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

Le Fort and Menzikoff

W HATEVER may be a person's situation in life, his success in his undertakings depends not more, after all, upon his own personal ability to do what is required to be done, than it does upon his sagacity and the soundness of his judgment in selecting the proper persons to co-operate with him and assist him in doing it. In all great enterprises undertaken by men, it is only a very small part which they can execute with their own hands, and multitudes of most excellently contrived plans fail for want of wisdom in the choice of the men who are depended upon for the accomplishment of them.

This is true in all things, small as well as great. A man may form a very wise scheme for building a house. He may choose an excellent place for the location of it, and draw up a good plan, and make ample arrangements for the supply of funds, but if he does not know how to choose, or where to find good builders, his scheme will come to a miserable end. He may choose builders that are competent but dishonest, or they may be honest but incompetent, or they may be subject to some other radical defect; in either of which cases the house will be badly built, and the scheme will be a failure.

Many men say, when such a misfortune as this happens to them, "Ah! it was not my fault. It was the fault of the builders;" to which the proper reply would be, "It was  your fault. You should not have undertaken to build a house unless, in addition to being able to form the general plan and arrangements wisely, you had also had the sagacity to discern the characters of the men whom you were to employ to execute the work." This latter quality is as important to success in all undertakings as the former. Indeed, it is far more important, for good men  may correct or avoid the evils of a bad plan, but a good plan can never afford security against the evil action of bad men.

The sovereigns and great military commanders that have acquired the highest celebrity in history have always been remarkable for their tact and sagacity in discovering and bringing forward the right kind of talent for the successful accomplishment of their various designs.

When Peter first found himself nominally in possession of the supreme power, after the fall of the Princess Sophia, he was very young, and the administration of the government was really in the hands of different nobles and officers of state, who managed affairs in his name. From time to time there were great dissensions among these men. They formed themselves into cliques and coteries, each of which was jealous of the influence of the others. As Peter gradually grew older, and felt stronger and stronger in his position, he took a greater part in the direction and control of the public policy, and the persons whom he first made choice of to aid him in his plans were two very able men, whom he afterward raised to positions of great responsibility and honor. These men became, indeed, in the end, highly distinguished as statesmen, and were very prominent and very efficient instruments in the development and realization of Peter's plans. The name of the first of these statesmen was Le Fort; that of the second was Menzikoff. The story which is told by the old historians of both of these men is quite romantic.

Le Fort was the son of a merchant of Geneva. He had a strong desire from his childhood to be a soldier; but his father, considering the hardships and dangers to which a military life would expose him, preferred to make him a merchant, and so he provided him with a place in the counting house of one of the great merchants of Amsterdam. The city of Amsterdam was in those days one of the greatest and wealthiest marts of commerce in the world.

Very many young men, in being thus restrained by their fathers from pursuing the profession which they themselves chose, and placed, instead, in a situation which they did not like, would have gone to their duty in a discontented and sullen manner, and would have made no effort to succeed in the business or to please their employers; but Le Fort, it seems, was a boy of a different mould from this. He went to his work in the counting-house at Amsterdam with a good heart, and devoted himself to his business with so much industry and steadiness, and evinced withal so much amiableness of disposition in his intercourse with all around him, that before long, as the accounts say, the merchant "loved him as his own child." After some considerable time had elapsed, the merchant, who was constantly sending vessels to different parts of the world, was on one occasion about dispatching a ship to Copenhagen, and Le Fort asked permission to go in her. The merchant was not only willing that he should go, but also gave him the whole charge of the cargo, with instructions to attend to the sale of it, and the remittance of the proceeds on the arrival of the ship in port. Le Fort accordingly sailed in the ship, and on his arrival at Copenhagen he transacted the business of selling the cargo and sending back the money so skillfully and well that the merchant was very well pleased with him.

Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark, and the Danes were at that time quite a powerful and warlike nation. Le Fort, in walking about the streets of the town while his ship was lying there, often saw the Danish soldiers marching to and fro, and performing their evolutions, and the sight revived in his mind his former interest in being a soldier. He soon made acquaintance with some of the officers, and, in hearing them talk of their various adventures, and of the details of their mode of life, he became very eager to join them. They liked him, too, very much. He had made great progress in learning the different languages spoken in that part of the world, and the officers found, moreover, that he was very quick in understanding the military principles which they explained to him, and in learning evolutions of all kinds.

