Gateway to the Classics: Peter the Great by Jacob Abbott
Peter the Great by  Jacob Abbott


A T the time of the death of Alexis the Czar's hopes in respect to a successor fell upon his little son, Peter Petrowitz, the child of Catharine, who was born about the time of the death of Alexis's wife, when the difficulties between himself and Alexis were first beginning to assume an alarming form. This child was now about three years old, but he was of a very weak and sickly constitution, and the Czar watched him with fear and trembling. His apprehensions proved to be well founded, for about a year after the unhappy death of Alexis he also died.

Peter was entirely overwhelmed with grief at this new calamity. He was seized with the convulsions to which he was subject when under any strong excitement, his face was distorted, and his neck was twisted and stiffened in a most frightful manner. In ordinary attacks of this kind Catharine had power to soothe and allay the spasmodic action of the muscles, and gradually release her husband from the terrible gripe of the disease, but now he would not suffer her to come near him. He could not endure it, for the sight of her renewed so vividly the anguish that he felt for the loss of their child, that it made the convulsions and the suffering worse than before.

It is said that on this occasion Peter shut himself up alone for three days and three nights in his own chamber, where he lay stretched on the ground in anguish and agony, and would not allow any body to come in. At length one of his ministers of state came, and, speaking to him through the door, appealed to him, in the most earnest manner, to come forth and give them directions in respect to the affairs of the empire, which, he said, urgently required his attention. The minister had brought with him a large number of senators to support and enforce his appeal. At length the Czar allowed the door to be opened, and the minister, with all the senators, came together into the room. The sudden appearance of so many persons, and the boldness of the minister in taking this decided step, made such an impression on the mind of the Czar as to divert his mind for the moment from his grief, and he allowed himself to be led forth and to be persuaded to take some food.

The death of Petrowitz took place in 1719, and the Czar continued to live and reign himself after this period for about sixteen years. During all that time he went on vigorously and successfully in completing the reforms which he had undertaken in the internal condition of his empire, and increasing the power and influence of his government among surrounding nations. He had no farther serious difficulty with the opponents of his policy, though he was always under apprehensions that difficulties might arise after his death. He had the right, according to the ancient constitution of the monarchy, to designate his own successor, choosing for this purpose either one of his sons or any other person. And now, since both his sons were dead, his mind revolved anxiously the question what provision he should make for the government of the empire after his decease. He finally concluded to leave it in the hands of Catharine herself, and, to prepare the way for this, he resolved to cause her to be solemnly crowned empress during his lifetime.

As a preliminary measure, however, before publicly announcing Catharine as his intended successor, Peter required all the officers of the empire, both civil and military, and all the nobles and other chief people of the country, to subscribe a solemn declaration and oath that they acknowledged the right of the Czar to appoint his successor, and that after his death they would sustain and defend whomsoever he should name as their emperor and sovereign.

This declaration, printed forms of which were sent all over the kingdom, was signed by the people very readily. No one, however, imagined that Catharine would be the person on whom the Czar's choice would fall. It was generally supposed that a certain Prince Naraskin would be appointed to the succession. The Czar himself said nothing of his intention, but waited until the time should arrive for carrying it into effect.

The first step to be taken in carrying the measure into effect was to issue a grand proclamation announcing his design and explaining the reasons for it. In this proclamation Peter cited many instances from history in which great sovereigns had raised their consorts to a seat on the throne beside them, and then he recapitulated the great services which Catharine had rendered to him and to the state, which made her peculiarly deserving of such an honor. She had been a tried and devoted friend and counselor to him, he said, for many years. She had shared his labors and fatigues, had accompanied him on his journeys, and had even repeatedly encountered all the discomforts and dangers of the camp in following him in his military campaigns. By so doing she had rendered him the most essential service, and on one occasion she had been the means of saving his whole army from destruction. He therefore declared his intention of joining her with himself in the supreme power, and to celebrate this event by a solemn coronation.

The place where the coronation was to be performed was, of course, the ancient city of Moscow, and commands were issued to all the great dignitaries of Church and state, and invitations to all the foreign embassadors, to repair to that city, and be ready on the appointed day to take part in the ceremony.

