Before judging Peter the Great, the time in which he lived, and the conditions which prevailed should receive careful consideration. Throughout Western Europe, in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, in parliamentary England and republican Holland, the people, that is the masses, toiled early and late for the privilege of paying the taxes; all immunities were reserved for the favored few composing the aristocracy.
There was no education among the people, with the exception perhaps of Holland, then still a power of the first rank. The principle was that the interests of the individual were unworthy of consideration by the side of those of the State. That was the case in France as well as in Russia. Peter inherited the idea of autocratic power, and his travels in Europe conveyed to him nothing to upset or contradict that idea. He cannot, therefore, be considered in the light of a tyrant. He acted, so far as he could know, within his prerogative, and did his duty as he saw it.
Russia, with a thin and scattered population largely engaged in agriculture, felt no impulse toward progress. The moujik lived as his father had lived. He never came in contact with people of a superior civilization who, by introducing new wants, could make him discontented with his lot. Knowing no desire but to satisfy his physical craving, he bore the extremes of heat and cold with equal fortitude: the soil and his labor provided for his subsistence. A life so sordid must either brutalize man or feed his imagination with the unknown and dreaded forces of nature; superstition, deep and strong, became part of the peasant's existence. It is generations before a traditional and deep-rooted belief can be eradicated.
But Peter the Great gave as little thought to the moujik as did Louis XIV to the peasants of France. His influence was exerted upon the boyards, and among them the opposition was the stronger as they had been imbued with Asiatic ideas under the Tartar yoke. Here the great muscular strength of Peter rendered him great service. He did not hesitate to use a stick upon the highest officials any more than Ivan the Terrible had used his iron-tipped staff. Even Menzikoff was chastized in this manner. Frederick the Great of Prussia did the same afterwards. Nor was this method of punishing without its use. One day when Peter was looking over the accounts of one of his nobles, he proved to him that, whereas the boyard had been robbing the government, he in turn had been robbed by his steward. The czar took the noble by the collar and applied the stick with a muscular arm and great vigor. After he had punished him to his heart's content, he let him go, saying. "Now you had better go find your steward and settle accounts with him."
It was Peter's purpose to make the Russians again into Europeans. He rightly deemed it best to begin with externals, because they are the object lessons of changes The Russian boyard was attached to the long caftan or tunic adopted from the Tartars, but above all he was devoted to the hair on his face. The beard was doomed by the czar. He could not play barber to all his subjects, but he imposed a heavy tax upon unshaven faces. Owners of beards paid from thirty to one hundred rubles, and moujiks had to pay two pence for theirs every time they entered a city or town.
The reform which had the most lasting influence upon Russia, was the abolition of the landed nobility as a separate class. They would be known as "tchin" or gentlemen, and any one who entered the service of the government, regardless of birth, was at once entitled to be classed among the tchinovnik. From that time the terms gentleman and officer, became synonymous. Every service, civil, military, naval, or ecclesiastic, was divided into fourteen grades. The lowest grade in the civil service was held by the registrar of a college, the highest by the Chancellor of the Empire; the cornet was at the bottom, the field marshal at the top in the army; and the deacon in a church was fourteen degrees removed from the Patriarch,—but all were tchin.
When, in 1700, the Patriarch Adrian died, the dignity was abolished by Peter who did not relish the idea of a rival power in the State. Instead he created the Holy Synod together with the office of Superintendent of the Patriarchal Throne. He gives his reasons in the ukase wherein the change is announced. "The simple people," this document reads, "are not quick to seize the distinction between the spiritual and imperial power; struck with the virtue and the splendor of the supreme pastor of the Church, they imagine that he is a second sovereign, equal and even superior in power to the Autocrat."
The Holy Synod consisted of bishops and a Procurator-general who represented the czar and as such could veto any resolution. This official was often a general. Every bishop had to keep a school in his palace, and the sons of priests who refused to attend were taken as soldiers. Autocrat though he was, Peter dared not confiscate the property of the monasteries, but he forbade any person to enter a convent before his thirtieth year. The monks were ordered to work at some trade, or to teach in the schools and colleges. At this time, the Protestant and Catholic churches of the West tried to make converts, and the raskols were hostile to the national church. As a rule Peter did not favor persecution; so long as the church did not interfere with his authority, there was nothing to fear from him; but upon the slightest suspicion his heavy hand was felt. Thus, in 1710, he suddenly ordered the expulsion of the Jesuits. He used to say: "God has given the czar power over the nations, but Christ alone has power over the conscience of man." This did not prevent him from exacting a double tax from the raskols in Moscow, nor from punishing cruelly any Russian converted to one of the western churches.