About this time it happened that an embassador was to be sent from Denmark to Russia, and Le Fort, who had a great inclination to see the world as well as to be a soldier, was seized with a strong desire to accompany the expedition in the embassador's train. He already knew something of the Russian language, and he set himself at work with all diligence to study it more. He also obtained recommendations from those who had known him—probably, among others, from the merchant in Amsterdam, and he secured the influence in his favor of the officers in Copenhagen with whom he had become acquainted. When these preliminary steps had been taken, he made application for the post of interpreter to the embassy; and after a proper examination had been made in respect to his character and his qualifications, he received the appointment. Thus, instead of going back to Amsterdam after his cargo was sold, he went to Russia in the suite of the embassador.

The embassador soon formed a very strong friendship for his young interpreter, and employed him confidentially, when he arrived in Moscow, in many important services. The embassador himself soon acquired great influence at Moscow, and was admitted to quite familiar intercourse, not only with the leading Russian noblemen, but also with Peter himself. On one occasion, when Peter was dining at the embassador's—as it seems he was sometimes accustomed to do—he took notice of Le Fort, who was present as one of the party, on account of his prepossessing appearance and agreeable manners. He also observed that, for a foreigner, he spoke the Russian language remarkably well. The emperor asked Le Fort some questions concerning his origin and history, and, being very much pleased with his answers, and with his general air and demeanor, he asked him whether he should be willing to enter into his service. Le Fort replied in a very respectful manner, "That, whatever ambition he might have to serve so great a monarch, yet the duty and gratitude which he owed to his present master, the embassador, would not allow him to promise any thing without first asking his consent."

"Very well," replied the Czar; "I  will ask your master's consent."

"But I hope," said Le Fort, "that your majesty will make use of some other interpreter than myself in asking the question."

Peter was very much pleased with both these answers of Le Fort—the one showing his scrupulous fidelity to his engagements in not being willing to leave one service for another, however advantageous to himself the change might be, until he was honorably released by his first employer, and the other marking the delicacy of mind which prompted him to wish not to take any part in the conversation between the emperor and the embassador respecting himself, as his office of interpreter would naturally lead him to do, but to prefer that the communication should be made through an indifferent person, in order that the embassador might be perfectly free to express his real opinion without any reserve.

Accordingly, the Czar, taking another interpreter with him, went to the embassador and began to ask him about Le Fort.

"He speaks very good Russian," said Peter.

"Yes, please your majesty," said the embassador, "he has a genius for learning any thing that he pleases. When he came to me four months ago he knew very little of German, but now be speaks it very well. I have two German interpreters in my train, and he speaks the language as well as either of them. He did not know a word of Russian when he came to my country, but your majesty can judge yourself how well he speaks it now."

In the mean time, while Peter and the embassador were talking thus about Le Fort, he himself had withdrawn to another part of the room. The Czar was very much pleased with the modesty of the young gentleman's behavior; and; after finishing the conversation with the embassador, without, however, having asked him to release Le Fort from his service, he returned to the part of the room where Le Fort was, and presently asked him to bring him a glass of wine. He said no more to him at that time in respect to entering his service, but Le Fort understood very well from his countenance, and from the manner in which he asked him for the wine, that nothing had occurred in his conversation with the embassador to lead him to change his mind.

The next day Peter, having probably in the mean time made some farther inquiries about Le Fort, introduced the subject again in conversation with the embassador. He told the embassador that he had a desire to have the young man Le Fort about him, and asked if he should be willing to part with him. The embassador replied that, notwithstanding any desire he might feel to retain so agreeable and promising a man in his own service, still the exchange was too advantageous to Le Fort, and he wished him too well to make any objection to it; and besides, he added, he knew too well his duty to his majesty not to consent readily to any arrangement of that kind that his majesty might desire.

The next day Peter sent for Le Fort, and formally appointed him his first interpreter. The duties of this office required Le Fort to be a great deal in the emperor's presence, and Peter soon became extremely attached to him. Le Fort, although we have called him a young man, was now about thirty-five years of age, while Peter himself was yet not twenty. It was natural, therefore, that Peter should soon learn to place great confidence in him, and often look to him for information and this the more readily on account of Le Fort's having been brought up in the heart of Europe, where all the arts of civilization, both those connected with peace and war, were in a much more advanced state than they were at this time in Russia.

Le Fort continued in the service of the emperor until the day of his death, which happened about ten years after this time; and during this period he rose to great distinction, and exercised a very important part in the management of public affairs, and more particularly in aiding Peter to understand and to introduce into his own dominions the arts and improvements of western Europe.

