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


A S soon as Peter had sufficiently glutted his vengeance on those whom he chose to consider, whether justly or unjustly, as implicated in the rebellion, he turned his attention at once to the work of introducing the improvements and reforms which had been suggested to him by what he had seen in the western countries of Europe. There was a great deal of secret hostility to the changes which he thus wished to make, although every thing like open opposition to his will had been effectually put down by the terrible severity of his dealings with the rebels. He continued to urge his plans of reform during the whole course of his reign, and though he met from time to time with a great variety of difficulties in his efforts to carry them into effect, he was in the end triumphantly successful in establishing and maintaining them. I shall proceed to give a general account of these reforms in this chapter, notwithstanding that the work of introducing them extended over a period of many years subsequent to this time.

The first thing to which the Czar gave his attention was the complete remodeling of his army. He established new regiments in place of the old Guards, and put his whole army on a new footing. He abolished the dress which the Guards had been accustomed to wear—an ancient Muscovite costume, which, like the dress of the Highlanders of Scotland, was strongly associated in the minds of the men with ancient national customs, many of which the emperor now wished to abolish. Instead of this old costume the emperor dressed his new troops in a modern military uniform. This was not only much more convenient than the old dress, but the change exerted a great influence in disenthralling the minds of the men from the influence of old ideas and associations. It made them feel at once as if they were new men, belonging to a new age—one marked by a new and higher civilization than they had been accustomed to in former years. The effect which was produced by this simple change was very marked—so great is the influence of dress and other outward symbols on the sentiments of the mind and on the character.

Peter had made a somewhat similar change to this, in the case of his household troops and private body-guard, at the suggestion of General Le Fort, some time previous to this period, but now he carried the same reform into effect in respect to his whole army.

In addition to these improvements in the dress and discipline of the men, Peter adopted an entirely new system in officering his troops. A great many of the old officers—all those who were proved or even suspected of being hostile to him and to his measures—had been beheaded or sent into banishment, and others still had been dismissed from the service. Peter filled all these vacant posts by bringing forward and appointing the sons of the nobility, making his selections from those families who were either already inclined to his side, or who he supposed might be brought over by the influence of appointments and honors conferred upon their sons.

Of course, the great object of the Czar in thus reorganizing his army and increasing the military strength of the empire was not the more effectual protection of the country from foreign enemies, or from any domestic violence which might threaten to disturb the peace or endanger the property of the public, but only the confirming and perpetuating his own power as the sovereign ruler of it. It is true that such potentates as Peter really desire that the countries over which they rule should prosper, and should increase in wealth and population; but then they do this usually only as the proprietor of an estate might wish to improve his property, that is, simply with an eye to his own interest as the owner of it. In reforming his army, and placing it, as he did, on a new and far more efficient footing than before, Peter's main inducement was to increase and secure his own power. He wished also, doubtless, to preserve the peace of the country, in order that the inhabitants might go on regularly in the pursuit of their industrial occupations, for their ability to pay the taxes required for the large revenues which he wished to raise would increase or diminish, he knew very well, just in proportion to the productiveness of the general industry; still, his own exaltation and grandeur were the ultimate objects in view.

Young persons, when they read in history of the power which many great tyrants have exercised, and the atrocious crimes which they have committed against the rights of their fellow-men, sometimes wonder how it is that one man can acquire or retain so absolute a dominion over so many millions as to induce them to kill each other in such vast numbers at his bidding; for, of course, it is but a very small number of the victims of a tyrant's injustice or cruelty that are executed by his own hand. How is it, then, that one weak and often despicable and hateful man can acquire and retain such an ascendency over those that stand around him, that they shall all be ready to draw their swords instantaneously at his bidding, and seize and destroy, without hesitation and without mercy, whomsoever he may choose to designate as the object of his rage and vengeance? How is it that the wealthiest, the most respected, and the most popular citizens of the state, though surrounded with servants and with multitudes of friends, have no power to resist when one of these Neros conceives the idea of striking him down, but must yield without a struggle to his fate, as if to inevitable destiny?

