Peter the Great, grandson of the first emperor of the Romanof line, was a man of such extraordinary power of body and mind, such a remarkable combination of common sense, mental activity, advanced ideas, and determination to lift Russia to a high place among the nations, with cruelty, grossness, and infirmities of vice and passion, that his reign of forty-three years fills as large a place in Russian history as do the annals of all the preceding centuries, and the progress of Russia during this short period was greater than in any other epoch of three or four times its length.
The character of the man showed in the boy, and while a mere child he began those steps of progress which were continued throughout his life. He had two brothers, both older than he, and sons of a different mother, so that the throne seemed far from his grasp. But Theodore, the oldest of the three, died after a brief reign, leaving no heirs to the throne. Ivan, the second son, was an imbecile, nearly blind, and subject to epileptic fits. The clergy and grandees, in consequence, looked upon Peter as the most promising successor to the throne. But be was still only a child, not yet ten years of age.
The czar Alexis had left also several daughters; but in those days the fate of princesses of the blood was a harsh one. They were not permitted to marry, and were consigned to convents, where they knew nothing of what was passing in the busy world without. One of the daughters, Sophia by name, had escaped from this fate. At her earnest request she was taken from the convent and permitted to nurse her sickly brother Theodore.
She was a woman of high intelligence, bold and ambitious by nature, and during her residence in court learned much of the politics of the empire and took some part in its government. After the death of Theodore she contrived to have herself named regent for her two brothers, Ivan being plainly unfit to rule, and Peter too young.
There are many stories told about her, of which probably the half are not true. It is said that she kept her young brother at a distance from Moscow, where she surrounded him with ministers of evil, whose business it was to encourage him in riot and dissipation, to the end that he might become a moral monster, odious and insupportable to the nation at large. Such a course had been pursued with Ivan the Terrible, and to it was largely due his incredible iniquity.
If Sophia had really any such purpose in view, she was playing with edge-tools. She quite mistook the character of her young brother, and forgot that the same rule may work differently in different cases. The steps taken to make the boy base, if really so intended, aided to make him great. His morals were corrupted, his health was impaired, and his heart hardened by the excesses of his youth, but his removal from the palace atmosphere of flattery and effeminacy tended to make him self-reliant, while his free life in the country and the activity which it encouraged helped to develop the native energy of his character.
It is probable that Sophia had no such intention to corrupt the nature of the child, for she showed no ill will against him. It was apparently to his mother, rather than to his sister, that his residence in the country was due, and he was obliged to go frequently to Moscow, to take part in ceremonial affairs, while his name was used in all public documents, many of which he was required to sign.
From early life the boy had shown himself active, intelligent, quick to learn, and full of curiosity. He was particularly interested in military affairs, and playing at soldiers was one of the leading diversions of his youth. Only a day or two after a great riot in Moscow, in which numbers of nobles were slaughtered, and in which the child had looked unmoved into the savage faces of the rioters, he sent to the arsenal for drums, banners, and arms. Uniforms and wooden cannon were supplied him, and on his eleventh birthday—in 1683—he was allowed to have some real guns, with which he fired salutes.
From his country home at Preobrajensk messengers came almost daily to Moscow for powder, lead, and shot; small brass and iron cannon were supplied the boy, and drummer-boys, selected from the different regiments, were sent to him. Thus he was allowed to play at soldier to his heart's content.
A company was formed from the younger domestics of the place, fifty in number, the officers being sons of the boyars or lords. But these were required by the alert boy to pass through all the grades of the service, which he also did himself; serving successively as private, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain, and finally as colonel of the regiment which grew from this youthful company. Peter called his company "the guards," but it was known in Moscow as the "pleasure company," or "troops for sport." In time, however, it grew into the Preobrajensky Guards, a celebrated regiment which is still kept up as the first regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard, and of which the emperor is always the colonel. Another company, formed on the same plan in an adjoining village, became the Semenofsky Regiment. From these rudiments grew the present Russian army.
These military exercises soon ceased to be child's play to the active lad. He gave himself no rest from his prescribed duties, stood his watch in turn, shared in the labors of the camp, slept in the tents of his comrades, and partook of their fare. He used to lead his company on long marches, during which the strictest discipline was maintained, and the camps at night were guarded as in an enemy's country.
On reaching his thirteenth year the boy took further steps in his military education, building a small fortress, whose remains are still preserved. This was constructed with great care, and took nearly a year to build. At the suggestion of a German officer it was named Pressburg, the name being given with much ceremony, Peter leading from Moscow a procession of most of the court officials and nobles to take part in the performance.
These military sports were not enough for the active mind of the boy, who kept himself busy at a dozen labors. He used to hammer and forge in the blacksmith's shop, became an expert with the lathe, and learned the art of printing and binding books. He built himself a wheelbarrow and other articles which he needed, and at a later date it was said that he "knew excellently well fourteen trades."