The first improvement which Le Fort was the means of introducing in the affairs of the Czar related to the dress and equipment of the troops. The Guards had before that time been accustomed to wear an old-fashioned Russian uniform, which was far from being convenient. The outside garment was a sort of long coat or gown, which considerably impeded the motion of the limbs. One day, not long after Le Fort entered the service of the emperor, Peter, being engaged in conversation with him, asked him what he thought of his soldiers.

"The men themselves are very well," replied Le Fort, " but it seems to me that the dress which they wear is not so convenient for military use as the style of dress now usually adopted among the western nations."

Peter asked what this style was, and Le Fort replied that if his majesty would permit him to do so, he would take measures for affording him an opportunity to see.

Accordingly, Le Fort repaired immediately to the tailor of the Danish embassador. This tailor the embassador had brought with him from Copenhagen, for it was the custom in those days for personages of high rank and station, like the embassador, to take with them, in their train, persons of all the trades and professions which they might require, so that, wherever they might be, they could have the means of supplying all their wants within themselves, and without at all depending upon the people whom they visited. Le Fort employed the tailor to make him two military suits, in the style worn by the royal guards at Copenhagen—one for an officer, and another for a soldier of the ranks. The tailor finished the first suit in two days. Le Fort put the dress on, and in the morning, at the time when, according to his usual custom, he was to wait upon the emperor in his chamber, he went in wearing the new uniform.

The Czar was surprised at the unexpected spectacle. At first he did not know Le Fort in his new garb; and when at length he recognized him, and began to understand the case, he was exceedingly pleased. He examined the uniform in every part, and praised not only the dress itself, but also Le Fort's ingenuity and diligence in procuring him so good an opportunity to know what the military style of the western nations really was.

Soon after this Le Fort appeared again in the emperor's presence wearing the uniform of a common soldier. The emperor examined this dress too, and saw the superiority of it in respect to its convenience, and its adaptedness to the wants and emergencies of military life. He said at once that he should like to have a company of guards dressed and equipped in that manner, and should be also very much pleased to have them disciplined and drilled according to the western style. Le Fort said that if his majesty was pleased to intrust him with the commission, he would endeavor to organize such a company.

The emperor requested him to do so, and Le Fort immediately undertook the task. He went about Moscow to all the different merchants to procure the materials necessary—for many of these materials were such as were not much in use in Moscow, and so it was not easy to procure them in sufficient quantities to make the number of suits that Le Fort required. He also sought out all the tailors that he could find at the houses of the different embassadors, or of the great merchants who came from western Europe, and were consequently acquainted with the mode of cutting and making the dresses in the proper manner. Of course, a considerable number of tailors would be necessary to make up so many uniforms in the short space of time which Le Fort wished to allot to the work.

Le Fort then went about among the strangers and foreigners at Moscow, both those connected with the embassadors and others, to find men that were in some degree acquainted with the drill and tactics of the western armies, who were willing to serve in the company that he was about to organize. He soon made up a company of fifty men. When this company was completed, and clothed in the new uniform, and had been properly drilled, Le Fort put himself at the head of them one morning, and marched them, with drums beating and colors flying, before the palace gate. The Czar came to the window to see them as they passed. He was much surprised at the spectacle, and very much pleased. He came down to look at the men more closely; he stood by while they went through the exercises in which Le Fort had drilled them. The emperor was so much pleased that he said he would join the company himself. He wished to learn to perform the exercise personally, so as to know in a practical manner precisely how others ought to perform it. He accordingly caused a dress to be made for himself, and he took his place afterward in the ranks as a common soldier, and was drilled with the rest in all the exercises.

From this beginning the change went on until the style of dress and the system of tactics for the whole imperial army was reformed by the introduction of the compact and scientific system of western Europe, in the place of the old-fashioned and cumbrous usages which had previously prevailed.

The emperor having experienced the immense advantages which resulted from the adoption of western improvements in his army, wished now to make an experiment of introducing, in the same way, the elements of western civilization into the ordinary branches of industry and art. He proposed to Le Fort to make arrangements for bringing into the country great number of mechanics and artisans from Denmark, Germany, France, and other European countries, in order that their improved methods and processes might be introduced into Russia. Le Fort readily entered into this proposal, but he explained to the emperor that, in order to render such a measure successful on the scale necessary for the accomplishment of any important good, it would be first requisite to make some considerable changes in the general laws of the land, especially in relation to intercourse with foreign nations. On his making known fully and in detail what these changes would be, the emperor readily acceded to them, and the proposed modifications of the laws were made. The tariff of duties on the products and manufactures of foreign countries was greatly reduced. This produced a two-fold effect.