The secret of this extraordinary submission of millions to one is always an army. The tyrant, under the pretense of providing the means for the proper execution of just and righteous laws, and the maintenance of peace and order in the community, organizes an army. He contrives so to arrange and regulate this force as to separate it completely from the rest of the community, so as to extinguish as far as possible all the sympathies which might otherwise exist between the soldiers and the citizens. Marriage is discouraged, so that the troops may not be bound to the community by any family ties. The regiments are quartered in barracks built and appropriated to their especial use, and they are continually changed from one set of barracks to another, in order to prevent their forming too intimate an acquaintance with any portion of the community, or learning to feel any common interest or sympathy with them. Then, as a reward for their privations, the soldiers are allowed, with very little remonstrance or restraint, to indulge freely in all such habits of dissipation and vice as will not at once interfere with military discipline, or deteriorate from the efficiency of the whole body as a military corps. The soldiers soon learn to love the idle and dissolute lives which they are allowed to lead. The officers, especially those in the higher grades of rank, are paid large salaries, are clothed in a guady dress which is adorned with many decorations, and they are treated every where with great consideration. Thus they become devoted to the will of the government, and lose gradually all regard for, and all sympathy with the rights and welfare of the people. There is a tacit agreement between them and the government, by which they are bound to keep the people in a state of utter and abject submission to the despot's will, while he, on his part, is bound to collect from the people thus subdued the sums of money necessary for their pay. Thus it is the standing army which is that great and terrible sword by means of which one man is able to strike awe into the hearts of so many millions, and hold them all so entirely subject to his will.

It is in consequence of having observed the effect of such armaments in the despotisms of Europe and Asia that the free governments of modern times take good care not to allow large standing armies to be formed. Instead of this the people organize themselves into armed bands, in connection with which they meet and practice military evolutions on appointed days, and then separate and go back to their wives and to their children, and to their usual occupations, while in the despotic countries where large standing armies are maintained, the people are strictly forbidden to possess arms, or to form organizations, or to take measures of any kind that could tend to increase their means of defense against their oppressors in the event of a struggle.

The consequence is, that under the free governments of the present day the people are strong and the government is weak. The standing army of France consists at the present time of five hundred thousand men, completely armed and equipped, and devoted all the time to the study and practice of the art of war. By means of this force one man is able to keep the whole population of the country in a state of complete and unquestioning submission to his will. In the United States, on the other hand, with a population nearly as great, the standing army seldom amounts to an effective force of fifteen thousand men; and if a president of the United States were to attempt by means of it to prolong his term of office, or to accomplish any other violent end, there is, perhaps, not a single state in the Union, the population of which would not alone be able to put him down—so strong are the people with us, and so weak, in opposition to them, the government and the army.

It is often made a subject of reproach by European writers and speakers, in commenting on the state of things in America, that the government is so weak; but this we consider not our reproach, but our glory. The government is indeed weak. The people take good care to keep it weak. But the nation is not weak; the nation is strong. The difference is, that in our country the nation chooses to retain its power in its own hands. The people make the government strong enough from time to time for all the purposes which they wish it to accomplish. When occasion shall arise, the strength thus to be imparted to it may be increased almost indefinitely, according to the nature of the emergency. In the mean time, the people consider themselves the safest depositary of their reserved power.

But to return to Peter. Of course, his policy was the reverse of ours. He wished to make his army as efficient as possible, and to cut it off as completely as possible from all communion and sympathy with the people, so as to keep it in close and absolute subjection to his own individual will. The measures which he adopted were admirably adapted to this purpose. By means of them he greatly strengthened his power, and established it on a firm and permanent basis.

