Youre here: Home » eDigg Biographies » Biographies N-S » Peter The Great


» Biography Home

» Biographies A-F

» Biographies G-M

» Biographies N-S

» Biographies T-Z

Peter The Great

      At the close of the sixteenth century, the dominions of Russia, or Muscovy, as it was then more generally called, were far thrown back from the more civilized nations of southern Europe, by the intervention of Lithuania, Livonia, and other provinces now incorporated in the Russian empire, but then belonging either to Sweden or Poland. The Czar of Muscovy, therefore, possessed no political weight in the affairs of Europe, and little intercourse existed between the court of Moscow and the more polished potentates whom it affected to despise as barbarians, even for some time after the accession of the reigning dynasty, the house of Romanoff, in 1613, and the establishment of a more regular government than had previously been known. We only read occasionally of embassies being sent to Moscow, in general for the purpose of arranging commercial relations. From this state of insignificance, Peter, the first Emperor of Russia, raised his country, by introducing into it the arts of peace, by establishing a well-organized and disciplined army in the place of a lawless body of tumultuous mutineers, by creating a navy, where scarce a merchant vessel existed before, and, as the natural result of these changes, by important conquests on both the Asiatic and European frontiers of his hereditary dominions. For these services his countrymen bestowed on him, yet living, the title of Great; and it is well deserved, whether we look to the magnitude of those services, the difficulty of carrying into effect his benevolent designs, which included nothing less than the remodelling a whole people, or the grasp of mind and the iron energy of will, which were necessary to conceive such projects and to overcome the difficulties which beset them. It will not vitiate his claim to the epithet that his manners were coarse and boisterous, his amusements often ludicrous and revolting to a polished taste; if that claim be questionable, it is because he who aspired to be the reformer of others was unable to control the violence of his own passions.

      The Czar Alexis, Peter's father, was actuated by somewhat of the spirit which so distinguished the son. He endeavored to introduce the European discipline into his armies; he had it much at heart to turn the attention of the Russians to maritime pursuits; and he added the fine provinces of Plescow and Smolensko to his paternal dominions. At the death of Alexis, in 1677, Peter was but five years old. His eldest brother Theodore succeeded to the throne. Theodore died after a reign of five years, and named Peter his successor, passing over the second brother, Ivan, who was weak-minded. Their ambitious sister, Sophia, stirred the strelitzi, or native militia, to revolt in favor of Ivan, and Peter and his mother had to take refuge in the Troitski convent. This retreat being discovered, they were driven for protection to the church altar itself, where the religion or superstition of the wild soldiery saved the intended victims. We pass in silence over the remaining intrigues and insurrections which troubled the young czar's minority. It was not until the close of the year 1689, in the eighteenth year of his age, that he finally shook off the trammels of his ambitious sister, and assumed in reality, as well as in name, the direction of the state. How he had been qualified for this task by education does not clearly appear; but even setting aside the stories which attribute to his sister the detestable design of leading him into all sorts of excess, and especially drunkenness, with the hope of ruining both his constitution and intellect, it is probable that no pains whatever had been taken to form his intellect or manners for the station which he was to occupy. One of the few anecdotes told of his early life is, that being struck by the appearance of a boat on the river Yausa, which runs through Moscow, and noticing it to be of different construction from the flat-bottomed vessels commonly in use, he was led to inquire into the method of navigating it. It had been built for the Czar Alexis by a Dutchman, who was still in Moscow. He was immediately sent for; he rigged and repaired the boat, and under his guidance the young prince learned how to sail her, and soon grew passionately fond of his new amusement. He had five small vessels built at Plescow, on the lake Peipus; and not satisfied with this fresh-water navigation, hired a ship at Archangel, in which he made a voyage to the coast of Lapland. In these expeditions his love of sailing was nourished into a passion which lasted through life. He prided himself upon his practical skill as a seaman; and both at this time and afterward exposed himself and his friends to no small hazard by his rashness in following this favorite pursuit.

      The first serious object of Peter's attention was to reform the army. In this he was materially assisted by a Swiss gentleman named Lefort; at whose suggestion he raised a company of fifty men, who were clothed and disciplined in the European manner, the Russian army at that time being little better than a tribe of Tartars. As soon as the little corps was formed, Peter caused himself to be enrolled in it as a private soldier. It is a remarkable trait in the character of the man, that he thought no condescension degrading which forwarded any of his ends. In the army he entered himself in the lowest rank, and performed successively the duties of every other; in the navy he went still further, for he insisted on performing the menial duties of the lowest cabin-boy, rising step by step, till he was qualified to rate as an able seaman. Nor was this done merely for the sake of singularity; he had resolved that every officer of the sea or land service should enter in the lowest rank of his profession, that he might obtain a practical knowledge of every task or manoeuvre which it was his duty to see properly executed; and he felt that his nobility might scarcely be brought to submit to what in their eyes would be a degradation, except by the personal example of the czar himself. Meanwhile he had not been negligent of the other arm of war; for a number of Dutch and Venetian workmen were employed in building gunboats and small ships of war at Voronitz, on the river Don, intended to secure the command of the Sea of Azof, and to assist in capturing the strong town of Azof, then held by the Turks. The possession of this place was of great importance, from its situation at the mouth of the Don, commanding access to the Mediterranean Sea. His first military attempts were accordingly directed against it, and he succeeded in taking it in 1696.

