Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

From the Hovel to the Throne

The reign of Peter the Great was signalized by two notable instances of the rise of persons from the lowest to the highest estate, ability being placed above birth and talent preferred to noble descent. A poor boy, Mentchikof by name, son of a monastery laborer, had made his way to Moscow and there found employment with a pastry-cook, who sent him out daily with a basket of mince pies, which he was to sell in the streets. The boy was destitute of education, but he had inherited a musical voice and a lively manner, which stood him in good stead in proclaiming the merits of his wares. He could sing a ballad in taking style, and became so widely known for his songs and stories that he was often invited into gentlemen's houses to entertain company. His voice and his wit ended in making him a prince of the empire, a favorite of the czar, and in the end virtually the emperor of Russia.

Being one day in the kitchen of a boyar's house, where dinner was being prepared for the czar, who had promised to dine there that day, young Mentchikof overheard the master of the house give special directions to his cook about a dish of meat of which he said the czar was especially fond, and noticed that he furtively dropped a powder of some kind into it, as if by way of spice.

This act seemed suspicious to the acute lad. Noting particularly the composition of the dish, he betook himself to the street, where he began again to exalt the merits of his pies and to entertain the passers by with ballads. He kept in the vicinity of the boyar's house until the czar arrived, when he raised his voice to its highest pitch and began to sing vociferously. The czar, attracted by the boy's voice and amused by his manner, called him up, and asked him if he would sell his stock in trade, basket and all.

"I have orders only to sell the pies," replied the shrewd vender: "I cannot sell the basket without asking my master's leave. But, as everything in Russia belongs to your majesty, you have only to lay on me your commands."

This answer so greatly pleased the czar that he bade the boy come with him into the house and wait on him at table, much to the young pie-vender's joy, as it was just the result for which he had hoped. The dinner went on, Mentchikof waiting on the czar with such skill as he could command, and watching eagerly for the approach of the suspected dish. At length it was brought in and placed on the table before the czar. The boy thereupon leaned forward and whispered in the monarch's ear, begging him not to eat of that dish.

Surprised at this request, and quick to suspect something wrong, the czar rose and walked into an adjoining room, bidding the boy accompany him.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "Why should I not eat of that particular dish?"

"Because I am afraid it is not all right," answered the boy. "I was in the kitchen while it was being prepared, and saw the boyar, when the cook's back was turned, drop a powder into the dish. I do not know what all this meant, but thought it my duty to put your majesty on your guard."

"Thanks for your shrewdness, my lad," said the czar; "I will bear it in mind."

Peter returned to the, table with his wonted cheerfulness of countenance, giving no indication that he had heard anything unusual.

"I should like your majesty to try that dish," said the boyar: "I fancy that you will find it very good."

"Come it here beside me," suggested Peter. It was the custom at that time in Moscow for the master of a house to wait on the table when he entertained guests.

Peter put some of the questionable dish on a plate and placed it before his host.

"No doubt it is good," he said. "Try some of it yourself and set me an example."

This request threw the host into a state of the utmost confusion, and with trembling utterance he replied that it was not becoming for a servant to eat with his master.

"It is becoming to a dog, if I wish it," answered Peter, and he set the plate on the floor before a dog which was in the room.

In a moment the brute had emptied the dish. But in a short time the poor animal was seen to be in convulsions, and it soon fell dead before the assembled company.

"Is this the dish you recommended so highly?" said Peter, fixing a terrible look on the shrinking boyar. "So I was to take the place of that dead dog?"

Orders were given to have the animal opened and examined, and the result of the investigation proved beyond doubt that its death was due to poison. The culprit, however, escaped the terrible punishment which he would have suffered at Peter's hands by taking his own life. He was found dead in bed the next morning.

We do not vouch for the truth of this interesting story. Though told by a writer of Peter's time, it is doubted by late historians. But such is the fate of the best stories afloat, and the voice of doubt threatens to rob history of much of its romance. The story of Mentchikof, in its most usual shape, states that Le Fort, general and admiral, was the first to be attracted to the sprightly boy, and that Peter saw him at Le Fort's house, was delighted with him, and made him his page.

The pastry-cook's boy soon became the indispensable companion of the czar, assisted him in his workshop. attended him in his wars, and at the siege of Azov displayed the greatest bravery. He accompanied Peter in his travels, worked with him in Holland, and distinguished himself in the wars with the Swedes, receiving the order of St. Andrew for gallantry at the battle of the Neva. In 1704 he was given the rank of general, and was the first to defeat the Swedes in a pitched battle. At the czar's request he was made a prince of the Holy Roman Empire. As Prince Mentchikof the new grandee loomed high. His house in Moscow was magnificent, his banquets were gorgeous with gold and silver plate, and the ambassadors of the powers of Europe figured among his guests. Such was the bright side of the picture. The dark side was one of extortion and robbery, in which the favorite of the czar out-did in peculation all the other officials of the realm.