It would be impossible to describe or to conceive, without witnessing it, the gorgeousness and splendor of the spectacle which the coronation afforded. The scene of the principal ceremony was the Cathedral, which was most magnificently decorated for the occasion. The whole interior of the building was illumined with an immense number of wax candles, contained in chandeliers and branches of silver and gold, which were suspended from the arches or attached to the walls. The steps of the altar, and all that part of the pavement of the church over which the Czarina would have to walk in the performance of the ceremonies, were covered with rich tapestry embroidered with gold, and the seats on which the bishops and other ecclesiastical dignitaries were to sit were covered with crimson cloth.

The ceremony of the coronation itself was to be performed on a dais, or raised platform, which was set up in the middle of the church. This platform, with the steps leading to it, was carpeted with crimson velvet, and it was surmounted by a splendid canopy made of silk, embroidered with gold. The canopy was ornamented, too, on every side with fringes, ribbons, tufts, tassels, and gold lace, in the richest manner. Under the canopy was the double throne for the emperor and empress, and near it seats for the royal princesses, all covered with crimson velvet trimmed with gold.

When the appointed hour arrived the procession was formed at the royal palace, and moved toward the Cathedral through a dense and compact mass of spectators that every where thronged the way. Every window was filled, and the house-tops, wherever there was space for a footing, were crowded. There were troops of guards mounted on horseback and splendidly caparisoned—there were bands of music, and heralds, and great officers of state, bearing successively, on cushions ornamented with gold and jewels, the imperial mantle, the globe, the sceptre, and the crown. In this way the royal party proceeded to the Cathedral, and there, after going through a great many ceremonies, which, from the magnificence of the dresses, of the banners, and the various regal emblems that were displayed, was very gorgeous to behold, but which it would be tedious to describe, the crown was placed upon Catharine's head, the moment being signalized to all Moscow by the ringing of bells, the music of trumpets and drums, and the firing of cannon.

The ceremonies were continued through two days by several other imposing processions, and were closed on the night of the second day by a grand banquet held in a spacious hall which was magnificently decorated for the occasion. And while the regal party within the hall were being served with the richest viands from golden vessels, the populace without were feasted by means of oxen roasted whole in the streets, and public fountains made to run with exhaustless supplies of wine.

The coronation of Catharine as empress was not a mere empty ceremony. There were connected with it formal legal arrangements for transferring the supreme power into her hands on the death of the Czar. Nor were these arrangements made any too soon; for it was in less than a year after that time that the Czar, in the midst of great ceremonies of rejoicing, connected with the betrothal of one of his daughters, the Princess Anna Petrowna, to a foreign duke, was attacked suddenly by a very painful disease, and, after suffering great distress and anguish for many days, he at length expired. His death took place on the 28th of January, 1725.

One of his daughters, the Princess Natalia Petrowna, the third of Catharine's children, died a short time after her father, and the bodies of both parent and child were interred together at the same funeral ceremony, which was conducted with the utmost possible pomp and parade. The obsequies were so protracted that it was more than six weeks from the death of the Czar before the bodies were finally committed to the tomb; and a volume might be filled with an account of the processions, the ceremonies, the prayers, the chantings, the costumes, the plumes and trappings of horses, the sledges decked in mourning, the requiems sung, the salvos of artillery fired, and all the various other displays and doings connected with the occasion.

Thus was brought to an end the earthly personal career of Peter the Great. He well deserves his title, for he was certainly one of the greatest as well as one of the most extraordinary men that ever lived. Himself half a savage, he undertook to civilize twenty millions of people, and he pursued the work during his whole lifetime through dangers, difficulties, and discouragements which it required a surprising degree of determination and energy to surmount. He differs from other great military monarchs that have appeared from time to time in the world's history, and by their exploits have secured for themselves the title of The Great, in this, that, while they acquired their renown by conquests gained over foreign nations, which, in most cases, after the death of their conquerors, lapsed again into their original condition, leaving no permanent results behind, the triumphs which Peter achieved were the commencement of a work of internal improvement and reform which is now, after the lapse of a century and a half since he commenced it, still going on. The work is, in fact, advancing at the present day with perhaps greater and more successful progress than ever before.

