Gateway to the Classics: European Hero Stories by Eva March Tappan
European Hero Stories by  Eva March Tappan

Peter The Great

From the time that Rurik is said to have ruled in Russia, the country had little history for nearly eight hundred years. One reason was because it was overrun for two centuries by barbarians from Asia, called Tar'tars. Another was because, although it had become strong, it was like a lion shut up in a cage. He may be powerful, but he cannot show his power until he gets out. In this case, the "cage" was the different peoples that kept the country from the rest of the world.

The Tartars shut it from the Black and Cas'pi-an Seas, the Lithu-a'ni-ans lay between it and Germany, and the Swedes and others held the land about the Baltic Sea. Arch-an'gel was Russia's only seaport, and the harbor of that was frozen many months of the year.


Peter the Great.

The man who let Russia out of the cage was a wild, rough young fellow of seventeen named Peter, afterwards called Peter the Great. When he was a small boy, he came across an old, half-rotten boat. "I can remember when your great-uncle used to sail that," said an old peasant. "He could sail against the wind." No one could show the boy how this was done, but he searched till he at last found a teacher. He learned to sail the boat and so began his navy. He picked up boys in the streets and grooms from the stables for a company of soldiers; and this was the beginning of his army.

When this kingdom without a seaport fell into his hands, he set to work, first, to build a navy, and he sent young men to Holland and England and Italy to learn about naval affairs. "Return when you have become good sailors, and not before," he commanded them. After a while he himself set out for a tour of Europe, and never was there a traveler with such wide-open eyes. He wanted to see everything and to learn everything. "I want to know how those people live," he said, on one occasion, stopping his carriage before a house. He sent the owner out of doors and then examined the house at his leisure. Another time he waded in water knee-deep across a meadow to visit a mill that struck him as worth seeing. He learned how to open a vein, how to pull teeth, how to make ropes and sails and fire-works. He studied architecture with one man, natural history with another, and even took drawing lessons and was taught how to engrave.

He sent home great blocks of marble for the use of artists—when there should be any; he sent arms and tools, and a stuffed crocodile for the beginning of a museum. He sent also sailors, physicians, gunsmiths, and naval officers.


Peter the Great Learning ShipBuilding.

This remarkable sovereign was not satisfied to see things done and to hire men to do them; he wanted to do them himself. The next we hear of him, he was wearing a red waistcoat with large buttons, a short jacket, and wide breeches like those of the Dutch workmen, and was working in a shipyard, at Zaan-dam'. He called himself Pe'ter-bas or Master Peter; and if he was addressed by any other title, he pretended not to understand. At shipbuilding, he worked four months, not simply watching other men, but using his own hammer and adze. A little later he went to England. William III gave him a cordial welcome, and quite won his heart by getting up a sham naval battle for him.

This energetic young Czar never learned to behave himself properly. If he felt too warm at dinner, he sprang up and threw off his coat. He met a lady of the court one day and shouted "Halt!" at the top of his voice. Her watch hung at her waist. He caught it up, looked to see the time, and passed on. A handsome house was loaned him while he stayed in England; but after his departure the government had to pay the owner a large sum, for this strange visitor had carelessly torn the hangings down, ruined valuable pictures, and even broken out doors and windows. It is said that before he left England he presented to the English king a magnificent uncut diamond, wrapped in a bit of dirty paper. He went to make a call on the German emperor, and kept putting his hat upon his head and pulling it off again throughout his visit. The instant he escaped from the palace, he leaped into a boat on a pond in the park and rowed about with all his might, as if he could not have borne the royal interview another minute.


Nicholas Bridge, St. Petersburg.

When Peter returned to Russia, he built schools and factories, made roads and improved the laws; he established a printing press, introduced a fine breed of sheep, and built mills for making paper and linen. He had learned that his army was not equal to the troops of western Europe; so he set to work to improve it. He made his men give up their cumbrous long-skirted robes and dressed them in a more soldierly fashion. Then he armed and drilled them as the troops of the west were armed and drilled. He still longed for a port on the Baltic, but another king, quite as energetic as he, held the land. This was Charles XII of Sweden. He was only eighteen, but he was already a remarkable military commander. Denmark, Poland, and Russia united against him, and he beat them all. When news of the defeat was brought to Peter, he said, "I expected the Swedes to beat us, but they will soon teach us how to beat them." He set to work to drill, to make cannon, even melting up the bells of the churches when other metal gave out, and to prepare for a severe battle and a victory. He was also building, on a swampy island at the mouth of the Ne'va River, his capital, St. Pe'ters-burg, which was destined to be one of the most brilliant cities of Europe.


St. Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg.
(The grandest church in Russia and in all northern Europe)

King Charles marched boldly into Russia, for he supposed he should be as successful in this campaign as in his previous ones. "I will set ten Russians against every Swede," declared Peter, "and time and distance and cold and hunger will back me up." This he did. He slowly retreated, devastating all the district that he passed through. Charles pressed after him, and when he was in the midst of a barren, frozen country, the Russians met him at Pul-to'wa, and, as a Russian monk declared, "The Swedes disappeared even as lead is swallowed up in water." Peter had won the lands around the south shore of the Baltic, and now Russia had no lack of seaports.

Peter was coarse and rough, but his greatest wish was to do well by his country. "I would give half of it to learn how to govern the other half," he once said. It is easy to laugh at him and to find fault with him, but he "molded a mass of rugged nobles and crouching serfs into the great nation of the Russians." He died in his fifty-third year. His wife Catharine reared in his honor a noble monument, whereon was written that he "in this place first found rest."


Why Russia had little history for eight hundred years. — Peter and the sailboat. — Peter forms a navy. — He makes a tour through Europe. — He becomes a shipbuilder. — His rudeness and vandalism. — His visit to the German emperor. — His reforms in Russia. — He prepares to win a port on the Baltic Sea. — Builds his capital. — His victory over Charles XII of Sweden. — His achievements.

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