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

Commencement of the Reign

P ETER was now not far from twenty years of age, and he was in full possession of power as vast, perhaps—if we consider both the extent of it and its absoluteness—as was ever claimed by any European sovereign. There was no written constitution to limit his prerogatives, and no Legislature or Parliament to control him by laws. In a certain sense, as Alexander Menzikoff said when selling his cakes, every thing belonged to him. His word was law. Life and death hung upon his decree. His dominions extended so far that, on an occasion when he wished to send an embassador to one of his neighbors—the Emperor of China—it took the messenger more than eighteen months  of constant and diligent traveling to go from the capital to the frontier.

Such was Peter's position. As to character, he was talented, ambitious, far-seeing, and resolute; but he was also violent in temper, merciless and implacable toward his enemies, and possessed of an indomitable will.

He began immediately to feel a strong interest in the improvement of his empire, in order to increase his own power and grandeur as the monarch of it, just as a private citizen might wish to improve his estate in order to increase his wealth and importance as the owner of it. He sent the embassador above referred to to China in order to make arrangements for increasing and improving the trade between the two countries. This mission was arranged in a very imposing manner. The embassador was attended with a train of twenty-one persons, who went with him in the capacity of secretaries, interpreters, legal councilors, and the like, besides a large number of servants and followers to wait upon the gentlemen of the party, and to convey and take care of the baggage. The baggage was borne in a train of wagons which followed the carriages of the embassador and his suite, so that the expedition moved through the country quite like a little army on a march.

It was nearly three years before the embassage returned. The measure, however, was eminently successful. It placed the relations of the two empires on a very satisfactory footing.

The dominions of the Czar extended then, as now, through all the northern portions of Europe and Asia, to the shores of the Icy Sea. A very important part of this region is the famous Siberia. The land here is not of much value for cultivation, on account of the long and dreary winters and the consequent shortness of the summer season. But this very coldness of the climate causes it to produce a great number of fine fur-bearing animals, such as the sable, the mink, the ermine, and the otter; for nature has so arranged it that, the colder any climate is, the finer and the warmer is the fur which grows upon the animals that live there.

The inhabitants of Siberia are employed, therefore, chiefly in hunting wild animals for their flesh or their fur, and in working the mines; and, from time immemorial, it has been the custom to send criminals there in banishment, and compel them to spend the remainder of their lives in these toilsome and dangerous occupations. Of course, the cold, the exposure, and the fatigue, joined to the mental distress and suffering which the thought of their hard fate and the recollections of home must occasion, soon bring far the greater proportion of these unhappy outcasts to the grave.

Peter interested himself very much in efforts to open communications with these retired and almost inaccessible regions, and to improve and extend the working of the mines. But his thoughts were chiefly occupied with the condition of the European portion of his dominions, and with schemes for introducing more and more fully the arts and improvements of western Europe among his people. He was ready to seize upon every occasion which could furnish any hint or suggestion to this end.

The manner in which his attention was first turned to the subject of ship-building illustrated this. In those days Holland was the great centre of commerce and navigation for the whole world, and the art of ship-building had made more progress in that nation than in any other. The Dutch held colonies in every quarter of the globe. Their men-of-war and their fleets of merchantmen penetrated to every sea, and their naval commanders were universally renowned for their enterprise, their bravely, and their nautical skill.

The Dutch not only built ships for themselves, but orders were sent to their ship-yards from all parts of the world, inasmuch as in these yards all sorts of vessels, whether for war, commerce, or pleasure, could be built better and cheaper than in any other place.

One of the chief centres in which these ship and boat building operations were carried on was the town of Saardam. This town lies near Amsterdam, the great commercial capital of the country. It extends for a mile or two along the banks of a deep and still river, which furnish most complete and extensive facilities for the docks and ship-yards.