In the first place, it greatly increased the importations of goods from foreign countries, and thus promoted the intercourse of the Russians with foreign merchants, manufacturers, and artisans, and gradually accustomed the people to a better style of living, and to improved fashions in dress, furniture, and equipage, and thus prepared the country to furnish an extensive market for the encouragement of Russian arts and manufactures as fast as they could be introduced.

In the second place, the new system greatly increased the revenues of the empire. It is true that the tariff was reduced, so that the articles that were imported paid only about half as much in proportion after the change as before. But then the new laws increased the importations so much, that the loss was very much more than made up to the treasury, and the emperor found in a very short time that the state of his finances was greatly improved. This enabled him to take measures for introducing into the country great numbers of foreign manufacturers and artisans from Germany, France, Scotland, and other countries of western Europe. These men were brought into the country by the emperor, and sustained there at the public expense, until they had become so far established in their several professions and trades that they could maintain themselves. Among others, he brought in a great many carpenters and masons to teach the Russians to build better habitations than those which they had been accustomed to content themselves with, which were, in general, wooden huts of very rude and inconvenient construction. One of the first undertakings in which the masons were employed was the building of a handsome palace of hewn stone in Moscow for the emperor himself, the first edifice of that kind which had ever been built in that city. The sight of a palace formed of so elegant and durable a material excited the emulation of all the wealthy noblemen, so that, as soon as the masons were released from their engagement with the emperor, they found plenty of employment in building new houses and palaces for these noblemen.

These and a great many other similar measures were devised by Le Fort during the time that he continued in the service of the Czar, and the success which attended all his plans and proposals gave him, in the end, great influence, and was the means of acquiring for him great credit and renown. And yet he was so discreet and unpretending in his manners and demeanor, if the accounts which have come down to us respecting him are correct, that the high favor in which he was held by the emperor did not awaken in the hearts of the native nobles of the land any considerable degree of that jealousy and ill-will which they might have been expected to excite. Le Fort was of a very self-sacrificing and disinterested disposition. He was generous in his dealings with all, and he often exerted the ascendency which he had acquired over the mind of the emperor to save other officers from undeserved or excessive punishment when they displeased their august master; for it must be confessed that Peter, notwithstanding all the excellences of his character, had the reputation at this period of his life of being hasty and passionate. He was very impatient of contradiction, and he could not tolerate any species of opposition to his wishes. Being possessed himself of great decision of character, and delighting, as he did, in promptness and energy of action, he lost all patience sometimes, when annoyed by the delays, or the hesitation, or the inefficiency of others, who were not so richly endowed by nature as himself. In these cases he was often unreasonable, and sometimes violent; and he would in many instances have acted in an ungenerous and cruel manner if Le Fort had not always been at hand to restrain and appease him.

Le Fort always acted as intercessor in cases of difficulty of this sort; so that the Russian noblemen, or boyars as they were called, in the end looked upon him as their father. It is said that he actually saved the lives of great numbers of them, whom Peter, without his intercession, would have sentenced to death. Others he saved from the knout, and others from banishment. At one time, when the emperor, in a passion, was going to cause one of his officers to be scourged, although, as Le Fort thought, he had been guilty of no wrong which could deserve such a punishment, Le Fort, after all other means had failed, bared his own breast and shoulders, and bade the angry emperor to strike or cut there if he would, but to spare the innocent person. The Czar was entirely overcome by this noble generosity, and, clasping Le Fort in his arms, thanked him for his interposition, at the same time allowing the trembling prisoner to depart in peace, with his heart full of gratitude toward the friend who had so nobly saved him.

Another of the chief officers in Peter's service during the early part of his reign was the Prince Menzikoff. His origin was very humble. His Christian name was Alexander, and his father was a laboring man in the service of a monastery on the banks of the Wolga. The monasteries of those times were endowed with large tracts of valuable land, which were cultivated by servants or vassals, and from the proceeds of this cultivation the monks were supported, and the monastery buildings kept in repair or enlarged.