The life of Peter the Great saved at the foot of the altar.

      In the spring of the ensuing year, the empire being tranquil and the young czar's authority apparently established on a safe footing, he determined to travel into foreign countries, to view with his own eyes, and become personally and practically familiar with the arts and institutions of refined nations. There was a grotesqueness in his manner of executing this design, which has tended, more probably than even its real merit, to make it one of the common-places of history. Every child knows how the Czar of Muscovy worked in the dock-yard of Saardam in Holland, as a common carpenter. In most men this would have been affectation; and perhaps there was some tinge of that weakness in the earnestness with which Peter handled the axe, obeyed the officers of the dock-yard, and in all points of outward manners and appearance, put himself on a level with the shipwrights who were earning their daily bread. It seems, however, to have been the turn of Peter's mind always to begin at the beginning; a sound maxim, though here, perhaps, pushed beyond reasonable bounds. And his abode and occupations in Holland formed only part of an extensive plan. On quitting Russia he sent sixty young Russians to Venice and Leghorn to learn ship-building and navigation, and especially the construction and management of galleys moved by oars, which were so much used by the Venetian republic. Others he sent into Holland, with similar instructions; others into Germany, to study the art of war, and make themselves well acquainted with the discipline and tactics of the German troops. So that while his personal labor at Saardam may have been stimulated in part by affectation of singularity, in part, perhaps, by a love of bodily exertion common in men of his busy and ardent temper, it would be unjust not to give him credit for higher motives; such as the desire to become thoroughly acquainted with the art of ship-building, which he thought so important, and to set a good example of diligence to those whom he had sent out on a similar voyage of education.

      Peter remained nine months in Holland, the greatest part of which he spent in the dock-yard of Saardam. He displayed unwearied zeal in seeking out and endeavoring to comprehend everything of interest in science and art, especially in visiting manufactories. In January, 1698, he sailed for London in an English man-of-war, sent out expressly to bring him over. His chief object was to perfect himself in the higher branches of ship-building. With this view he occupied Mr. Evelyn's house, adjoining the dock-yard of Deptford; and there remain in that gentleman's journal some curious notices of the manners of the czar and his household, which were of the least refined description. During his stay he showed the same earnestness in inquiring into all things connected with the maritime and commercial greatness of the country, as before in Holland; and he took away nearly five hundred persons in his suite, consisting of naval captains, pilots, gunners, surgeons, and workmen in various trades, especially those connected with the naval service. In England, without assuming his rank, he ceased to wear the attire and adopt the habits of a common workman; and he had frequent intercourse with William III., who is said to have conceived a strong liking for him, notwithstanding the uncouthness of his manners. Kneller painted a portrait of him for the king, which is said to have been a good likeness.

      He left London in April, 1698, and proceeded to Vienna, principally to inspect the Austrian troops, then esteemed among the best in Europe. He had intended to visit Italy; but his return was hastened by the tidings of a dangerous insurrection having broken out, which, though suppressed, seemed to render a longer absence from the seat of government inexpedient. The insurgents were chiefly composed of the Russian soldiery, abetted by a large party who thought everything Russian good, and hated and dreaded the czar's innovating temper. Of those who had taken up arms, many were slain in battle; the rest, with many persons of more rank and consequence, suspected of being implicated in the revolt, were retained in prison until the czar himself should decide their fate. Numerous stories of his extravagant cruelties on this occasion have been told, which may safely be passed over as unworthy of credit. It is certain, however, that considerable severity was shown. This insurrection led to the complete remodelling of the Russian army, on the same plan which had already been partially adopted.

      During the year 1699 the czar was chiefly occupied by civil reforms. According to his own account, as published in his journal, he regulated the press, caused translations to be published of various treatises on military and mechanical science and history; he founded a school for the navy; others for the study of the Latin, German, and other languages; he encouraged his subjects to cultivate foreign trade, which before they had absolutely been forbidden to do under pain of death; he altered the Russian calendar, in which the year began on September 1st, to agree in that point with the practice of other nations; he broke through the Oriental custom of not suffering women to mix in general society; and he paid sedulous attention to the improvement of his navy on the river Don. We have the testimony of Mr. Deane, an English ship-builder, that the czar had turned his manual labors to good account, who states in a letter to England, that "the czar has set up a ship of sixty guns, where he is both foreman and masterbuilder; and, not to flatter him, I'll assure your lordship it will be the best ship among them, and it is all from his own draught: how he framed her together, and how he made the moulds, and in so short a time as he did, is really wonderful."

