Famous Men of Modern Times - John Haaren

Peter the Great


In the history of Russia there is no name more famous than that of Peter the Great.

Before his time the Russians were far behind the other nations of Europe in knowledge of the arts and the comforts of life.

Peter devoted a large part of his reign to improving the condition of his country and his people. He made Russia prosperous, powerful, and respected.

He was born in 1672, and was the son of the Emperor Alexis. When only ten years old he came to the throne, together with his brother Ivan, who was almost an idiot. The boys were proclaimed joint emperors of Russia; but their sister, Sophia, who was many years older than they, acted as regent.

Sophia determined to make herself empress, and leagued herself with Galitzin, the prime minister, with that end in view.

"Madam," said Galitzin, "we need fear nothing from Ivan, but Peter alarms me. He has a thirst for knowledge that cannot be quenched. He wishes to know everything."

Peter the Great


It was as the minister said. Peter had a remarkable desire for knowledge; and he learned many useful things.

When he was about seventeen years of age he was informed that his sister Sophia and Prince Galitzin intended to murder him. Peter at once banished Galitzin to the icy region of Archangel and confined his sister in a convent. He thus became, at about eighteen years of age, the active ruler of Russia; for Ivan could take no share in the government.

Peter listened to others before taking important action. He valued particularly the advice of a brilliant Swiss, named Lefort, to whom he gave a high position in his court.

Lefort urged that the army should be made larger, and be better drilled and equipped. The young emperor accepted this advice. He appointed Lefort to be commander of one division of his army, and directed him to equip and drill it in the very best manner.

Peter himself served for a few months under the command of Lefort as a common soldier. He performed all his duties with the greatest faithfulness. He became a subordinate officer, and then rose gradually through every grade until he reached the rank of general.

Under Lefort's direction the army was made a splendid body of fighting men.

One day, in the early part of his reign, Peter noticed on the river which flows through Moscow a small boat with a keel. He inquired what the keel was for, and was greatly interested to learn that it was to enable the boat to sail against the wind.

The boat had been built for Peter's father by a Dutchman named Brandt; and this man was at once instructed to put it into first-rate order. This being done, the Dutchman gave Peter some lessons in sailing, so that the young czar became quite an expert sailor.

Russia at that time had only one seaport. It was Archangel on the White Sea. So to Archangel the czar went, and made it his home for several months.

While there, he made the acquaintance of a Dutch captain named Musch; and from him he learned all about ships and their management. He began as a cabin boy, and worked up through every department of a seafaring life until he was fitted to be a naval commander.

Peter felt that he must have a navy and must be at its head; so he thought he ought to know about the building of ships as well as their management. He therefore determined to go to Holland and learn the art of shipbuilding.

Putting the affairs of his empire in charge of three nobles, he left Russia, with Lefort and some other companions, and went to Amsterdam, the most important city of the Netherlands.

After visiting Amsterdam and examining its shipping and its docks, he went to a little town called Zaandam near by, and there became a workman in a yard where ships were built for the famous Dutch East India Company. He lived in a little cottage near the yard and cooked his own food.

After working some time in Zaandam he spent four or five months as a shipwright near London, because some things connected with shipbuilding could be better learned in England than in the Netherlands.

Peter the Great


When, by taking lessons in both countries, he had thoroughly mastered the art, he returned to his own country.

He now began the building of the Russian navy at a place in southern Russia, on the Verona River. The vessels built were small gunboats.

While they were being built, some one said to Peter, "Of what use will your vessels be to you? You have no good seaport."

"My vessels shall make ports for themselves," replied Peter; and before long they did so.

The first port captured was Azof at the mouth of the Don. It was taken from the Turks. The Russian fleet sailed down the river, and made the attack by sea; while twelve thousand troops attacked by land. Peter himself was sometimes with the army on land, sometimes on board one of his vessels.

The capture of Azof gave Russia a port on the Black Sea. But this was only the beginning. A greater work was done in the north, at the mouth of the Neva.