Alexander spent the early years of his life in working with his father on the monastery lands; but being a lad of great spirit and energy, he gradually became dissatisfied with this mode of life; for the peasants of those days, such as his father, who tilled the lands of the nobles or of the monks, were little better than slaves. Alexander, then, when he arrived at the age of thirteen or fourteen, finding his situation and prospects at home very gloomy and discouraging, concluded to go out into the world and seek his fortune.


Menzikoff Selling His Cakes.

So he left his father's hut and set out for Moscow. After meeting with various adventures on the way and in the city, he finally found a place in a pastry-cook's shop; but, instead of being employed in making and baking the pies and tarts, he was sent out into the streets to sell them. In order to attract customers to his merchandise, he used to sing songs and tell stories in the streets. Indeed, it was the talent which he evinced in these arts, doubtless, which led his master to employ him in this way, instead of keeping him at work at home in the baking.

The story which is told of the manner in which the emperor's attention was first attracted to young Menzikoff is very curious, but, as is the case with all other such personal anecdotes related of great sovereigns, it is very doubtful how far it is to be believed. It is said that Peter, passing along the street one day, stopped to listen to Menzikoff as he was singing a song or telling a story to a crowd of listeners. He was much diverted by one of the songs that he heard, and at the close of it he spoke to the boy, and finally asked him what he would take for his whole stock of cakes and pies, basket and all. The boy named the sum for which he would sell all the cakes and pies, but as for the basket he said that belonged to his master, and he had no power to sell it.

"Still," he added, "every thing belongs to your majesty, and your majesty has, therefore, only to give me the command, and I shall deliver it up to you."

This reply pleased the Czar so much that he sent for the boy to come to him, and on conversing with him farther, and after making additional inquiries respecting him, he was so well satisfied that he took him at once into his service.

All this took place before Le Fort's plan was formed for organizing a company to exhibit to the emperor the style of uniform and the system of military discipline adopted in western Europe, as has already been described. Menzikoff joined this company, and he took so much interest in the exercises and evolutions, and evinced so great a degree of intelligence, and so much readiness in comprehending and in practicing the various manœuvres, that he attracted Le Fort's special attention. He was soon promoted to office in the company, and ultimately he became Le Fort's principal co-operator in his various measures and plans. From this he rose by degrees, until in process of time he became one of the most distinguished generals in Peter's army, and took a very important part in some of his most celebrated campaigns.

In reading stories like these, we are naturally led to feel a strong interest in the persons who are the subjects of them, and we sometimes insensibly form opinions of their characters which are far too favorable. This Menzikoff, for example, notwithstanding the enterprising spirit which he displayed in his boyhood, in setting off alone to Moscow to seek his fortune, and his talent for telling stories and singing songs, and the interest which he felt, and the success that he met with, in learning Le Fort's military manœuvres, and the great distinction which he subsequently acquired as a military commander, may have been, after all, in relation to any just and proper standards of moral duty, a very bad man. Indeed, there is much reason to suppose that he was so. At all events, he became subsequently implicated in a dreadful quarrel which took place between Peter and his wife, under circumstances which appear very much against him. This quarrel occurred after Peter had been married only about two years, and when he was yet not quite twenty years old. As usual in such cases, very different stories are told by the friends respectively of the husband and the wife. On the part of the empress it was said that the difficulty arose from Peter's having been drawn away into bad company, and especially the company of bad women, through the instrumentality of Menzikoff when he first came into Peter's service. Menzikoff was a dissolute young man, it was said, while he was in the service of the pastry-cook, and was accustomed to frequent the haunts of the vicious and depraved about the town; and after he entered into Peter's service, Peter himself began to go with him to these places, disguised, of course, so as not to be known. This troubled Ottokesa, and made her jealous; and when she remonstrated with her husband he was angry, and by way of recrimination accused her of being unfaithful to him. Menzikoff too was naturally filled with resentment at the empress's accusations against him, and he took Peter's part against his wife. Whatever may have been the truth in regard to the grounds of the complaints made by the parties against each other, the power was on Peter's side. He repudiated his wife, and then shut her up in a place of seclusion, where he kept her confined all the remainder of her days.

Besides the unfavorable inferences which we might justly draw from this case, there are unfortunately other indications that Peter, notwithstanding the many and great excellences of his character, was at this period of his life violent and passionate in temper, very impatient of contradiction or opposition, and often unreasonable and unjust in his treatment of those who for any reason became the objects of his suspicion or dislike. Various incidents and occurrences illustrating these traits in his character will appear in the subsequent chapters of his history.

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