Peter did not forget that, during the late rebellion, the influence of the Church and that of all the leading ecclesiastics had been against him. This was necessarily the case; for, in a Church constituted as that of Russia then was, the powers and prerogatives of the priests rested, not on reason or might, but on ancient customs. The priests would therefore naturally be opposed to all changes—even improvements—in the usages and institutions of the realm, for fear that the system of reform, if once entered upon, might extend to and interfere with their ancient prerogatives and privileges. An established Church in any country, where, by means of the establishment, the priests or the ministers hold positions which secure to them the possession of wealth or power, is always opposed to every species of change. It hates even the very name of reform.

Peter determined to bring the Russian Church more under his own control. Up to that time it had been, in a great measure, independent. The head of it was an ecclesiastic of great power and dignity, called the Patriarch. The jurisdiction of this patriarch extended over all the eastern portion of the Christian world, and his position and power were very similar to those of the Pope of Rome, who reigned over the whole western portion.

Indeed, so exalted was the position and dignity of the patriarch, and so great was the veneration in which he was held by the people, that he was, as it were, the spiritual sovereign of the country, just as Peter was the civil and military sovereign; and on certain great religious ceremonies he even took precedence of the Czar himself, and actually received homage from him. At one of the great religious anniversaries, which was always celebrated with great pomp and parade, it was customary for the patriarch to ride through the street on horseback, with the Czar walking before him holding the bridle of the horse. The bridle used on these occasions was very long, like a pair of reins, and was made of the richest material, and ornamented with golden embroidery. The Czar walked on in advance, with the loop of the bridle lying over his arm. Then came three or four great nobles of the court, who held up the reins behind the Czar, one of them taking hold close to the horse's head, so as to guide and control the movements of the animal. The patriarch, who, as is the custom with priests, was dressed in long robes, which prevented his mounting the horse in the usual manner, sat upon a square flat seat which was placed upon the horse's back by way of saddle, and rode in that manner, with his feet hanging down upon one side. Of course, his hands were at liberty, and with these he held a cross, which he displayed to the people as he rode along, and gave them his benediction.

After the patriarch, there followed, on these occasions, an immensely long train of priests, all clothed in costly and gorgeous sacerdotal robes, and bearing a great number and variety of religious emblems. Some carried very costly copies of the Gospels, bound in gold and adorned with precious stones; others crosses, and others pictures of the Virgin Mary. All these objects of veneration were enriched with jewels and gems of the most costly description.

So far, however, as these mere pageants and ceremonies were concerned, Peter would probably have been very easily satisfied, and would have made no objection to paying such a token of respect to the patriarch as walking before him through the street once a year, and holding the bridle of his horse, if this were all. But he saw very clearly that these things were by no means to be considered as mere outward show. The patriarch was at the head of a vast organization, which extended throughout the empire, all the members of which were closely banded together in a system the discipline of which made them dependent upon and entirely devoted to their spiritual head. These priests, moreover, exercised individually a vast influence over the people in the towns and villages where they severally lived and performed their functions. Thus the patriarch wielded a great and very extended power, almost wholly independent of any control on the part of the Czar—a power which had already been once turned against him, and which might at some future day become very dangerous. Peter determined at once that he would not allow such a state of things to continue.

He, however, resolved to proceed cautiously. So he waited quietly until the patriarch who was then in office died. Then, instead of allowing the bench of bishops, as usual, to elect another in his place, he committed the administration of the Church to an ecclesiastic whom he appointed for this purpose from among his own tried friends. He instructed this officer, who was a very learned and a very devout man, to go on as nearly as possible as his predecessors, the patriarchs, had done, in the ordinary routine of duty, so as not to disturb the Church by any apparent and outward change; but he directed him to consider himself, the Czar, as the real head of the Church, and to refer all important questions which might arise to him for decision. He thus, in fact, abrogated the office of patriarch, and made himself the supreme head of the Church.

