Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

Catherine Dispatches her Husband

Peter of Holstein was at this time thirty-four years old, and a devoted admirer of the Prussian King and the Prussian tactics. Boasting that his greatest glory was to call Frederick the Great his master, he hastened to restore all the Russian conquests, giving up the French and Austrian alliance to make peace with his old friend." His first acts won him great applause: he freed the nobles from the obligation to serve the state; he abolished the Secret Court of Police, he protected the dissenters whom his aunt had so terribly persecuted, and gave them lands, saying, "Mahomedans and even idolaters are permitted in the Empire, but the dissenters are Christians;" he recalled many political exiles from Siberia, and released the wretched Emperor Ivan VI. from his dungeon.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


On the other hand he despoiled the clergy and publicly showed his contempt for the orthodox faith; he won the hatred of the army by the favor shown to his Holstein battalions; he embarked in a foolish war against Denmark; he irritated his court by his coarse manners; he brutally abused his wife, the beautiful Sophia of Anhalt, who became Empress under the name of Catherine, and it was said proposed to put her in a convent and marry another woman. Such conduct ripened revolution. Catherine won all hearts by her sufferings, her piety, her gracious ways; she placed herself at the head of the conspirators. Peter was warned, but paid no heed. He was at his favorite palace near St. Petersburg when suddenly Catherine appeared at the head of twenty thousand men. Escape was vain. He was forced to abdicate in favor of his wife. A few days afterwards the foreign ministers were informed that the late Emperor had died of a colic to which he was subject.

Catherine hastened to withdraw from the Seven Years' War, and made a close alliance with Frederick, whom she had at first publicly called "the perfidious enemy of Russia." It was in Poland that the interests of the two sovereigns were found to agree. This royal republic was fast verging on ruin: the throne was stripped of nearly all power; a few great magnates persisted in retaining the luxurious feudalism of the Middle Ages; the population was mainly composed of degraded serfs; a million grasping Jews, despised and down-trodden, monopolized the little commerce of the land; there was no law, no order; at the Diets a single member could veto any act. The army was composed of lawless cavalry, without infantry, artillery, or national defences.

The whole state was divided against itself. At the death of King Augustus III. Stanislas II., one of Catherine's early lovers, was placed upon the throne by the intervention of Russian arms. Immediately the old religious quarrel broke out; the orthodox supported the new king; the Roman Catholics, uniting under the name of "Confederates," rebelled. It was a savage war; the peasants murdered nobles, Romanists, and Jews; the Kazaks and the brigands of the border went plundering from estate to estate; not a house was left standing in a circle of forty miles. An army of eighty thousand Russians entered Warsaw and forced the Diet to give the orthodox nobles the same rights as the Catholics, and secure Stanislas on the throne.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


The French court, in order to help the "Confederates," induced the Porte to declare war on Russia. Though Catherine's troops were mostly occupied in Poland, she sent Alexander Galitsin with thirty thousand men against one hundred thousand Turks. "The Romans," she said, "took no thought of the number of their foes; they only asked: Where are they?" Galitsin defeated the Grand Vizier in person, and occupied Valakhia and Moldavia. The next year seventeen thousand Russians put one hundred and fifty thousand Mussulmans to flight at Kahul, while a fleet under Catherine's lover, Alexis Orlof, left the Baltic, appeared on the coasts of Greece, raised a revolt among the Christian populations of the Morea, and with the help of the Englishmen, Dugdale and Elphinstone, destroyed the Turkish fleet. Instead of sailing straight upon Constantinople, which he might easily have taken, he wasted his time among the Greek islands; when he reached the Straits of the Dardanelles he found them closed.

The war lasted two years more. Prince Dalgoruki ravaged the Crimea, took the chief cities, and drove the Turks from the isthmus forever. At the same time all the fortresses on the lower Danube were captured; the Russian army conquered Bessaria and entered Bulgaria.

