Peter the Great

PETER, Czar, or Emperor of Russia, usually styled THE GREAT, was one of the most remarkable persons in the history of modern times. A sketch of his life may therefore prove interesting, as furnishing an example of what may be accomplished for the benefit of mankind by one enterprising mind. But first as regards the country over which it was his fortune to rule.

Russia is a territory of vast extent in the northern part of Europe and Asia. Presenting every variety of climate, this extensive region, which is really an aggregation of various countries, was inhabited in the seventeenth century by a barbarous people, having little intercourse with the more civilized nations of the earth. The degree of advancement in knowledge or social usages was very much that of Turkey in recent times.

The Russian people knew little or nothing of the useful arts, were rude in manners, dressed in cumbrous garments, and the men wore long beards, according to the ancient Asiatic custom. There was scarcely any kind of school-learning or education; even the priests were grossly ignorant and superstitious. For one thing, they believed and taught that the world was created in autumn, when the fruits were ripe; unconscious that, when it it autumn in one hemisphere, it is spring in the other.

At the period to which we refer - the middle of the seventeenth century, or about the time of the Commonwealth in England - the Russia! people might have been divided into four classes: the Boyards or noblemen who estimated their wealth by the number of serfs or slaves upon their estates - these wretched serfs, of course, by far the most numerous body of all; and the military, a turbulent set, who, as we shall see, often resorted to the most violent means to obtain their ends. Indeed so common and revolutionary had been revolts of the Strelitzes, or soldiery of the capital, that the government has been epigrammatically called a despotism tempered by assassination.' The fourth class, and one which often took part in the factions of the time, were the priesthood, the established religion being the form of the Greek church. The monarchy was absolute, the will of the sovereign being law; but it was not, as Poland was, an elective monarchy. The male issue, however, of the ancient sovereigns failing, and several pretenders to the throne having miserably perished, the chief Boyards assembled a council, at which they elected a youth, named Michael Romanow, to be czar. He was the son of a powerful nobleman, and related, by the mother's side, to the ancient czars. This took place in 1613, at the period when his father was detained a prisoner by the Poles, with whom the Russians were at war. An exchange of prisoners, however, was soon after effected; and it is thought that, during the life of the old man, he governed, though in his son's name. It is not our purpose to enter into the wars or troubles of this reign. Michael Romanow made no alteration in the state, either to the improvement or corruption of the administration. He died in 1645, and was succeded by his son Alexis Michaelowitz (or son of Michael), who ascended the throne by hereditary right.

Alexis, who was the father of Peter the Great, appears to have been more enlightened than any of his predecessors. He introduced manufactures of silk and linen; and, though unable to keep them up, he had the merit of their first establishment. He endeavored to form something like a code of laws, imperfect though they were; and he peopled the deserts about the Wolga and the Kama with Polish and Tartarian families, whom he had taken prisoners in his wars, employing them in agriculture - before his reign, prisoners of war being the slaves of those to whose lot they fell. But he had little time to perfect his plans, being snatched away by a sudden death in 1677, at the age of forty-six. Alexis had been twice married. By his first wife, the daughter of the Boyard Meloslauski, he left two sons, and either four or six daughters. By his second wife, who was the daughter of the Boyard Nariskin, and who survived him, he left Peter and the Princess Nathalia, the former having been born at Moscow on the 30th of May 1672. Alexis had caused his eldest son, Theodore, to be acknowledged his successor a year before his death, and he ascended the throne at the age of fifteen: this prince inherited his father's abilities and disposition, but was of a sickly, feeble constitution. The second son was Ivan, or John, who was miserably infirm, being almost blind and deaf, and subject to convulsions. Of the six daughters, we need only mention Sophia, who was less remarkable for her great talents than for the wicked and mischievous use she made of them.

Peter was but four years old at the time of his father's death, and was for a while little regarded. But the czars married without regard to birth, and had likewise the power of choosing a successor; and, conscious that his brother Ivan was incapacitated by his infirmities for governing, Theodore, on his deathbed, nominated his youngest brother Peter heir to the crown. This occurred when Peter was in his tenth year, but not before his promising abilities had aroused the jealousy of his sister Sophia. Probably from the difficulty of finding suitable husbands for them, it had been the custom for the daughters of the czars to retire into a monastery; but this designing princess had no such inclination; and on the death of Theodore, she found herself almost the natural guardian of two brothers, one of whom was, from his infirmities, incapable of governing; and the other, on account of his youth, she believed it possible to depose. In a word, she aimed at sovereignty, although pretending to advocate the claim of Ivan, and representing that she desired only to hold the reins for him.