Peculation in Russia, indeed, assumed enormous proportions, but this was a crime towards which Peter did not manifest his usual severity. Two of the robbers in high places were executed, but the others were let off with fines and a castigation with Peter's walking-stick, which he was in the habit of using freely on high and low alike. As for Mentchikof, he was incorrigible. So high was he in favor with his master that the senators, who had abundant proofs of his robberies and little love for him personally, dared not openly accuse him before the czar. The most they ventured to do was to draw up a statement of his peculations and lay the paper on the table at the czar's seat. Peter saw it, ran his eye over its contents, but said nothing. Day after day the paper lay in the same place, but the czar continued silent. One day as he sat in the senate, the senator Tolstoi, who sat beside him, was bold enough to ask him what he thought of that document.

"Nothing," Peter replied, "but that Mentchikof will always be Mentchikof."

The death of Peter placed the favorite in a pre. carious position. He had a host of enemies, who would have rejoiced in his downfall. These, who formed what may be called the Old Russian party, wished to proclaim as monarch the grandson of the deceased czar. But Mentchikof and the party of reform were beforehand with them, and gave the throne to Catharine, the widow of the late monarch. Under her the pastry-cook's boy rose to the summit of his power and virtually governed the country. Unluckily for the favorite, Catharine died in two years, and a new czar, Peter II., grandson of Peter the Great, came to the throne.

Mentchikof had been left guardian of the youthful czar, to whom his daughter was betrothed, and whom he took to his house and surrounded with his creatures. And now for a time the favorite soared higher than ever, was practically lord of the land, and made himself more feared than had been Peter himself.

But he had reached the verge of a precipice. There was no love between the young czar and Mary Mentchikof, and the youthful prince was soon brought to dislike his guardian. Events moved fast. Peter left Mentchikofs house and sought the summer palace, to which his guardian was refused admittance. Soon after he was arrested, the shock of the disgrace bringing on an apoplectic stroke. In vain he appealed to the emperor; he was ordered to retire to his estate, and soon after was banished, with his whole family, to Siberia. This was in 1727. The disgraced favorite survived his exile but two years, dying of apoplexy in 1729. Four months afterwards the new czar followed in death the man he had disgraced.

The other instance of a rise from low to high estate was that of the empress herself, whose career was very closely related to that of Mentchikof. There are various instances in history of a woman of low estate being chosen to share a monarch's throne, but only one, that of Catharine of Russia, in which a poor stranger, taken from among the ruins of a plundered town, became eventually the absolute sovereign of that empire into which she had been carried as captive or slave.

It was in 1702, during the sharply contested war between Russia and Sweden, that, while Charles XII. of Sweden was making conquests in Poland, the Russian army was having similar success in Livonia and Ingria. Among the Russian successes was the capture of a small town named Marienburg, which surrendered at discretion, but whose magazines were blown up by the Swedes. This behavior so provoked the Russian general that he gave orders for the town to be destroyed and all its inhabitants to be carried off.

Among the prisoners was a girl, Catharine by name, a native of Livonia, who had been left an orphan at the age of three years, and had been brought up as a servant in the family of M. Gluck, the minister of the place. Such was the humble origin of the woman who was to become the wife of Peter the Great, and afterwards Catharine I., Empress of Russia.

In 1702 Catharine, then seventeen years of age, married a Swedish dragoon, one of the garrison of Marienburg. Her married life was a short one, her husband being obliged to leave her in two days to join his regiment. She never saw him again. She could neither read nor write, and, like Mentchikof, never learned those arts. She was, however, handsome and attractive, delicate and well formed, and of a most excellent temper, being never known to be out of humor, while she was obliging and civil to all, and after her exaltation took good care of the family of her benefactor Gluck. As for her first husband, she sent him sums of money until 1705, when he was killed in battle.

It was a common fate of prisoners of war then to be sold as slaves to the Turks, but the beauty of Catharine saved her from this. After some vicissitudes, she fell into the bands of Mentchikof, at whose quarters she was seen by the czar. Struck by her beauty and good sense, Peter took her to his palace, where, finding in her a warm appreciation of his plans of reform and an admirable disposition, he made her his own by a private marriage. In 1711 this was supplemented by a public wedding.

Catharine was soon able amply to reward the czar for the honor he had conferred upon her. He was at war with the Turks, and, through a foolish contempt for their generalship and military skill, allowed himself to fall into a trap from which there seemed no escape. He found himself completely surrounded by the enemy and cut off from all supplies, and it seemed as if he would be forced to surrender with his whole force to the despised foe.

From this dilemma Catharine, who was in the camp, relieved him. Collecting a large sum of money and presents of jewelry, and seeking the camp of the enemy, she succeeded in bribing the Turkish general, or in some way inducing him to conclude peace and suffer the Russian army to escape. Peter repaid his able wife by conferring upon her the dignity of empress.

The death of the czar was followed, as we have said, by the elevation of his wife to the vacant throne, principally through the aid of Mentchikof, her former lord and master, aided by the effect of her seemingly inconsolable grief and the judicious distribution of money and jewels as presents.

For two years Catharine and Mentehikof, whose life had begun in the hovel, and who were now virtually together on the throne, were the unquestioned autocrats of Russia. Catharine had no genius for government, and left the control of affairs to her minister, who was to all intents and purposes sovereign of Russia. The empress, meanwhile, passed her days in vice and dissipation, thereby hastening her end. She died in 1727, at the age of about forty years. In the same year, as already stated, the man who had grown great with her fell from his high estate.