The clergy throughout the empire, as soon as they understood this arrangement, were greatly disturbed, and expressed their discontent and dissatisfaction among themselves very freely. The Czar heard of this; and, selecting one of the bishops, who had spoken more openly and decidedly than the rest, he ordered him to be degraded from his office for his contumacy. But this the other bishops objected to very strongly. They did not see, in fact, they said, how it could be done. It was a thing wholly unknown that a person of the rank and dignity of a bishop in the Church should be degraded from his office; and that, besides, there was no authority that could degrade him, for they were all bishops of equal rank, and no one had any jurisdiction or power over the others. Still, notwithstanding this, they were willing, they said, to sacrifice their brother if by that means the Church could be saved from the great dangers which were now threatening her; and they said that they would depose the bishop who was accused on condition that Peter would restore the rights of the Church which he had suspended, by allowing them to proceed to the election of a new patriarch, to take the place of the one who had died.

Peter would not listen to this proposal; but he created a new bishop expressly to depose the one who had offended him. The latter was accordingly deposed, and the rest were compelled to submit. None of them dared any longer to speak openly against the course which the Czar was pursuing, but writings were mysteriously dropped about the streets which contained censures of his proceedings in respect to the Church, and urged the people to resist them. Peter caused large rewards to be immediately offered for the discovery of the persons by whom these writings were dropped, but it was of no avail, and at length the excitement gradually passed away, leaving the victory wholly in Peter's hands.

After this the Czar effected a great many important reforms in the administration of the affairs of the empire, especially in those relating to the government of the provinces, and to the collection of the revenues in them. This business had been hitherto left almost wholly in the hands of the governors, by whom it had been grossly mismanaged. The governors had been in the habit both of grievously oppressing the people in the collection of the taxes, and also of grossly defrauding the emperor in remitting the proceeds to the treasury.

Peter now made arrangements for changing the system entirely. He established a central office at the capital for the transaction of all business connected with the collecting of the revenues, and then appointed collectors for all the provinces of the empire, who were to receive their instructions from the minister who presided over this central office, and make their returns directly to him. Thus the whole system was remodeled, and made far more efficient than it ever had been before. Of course, the old governors, who, in consequence of this reform, lost the power of enriching themselves by their oppressions and frauds, complained bitterly of the change, and mourned, like good Conservatives, the ruin which this radicalism was bringing upon the country, but they were forced to submit.

Whenever there was any thing in the private manners and customs of the people which Peter thought was likely to impede in any way the effectual accomplishment of his plans, he did not hesitate at all to ordain a change; and some of the greatest difficulties which he had to encounter in his reforms arose from the opposition which the people made to the changes that he wished to introduce in the dress that they wore, and in several of the usages of common life. The people of the country had been accustomed to wear long gowns, similar to those worn to this day by many Oriental nations. This costume was very inconvenient, not only for soldiers, but also for workmen, and for all persons engaged in any of the common avocations of life. Peter required the people to change this dress; and he sent patterns of the coats worn in western Europe to all parts of the country, and had them put up in conspicuous places, where every body could see them, and required every body to imitate them. He, however, met with a great deal of difficulty in inducing them to do so. He found still greater difficulty in inducing the people to shave off their mustaches and their beards. Finding that they would not shave their faces under the influence of a simple regulation to that effect, he assessed a tax upon beards, requiring that every gentleman should pay a hundred rubles a year for the privilege of wearing one; and as for the peasants and common people, every one who wore a beard was stopped every time he entered a city or town, and required to pay a penny at the gate by way of tax or fine.

The nuisance of long clothes he attempted to abate in a similar way. The officers of the customs, who were stationed at the gates of the towns, were ordered to stop every man who wore a long dress, and compel him either to pay a fine of about fifty cents, or else kneel down and have all that part of their coat or gown which lay upon the ground, while they were in that posture, cut off with a pair of big shears.

Still, such was the attachment of the people to their old fashions, that great numbers of the people, rather than submit to this curtailing of their vestments, preferred to pay the fine.

