History of Russia

While England, under the first of her Scottish kings, was falling from the high estate she had occupied under her native princes; while in France the, genius of Richelieu was making itself felt; while the glory was departing from the Spanish monarchy; while the Thirty Years' War was beginning to desolate Germany; while the illustrious career of Gustavus Adolphus was opening upon Sweden; and while the warriors of Turkey were yet terrible to the nations of Europe, Michael Theodoriwitz, earliest of the dynasty of Romanoff, became Czar of Muscovy. His dominions were uncultivated, his subjects barbarous, and the country was in the utmost disorder; for on the extinction of the male line of the former Czars - the posterity of John Basilowitz, who had redeemed Russia from the Tartars - no fewer than five pretenders had aspired to the vacant throne, and involved the realm in civil war. But Michael, proving worthy of his elevation, reigned for more than thirty years, maintained his position with dignity, and beqeathed the crown to his heir.

Alexis, the son of Michael, succeeded in 1645, and applied himself with vigor to the harsh duties of reform. The necessity was indeed pressing; for Muscovy was still little better than a ferocious anarchy; and the capital was kept in perpetual consternation by the capricious violence of the Strelitzes - a militia formed in imitation of the celebrated Turkish Janizaries. But the new Czar proved himself an able ruler, and did much to create order. He published a code of laws, purified the courts of justice, restrained the power of the boyards over their serfs, and afforded much encouragement to agriculture and manufactures.

Toward the close of his reign Alexis was deprived by death of his first wife; and though he had a family of sow and daughters, the Czar determined upon a second matrimonial speculation. According to the fashion then pursued by the rulers of Russia, Alexis issued a proclamation inviting all the most beautiful damsels in his dominions, irrespective of their social condition, to repair to Moscow that he might select a fitting bride. Among the rest came a lady named Natalie. She, having attracted the eye of Alexis, was forthwith exalted to the dignity of Czarina; and, in due time, she became the mother of a prince who afterward rendered himself famous as Peter the Great.

When Alexis expired in 1676, he left, besides Peter, then a mere child, two sons, Theodore and Ivan, and a daughter, Sophia, who ere long played a conspicuous part in Russian affairs. Theodore, a sickly youth, inherited his father's crown, but did not survive to wear it more than a few years. On his death-bed he summoned the boyards to his presence, and recommended them to set aside Ivan on account of his bodily infirmities, and intrust the sceptre to the youthful Peter. To this scheme Sophia, who united much personal beauty with a strong will and a vaulting ambition, was vehemently opposed; and her smiles so completely won over the Captain of Strelitzes, and fascinated the populace, that the incapable Ivan was seated on the throne, while she assumed the functions of government. The widowed Czarina and her son, after being besieged in their palace, fled from the city, and sought an asylum in the Convent of Trinity; but they had scarcely taken refuge within its walls, when the soldiers of Sophia were heard clamoring at the outer gate. At this crisis a lucky thought crossed the agitated brain of the trembling Czarina. She placed her son on the high altar; and when the soldiers effected an entrance, the Superior of the Convent, pointing to the boy, exclaimed, 'Behold him I there he is with God.' The soldiers were touched with awe, till one of them, less scrupulous than his fellows, after a pause stepped forward, and brandished his weapon to strike the child. But a monk, arresting his arm, thrust him back, saying with cairn solemnity, 'Not in this sacred place.' At that moment the tread of cavalry was again heard, and the Superior having exclaimed, 'Here come our friends at last; let the enemies of God and the Czar tremble,' the edifice was speedily cleared of intruders, and the royal boy's life providentially saved.

The son of Natalie had other perils to encounter on the threshold of life. At an obscure village, situated at a distance from Moscow, he was sur rounded by a number of most profligate youths to corrupt his morals and debase his mind. But, instead of falling into the snare, Peter persuaded his comrades to have recourse to manly sports and martial exercises; he formed them into a small military force; and in this juvenile regiment, taking rank only as a private, he wrought his way gradually to command.

About this time Le Fort and Gordon, two adventurers of mark and likelihood, appeared in Russia. Le Fort was a native of Geneva, and had been originally destined for commercial pursuits; but with a soul above such matters, he had followed the bent of his inclination, and betaken himself to a military career. Gordon was of a different stamp, being the cadet of a Cavalier family in Scotland, who had in youth left his native soil to win fame and fortune, and who had served with the Swedes and Poles. Peter now attached these distinguished soldiers of fortune to his cause; and they rendered him most valuable aid in his schemes for the creation of that power which is now regarded as one of the most pernicious elements in European society.

When Peter had attained his seventeenth year he took to himself a wife; and this step so alarmed the aspiring Sophia, that in her haste she assumed the title of Empress, and dispatched a force to arrest the bridegroom. But her indications of enmity created such a ferment among the young hero's friends, that, in 1689, they compelled the haughty princess to abandon the struggle and retired to a convent, while Peter was installed as Czar.