Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

How the Giant Autocrat


The Archers formed a sort of hereditary militia, and were full of the spirit of ancient Russia, bitterly hating all foreigners and foreign customs, and seeing in their German-loving Tsar the Antichrist who was to come. Driven to despair by harsh treatment and by dreadful rumors, eight thousand of them marched upon Moscow. General Gordon and General Shen met them near the New Jerusalem Monastery and begged them to disperse. They replied with a petition setting forth all their grievances, their sufferings at Azof, their cruel separation from their wives and children, their horror at the Germans who shaved the beard and smoked tobacco to the entire destruction of the holy faith. A few rounds of artillery scattered the rebels; more than a hundred were executed and nearly two thousand were imprisoned. It was the news of this revolt which suddenly cut short Peter's stay on the shores of the "Ocean Sea." He hastened back to Moscow, and at once began the conflict with the old ideas. First he decreed that all beards should be sacrificed. The effect was the same as if the Emperor of China should suddenly compel all his subjects to cut off their cues. The Patriarch had declared that it was irreligious, unholy, and heretical to shave or cut the beard, which was an ornament given by God and worn by all the holy apostles and by Christ himself. Nevertheless Peter set the example, and with his own hands applied the scissors to his great lords. He also forced all the boyars and officials to wear foreign clothes, models of which were hung up at the gates of the towns. About the same time another change was made. The Russian new year began on the first of September; Peter decreed that henceforth the Russians should begin the new year on the first of January, and reckon from Christ instead of the creation.

Meanwhile a terrible tragedy was taking place. In fourteen torture chambers, under the charge of the Tsar and his friends, the unhappy Archers underwent their trial. More than seventeen hundred were knouted, roasted, and exposed to torments worthy of the Spanish Inquisition. Peter made up his mind that his sister was the leading spirit of the late revolt; he forced her to take the veil, and he put an end to the Archers; in front of the cell where Sophia was confined he hanged one hundred and ninety-five of them. Three, suspended from the bars all winter, presented a mock petition. A week was spent in executions; a thousand victims met their death. The Tsar compelled his nobles to help the hangmen. On one day the courtiers beheaded one hundred and nine in the Tsar's presence. The Austrian Minister in Moscow heard that "five rebel heads had been sent into the dust by an axe wielded by the noblest hand in Russia." All winter the bodies remained unburied. It was whispered among the common people that the Tsar never went to bed without drinking blood. The Patriarch took the wonder-working picture of the Virgin and urged the Tsar to mercy.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


"Why halt "thou brought out the holy image?" exclaimed the Tsar. "Hence, and restore it to its place. Know that I reverence God and his most holy Mother no less than thou, but know, too, that it is my duty to defend the people and punish crime."

Peter took this occasion to put away his wife, who was hateful to him because she was jealous and had no sympathy for his friends or his ideas.

After this storm blew over Peter again devoted himself to his naval projects. His fleet on the Sea of Azof was completed, a Russian frigate was sent to Constantinople, and a thirty years' truce was signed with the Turks. Russia kept Azof, but was forbidden the Black Sea. The Ottoman Porte guards the Black Sea like a pure and undefiled virgin," said the Sultan, and we would sooner allow outsiders to enter our harem than permit foreign ships to sail on the Black Sea."

In order, therefore, to have free course to Europe, Peter needed a port on the Baltic, and he determined at the first opportunity to recover from Sweden the provinces which had been seized in the troublous times. The occasion came. Poland and Denmark declared war upon Sweden, and invited Russia to join the league. Peter consented, and sent an army of sixty-three thousand five hundred men to capture Narva and the old Russian fortress of Ivangorod.

The character of Charles XII., the young King of Sweden, had been entirely misjudged. With unexpected rapidity he attacked Copenhagen and forced his cousin, the King of Denmark, to make peace; then crossing over to Livonia, and learning that at his approach his cousin, Augustus of Poland, had raised the siege of Riga, he suddenly turned upon Peter and reached Narva by a terrible forced march. The surprise of the Russians was complete; the Swedes came on under cover of a blinding snowstorm, crossed the ditch and the parapet, and brought a panic into Peter's camp. The soldiers, with the cry, "The Germans have betrayed us," began to massacre the foreign officers who surrendered to the Swedes to save themselves. The battle was lost; the Swedes took seventy-nine officers, one hundred: and forty-nine cannon, and one hundred and forty-six banners. It was a crushing blow, but no time was to be lost. Charles might see fit to invade Russia and even proclaim Sophia. Peter went to work, with new courage: men, women, children, priests, monks, labored night and day on the fortifications of Pskof and Novgorod. The bells of the churches and monasteries were melted down to replace the lost cannon; new regiments were formed; dishonest officials were punished.