On one occasion the Czar, laying aside for the moment the system of severity and terror which was his usual reliance for the accomplishment of his ends, concluded to try the effect of ridicule upon the attachment of the people to old and absurd fashions in dress. It happened that one of the fools or jesters of the court was about to be married. The young woman who was to be the jester's bride was very pretty, and she was otherwise a favorite with those who knew her, and the Czar determined to improve the occasion of the wedding for a grand frolic. He accordingly made arrangements for celebrating the nuptials at the palace, and he sent invitations to all the great nobles and officers of state, with their wives, and to all the other great ladies of the court, giving them all orders to appear dressed in the fashions which prevailed in the Russian court one or two hundred years before. With the exception of some modes of dress prevalent at the present day, there is nothing that can be conceived more awkward, inconvenient, and ridiculous than the fashions which were reproduced on this occasion. Among other things, the ladies wore a sort of dress of which the sleeves, so it is said, were ten or twelve yards long. These sleeves were made very full, and were drawn up upon the arm in a sort of a puff, it being the fashion to have as great a length to the sleeve as could possibly be crowded on between the shoulder and the wrist. It is said, too, that the customary salutation between ladies and gentlemen meeting in society, when this dress was in fashion, was performed through the intervention of these sleeves. On the approach of the gentleman, the lady, by sudden and dexterous motion of her arm, would throw off the end of her sleeve to him. The sleeve, being very long, could be thrown in this way half across the room. The gentleman would take the end of the sleeve, which represented, we are to suppose, the hand of the lady, and, after kissing and saluting it in a most respectful manner, he would resign it, and then the lady would draw it back again upon her arm. This would be too ridiculous to be believed if it were possible that any thing could be too ridiculous to be believed in respect to the absurdities of fashion.

A great many of the customs and usages of social life which prevailed in those days, as well as the fashions of dress, were inconvenient and absurd. These the Czar did not hesitate to alter and reform by proceedings of the most arbitrary and summary character. For instance, it was the custom of all the great nobles, or boyars, as they were called, to go in grand state whenever they moved about the city or in the environs of it, attended always by a long train of their servants and retainers. Now, as these followers were mostly on foot, the nobles in the carriages, or, in the winter, in their sledges or sleighs, were obliged to move very slowly in order to enable the train to keep up with them. Thus the streets were full of these tedious processions, moving slowly along, sometimes through snow and sometimes through rain, the men bareheaded, because they must not be covered in the presence of their master, and thus exposed to all the inclemency of an almost Arctic climate. And what made the matter worse was, that it was not the fashion for the nobleman to move on even as fast as his followers might easily have walked. They considered it more dignified and grand to go slowly. Thus, the more aristocratic a grandee was in spirit, and the greater his desire to make a display of his magnificence in the street, the more slowly he moved. If it had not been for the banners and emblems, and the gay and gaudy colors in which many of the attendants were dressed, these processions would have produced the effect of particularly solemn funerals.

The Czar determined to change all this. First he set an example himself of rapid motion through the streets. When he went out in his carriage or in his sleigh, he was attended only by a very few persons, and they were dressed in a neat uniform and mounted on good horses, and his coachman was ordered to drive on at a quick pace. The boyars were slow to follow this example, but the Czar assisted them considerably in their progress toward the desired reform by making rules limiting the number of idle attendants which they were allowed to have about them; and then, if they would not dismiss the supernumeraries, he himself caused them to be taken from them and sent into the army.

The motive of the Czar in making all these improvements and reforms was his desire to render his own power as the sovereign of the country more compact and efficient, and not any real and heartfelt interest in the welfare and happiness of the people. Still, in the end, very excellent results followed from the innovations which he thus introduced. They were the commencement of a series of changes which so developed the power and advanced the civilization of the country, as in the course of a few subsequent reigns had the effect of bringing Russia into the foremost rank among the nations of Europe. The progress which these changes introduced continues to go on to the present time, and will, perhaps, go on unimpeded for centuries to come.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Rebellion  |  Next: The Battle of Narva
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.