Young Folks' History of Russia - Nathan Dole

How the Russian Throne


Once more Old and New Russia were brought face to face, but Peter's "eaglets" were all powerful in the Council and in the army; they straightway gave the throne to Catherine, the "heroine of the Pruth." The two years of her reign were mainly occupied with Peter's favorite schemes; the Academy of Sciences was founded; new exploring expeditions were sent out; St. Petersburg and the fleet were fostered. At Catherine's death the High Council undertook to govern in the name of Peter II., the young son of the unfortunate Alexis. As in the preceding reign, Prince Menshikof was at first the leading spirit, but his overweening arrogance led to his disgrace. The conservative party got the young Emperor under their influence, and began to undo the reforms of the "Giant Tsar." The court returned to Moscow; the poor little Peter was led into all sorts of idle follies; the courtiers cared only for their own interests; "They never obey me," he cried to his aunt Elizabeth, "but I will break my chains yet." It was death which broke his chains. Like his grandfather, he caught cold at the "Blessing of the Waters," and died suddenly in his fifteenth year. His last words were: "Get ready the sledge! I want to go to my sister."

There were now five candidates for the vacant throne: Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great; his grandson, Peter of Holstein; his divorced wife, and his two nieces, Catherine, Duchess of Mecklenburg, and Anna, Duchess of Kurland: The leading nobles took upon themselves to offer the crown to the Duchess Anna. She signed an agreement to consult the High Council on all government affairs, and to make neither war nor peace without its consent, nor to impose taxes, nor punish any noble without trial, nor marry, nor name a successor. Anna came to Moscow, but she soon found that the "Constitution" which she had agreed to fulfil was not the will of the whole nation, "Let her be an autocrat like her predecessors," was the popular cry. She then seized the power and suppressed the High Council. She put Germans into all the chief offices; she had no pity upon her subjects; taxes were collected mercilessly; "the peasants beheld their last head of cattle, their last tool, seized by the Government for payment."

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


The spies of the Secret Court of Police were everywhere; a hint was enough to bring a Russian noble under suspicion; thousands of the upper classes were banished and beheaded. Anna's low-born lover, Biren, whom she made Duke of Kurland, was brutal and cordially hated; the discontent became universal; famines and fires drove the people to despair; they thought that these woes had come upon them because a woman reigned; "Cities ruled by women endure not; the walls built by women are never high," was their proverb. They longed for the staff of Peter to chastise "Biren, the cursed German." For greater safety the court returned to St. Petersburg. "No one here dares to murmur against the will of the Empress," wrote Lefort, "and the evil-minded have been so effectually put out of the way that scarce a trace can be found of the Russian whose unfriendly designs are to be feared."

The succession to the Polish throne soon interested Anna. Twenty thousand Russian entered Poland and proclaimed Augustus III. King, although the nobles had elected the candidate of France. The French met the Russians in battle for the first time, and were beaten near Danzig. Then the war was transferred to the Rhine and Italy. Russia came to the aid of Austria, and for the first time also Western Germany saw a Russian army in its borders. France, in order to avenge itself on Russia, persuaded Turkey to declare war. Anna took the offensive and sent a great expedition across the steppes of the South. The lines of Perekop were forced, the capital of the Krim kans was pillaged, the Western Crimea was laid waste. Azof was again captured; the next year the conquests continued. The Russians crossed the Pruth and entered the capital of Moldavia. Austria grew jealous and obliged its Russian allies to make peace. The sacrifice of a hundred thousand men was rewarded with only the fortress of Azof and a little tongue of land between the Bug and the Dnieper. The terrible cost in men and money of this campaign still further increased the discontent. The Secret Police discovered that the Dalgoruki family was heading a conspiracy to remove the Empress, make way with Biren and the Germans, and raise Elizabeth to the throne.

Anna's revenge was complete: Marshal Dalgoruki died in prison; Basil and two others were beheaded; Ivan was broken on the wheel; the story of his beautiful wife, Natalia, who bravely shared his misfortunes, reads like a romance. Anna was chiefly urged to this severity by her minister, Volynski, who was himself plotting a greater treason. "He was distinguished for his great intellect and intolerable disposition. Turbulent, ostentatious, proud, constantly making advances, insolent to his equals, ready for any act of crying injustice toward the poor, he drew upon himself the hatred of all." He plotted to force Anna to marry him and lift him to the throne. But he managed to offend Biren, who said to Anna, "One of us must go." He was in turn put to death after having his tongue torn out, and his children were sent to Siberia. His estates were given to Biren.

After these conspiracies were put down Anna again devoted herself to her amusements. Her court became famous in Europe for its barbaric splendor. "Biren loved bright colors, therefore black coats were forbidden at court, and every one appeared in brilliant raiment; nothing was to be seen but light-blue, pale-green, yellow, and pink. Old men came to Peterhof—her pleasure palace near the capital—in delicate rose-colored costumes." Anna took great delight in her court-fools; she made princes of the noblest birth occupy this position, and had them beaten if they refused to amuse her. She forced two Russian princesses to gulp balls of pastry and crouch in bark tubs and cackle like hens.