But Charles, puffed up by his victory, despised the Russians, and instead of securing the Baltic provinces for Sweden spent five years in useless plotting for the dethronement of Augustus and the election of Stanislas. During this time the Russians learned to conquer; while Charles was entangled in the marshes of Poland, they swept through Eastern Livonia and devastated the country with great cruelty, ruining towns, villages, and farms, and sending the inhabitants into captivity. Among those captured at Marienburg was Catherine, a young orphan girl who served in the family of Pastor Gluck. She was fairly educated, pretty, and vivacious: Peter saw her at the house of his favorite, Menshikof, and fell in love with her. It was the captive waiting-maid's destiny to become the Empress of Russia!

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


The Neva was held by the Swedes. Peter himself captured the Little Hazelnut  Island and renamed the fort Schlusselburg, the key of the Neva; he also took the fort which guarded the mouth of the river, founded the citadel of Kronstadt, and celebrated his first naval victory. But his earnest support of Augustus was wasted; the cowardly king abdicated the throne, and the rash, knight-errant of the North was now able to avenge the capture of the Neva. Peter would have been glad to make peace, for discontent was stirring throughout Russia; the tribes of the Volga were rebellious; the Kazaks of the Don attacked Azof; the Kazaks of the Dnieper were restless; Mazeppa was beginning to play the traitor. But Charles refused to make peace: "I will treat with the Tsar in Moscow," was his reply. He might have easily captured Pskof and dictated his own terms, but he had no plan, and after hesitating several months he allowed himself to be tempted by the old fox, Mazeppa, into the steppes of Little Russia. The Tsar cut off his reinforcements; the winter came on with terrible rigor; bitter winds swept the plains; it was so cold that crows were frozen on the wing; the Swedes had no winter clothing; in one short march three thousand perished of the frost; the army was fed on mouldy bread; when spring came only eighteen thousand men fit for service were left of forty-one thousand, and only thirty-four cannon remained. Mazeppa, who had promised to join the king with twenty thousand men, brought only fifteen hundred.

A Russian expedition to the rapids of the Dnieper destroyed the island-city of the Kazaks, and prevented them from following their hetman. Charles was advised to return to Poland; he declared that "an angel would have to descend from heaven with orders before he stirred from his position." He determined to attack the strong town of Poltava "for a diversion." For six weeks he besieged the town; though famines threatened and ammunition failed, though he himself, like another Achilles, was cruelly wounded in the heel, he refused to listen to advice, saying, "We must do extraordinary things for honor and glory." Peter came and took the chief command of the Russians, who outnumbered the Swedes fourfold, Nevertheless Charles determined to begin the attack. His brave men fought with courage worthy of their ancestors, but they were completely beaten. Most of his generals were captured; twenty thousand men laid down their arms. Charles himself, the last of the Northmen, and Mazeppa, the last free Kazak, together entered the land of the Sultan as fugitives." In one of Pushkin's poems Mazeppa is made to say:—

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


"I have been mistaken about this Charles; he is indeed a bold and audacious youth; two or three battles can he gain; he can fall suddenly on the enemy after supper; reply to a bomb with a burst of laughter; like a Russian sharpshooter he can steal by night into the camp of the foe, overthrow the Kazak, give blow for blow, wound for wound; but it is not for him to cope with the giant autocrat; he wishes to make fortune manoeuvre like a regiment at the sound of a drum. He is blind, obstinate, impatient and thoughtless and presumptuous; he trusts in God knows what star. The new forces of his foe he measures by his past success. The horn of his strength is broken. I blush that in my old age I was misled by a military vagabond. Like a timid girl I was dazzled by his boldness and quick success."