      He introduced an improved breed of sheep from Saxony and Silesia; despatched engineers to survey the different provinces of his extensive empire; sent persons skilled in metallurgy to the various districts in which mines were to be found; established manufactories of arms, tools, stuffs; and encouraged foreigners skilled in the useful arts to settle in Russia, and enrich it by the produce of their industry.

      We cannot trace the progress of that protracted contest between Sweden and Russia, in which the short-lived greatness of Sweden was broken: we can only state the causes of the war and the important results to which it led. Peter's principal motive for engaging in it was his leading wish to make Russia a maritime and commercial nation. To this end it was necessary that she should be possessed of ports, of which, however, she had none but Archangel and Azof, both most inconveniently situated, as well in respect of the Russian empire itself, as of the chief commercial nations of Europe. On the waters of the Baltic Russia did not possess a foot of coast. Both sides of the Baltic, both sides of the Gulf of Finland, the country between the head of that gulf and the Lake Ladoga, including both sides of the River Neva, and the western side of Lake Ladoga itself, and the northern end of Lake Peipus, belonged to Sweden. In the year 1700, Charles XII. being but eighteen years of age, Denmark, Poland, and Russia, which had all of them suffered from the ambition of Sweden, formed a league to repair their losses, presuming on the weakness usually inherent in a minority. The object of Russia was the restoration of the provinces of Ingria, Carelia, and Wiborg, the country round the head of the Gulf of Finland, which formerly had belonged to her; that of Poland, was the recovery of Livonia and Esthonia, the greater part of which had been ceded by her to Charles XI. of Sweden. Denmark was to obtain Holstein and Sleswick. But Denmark and Poland very soon withdrew, and left Russia to encounter Sweden single-handed. To this she was entirely unequal; her army, the bulk of it undisciplined, and even the disciplined part unpractised in the field, was no match for the veteran troops of Sweden, the terror of Germany. In the battle of Narva, a town on the river which runs out of the Peipus Lake, fought November 30, 1700, 9,000 Swedes defeated signally near forty thousand Russians, strongly intrenched and with a numerous artillery. Had Charles prosecuted his success with vigor, he might probably have delayed for many years the rise of Russia; but whether from contempt or mistake he devoted his whole attention to the war in Poland, and left the czar at liberty to recruit and discipline his army, and improve the resources of his kingdom. In these labors he was most diligent. His troops, practised in frequent skirmishes with the Swedes quartered in Ingria and Livonia, rapidly improved, and on the celebrated field of Pultowa broke forever the power of Charles XII. This decisive action did not take place until July 8, 1709. The interval was occupied by a series of small, but important additions to the Russian territory. In 1701-2, great part of Livonia and Ingria were subdued, including the banks of the Neva, where on May 27, 1703, the city of St. Petersburg was founded. It was not till 1710 that the conquest of Courland, with the remainder of Livonia, including the important harbors of Riga and Revel, gave to Russia that free navigation of the Baltic Sea which Peter had longed for as the greatest benefit which he could confer upon his country.

      After the battle of Pultowa Charles fled to Turkey, where he continued for some years, shut out from his own dominions, and intent chiefly on spiriting the Porte to make war on Russia. In this he succeeded; but hostilities were terminated almost at their beginning by the battle of the Pruth, fought July 20, 1711, in which the Russian army, not mustering more than forty thousand men, and surrounded by five times that number of Turks, owed its preservation to Catherine, first the mistress, at this time the wife, and finally the acknowledged partner and successor of Peter on the throne of Russia. By her coolness and prudence, while the czar, exhausted by fatigue, anxiety, and self-reproach, was laboring under nervous convulsions, to which he was liable throughout life, a treaty was concluded with the vizier in command of the Turkish army, by which the Russians preserved indeed life, liberty, and honor, but were obliged to resign Azof, to give up the forts and burn the vessels built to command the sea bearing that name, and to consent to other stipulations, which must have been very bitter to the hitherto successful conqueror. Returning to the seat of government, his foreign policy for the next few years was directed to breaking down the power of Sweden, and securing his new metropolis by prosecuting his conquests on the northern side of the Gulf of Finland. Here he was entirely successful; and the whole of Finland itself, and of the gulf, fell into his hands. These provinces were secured to Russia by the peace of Nieustadt, in 1721. Upon this occasion the senate or state assembly of Russia requested him to assume the title of Emperor of all the Russias, with the adjunct of Great, and Father of his Country.

      If our sketch of the latter years of Peter's life appears meagre and unsatisfactory, it is to be recollected that the history of that life is the history of a great empire, which it would be vain to condense within our limits, were they greater than they are. Results are all that we are competent to deal with. From the peace of Nieustadt, the exertions of Peter, still unremitting, were directed more to consolidate and improve the internal condition of the empire, by watching over the changes which he had already made, than to effect farther conquests, or new revolutions in policy or manners. He died February 8, 1725, leaving no surviving male issue. Some time before he had caused the Empress Catherine to be solemnly crowned and associated with him on the throne, and to her he left the charge of fostering those schemes of civilization which he had originated.

Privacy Policy
Copyright © 1999-2008 All rights reserved.