Peter the Great

Accordingly, in 1695, he sailed down the Don, and attacked Azoph; but this first campaign was unsuccessful, chiefly in consequence of the desertion of an artillery officer named Jacob, who nailed up the Russian cannon, turned Mohammedan, and, going over to the Turks, defended the town against his former master. The czar, however, was not likely to be discouraged by a single failure. He renewed his attack the following year; and as the death of his brother John just at this time had thrown into his treasury the income which had maintained the dignity of the nominal czar, he had the means of strengthening and supplying his forces in a more efficient manner. The new ship-yard at Woronetz, on the Don, furnished him in the summer of 1696 with a fleet of twenty-three galleys, two galleasses, and four fire-ships, with which he defeated the Turkish fleet off Azoph. All relief by sea being now cut off, he pushed the siege with renewed vigor, and in two months - July 29 - the Russians entered Azoph. To secure the possession of this key to the Black Sea, he enlarged and strengthened the forts, constructed a harbor capable of admitting heavy vessels, and gave orders for fifty-five war-ships to be built, at the same time keeping in view the construction of a canal whereby to connect the Don and the Volga.

A year or two before these events Peter had divorced himself from his wife, whom he had married in his boyhood - a wife chosen for him, not a partner of his own choice. Many reasons have been assigned for this step; but the true one appears to be, that she was a woman of mean intellect, a slave of superstition and bigotry, the mere creature of the priests, and that, consequently, she opposed herself to all his plans of reformation; for the priests, knowing that their power would melt away before the torch of knowledge, lost no opportunity of vilifying the czar, and thwarting his schemes if possible. Peter certainly committed an error of judgment in leaving his son Alexis under her care, as the result proved; but to our mind it was a proof of kindness and consideration to the mother, which reveals a more feeling heart than historians generally allow him to have possessed.

A desirable seaport acquired, and an unsuitable wife got rid of, Peter's next step was to send a number of young Russians to finish their education in Italy, Germany, and Holland. Hitherto Russia had been without an official representative in any of the states of Europe but the czar fitted out a splendid embassy to the States-General of Holland, of which Le Fort and Menzikoff were the principal plenipotentiaries, Peter himself accompanying them, though simply as an attache to the mission. The ease and security with which he left his vast empire to the government of deputies, prove how firmly established was his power. Passing through Riga, on his way to Holland, he sought permission to visit the fortifications; but was refused by the Swedish governor - an indignity which Peter resolved to punish by and by. Proceeding through Prussia, he was received by the king with great respect, and with all the pomp and circumstance of royalty. Here Peter separated himself from the embassy, and proceeded to Holland, traveling privately, and as fast as possible. He arrived at Amsterdam fifteen days before his ambassadors, and engaged a small apartment in the dockyard belonging to the admiralty. He soon afterwards adopted the habit of a Dutch skipper, and in that dress proceeded to Saardam, where he enrolled himself as a journeyman carpenter, under the name Of Peter Michaeloff, in the employment of a ship-builder named Calf. Here he lived in a little shingle hut for seven weeks, made his own bed, and prepared his own food - corresponded with his ministers at home, and labored at the same time in ship-building.

Such was the manner in which Peter the Great proposed to acquire the art of ship-building; as willing to work as a carpenter for this purpose, as he had been for another to do a drummer's duty in his model regiment. Truly does one of his earliest biographers remark, that many sovereigns have laid down their authority from weariness of the cares and troubles of empire, but he alone quitted his dominions in order to study the art of governing them.' What a picture of Peter the Great presents itself to the contemplative mind at this period; and what a meeting must that have been which accidentally took place between him and the duke of Marlborough at Saardam! For the English noble was well aware that, in the workman Peter Michaeloff,' he beheld the undisputed proprietor of a quarter of the globe, the autocrat who had the power of life and death over all its inhabitants; in short, the czar of Muscovy. Peter was at this time, 1697, twenty-five years of age, and is described as a large, powerful man, with bold and regular features, dark-brown hair, that fell in natural curls about his neck, and a dark, keen eye, which glanced from one object to another with singular rapidity. He was dressed on that occasion in a red woolen shirt and duck trousers, and a sailor's hat, and was seated, with an adze in his hand, upon a rough log of timber which lay upon the ground. He was conversing with great earnestness and much gesticulation with some strangers, his countenance displaying, by its strong and varying expression, the interest he took in their discourse. The soldier-duke - is it not easy to imagine the contrast of costume and character - approached, and opened a slight conversation by some remarks on the art of ship-building. While they were thus engaged, a stranger in a foreign costume appeared, bearing an enormous letter:his hand; the journeyman started up, and snatching the packet, tore off the seals, and eagerly perused it, while the stately Marlborough walked away unregarded.