Historic Tales, Vol. 8 (of 15) - The Romance of Reality
by Charles Morris
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

It is an interesting fact that this final blow to Russian republicanism was dealt in 1492, the very year in which Columbus discovered a new world beyond the seas, within which the greatest republic the world has ever known was destined to arise.


In seeking examples of the excesses to which absolute power may lead, we usually name the wicked emperors of Rome, among whom Nero stands most notorious as a monster of cruelty. Modern history has but one Nero in its long lines of kings and emperors, and him we find in Ivan IV. of Russia, surnamed the Terrible.

This cruel czar succeeded to the throne when but three years of age. In his early years he lived in a state of terror, being insulted and despised by the powerful nobles who controlled the power of the throne. At fourteen years of age his enemies were driven out and his kinsmen came into power. They, caring only for blood and plunder, prompted the boy to cruelty, teaching him to rob, to torture, to massacre. They applauded him when he amused himself by tormenting animals; and when, riding furiously through the streets of Moscow, he dashed all before him to the ground and trampled women and children under his horses' feet, they praised him for spirit and energy.

This was an education fitted to make a Nero. But, happily for Russia, for thirteen years the tiger was chained. Ivan was seventeen years of age when a frightful conflagration which broke out in Moscow gave rise to a revolt against the Glinski, his wicked kinsmen. They were torn to pieces by the furious multitude, while terror rent his youthful soul. Amid the horror of flames, cries of vengeance, and groans of the dying, a monk appeared before the trembling boy, and with menacing looks and upraised hand bade him shrink from the wrath of Heaven, which his cruelty had aroused.

Certain appearances which appeared supernatural aided the effect of these words, the nature of Ivan seemed changed as by a miracle, dread of Heaven's vengeance controlled his nature, and he yielded himself to the influence of the wise and good. Pious priests and prudent boyars became his advisers, Anastasia, his young and virtuous bride, gained an influence over him, and Russia enjoyed justice and felicity.

During the succeeding thirteen years the country was ably and wisely governed, order was everywhere established, the army was strengthened, fortresses were built, enemies were defeated, the morals of the clergy were improved, a new code of laws was formed, arts were introduced from Europe, a printing-office was opened, the city of Archangel was built, and the north of the empire was thrown open to commerce.

All this was the work of Adashef, Ivan's wise prime minister, aided by the influence of the noble-hearted Anastasia. In 1560, at the end of this period of mild and able administration, a sudden change took place and the tiger was set free. Anastasia died. A disease seized Ivan which seemed to affect his brain. The remainder of his life was marked by paroxysms of frightful barbarity.

A new terror seized him, that of a vast conspiracy of the nobles against his power, and for safety he retired to Alexandrovsky, a fortress in the midst of a gloomy forest. Here he assumed the monkish dress with three hundred of his minions, abandoning to the boyars the government of the empire, but keeping the military power in his own hands.

On all sides Russia now suffered from its enemies. Moscow, with several hundred thousand Muscovites, was burned by the Tartars in 1571. Disaster followed disaster, which Ivan was too cowardly and weak to avert. Trusting to incompetent generals abroad, he surrounded himself at home with a guard of six thousand chosen men, who were hired to play the part of spies and assassins. They carried as emblems of office a dog's head and a broom, the first to indicate that they worried the enemies of the czar, the second that they swept them from the face of the earth. They were chosen from the lowest class of the people, and to them was given the property of their victims, that they might murder without mercy.

The excesses of Ivan are almost too horrible to tell. He began by putting to death several great boyars of the family of Rurik, while their wives and children were driven naked into the forests, where they died under the scourge. Novgorod had been ruined by his grandfather. He marched against it, in a freak of madness, gathered a throng of the helpless people within a great enclosure, and butchered them with his own hand. When worn out with these labors of death, he turned on them his guard, his slaves, and his dogs, while for a month afterwards hundreds of them were flung daily into the waters of the river, through the broken ice. What little vitality Ivan III. had left in the republican city was stamped out under the feet of this insensate brute.

Tver and Pskov, two others of the free cities of the empire, suffered from his frightful presence. Then returning to Moscow, he filled the public square with red-hot brasiers, great brass caldrons, and eighty gibbets, and here five hundred of the leading nobles were slain by his orders, after being subjected to terrible tortures.

Women were treated as barbarously as men. Ivan, with a cruelty never before matched, ordered many of them to be hanged at their own doors, and forced the husbands to go in and out under the swinging and festering corpses of those they had loved and cherished. In other cases husbands or children were fastened, dead, in their seats at table, and the family forced to sit at meals, for days, opposite these terrifying objects.

Seeking daily for new conceits of cruelty, he forced one lord to kill his father and another his brother, while it was his delight to let loose his dogs and bears upon the people in the public square, the animals being left to devour the mutilated bodies of those they killed. Eight hundred women were drowned in one frightful mass, and their relatives were forced under torture to point out where their wealth lay hidden.