Notwithstanding the stern severity of Peter's character, the terrible violence of his passions, and the sort of savage grandeur which marked all his great determinations and plans, there was a certain vein of playfulness running through his mind; and, when he was in a jocose or merry humor, no one could be more jocose and merry than he. The interest which he took in the use of tools, and in working with his own hands at various handicrafts—his notion of entering the army as a drummer, the navy as a midshipman, and rising gravely, by regular promotion in both services, through all the grades—the way in which he often amused himself, when on his travels, in going about in disguise among all sorts of people, and a thousand other circumstances which are related of him by historians, are indications of what might be called a sort of boyish spirit, which strongly marked his character, and was seen continually coming out into action during the whole course of his life.

It was only two years before his death that a striking instance of this occurred. The first vessel that was built in Russia was a small skiff, which was planned and built almost entirely by Peter's own hands. This skiff was built at Moscow, where it remained for twenty or thirty years, an object all this time, in Peter's mind, of special affection and regard. At length, when the naval power of the empire was firmly established, Peter conceived the idea of removing this skiff from Moscow to Petersburg, and consecrating it solemnly there as a sort of souvenir to be preserved forever in commemoration of the small beginnings from which all the naval greatness of the empire had sprung. The name which he had given to the skiff was The Little Grandfather, the name denoting that the little craft, frail and insignificant as it was, was the parent and progenitor of all the great frigates and ships of the line which were then at anchor in the Roads about Cronstadt and off the mouth of the Neva.

A grand ceremony was accordingly arranged for the "consecration of the Little Grandfather." The little vessel was brought in triumph from Moscow to Petersburg, where it was put on board a sort of barge or galliot to be taken to Cronstadt. All the great officers of state and all the foreign ministers were invited to be present at the consecration. The company embarked on board yachts provided for them, and went down the river following the Little Grandfather, which was borne on its galliot in the van—drums beating, trumpets sounding, and banners waving all the way.

The next day the whole fleet, which had been collected in the bay for this purpose, was arranged in the form of an amphitheatre. The Little Grandfather was let down from his galliot into the water. The emperor went on board of it. He was accompanied by the admirals and vice admirals of the fleet, who were to serve as crew. The admiral stationed himself at the helm to steer, and the vice admirals took the oars. These grand officials were not required, however, to do much hard work at rowing, for there were two shallops provided, manned by strong men, to tow the skif. In this way the skiff rowed to and fro over the sea, and then passed along the fleet, saluted every where by the shouts of the crews upon the yards and in the rigging, and by the guns of the ships. Three thousand guns were discharged by the ships in these salvos in honor of their humble progenitor. The Little Grandfather returned the salutes of the guns with great spirit by means of three small swivels which had been placed on board.

The Empress Catharine saw the show from an elevation on the shore, where she sat with the ladies of her court in a pavilion or tent which had been erected for the purpose.

At the close of the ceremonies the skiff was deposited with great ceremony in the place which had been prepared to receive it in the Castle of Cronstadt, and there, when one more day had been spent in banquetings and rejoicings, the company left the Little Grandfather to his repose, and returned in their yachts to the town.

Not many days after the death of Peter, Catharine, in accordance with the arrangements that Peter had previously made, was proclaimed empress by a solemn act of the senate and ministers of state, and she at once entered upon the exercise of the sovereign power. She signalized her accession by a great many acts of clemency—liberating prisoners, recalling exiles, removing bodies from gibbets and wheels, and heads from poles, and delivering them to friends for burial, remitting the sentence of death pronounced upon political offenders, and otherwise mitigating and assuaging sufferings which Peter's remorseless ideas of justice and retribution had caused. Catharine did not, however, live long to exercise her beneficial power. She died suddenly about two years after her husband, and was buried with great pomp in a grand monumental tomb in one of the churches of St. Petersburg, which she had been engaged ever since his death in constructing for him.

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