Now it happened that, one day when Peter was with Le Fort at one of his country palaces where there was a little lake, and a canal connected with it, which had been made for pleasure-sailing on the grounds, his attention was attracted to the form and construction of a yacht which was lying there. This yacht having been sent for from Holland at the time when the palace grounds were laid out, the emperor fell into conversation with Le Fort in respect to it, and this led to the subject of ships and ship-building in general. Le Fort represented so strongly to his master the advantages which Holland and the other maritime powers of Europe derived from their ships of war, that Peter began immediately to feel a strong desire to possess a navy himself. There were, of course, great difficulties in the way. Russia was almost entirely an inland country. There were no good sea-ports, and Moscow, the capital, was situated very far in the interior. Then, besides, Peter not only had no ships, but there were no mechanics or artisans in Russia that knew how to build them.

Le Fort, however, when he perceived how deep was the interest which Peter felt in the subject, made inquiries, and at length succeeded in finding among the Dutch merchants that were in Moscow the means of procuring some ship-builders to build him several small vessels, which, when they were completed, were launched upon a lake not far from the city. Afterward other vessels were built in the same place, in the form of frigates; and these, when they were launched, were properly equipped and armed, under Le Fort's direction, and the emperor took great interest in sailing about in them on the lake, in learning personally all the evolutions necessary for the management of them, and in performing sham-fights by setting one of them against another. He took command of one of the vessels as captain, and thenceforward assumed that designation as one of his most honorable titles. All this took place when Peter was about twenty-two years old.

Not very long after this the emperor had an opportunity to make a commencement in converting his nautical knowledge to actual use by engaging in something like a naval operation against an enemy. In conjunction with several other European powers, he declared war anew against the Turks and Tartars, and the chief object of the first campaign was the capture of the city of Azof, which is situated on the shores of the Sea of Azof, near the mouth of the River Don. Peter not only approached and invested the city by land, but he also took possession of the river leading to it by means of a great number of boats and vessels which he caused to be built along the banks. In this way he cut off all supplies from the city, and pressed it so closely that he would have taken it, it was said, had it not been for the treachery of an officer of artillery, who betrayed to the enemy the principal battery which had been raised against the town just as it was ready to be opened upon the walls. This artilleryman, who was not a native Russian, but one of the foreigners whom the Czar had enlisted in his service, became exasperated at some ill treatment which he received from the Russian nobleman who commanded his corps; so he secretly drove nails into the touchholes of all the guns in the battery, and then, in the night, went over to the Turks and informed them what he had done. Accordingly, very early in the morning the Turks sallied forth and attacked the battery, and the men who were charged with the defense of it, on rushing to the guns, found that they could not be fired. The consequence was that the battery was taken, the men put to flight, and the guns destroyed. This defeat entirely disconcerted the Russian army, and so effectually deranged their plans that they were obliged to raise the siege and withdraw, with the expectation, however, of renewing the attempt in another campaign.

Accordingly, the next year the attempt was renewed, and many more boats and vessels were built upon the river to co-operate with the besiegers. The Turks had ships of their own, which they brought into the Sea of Azof for the protection of the town. But Peter sent down a few of his smaller vessels, and by means of them contrived to entice the Turkish commander up a little way into the river. Peter then came down upon him with all his fleet, and the Turkish ships were overpowered and taken. Thus Peter gained his first naval victory almost, as we might say, on the land. He conquered and captured a fleet of sea-going ships by enticing them among the boats and other small craft which he had built up country on the banks of a river.

Soon after this Azof was taken. One of the conditions of the surrender was that the treacherous artilleryman should be delivered up to the Czar. He was taken to Moscow, and there put to death with tortures too horrible to be described. They did not deny that the man had been greatly injured by his Russian commander, but they told him that what he ought to have done was to appeal to the emperor for redress, and not to seek his revenge by traitorously giving up to the enemy the trust committed to his charge.

The emperor acquired great fame throughout Europe by the success of his operations in the siege of Azof. This success also greatly increased his interest in the building of ships, especially as he now, since Azof had fallen into his hands, had a port upon an open sea.

