stream.

Imagine his surprise when he saw the boat moving under sail up and down the river, turning right or left under the control of the helm. Up to that time Peter had never seen a rudder.

The river was very narrow, however, and Peter, who tried to steer the boat, ran it into the bank. He wanted a larger space to learn how to manage his new craft. He therefore ordered a larger boat to be built upon a lake about fifty miles away.

This was done for him, and after a short while the boat was launched. Peter was so interested in sailing the boat that he hardly could be taken away from his new occupation.

A few years after Peter became czar he saw his own country was far behind the other countries of Europe, and he determined to visit the western countries and learn some of the arts of civilization. He cared little for the display and finery of his court and determined to travel as an ordinary person in so far as he could.

With a few followers he went to Zaandam in Holland. This was a little town devoted largely to fishing and the making of fishing boats. It had a multitude of cottages in which workmen lived, half hidden among the trees, while a multitude of windmills with their sails always in motion showed the industry and thrift of the people.

Peter came to Zaandam and found quarters on a small farm and engaged himself as a ship carpenter. No one at first knew who he was, though his companions attracted some attention on account of the strangeness of their appearance. He looked around with a great deal of curiosity at the ships and asked a great many questions. He learned rapidly and with a great deal of eagerness, and it was not long before he was ready to take his place as a workman in the construction of a boat. He lived as an ordinary workman, demanded his wages, and slept on the shelves in the little closet-like sleeping rooms of the workman of those days. He ate the food and wore the dress of the ordinary laborer of the day, and was in no respect different from him.

The traveler of the present day in Zaandam is shown the house in which Peter lived, the table at which he ate, and the rough bed on which he slept. It is so remarkable that the Czar of all the Russias should lay aside his great estate and become an ordinary carpenter, that Peter's house at Zaandam attracts the attention of thousands of visitors every year.

One day the disguised emperor had bought a bag of plums and was eating them in the most ordinary way as he walked along the streets. He met a crowd of boys to whom he gave a few of the plums. Others crowded around him, not knowing who he was, and demanded, "Give us some plums! Give us some plums!"

Peter did not desire to part with any more of his plums, and so he shook his head and walked away. Thereupon the boys began to pelt him with mud and stones until the czar had to take to his heels. The boys chased him into an inn and dared him to come out, but the czar prudently resolved to stay inside.

He then sent to the burgomaster of the town, and taking him into his room, said to him, "Burgomaster, you do not know who I am, but I am Peter, the Czar of Russia, and I am here unknown. For fear others will find out who I am, you must issue orders for my protection."

The burgomaster then issued an edict threatening with punishment anyone who should insult my distinguished person who wished to remain unknown.

It soon became known that Peter was the Czar of Russia and his life became intolerable. Such a crowd followed him wherever he went and crowded around his shop, that he decided he must leave Zaandam. The crowd grew very annoying, so that one day he leaped in anger from his boat and gave one of the foremost of his persecutors a blow across the back with his staff.

The crowd cried with delight, "Bravo, the czar has made you a knight!" And from that time on, they called the man "Sir Marsje."

The next day a large ship was to be moved across the docks by means of capstans and rollers. Peter was anxious to see this interesting sight, but the crowd pressed around his quarters so closely that he could not get out. He looked out of his window and said to the burgomaster when he came for him, "Too many people!" Too many people!" and firmly refused to move.

He resolved to go to Amsterdam. Getting into the yacht which he had bought and which he had refitted with his own hands, he hoisted sail in spite of the danger warnings of furious winds which were blowing. In a few hours he reached Amsterdam, where his own ambassadors were, and who were much surprised to see the way in which their own czar had entered the town.

Peter was not interested in balls and parties. Assuming the dress of an ordinary citizen he visited the docks, went to the theatres, watched the fire-works, and stood in the crowd pretty much as anybody else would have done, much to the surprise of the rulers of Amsterdam and the mortification of his own ambassadors.

At Amsterdam he took up the task of a workman at the docks of the East India Company. He had a house inside the enclosure where he could work undisturbed by the gaze of the crowd.

Here he worked four months as a ship carpenter, with ten of his Russian companions, who grumbled at the heavy hours and hard labor which Peter imposed upon them. He was known simply as Peter the Carpenter, and declined to be treated differently from any other of the workmen. If anyone addressed him as "Sire," or "Your Majesty," he scowled and shook his head; but if anyone addressed him as "Peter," he answered civilly, and would accept orders from his superiors as cheerfully as any other workman.

Upon one occasion an English earl and several other noblemen came to the docks to see him at work. The overseer pointed him out to the distinguished visitors, but they were not quite sure which was he because he was dressed as every other workman. The overseer called out sharply, "Carpenter Peter, help your comrades lift .that log."

Without saying a word, Peter rose, put his strong shoulders under the heavy log and helped to lift it in its place. He then said to the foreman, "Remember, I am not the czar here in Amsterdam, and I do not want any curious eyes to watch me. When I choose to be a czar I shall become one, but now I am a carpenter and I am learning this business for the sake of my people. I pray you have me let alone." After that he was not disturbed.

His evenings he spent in the study of ship building and in the drawing of plans. He visited factories, museums, hospitals, and everything that he thought was worth while for him to see and know about.

After a few months he went to England to visit the ship-yards there. He slept in a small room with four or five companions and lived in the most meager way, though he was able to spend any sum of money he wished. When the king of England came to visit him in his quarters he received this monarch in his shirt-sleeves. The room was small and crowded and the air was so bad that the king insisted upon the window being opened. He said to the czar, "Why not come and live in the palace, where you can have the comforts that become your station?"

To this Peter replied, "I have no right to live in a palace while I am a workman. I am here to learn and to see, and I do not care to be known as the czar."

Thus we see that the great Czar Peter, when he was about twenty-seven years of age, laid aside the splendor of his estate and spent many months learning things for the benefit of his people. When he went back to Russia he had firmly made up his mind to rescue those people from barbarism.

Upon his return to Russia one of the first things that he did was to order all his subjects to cut off their long beards and shorten their hair and to go about with clean faces. Up to this time a Russian was as proud of his long beard as a woman of this day is of her long hair. Their beards flowed to their waists and Peter thought it foolish for them to have so much hair on their faces.

He ordered every grown man except the clergy to appear clean-shaven, and since he was the czar, everybody had to do as he said. There was weeping and wailing all over Russia and the barbers were busy. Shaving off their beards was to the Russian people what the shaving of heads would be to the women of the present day. But Peter knew no relenting and the order went forth. After awhile everybody's beard was off, though many of them kept the hairs hidden in their bosoms as a memento of former times. It was not long, however, before the people saw the advantages of clean-shaven faces.

Another thing Peter did was to require the people to cut off their long cloaks. At that time the Russians wore garments that trailed to the ground, which interfered with their walking and with their working. He issued an order that all cloaks and coats should be cut off at the knees, thereby saving cloth and adding to the comfort of the wearer.

The people were required to kneel upon the ground and the shearers cut off their garments as they knelt, so that when they rose there could be no mistake about their length.

Czar Peter introduced a great many other reforms, extended the domains of his country, revised laws and started Russia upon that great career which has made it so interesting and powerful a nation in Europe.