Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

How a Reformer Knouted his Only Son

The victory of Poltava secured to Russia the long-desired haven on the Baltic. Peter felt that the new city at the mouth of the Neva was henceforth safe from Swedish guns. "The fate of Phaethon has come upon our enemy," he wrote from the battle-field, "and the last stone for the foundation of St. Petersburg is laid by the help of God." The Neva near its mouth was divided into many water-courses by marshy islands, which were often covered by the stormy waves of the Baltic. Here Peter, after the capture of the two Swedish forts, determined to build a new city. On the desolate "Isle of Hares" were founded a fortress and a stuccoed church. Just outside was Peter's "palace," a small log cottage with three rooms. While he was personally superintending these works, a Dutch ship arrived with a cargo of salt and wine. Peter himself piloted it to port and presented the skipper with five hundred ducats and decreed the ship forever free from tolls.

The new city soon became "the apple of Peter's eye." All the masons of the country were brought there; it was forbidden to build stone buildings elsewhere, or even to repair those already built. Every noble who owned five hundred souls—souls is the Russian for male peasants—was required to erect a stone house of two stories. Every boat entering the harbor had to bring an offering of unhewn stone. This frozen Venice of the North seemed like a "paradise to the headstrong Tsar. He was discouraged neither by the terrible floods, nor by the unhealthy climate, nor by the sullen opposition of his courtiers, who longed for "Holy Mother Moscow."

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


Immediately after the battle of Poltava Peter hastened back to his "Holy Land" and busied himself with plans for its improvement. He also took advantage of Charles's five years' stay in Turkey to clinch his Northern conquests. He captured Vyborg on the Gulf of Finland, the most important city of Karelia, and transported the inhabitants to St. Petersburg. Riga fell next, and then the other cities of Livonia. The capture of Pernava and Reval assured the conquest of Esthonia. Kurland was given back to Poland. Peter's niece Anna was married to the young Duke, and Augustus again took the throne.

Suddenly, at the instigation of Charles XII. of France and the Krim Kan, the Sublime Porte declared war upon Russia. Peter accepted the challenge with enthusiasm, but he made the same mistake as Charles. Neglecting the advice of his German officers he crossed the Dniester with thirty-eight thousand men, advanced recklessly into the deserts of Moldavia and refused the Grand Vizier's propositions of peace. His ally, the ruler of Valakhia, deserted to the Turks; there were no provisions; the whole land was eaten up by grasshoppers. The Turks, one hundred and ninety thousand strong, managed to surround the Russian army. Peter was in such straits that by the advice of his brave wife, Catherine, who was with him, he sent to the Vizier a messenger empowered to give up Azof and all his Southern conquests, to restore Livonia to the Swedes, to exchange Pskof for the right to St. Petersburg, to recognize Stanislas as King of Poland, and to offer enormous bribes to all the Turkish officers. The wily Russian envoy, however, arranged for a peace on more favorable terms; the principal sacrifice was Azof and the fortresses on the Turkish border. Peter was unreconciled, but he wrote that though the loss of the cities which had cost so much labor and wrong was a "feast of death," yet he could see a prospect of future advantage.

The war with Sweden still went on. Two years after the unlucky campaign of the Pruth, Peter captured the capital of Finland and sent its university library to St. Petersburg. Sweden lost all its German provinces. The Tsar, whose relations with Europe were becoming complicated, tried to win the friendship of France. He visited Paris and took Louis XV. in his arms. "The little King is scarcely taller than our dwarf Loaki," wrote the Tsar. A French writer, on the other hand, says of the Tsar: "He was a very tall man, well made, though rather thin, his face somewhat round, with a high forehead, beautiful eyebrows, a short nose thick at the end; his lips rather thick; his skin ruddy and brown. He had fine black eyes, large, piercing, and wide-awake; his expression was dignified and gracious when he liked, but often wild and stern; his eyes and his whole face were distorted by an occasional twitch which was very unpleasant. It lasted only a moment and gave him a haggard and terrible look till it was gone. His whole manner was impressed with his intellect, thoughtfulness, and greatness, and was not lacking in grace." As everywhere else he astonished people by his intense curiosity; he studied government, commerce, science, and fortifications, but he could not induce France to break with England and help him restore the Stuarts to the throne. A commercial treaty was the only result of his visit.