In a word, Peter was now very eager to begin at once the building ships of war. He was determined that he would have a fleet which would enable him to go out and meet the Turks in the Black Sea. The great difficulty was to provide the necessary funds. To accomplish this purpose, Peter, who was never at all scrupulous in respect to the means which he adopted for attaining his ends, resorted at once to very decided measures. Besides the usual taxes which were laid upon the people to maintain the war, he ordained that a certain number of wealthy noblemen should each pay for one ship, which, however, as some compensation for the cost which the nobleman was put to in building it, he was at liberty to call by his own name. The same decree was made in respect to a number of towns, monasteries, companies, and public institutions. The emperor also made arrangements for having a large number of workmen sent into Russia from Holland, and from Venice, and from other maritime countries. The emperor laid his plans in this way for the construction and equipment of a fleet of about one hundred ships and vessels, consisting of frigates, store-ships, bomb-vessels, galleys, and galliasses. These were all to be built, equipped, and made in all respects ready for sea in the space of three years; and if any person or party failed to have his ship ready at that time, the amount of the tax which had been assessed to him was to be doubled.

In all these proceedings, the Czar, as might have been expected from his youth and his headstrong character; acted in a very summary, and many respects in an arbitrary and despotic manner. His decrees requiring the nobles to contribute such large sums for the building of his fleet occasioned a great deal of dissatisfaction and complaint. And very soon he resorted to some other measures, which increased the general discontent exceedingly.

He appointed a considerable number of the younger nobility, and the sons of other persons of wealth and distinction, to travel in the western countries of Europe while the fleet was preparing, giving them special instructions in respect to the objects of interest which they should severally examine and study. The purpose of this measure was to advance the general standard of intelligence in Russia by affording to these young men the advantages of foreign travel, and enlarging their ideas in respect to the future progress of their own country in the arts and appliances of civilized life. The general idea of the emperor in this was excellent, and the effect of the measure would have been excellent too if it had been carried out in a more gentle and moderate way. But the fathers of the young men were incensed at having their sons ordered thus peremptorily out of the country, whether they liked to go or not, and however inconvenient it might be for the fathers to provide the large amounts of money which were required for such journeys. It is said that one young man was so angry at being thus sent away that he determined that his country should not derive any benefit from the measure, so far as his case was concerned, and accordingly, when he arrived at Venice, which was the place where he was sent, he shut himself up in his house, and remained there all the time, in order that he might not see or learn any thing to make use of on his return.

This seems almost incredible. Indeed, the story has more the air of a witticism, invented to express the sullen humor with which many of the young men went away, than the sober statement of a fact. Still, it is not impossible that such a thing may have actually occurred; for the veneration of the old Russian families for their own country, and the contempt with which they had been accustomed for many generations to look upon foreigners, and upon every thing connected with foreign manners and customs, were such as might lead in extreme cases, to almost any degree of fanaticism in resisting the emperor's measures. At any rate, in a short time there was quite a powerful party formed in opposition to the foreign influences which Peter was introducing into the country.

There was no one in the imperial family to whom this party could look for a leader and head except the Princess Sophia. The Czar John, Peter's feeble brother, was dead, otherwise they might have made his name their rallying cry. Sophia was still shut up in the convent to which Peter had sent her on the discovery of her conspiracy against him. She was kept very closely guarded there. Still, the leaders of the opposition contrived to open a communication with her. They took every means to increase and extend the prevailing discontent. To people of wealth and rank they represented the heavy taxes which they were obliged to pay to defray the expenses of the emperor's wild schemes, and the loss of their own proper influence and power in the government of the country, they themselves being displaced to make room for foreigners, or favorites like Menzikoff, that were raised from the lowest grades of life to posts of honor and profit which ought to be bestowed upon the ancient nobility alone. To the poor and ignorant they advanced other arguments, which were addressed chiefly to their religious prejudices. The government were subverting all the ancient usages of the country, they said, and throwing every thing into the hands of infidel or heretical foreigners. The course which the Czar was pursuing was contrary to the laws of God, they said, who had forbidden the children of Israel to have any communion with the unbelieving nations around them, in order that they might not be led away by them into idolatry. And so in Russia, they said, the extensive power of granting permission to any Russian subject to leave the country vested, according to the ancient usages of the empire, with the patriarch, the head of the Church—and Peter had violated these usages in sending away so many of the sons of the nobility without the patriarch's consent. There were many other measures, too, which Peter had adopted, or which he had then in contemplation, that were equally obnoxious to the charge of impiety. For instance, he had formed a plan—and he had even employed engineers to take preliminary steps in reference to the execution of it—for making a canal from the River Wolga to the River Don, thus presumptuously and impiously undertaking to turn the streams one way, when Providence had designed them to flow in another! Absurd as many of these representations were, they had great influence with the mass of the common people.

