Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

The Royal Shipwright of Zaandam

The two Russian rivers, the Don and the Dnieper, flowed into Turkish waters. The key of the Don was the great fortress of Azof, famous in the annals of Greece and Genoa as the emporium of Asia. It was ruined by Timur the Lame, rebuilt by the Turks, captured and destroyed by the Don Kazaks in the reign of Peter's grandfather, and again fortified by the Turks, who made it the centre of their marauding expeditions. The mouth of the Dnieper was blockaded by five forts. In the winter following Peter's military manoeuvres it was suddenly decided to open a campaign against the Turks and Tartars. Peter took great interest in the preparations, and enlisted as a bombardier.

In the spring a Russian army of one hundred and twenty thousand men, together with Mazeppa's Kazaks, succeeded in mastering four of the Turkish forts guarding the Dnieper. A smaller army, comprising the four well-drilled regiments, which had grown out of Peter's "Amusement Company," invested Azof, and made two assaults, but owing to the want of ships, the division of command, the inexperience of the officers, the Tsar's impulsiveness, and the treachery of one of the German engineers, who passed over to the Turks and exposed the Russian plans, the siege had to be raised. Nevertheless Peter made a triumphal entry into Moscow with one captive Turk led before him.

This failure was a good lesson. The Tsar engaged competent officers and artillerymen from Germany and Holland, Prussia and Venice. Instead of intrusting the command to a council of boyars, he appointed Alexis Shelf to be general in chief; in order to invest Azof both by land and sea, he set to work to build a fleet. The woods south of Moscow furnished the lumber; thirty thousand men worked all winter in the towns on the Don. The weather was bitterly cold, fires burned his docks, his workmen deserted; he himself was ill. But his will was undaunted. He was at once overseer and master shipwright; he wrote that following the counsel which God gave our grandfather Adam he was eating his bread in the sweat of his face." At last twenty-nine galleys, one hundred rafts, and seventeen hundred barges were built, and the campaign began. The "marine caravan "under Admiral Lefort shut away the Turks from Azof; the foreign engineers dug mines and trenches, and planted batteries. Peter himself was full of zeal. He lived on board his galley and watched the Turkish fleet; he wrote his sister Natalia: "Little Sister, in obedience to thy counsels I go not to meet the shells and balls; it is they who come against me. Give thy orders that they come not." Preparations were being made for a final assault, when the Pasha surrendered.

This was the first real victory which the Russians had been able to celebrate for many a long day; the army re-entered Moscow under a triumphal arch adorned with inscriptions and pictures. Pleased as the Russians were with the great victory over "the Infidel "and with the gorgeous spectacle, they were surprised and disgusted at the conduct of their Tsar, who, dressed as a simple ship's captain in German clothes and hat, walked behind the admiral's gilded chariot. Peter was now sole ruler, his brother Ivan having died during the winter, and for the first time he began to take an active part in the affairs of state. With the consent of the Council he sent to Azof three thousand peasant families and a garrison of Archers, and fortified the city with strong bastions and a great fortress called Petropolis. He saw the need of a fleet, and obliged the monasteries and the merchants, the princes and the boyars, to bear their share in the expenses. He himself furnished nine ships-of-the-line; the merchants built a dozen bomb-ships. Fifty nobles of the court, accompanied each by a soldier, were sent to Venice, England, and the Lowlands, to learn the use of charts and compasses, and to become skilled in navigation and shipbuilding. Finally Peter determined to set an example by going himself to study his favorite art in the favored lands of the West. His education, which began in the German quarter of Moscow, was to be finished in the ship-yards of Amsterdam and London.

A great embassy was sent to the courts of Europe to explain the Russian policy toward Turkey and to make favorable treaties if possible. Besides the three chief envoys there was a suite of two hundred and seventy persons, nobles and soldiers, interpreters and pages, priests and singers, dwarfs and buffoons. In the number was the Tsar of Russia, who travelled under the name of Peter Mikhailof. During his absence the government was left to a council of regency; all safeguards were taken against disorders at home and on the border.

The embassy started the last of March, and were detained at Riga by the breaking up of the ice. As there was a famine in the province of Livonia the Swedish governor of the town did not lay himself out to entertain the foreigners, and Peter, trying to inspect the fortifications, was ordered off by the sentinel; these justifiable discourtesies were afterwards remembered as a pretext for war.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


The Tsar's journey to Holland was slow and eventful. He practised carpentry at Mitava, he spent a month at Konigsberg in the society of the elector Frederick III. of Brandenburg. He studied artillery at Pillau, and received a certificate for remarkable progress. He visited the iron works of Ilsenburg and enjoyed the view from the Brocken. He dined and danced with Sophia Charlotte, the wife of Frederick III., and her mother, Sophia of Hanover, and astonished them by his awkwardness, his vivacity, his grimaces, and his boorishness at table.

At this time the little town of Zaandam was famous for its shipbuilding. Peter had heard of it and resolved to study the science there. He hastened down the Rhine, and, without stopping at Amsterdam, took up his lodging at Zaandam in a small hut belonging to a blacksmith whom he knew. He immediately set to work with his axe. He was soon recognized, and his stay was made unpleasant by the crowd which followed wherever he went. He managed, however, to visit every manufacturing establishment in the neighborhood,—cutleries, rope walks, paper mills. After a week's stay he sailed back in his own yacht to Amsterdam, where he worked busily for four months at the docks of the East India Company. All his spare time was spent in sight-seeing. He was interested in everything; he went to workshops, museums, grist-mills, ferry-boats, hospitals; he took lessons of a wandering dentist, and practised on his friends; he learned to etch; he visited the Greenland whaling fleet; he engaged artists, officers, engineers, surgeons; he bought models of ships, and neglected nothing which, as he wrote to the Patriarch, might enable him thoroughly to master the art of the sea." Having learned all that the Dutch could teach him he went to England. Here again he was unwearied. He spent most of three months at the Deptford Docks, but found time to visit the sights of London, the Arsenal at Woolwich, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, and the Tower, and to witness a grand naval display off Spithead. He had the curiosity to attend Quaker meetings and Protestant services, and, as in Holland, to study the various creeds. He became very intimate with King William, who presented him with a beautiful yacht. Finally Peter rejoined the embassy at Amsterdam, and turned his eyes toward Vienna and Venice. At Vienna bad news suddenly called him back to Moscow.