The great mass of the people suffered severely by Peter's reforms. The peasants as tenants of the large landowners had enjoyed some liberty and were legally free men; they were by him assigned to the soil, which they were not permitted to leave. Thus they, too, passed into serfdom. If the proprietor sold the estate, the rural population went with it. The owners paid a poll-tax for their serfs. These unfortunates could also be sold without the land, but the czar made a law that "If the sale cannot be abolished completely, serfs must be sold by families without separating husbands from wives, parents from children, and no longer like cattle, a thing unheard of in the whole world."
The citizens of towns were divided into three classes; to the first class belonged bankers, manufacturers, rich merchants, physicians, chemists, capitalists, jewelers, workers in metal, and artists; storekeepers and master mechanics were in the second; all other people belonged to the third. Foreigners could engage in business, acquire real estate; but they could not depart from the country without paying to the government one tenth of all they possessed.
Cities and towns were administered by burgomasters elected by the citizens; this board selected its own president or mayor. If an important question arose, representatives of the first two classes were summoned for consultation. All the mayors of Russia were subject to a magistrate selected from the Council of St. Petersburg, and appointed by the czar. This official watched over the interests of commerce and agriculture, settled disputes between citizens and burgomasters, confirmed local elections, authorized executions when a death sentence was pronounced by provincial authorities, and made reports to the tsar.
The voïevodes or governors of a province directed all the affairs of their jurisdiction and disbursed the revenues as they thought best. "Help yourself first!" was the unwritten law, and it was universally obeyed. Peter divided his empire into forty-three provinces, forming twelve governments each under a viceroy and deputy, who were assisted by a council elected by the nobles.
The courts were crude and mediæval, but not more so than in the west of Europe. Justice, such as it was, was administered by the General Police Inspector, and in large cities there was a police officer for every ten houses. Servants who failed to keep the house front clean were punished with the knout. Peter created the Bureau of Information, a court of secret police, and thus inaugurated the terrible spy system which still disgraces Russia.
The douma was abolished, and in its stead Peter created a "Directory Senate," which could meet only in presence of the czar. It was originally composed of nine members, but it was afterwards increased and at last embraced the duties of the Grand Council, the High Finance Committee, and the Supreme Court. A fair idea of the moral and mental condition of Russia's high aristocracy, may be had from a rule made by Peter, forbidding the Senators under severe penalties, while in session to cry out, to beat each other, or to call one another thieves."
Peter's visits to the west, taught him the value of factories. He gave every possible inducement to foreign capital and skill to come to Russia, and patronized home industry wherever he could, as by purchasing the uniforms for army and navy from recently established mills. Some of his methods appear strange, as, for instance, when he ordered every town in Russia to send a stipulated number of shoemakers to Moscow, to learn their trade. Those who continued to work in the old fashion, were severely punished. The czar would have met with greater success, if he had not been hampered by the cupidity of the officials, who found means to secure the lion's share of the profits.
Peter discarded the old Slavonic alphabet and introduced the one used at present. St. Petersburg had four printing presses, Moscow two, and there were also some at Novgorod, Tchernigof, and other large places. The first newspaper in Russia, the St. Petersburg Gazette, was founded by him. He established, in 1724, the Academy of Sciences, in imitation of the institution of that name of Paris.
St. Petersburg was founded in 1703. It was far from a promising site for a new capital, the dreary wastes, dark forests, and marshes where wild ducks and geese found a favorite feeding place. It was exposed to frequent floods, and piles were needed before a building could be erected. But when this autocrat had made up his mind, objections were brushed aside. Peter collected 40,000 men, soldiers, Cossacks, Kalmucks, Tartars and such natives as could be found, and put them to work. At first he provided neither tools nor shelter, and food was often scarce. Thousands of workmen died;—what did he care? Others were compelled to take their place. The fortress of St. Peter and Paul arose first; the czar himself was watching the progress from a little wooden house on the right bank of the Neva. Men of means were forced to build stone houses in the new capital. Swedish prisoners and merchants from Novgorod were invited to move to St. Petersburg, and no excuse was admitted. Goods could be brought only by boat, and no boat was allowed to land unless it carried a certain number of white stones to be used as building material. He erected churches, and ordered that he should be buried in the Church of St. Peter and Paul.