Frederick the Great, who was anxious to seize Western Prussia and the cities of the Vistula from Poland, assured Catherine that if she kept her Turkish conquests France and Austria would unite to drive her from the Danube. He proposed, therefore, that she should voluntarily withdraw her forces from the South and unite with him and Joseph II. in a partition of Poland. White Russia, which once formed part of the territory of St. Vladimir, would amply repay her for the sacrifice. Catherine, rather than fight united Europe, was obliged to consent. The partition was immediately brought about. Frederick took Western Prussia, Joseph took Western Galitch, or Red Russia, Catherine took White Russia and the cities on the Dvina with one million six hundred thousand inhabitants.

The Turkish war was soon after renewed; the Russians surrounded the Grand Vizier at Shumla, and the Sultan was glad to make peace. The Krim Kan was declared independent; Russia was allowed to keep the strongholds of Azof and Kinburn, to protect the Christian population of the southern provinces and to send merchant ships through the Bosphorus. Moreover the Porte agreed to pay a fine of four million five hundred thousand rubles.

While her armies were winning laurels abroad, Catherine had ugly trials at home. Only two years after her husband's death Mirovitch, a lieutenant of the guards, plotted to free the imbecile Ivan VI. from his dungeon, and raise him to the throne once more. The warders stabbed Ivan and seized Mirovitch, who was beheaded. It was the first public execution for more than twenty years, and the pressure of spectators was so great that the bridge over the Neva nearly broke down.

The armies which returned victorious from the first Krim campaign brought with them the plague. At Moscow the deaths during the summer months amounted to a thousand a day; the people thronged in fright to ask protection of a holy picture. The Archbishop, Ambrosius, removed it because many were suffocated in the crowd. "The Archbishop is an infidel," cried the people; "he and the doctors would make us die; if they had not smoked up the streets and the hospitals the plague would have ceased long ago." And they rushed to the Kreml, put the Archbishop to death, and sacked his palace. Catherine had to send her lover, Gregory Orlof, to calm the revolt. On his return to Petersburg he was received with a triumphal arch: "To the man who freed Moscow from the plague." Eastern Russia, too, was a prey to all sorts of violence. A tribe of three hundred thousand Kalmuks wearied of their life on the steppe, broke up camp, and with their cattle and chariots crossed the Volga and the Urals, and returned to their ancient home in China. Many in the rear were cut off by the Kazaks. The villages and woods of the Volga were filled with "Old Believers" and other fanatical dissenters, enemies of a woman tsar; "hundreds of runaway serfs, deserters from the army, robbers, and pirates infested those far-off regions; hosts of impostors claimed to be Peter III. or Ivan VI. The Kozak, Pugachef, a prisoner at Kazan, managed to escape into the steppes of the Iaik River. There he proclaimed himself Peter III., unfurled the banner of Holstein, and uttered threats against Catherine, his "murderous wife." All the troops sent against him joined his ranks. The people began to receive him as their Emperor; the priests acknowledged his authority. Some of the Polish confederates sent as captives to the East acted as his masters of artillery; again the serfs rose against their masters; the barbarians of the Volga revolted and joined him. Catherine sent Alexander Bibikof to put an end to the trouble. Though he saw that the "evil was great, frightful, ugly," he went to work wisely and well, he dispersed the "bugbear's" army and took his guns. The impostor fled, pillaged and burned Kazan, was again defeated; then he retreated boldly to the cities of the Southern Volga, hanged the governors, and established new officers. At last he was shut in between the Volga and the Iaik and surrendered by his own troops. Even his cruel death at Moscow did not end the revolt. On every hand false Pugachefs and false Peters continued for some time to appear. Gathering savage bands they murdered the land-owners and burned their houses. (In order to blot out the memory of the revolt, the Iaik was renamed Ural, and the Ialk Kazaks were called Ural Kazaks.)

Catherine, put on her guard by these events, resolved to forestall similar revolts in the South. She put an end to the famous Kazak republic of the Dnieper, destroyed their island city, and gave their rich lands to foreign colonists. At the same time she annexed the Crimea. Its ravines, for centuries the haunts of robber bands and the menace of Moscow, were taken from the control of lawless Tartars. A firm government replaced the anarchy of rival kans.