When in Moscow, Peter spent much of his time in the foreign quarter, joining his associates there in the beer, wine, and tobacco of which they were specially fond, and questioning them about a thousand subjects unknown to the Russians, thus acquiring a wide knowledge of men and affairs, He troubled himself little about rank or position, making a companion of any one, high or low, from whom anything could be learned, while any mechanical curiosity particularly attracted him.
A sextant and astrolabe were brought him from France, of whose use no one could inform him, though he asked all whom he met. At length a Dutch merchant, Franz Timmermann by name, was brought him, who measured with the instrument the distance to a neighboring house. Peter was delighted, and eagerly asked to be taught how to use the instrument himself.
"It is not so easy," replied Timmermann; "you must first learn arithmetic and geometry."
Here was a new incentive. The boy at once set to work, spending all his leisure time, day and night, over these studies, to which he afterwards added geography and fortification. It was in this desultory way that his education was gained, no regular course of training being prescribed, and his strong self will breaking through all family discipline.
We may end here what we have to say about the boy's military activity. His army gradually grew until it numbered five thousand men, mainly foreigners, who were commanded by General Gordon, a Scotch officer. Lefort, a Swiss, who had become one of Peter's favorite companions, now undertook to raise an army of twelve thousand men. He succeeded in this, and unexpectedly found himself made general of this force.
It is, however, of the boy's activity in naval affairs that we must now speak. Timmermann had become one of his constant companions, and was always teaching him something new. One day in 1688, when Peter was sixteen years old, he was wandering about one of the country estates of the throne, near the village of Ismailovo. An old building in the flax-yard attracted his attention, and he asked one of the servants what it was.
"It is a storehouse," the man said, "in which was put all the rubbish that was left after the death of Nikita Romanof, who used to live here."
Peter at once, curious to see this "rubbish," had the doors opened, went in, and looked about. In one corner, bottom upward, lay a boat, very different in build from the flat-bottomed, square-sterned boats which were in use on the Russian rivers.
"What is that?" he asked.
"It is an English boat," said Timmermann.
"But what is it good for? Is it better than our boats?" demanded Peter.
"Yes. If you had sails for it, you would find that it would not only go with the wind, but against the wind."
"Against the wind! Is that possible? How can it he possible?"
With his usual impatience, the boy wanted to try it at once. But the boat proved to be too rotten for use. It would need to be repaired and tarred, and a mast and sails would have to be made.
Where could these be had? Who could make them? Timmermann was able to tell him. Some thirty years before, a number of Dutch ship-carpenters had been brought from Holland and had built some vessels on the Volga River for the czar Alexis. These had been burned by a brigand, and Brandt, the builder, had returned to Moscow, where he still worked as a joiner. In those days it was easier to get into Russia than to get out again, foreigners who entered the land being held there as virtual prisoners. Even General Gordon tried in vain to get back to his native land.
Old Brandt was found, looked over the boat, put it in order, and launched it on a neighboring stream. To Peter's surprise and delight, he saw the boat moving under sail up and down the river, turning to right and left in obedience to the helm. Greatly excited, he called on Brandt to stop, jumped in, and, antler the old man's directions, began to manage the boat himself.
But the river was too narrow and the water too shallow for easy sailing, and the energetic boy had the boat dragged overland to a large pond, where it went better, but still not to his satisfaction. Where was a better body of water? He was told that there was a large lake about fifty miles away, but that it would be easier to build a new boat than to drag the English boat that distance.
"Can you do that?" asked the eager boy.
"Yes, sire," said Brandt, "but I will need many things."
"Oh, that does not matter at all," said Peter. "We can have anything."
No time was lost. Brandt, with one of his old comrades and Timmermann, went to work at once in the woods bordering the lake, Peter working with them when he could get away from Moscow, where he was frequently needed. It took time. Timber had to be prepared, a hut built to live in, and a dock to launch the boats, which were built on a larger scale than the small English craft. Thus it was not until the following spring that the new boats were ready to launch.
Alexander III., Czar of Russia.
Peter meanwhile had been married. But the charms of his wife could not keep him from his beloved boats. Back he went, aided in completing and launching the new craft, and took such delight in sailing them about the lake that he could hardly be induced to return to Moscow for important duties.
In this humble way began the Russian navy, which had grown to large proportions before Peter died. The little English boat, which some think was one sent by Queen Elizabeth to Ivan the Terrible, has ever since Peter's time been known as the "Grandsire of the Russian navy." It is kept with the greatest care in a small brick building within the fortress at St. Petersburg, and was one of the principal objects of interest in the great parade in that city in 1870 on the two hundredth anniversary of Peter's birth.
It will suffice to say, in conclusion, that shortly after these events Peter became the reigning czar, and turned from sport to earnest. Sophia had enjoyed so long the pleasure of ruling that her ambition grew with its exercise, and she sought to retain her position as long as possible. It is even said that she laid a plot to assassinate Peter, so that only the feeble Ivan should be left. The boy, told that assassins were seeking him, fled for his life. His fright seems to have been groundless, but it made him an undying enemy of his sister. The affair ended in the bulk of the nobility and soldiery turning to his side and in Sophia being obliged to leave the throne for a convent, where she spent the remainder of her life in the misery of strict seclusion.