Peter the Great

After his return from Persia in 1722, we find him, as usual after any lengthened absence, instituting examinations 'for mal-administration. The vice-chancellor Schaffiroff, one of his favorites, was condemned to death; but on the scaffold his punishment was commuted to banishment. Menzikoff was sentenced to pay 200,000 rubles into the exchequer, and was deprived of a great part of his income, and flogged by the emperor's own hand. For the infliction of this punishment Peter used his dubina - a cane of thick Spanish reed. Several others were disgraced, flogged, or heavily fined - thus at once showing the czar's impartiality, and proving how well he knew the impossibility of reforming the masses while corruption existed in high places.

In July 1724, Peter again conducted a fleet against Sweden, to enforce his claims on Sweden and Denmark in behalf of the duke of Holstein. Having effected this purpose, he returned to Cronstadt, where he celebrated, by a splendid parade, the creation of his navy, which now consisted of forty-one ships of war, with 2106 cannon, and 14,960 seamen. It was on this occasion that he caused the little skiff we have mentioned to be brought from Moscow, and to be consecrated by the name of the Little Grandsire - the father of the Russian navy. This little shallop is still preserved at St. Petersburg with almost religious veneration.

The last years of this great monarch's life were employed in providing against the inundations to which his new capital was exposed in the autumn, in continuing the Ladoga canal, and in the erection of an academy of sciences. He turned his attention next to the examination and punishment of state criminals; to the promotion of the labors of the legislative body; and the establishment of the order of Alexander Newsky;' the improvement of the condition of the monks; the banishment of the Capuchins from Russia; and a new commercial treaty with Sweden. He also betrothed his favorite daughter Anna to the duke of Holstein in 1724, having already placed the crown, with great pomp, upon the head of his wife Catherine on the 18th of the preceding May, in token of his love and gratitude. He likewise provided that an education should be given to the surviving son of the unhappy Alexis, such as would become a future emperor of Russia - his only son by Catherine having died, as before mentioned, when a child, in 1717.

Peter had been for a considerable time in a weak state of health; but he owed the acceleration of his death to an act of humanity. Late in the autumn of 1724, going to visit the forge and manufactory of arms at Systerbeck he saw a boat filled with soldiers and sailors stranded, and sent a shallop to assist, but which failed in the attempt. Determined to gain his end, he set out for the spot himself; and as his vessel could not quite reach the spot, he leaped into the water, and waded to the boat, which he aided in getting off. A severe cold followed this dangerous but humane act, and this, in addition to the painful disorder from which he had long been suffering, brought on the most fatal symptoms. These came on so suddenly at last, and his sufferings were so great, that he was unable to make his last wishes perfectly intelligible. There is, however, little or no doubt that he intended to appoint his wife his successor. His words, so far as they could be understood, expressed this; and on the very day of his death she succeeded him without opposition. Catherine watched by his bedside, without quitting him, for the last three nights of his life; and he breathed his last in her arms January 28, 1725, being only in his fifty-fourth year.

The reader of this brief biography may sum up the character of Peter the Great more satisfactorily than we can do it for him; for different minds will estimate differently his services to his country. That he was a man of powerful and original genius, who did everything himself, and was never the instrument of others, must be conceded on all hands. His ardor was joined with prudence and resolution. His violent passions and sensual excesses were the fruits of the barbarism of his nation, his imperfect education, and uncontrolled power. His services to a people so ignorant and barbarous were of the greatest possible value; indeed all of good that Russia now enjoys may, without much exaggeration, be ascribed to him. But, for him, or such as him, they might have remained till now as rude and powerless as when he found them. Among the Russians his name is venerated as it deserves to be. St. Petersburg, the city of his love and of his creation - ' the western portal of the empire ' - is now a magnificent metropolis, with palaces, arsenals, quays, bridges, academies, and temples, rising one beyond another; albeit that the severity of its climate must forever be a drawback to its many advantages.