Peter was on the point of a reconciliation with Charles XII. when the latter was killed in Norway. The Swedish Diet resolved to continue the war. Peter landed an army on the shores of Sweden, and extended his ravages to within sight of Stockholm. The ruin was enormous, and at last forced the Diet to end this war, which had dragged on for two-and-twenty years. The captured provinces were formally ceded to Russia. Great was the joy throughout the land. Peter was hailed as the Father of his Country, and was asked to take the title of Emperor and "the Great." Nor did his conquests end with the Baltic provinces. Russian merchants had been robbed in Persia; Peter made this a pretext to secure the Caspian. He descended the Oka and the Volga, crossed the great inland sea, and took Derbend, delivered the Shah from his rebellious subjects, and in return was given valuable districts beyond the Caucasus.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


While he was thus winning glory a shadow was clouding his life. As it were by main force he had accomplished his reforms; he destroyed the ancient nobility and established the Order of Rank based on service to the state; he brought woman from the seclusion of the terem  into society; he replaced the ancient Council of boyars by the Senate; he divided the Empire into governments and provinces with a foreign system of laws and justice; he established the Secret Police; regulated taxes; formed a regular army by conscription; he established the Patriarchate and gave its power to the Holy Synod; he allowed foreigners to work mines and start manufactories; he made a new alphabet and established the Moscow Gazette; he founded schools, academies, and colleges, in which the sciences excluded the classics; he built hospitals, and sent out exploring expeditions; he built a new capital, and made Russia a European state.

All these reforms he saw endangered by the conduct of his only son. Alexis was eight years old when his mother was sent to the convent. She had soon thrown off the habit of a nun, and lived in her cell with all the state of a princess. The young Alexis often visited her and fell under her narrowing influence. His father tried in vain to instill into his mind his own ideas, and married him to Charlotte of Brunswick, but it was too late. The young man was indolent and wayward; he neglected his bride because she was a foreigner; the anxious father saw that his son was the hope of those who hated his reforms. He wrote him: "Disquiet for the future destroys the joy caused by our present successes, for I see that you despise all that can make you worthy to reign after me. To whom shall I leave what I have established and done? If you do not alter your conduct, know that I shall cut you off from the succession. I have not spared my own life for my country and my people; do you think I shall spare yours? Better a worthy stranger than an unworthy relation."

While Peter was in the West Alexis fled to the Court of Charles VI. at Vienna, and was finally concealed in a castle near Naples. He was tracked and brought back to Moscow, where his father obliged him to sign a formal renunciation of the throne. It was found that Alexis had openly wished for his father's death, and had promised as soon as he was Tsar to abandon St. Petersburg and the Swedish conquests, and bring the court back to Moscow. Twice he was knouted, and a tribunal of the highest officials condemned him to death. Two days after the sentence was passed he was again knouted and died under the torture.

This was Peter's last conflict with the forces of the past. All his life long he had allowed nothing to stand in the way of his "terrible task;" comfort, luxury, pleasure, sister, wife, son, everything, was sacrificed to the one great idea. And what was his reward? He was so feared and hated by boyar and serf that there was scarcely one to be found in all Russia who did not devoutly wish for his death. Some said that he was bewitched by the Germans; others declared that he was not the son of the Tsar Alexis, but a changeling, that Natalia's child was a girl, and that the midwives had changed her for a son of Lefort. Others believed that the real Tsar had been killed while among the foreigners, who sent one of their own men to oppress Russia and turn the orthodox from the faith. The stories grew. It was whispered about that the Tsar Peter had gone into the realm of glass, where a woman reigned who mocked the Tsar and put him into a hot frying-pan and then threw him into prison. Others varied the legend by declaring that Peter had been nailed up in a cask lined with spikes and thrown into the sea. "This is not our lord," they said; "this is a German; "and they wanted to kill him.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


Meanwhile Peter's health became broken by his toils and excesses. After the death of Alexis he issued the famous decree that the Russian Emperor had the right to name his successor. This right. Peter himself failed to use, although he solemnly crowned Catherine as Empress. His death was brought on by a series of exposures. He flung himself into ice-cold water to save a crew of shipwrecked sailors. He recovered from the fever thus brought upon him, but soon afterwards drank to excess at one of his unworthy festivities. His cold was increased at the "Blessing of the Neva," and before he expressed his last wishes he became unconscious and died.