When Peter came to the throne, Sweden was the great military and naval power of northern Europe. The Swedes were masters of the Baltic Sea, and of the Gulf of Finland. Peter said that the Swedes were the oppressors of Russia; and that he would free the land from their presence.

When in the Netherlands he had lived near Amsterdam. It was a great seaport near the mouth of a river. The land upon which it stood was swampy; and its dwellings, its warehouses, and its magnificent churches and public buildings rested on piles.

The River Neva flows into the Gulf of Finland. Peter determined to build a Russian Amsterdam on its swampy banks.

The king of Sweden, the famous Charles XII, claimed the province at the mouth of the River Neva. In spite of this Peter laid the foundations of his new city and called it St. Petersburg.

When the king of Sweden heard what was going on he said, "I shall soon put those houses into a blaze."

The Swedish fortresses guarded the province and the mouth of the river. Whoever held them would control the commerce of St. Petersburg.

The Swedish king was astonished soon after hearing that the foundations of St. Petersburg had been laid, to learn that Peter's new army and navy had captured his two fortresses, and that the province at the mount of the Neva was in Peter's hands.

Soon afterward, with a well drilled army, Charles laid siege to Poltava, a small fortified town of the Russians. Peter marched against him. Both sovereigns commanded their armies in person.

Charles had been wounded in his heel, and had to be carried into battle on a litter. During the battle a cannon-ball killed one of the bearers and shattered the litter; whereupon the king is said to have ordered some of the men to carry him upon their pikes.

Peter, like Charles, was in the hottest of the fire. His clothes were shot through in several places, one ball going through his hat.

After desperate fighting on both sides the Swedes gave way. They left more than half their number dead or wounded upon the field.

Only a few hundred men escaped with the king who, it is said, was taken off the field in a carriage drawn by twelve horses.

The victory at Poltava was followed by naval successes in the Gulf of Finland. Abo, then the capital of Finland, and Helsingfors, which is the present capital, were both captured, and the Russians became masters of the gulf.

Peter was determined that his people should become a commercial nation. He urged them to engage in foreign trade and encouraged foreigners to bring their merchandise to Russia's new ports. Less than six months after the first stone of St. Petersburg was laid, a large ship under Dutch colors ascended the Neva and anchored off the city site.

Peter himself went on board to welcome the strangers. The skipper was invited to dine at the house of one of the nobles. Peter and several officers of his government bought the entire cargo; and when the ship sailed from St. Petersburg the captain received a present of about two hundred dollars, and each of his crew a smaller sum of money, as a premium for having brought the first foreign vessel into the new port.

Peter encouraged his people in the different parts of Russia to carry on commerce with one another, and he made it easy for them to do so. He improved the roads, aided in providing boats for navigating the rivers, and undertook the gigantic work of uniting the great seas, the Baltic, the Black and the Caspian Seas by canals.

Toward the close of his reign Peter visited the town of Zaandam in Holland where he had learned the trade of shipbuilding. There he found some of his old companions, and was delighted to hear them salute him as Peter Bass, the name by which they had known him nearly twenty years before.

He went to the little cottage in which he had lived. It is still carefully preserved. In one room are to be seen the little oak table and three chairs which were there when Peter occupied it. Over the chimney-piece is an inscription which every boy who is making his way up in the world might well take for his motto, "To a great man nothing is little."

Peter went to see an old friend, Kist the blacksmith, who was at work in his smithy. The czar took the job from him. He blew the bellows, heated the piece of iron and beat it out with the great hammer into the required shape. Though he was the ruler of millions of people he was proud of being a workman and of being able to do things for himself.

No sovereign ever more truly deserved the title "Great" than did Peter. He found his empire feeble and left it with a well-drilled army and a large navy. He found it without commerce. He secured for it ports to which foreign ships might bring merchandise; and he dug canals so that the different parts of the country might easily carry on trade with one another.

Thus he was, in the best sense, great, because he made his country great; and provided for his people new and better ways of living.