Peter's domestic life, as we have seen, was not happy. After his divorce from his first wife, he married Catherine who, in 1702, had been made prisoner at Marienburg. It is not known where she was born, but she was probably a native of Livonia, and was a servant in the family of Pastor Glück and engaged to be married to a Swedish dragoon. She became the property of Menzikoff who gave her to the czar. There was a secret marriage which was confirmed by a public ceremony in 1712, in reward for her services at Pultowa. Peter also instituted the Order "For Love and Fidelity," in her honor. A German princess describes her thus:—"The czarina was small and clumsily made, very much tanned, and without grace or air of distinction. You had only to see her to know that she was lowborn. From her usual costume you would have taken her for a German comedian. Her dress had been bought at a secondhand shop; it was very old-fashioned, and covered with silver and dirt. She had a dozen orders, and as many portraits of saints or relics, fastened all down her dress, in such a way that when she walked you would have thought by the jingling that a mule was passing." She could neither read nor write, but she was sharp, had natural wit, and obtained great influence over Peter. They had two sons, Peter and Paul, who died in childhood, and two daughters, Anne and Elizabeth. The former married the Duke of Holstein.
Alexis, the son by his first wife, was Peter's heir. He had grown to be a young man before Peter realized that the result of all his efforts depended upon his successor, and the czar began to pay attention to his son's education when it was too late, when habits had been formed. The czarévitch had imbibed the prejudices of his mother; he was narrow-minded, lazy, weak, and obstinate, and associated with people to whom Old Russia was Holy Russia, who abhorred reforms of every kind. Peter sent him to travel in Germany, but the prince would learn nothing. His father warned him in very plain terms. "Disquiet for the future," he wrote to Alexis, "destroys the joy caused by my present successes. I see that you despise everything that can make you worthy to reign after me. What you call inability, I call rebellion, for you cannot excuse yourself on the ground of the weakness of your mind and the state of your health. We have struggled from obscurity through the toil of war, which has taught other nations to know and respect us, and yet you will not even hear of military exercises. If you do not alter your conduct, know that I shall deprive you of my succession. I have not spared, and I shall not spare, my own life for my country; do yon think that I shall spare yours? I would rather have a stranger who is worthy for my heir, than a good-for-nothing member of my own family."
Alexis should have known that his father was in terrible earnest, yet he did not heed the warning. When Peter was traveling in Western Europe, his son fled to Vienna, where he thought that he should be safe. Finding that this was not so, he went to the Tyrol and afterwards to Naples, but his father's agents traced him and one of them, Tolstoï, secured an interview in which he assured the prince of his father's pardon, and finally persuaded him to return to Moscow. As soon as he arrived there, he was arrested. The czar convoked the three Estates before whom he accused the czarévitch. Alexis was forced to sign his resignation of the Crown. When he was being examined, probably under torture, a wide-spread conspiracy was revealed. Peter learned also that his son had begged the Emperor of Austria for armed intervention, that he had negotiated with Sweden and that he had encouraged a mutiny of the army in Germany. It was shown that his divorced wife and several prelates were in the plot. Peter crushed his enemies. Most of the persons involved suffered a cruel death, and Alexis himself, after being punished with the knout, was sentenced to die. Two days later his death was announced. It appears that on that day, the heir to the throne was brought before a court composed of nine men of the highest rank in Russia and that he was beaten with a knout to secure further confessions, and that he expired under the torture. Those present were sworn to secrecy, and kept the oath.
Peter, therefore, had no male heir. Alexis, however, had left a son Peter by Charlotte of Brunswick whom he married against his will. In 1723 the czar ordered Catherine to be crowned as Empress. He had established the right to select his successor but failed to do so, owing to his sudden death.
The following description of Peter the Great at the age of forty, is given by a Frenchman: "He was a very tall man, well made though rather thin, his face somewhat round, with a broad forehead, beautiful eyebrows, a short nose, thick at the end; his lips were rather thick, his skin was brown and ruddy. He had splendid eyes, large, black, piercing, and well-opened; his expression was dignified and gracious when he liked, but often wild and stern, and his eyes, and indeed his whole face, were distorted by an occasional twitch that was very unpleasant. It lasted only a moment, and gave him a wandering and terrible look, when he was himself again. His air expressed intellect, thoughtfulness, and greatness, and had a certain grace about it. He wore a linen collar, a round wig, brown and unpowdered, which did not reach his shoulders; a brown, tight-fitting coat with gold buttons, a vest, trousers, and stockings, and neither gloves nor cuffs; the star of his order on his coat, and the ribbon underneath it; his coat was often unbuttoned, his hat lay on the table, and was never on his head, even out of doors. In this simplicity, however shabby might be his carriage or scanty his suit, his natural greatness could not be mistaken."