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


Prince Galitsin's wife having died, Anna forced him to marry an old and ugly Kalmuk, nicknamed Pickled Pork. The marriage festival was celebrated with great pomp; representatives of every nation and tribe of the empire took part, with native costumes and musical instruments; some rude on camels, some on deer, others were drawn by oxen, dogs, and swine. The bridal couple were borne in a cage on an elephant's back. Anna had a palace built entirely of ice for their reception. It was ornamented with ice-pillars and statues, and lighted by panes of thin ice. The doors and window posts were painted to represent green marble; droll pictures on linen were placed in ice frames. All the furniture, the chairs, the mirrors, even the bridal couch, were ice. By an ingenious use of naptha the ice chandeliers were lighted, the ice logs in the ice grates were made to burn! At the gates two ice dolphins poured forth fountains of flame; vases filled with frosty flowers, trees with foliage and birds, a life-sized elephant with a frozen Persian on its back adorned the yard. All was of ice. Ice cannon and mortars guarded the doors and were fired in salute. The bride and bridegroom had to spend the night in their glacial palace.

The year after this festivity Anna died, leaving the throne to Ivan of Brunswick, her niece's son, who was only three months old. At the same time she appointed the hated Duke of Kurland regent. His regency lasted only three weeks: Ivan's parents could not bear his presence; a plot was laid to get rid of him; he was suddenly arrested in bed by eighty grenadiers and sent with his wife and children to Siberia. Ivan's mother, Anna, assumed the regency, but her conduct was scandalous. She spent days at a time undressed upon her couch conversing with her friends; she had not even the energy to sign the most important papers. Such incapacity was doomed to destruction. Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, aided by French money and Swedish influence, won the guards: "My children," she said, "You know whose daughter I am." "We know and we are ready," they cried. "I swear to die for you; will you swear to die for me?" she asked, and they all took the oath. Anna, her husband, Duke Anton of Brunswick, and the other Germans, were suddenly arrested and exiled. The poor infant Emperor was put into a dreary dungeon for life, and grew up idiotic.

Elizabeth was hailed as the savior of the people, "the Moses who snatched Russia in one night from Egyptian slavery," "the Noah who had saved the land from the deluge of foreigners." Like a true Russian she was devoted to the Orthodox Church; under the influence of the priests she planned to suppress the dissenting churches on the Nevski street of St. Petersburg; she closed the Tartar mosques in the East and South; she expelled thirty-five thousand Jews because they were the foes of Christ the Lord and did much evil to her subjects." She turned her attention to the morals and education of the clergy, ordered the peasants to clean their dirty ikons, caused catechisms to be distributed in the churches and a revised edition of the Bible to be sold. At the Church Academy of Moscow the pupils discussed the nature of the light of glory in the life to come."

[Illustration] from History of Russia by Nathan Dole


Elizabeth also looked after the material interests of Russia; she founded banks, sent the sons of merchants to study trade and book-keeping in Holland. She encouraged the working of mines and colonized Siberia and the Southern steppes. At the same time that she abolished the death penalty, she used more stringent measures to put a stop to brigandage and punish crime; those who survived the knout were mutilated and sent to the public works. Her minister and lover, Count Ivan Shuvalof, founded the University of Moscow and opened schools on the borders. He patronized literature and the stage. By his example French civilization began to influence Russian manners. Elizabeth dressed in the fashion of Paris, and is said to have left in her wardrobe fifteen thousand costly dresses, several thousand pairs of shoes and slippers, and two great chests full of silk stockings. The French theatre in St. Petersburg was all the rage. French plays were translated into Russian. Learned Frenchmen joined the Academy of Sciences, for which a splendid palace was built.

Elizabeth's foreign policy was no less worthy of her father; the Swedes tried to win back lost territory; her armies forced them to make the treaty of Abo, which assured Southern Finland to Russia, and the crown of Sweden to her ally, Adolph of Holstein. She also interfered in the war of the Austrian succession, and her army of thirty thousand men, though they fired not a shot, helped to bring about the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. She was afterwards persuaded that Frederick II. of Prussia was "the most dangerous of neighbors," and united with Maria Theresa, the Empress Queen," and with Louis XV., against Prussia and England in the Seven Years' War. Frederick invaded Saxony, and eighty thousand Russians occupied Eastern Prussia, captured Memel, and defeated the Prussian General Lewald. Two years later the great king himself was completely crushed. He wrote from the battle-field: "But three thousand men are now left of my army of forty-eight thousand. All are in flight; it is a cruel blow." The Russians then entered Berlin and Pomerania. The greatest general of his age was saved from absolute ruin only by the death of the Empress, who was succeeded by her nephew, Peter of Holstein, the grandson of Peter the Great.