At length this opposition party became so extended and so strong that the leaders thought the time had arrived for them to act. They accordingly arranged the details of their plot, and prepared to put it in execution.

The scheme which they formed was this: they were to set fire to some houses in the night, not far from the royal palace, and when the emperor came out, as it is said was his custom to do, in order to assist in extinguishing the flames, they were to set upon him and assassinate him.

It may seem strange that it should be the custom of the emperor himself to go out and assist personally in extinguishing fires. But it so happened that the houses of Moscow at this time were almost all built of wood, and they were so combustible, and were, moreover, so much exposed, on account of the many fires required in the winter season in so cold a climate, that the city was subject to dreadful conflagrations. So great was the danger, that the inhabitants were continually in dread of it, and all classes vied with each other in efforts to avert the threatened calamity whenever a fire broke out. Besides this, there were in those days no engines for throwing water, and no organized department of firemen. All this, of course, is entirely different at the present day in modern cities, where houses are built of brick or stone, and the arrangements for extinguishing fires are so complete that an alarm of fire creates no sensation, but people go on with their business or saunter carelessly along the streets, while the firemen are gathering, without feeling the least concern.

As soon as they had made sure of the death of the Czar, the conspirators were to repair to the convent where Sophia was imprisoned, release her from her confinement, and proclaim her queen. They were then to reorganize the Guards, restore all the officers who had been degraded at the time of Couvansky's rebellion, then massacre all the foreigners whom Peter had brought into the country, especially his particular favorites, and so put every thing back upon its ancient footing.

The time fixed for the execution of this plot was the night of the 2nd of February, 1697; but the whole scheme was defeated by what the conspirators would probably call the treachery of two of their number. These were two officers of the Guards who had been concerned in the plot, but whose hearts failed them when the hour arrived for putting it into execution. Falling into conversation with each other just before the time, and finding that they agreed in feeling on the subject, they resolved at once to go and make a full confession to the Czar.

So they went immediately to the house of Le Fort, where the Czar then was, and made a confession of the whole affair. They related all the details of the plot, and gave the names of the principal persons concerned in it.

The emperor was at table with Le Fort at the time that he received this communication. He listened to it very coolly—manifested no surprise—but simply rose from the table, ordered a small body of men to attend him, and, taking the names of the principal conspirators, he went at once to their several houses and arrested them on the spot.

The leaders having been thus seized, the execution of the plot was defeated. The prisoners were soon afterward put to the torture, in order to compel them to confess their crime, and to reveal the names of all their confederates. Whether the names thus extorted from them by suffering were false or true would of course be wholly uncertain, but all whom they named were seized, and, after a brief and very informal trial, all, or nearly all, were condemned to death. The sentence of death was executed on them in the most barbarous manner. A great column was erected in the market place in Moscow, and fitted with iron spikes and hooks, which were made to project from it on every side, from top to bottom. The criminals were then brought out one by one, and first their arms were cut off, then their legs, and finally their heads. The amputated limbs were then hung up upon the column by the hooks, and the heads were fixed to the spikes. There they remained—a horrid spectacle, intended to strike terror into all beholders—through February and March, as long as the weather continued cold enough to keep them frozen. When at length the spring came on, and the flesh of these dreadful trophies began to thaw, they were taken down and thrown together into a pit, among the bodies of common thieves and murderers.

This was the end of the second conspiracy formed against the life of Peter the Great.

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