Peter the Great
It was soon after these events-1700 - that the death of the patriarch,' or supreme head of the Russian church, afforded the czar an opportunity of beginning some wholesome reforms in that quarter. He had thought it necessary to commence his military career by fulfilling the humblest duties of a soldier, and we have seen that he set about learning the art of ship-building by working with his own hands; but when he boldly annihilated the office of patriarch, and placed himself, without any preparatory steps, at the head of the church, he probably thought there was nothing the priests could teach him which he desired to learn. Certainly a set of men who believed that sanctity dwelt in a beard, and who were in the habit of placing letters of introduction to their patron saint in the hands of deceased persons when laid in their coffins, were not likely to meet with much respect from a great reformer like Peter I: and the few whose glimmer of intelligence raised them above the gross superstition and corruption of the mass, must have experienced all the temptations of self-interest to oppose themselves to the projects of the czar; for they must have known that the nation once enlightened, their power would be gone.
Let us however, not be misunderstood in the use we may make of the words nation' and people.' As a nation - as a people - the Russians are not to this day sufficiently enlightened to choose their own legislators and enjoy a constitutional form of government; and, sunk in the ignorance and barbarism from which Peter partially raised them, a perfect despot, such as he was, was the only ruler that could have had power enough to help them.
The printing-press, which Peter had introduced, vomited forth libels of various sorts upon him; and he was denounced as Antichrist by the priests. A few, however, defended him from this charge, but only because the number six hundred and sixty-six was not to be found in his name, and he had not the sign of the beast.'
It was about this time that the czar took an excellent opportunity of showing that new customs are generally better than old ones. On the occasion of the marriage of one of his sisters, he invited the principal Boyards and ladies of Moscow to celebrate it, requiring them to appear dressed after the ancient fashion. The dinner was served up in the manner of the sixteenth century. By an ancient superstition, it was forbidden to kindle a fire on a wedding day; accordingly, though it was winter, no fire was permitted. Formerly, the Russians never drank wine, so none was provided; and when the guests murmured at any of the unpleasant arrangements, Peter replied, 'These were the customs of your ancestors, and you say old customs are the best.' A practical lesson of more force than wordy arguments, and one that might afford a useful hint in much more recent times.
Having obtained the provinces he required, Peter set about building St. Petersburg.; in the execution of which work he overcame difficulties which would have discouraged any other man. The spot he fixed upon was a miserable morass, half under water, without wood, or clay, or stones, or building materials of any kind; with a barren soil, and a climate of almost polar severity. The resolution to build this city has always been spoken of as an act of extreme rashness; for, to its other disadvantages, it was liable to be flooded by the waters of the gulf on the prevalence of a southwest wind, more particularly if the wind should blow at a time when the ice of the Neva was breaking up in the summer thaws.
Whether Peter was aware of all these disadvantages, is not clearly as certained. It is only certain that, notwithstanding every drawback, he continued the building of St. Petersburg, which, under his marvelous energy, soon became a splendid city, adapted for commerce with all the world. What he began, his successors have finished; and . St. Petersburg now vies in grandeur with any city in Europe. Although never seriously injured by flooding, as was anticipated, it has on divers occasions been exposed to great alarm, and the safety of the inhabitants has been endangered. Indeed inundations are so frequent in many of the low parts, that water is as much dreaded in St. Petersburg as fire in many other cities; accordingly, precautions have been taken to guard as much as possible against any such calamity. When an inundation is anticipated, a cannon is fired from the Admirality, and signal-flags hoisted on the steeples, and the alarm-gun is repeated every hour until the danger appears at an end.
When the river rises so high as to lay the lowest streets under water, the alarm-gun is fired every quarter of an hour; and in proportion as the peril increases, the cannons are more frequently fired, until minute-guns are understood to be a cry of despair, summoning boats to the assistance of the drowning people.