It is said that sixty thousand people were slain by Ivan's orders in Novgorod alone; how many perished in the whole realm history does not relate. His only warlike campaign was against the Livonians. These he failed to conquer, but held their resistance as a rebellion, and ordered his prisoners to be thrown into boiling caldrons, spitted on lances, or roasted at fires which he stirred up with his own hands.

This monster of iniquity married in all seven wives. He sought for an eighth from the court of Queen Elizabeth of England, and the daughter of the Earl of Huntington was offered him as a victim,—a willing one, it seems, influenced by the glamour which power exerts over the mind; but before the match was concluded the intended bride took fright, and begged to be spared the terrible honor of wedding the Russian czar.

Yet all the excesses of Ivan did not turn the people against him. He assumed the manner of one inspired, claiming divine powers, and all the injuries and degradation which he inflicted upon the people were accepted not only with resignation but with adoration. The Russians of that age of ignorance seem to have looked upon God and the czar as one, and submitted to blows, wounds, and insults with a blind servility to which only abject superstition could have led.

The end came at last, in a final freak of madness. An humble supplication, coming from the most faithful of his subjects, was made to him; but in his distorted brain it indicated a new conspiracy of the boyars, of which his eldest and ablest son was to be the leader. In a transport of insane rage the frenzied emperor raised his iron-bound staff and struck to the earth with a mortal blow this hope of his race.

This was his last excess. Regret for his hasty act, though not remorse for his murders, assailed him, and he soon after died, after twenty-six years of insane cruelties, ordering new executions almost with his latest breath.


In the year 1558 a family of wealthy merchants, Stroganof by name, began to barter with the Tartar tribes dwelling east of the Ural Mountains. Ivan IV. had granted to this family the desert districts of the Kama, with great privileges in trade, and the power to levy troops and build forts—at their own expense—as a security against the robbers who crossed the Urals to prey upon their settled neighbors to the west. In return the Stroganofs were privileged to follow their example in a more legal manner, by the brigandage of trade between civilization and barbarism.

These robbers came from the region now known as Siberia, which extends to-day through thousands of miles of width, from the Urals to the Pacific. Before this time we know little about this great expanse of land. It seems to have been peopled by a succession of races, immigrants from the south, each new wave of people driving the older tribes deeper into the frozen regions of the north. Early in the Christian era there came hither a people destitute of iron, but expert in the working of bronze, silver, and gold. They had wide regions of irrigated fields, and a higher civilization than that of those who in time took their place.

People of Turkish origin succeeded these tribes about the eleventh century. They brought with them weapons of iron and made fine pottery. In the thirteenth century, when the great Mongol outbreak took place under Genghis Khan, the Turkish kingdom in Siberia was destroyed and Tartars took their place. Civilization went decidedly down hill. Such was the state of affairs when Russia began to turn eyes of longing towards Siberia.

The busy traders of Novgorod had made their way into Siberia as early as the eleventh century. But this republic fell, and the trade came to an end. In 1555, Khan Ediger, who had made himself a kingdom in Siberia, and whose people had crossed swords with the Russians beyond the Urals, sent envoys to Moscow, who consented to pay to Russia a yearly tribute of a thousand sables, thus acknowledging Russian supremacy.

This tribute showed that there were riches beyond the mountains. The Stroganofs made their way to the barrier of the hills, and it was not long before the trader was followed by the soldier. The invasion of Siberia was due to an event which for the time threatened the total overthrow of the Russian government. A Cossack brigand, Stepan Rozni by name, had long defied the forces of the czar, and gradually gained in strength until he had an army of three hundred thousand men under his command. If he had been a soldier of ability he might have made himself lord of the empire. Being a brigand in grain, he was soon overturned and his forces dispersed.

Among his followers was one Yermak, a chief of the Cossacks of the Don, whom the czar sentenced to death for his love of plunder, but afterwards pardoned. Yermak and his followers soon found the rule of Moscow too stringent for their ideas of personal liberty, and he led a Cossack band to the Stroganof settlements in Perm.

Tradition tells us that the Stroganof of that date did not relish the presence of his unruly guests, with their free ideas of property rights, and suggested to Yermak that Siberia offered a promising field for a ready sword. He would supply him with food and arms if he saw fit to lead an expedition thither.

The suggestion accorded well with Yermak's humor. He at once began to enlist volunteers for the enterprise, adding to his own Cossack band a reinforcement of Russians and Tartars and of German and Polish prisoners of war, until he had sixteen hundred and thirty-six men under his command. With these he crossed the mountains in 1580, and terrified the natives to submission with his fire-arms, a form of weapon new to them. Making their way down the Tura and Taghil Rivers, the adventurers crossed the immense untrodden forests of Tobol, and Kutchum, the Tartar khan, was assailed in his capital town of Ister, near where Tobolsk now stands.

Many battles with the Tartars were fought, Ister was taken, the khan fled to the steppes, and his cousin was made prisoner by the adventurers. Yermak now, having added by his valor a great domain to the Russian empire, purchased the favor of Ivan IV. by the present of this new kingdom. He made his way to the Irtish and Obi, opened trade with the rich khanate of Bokhara, south of the desert, and in various ways sought to consolidate the conquest he had made. But misfortune came to the conqueror. One day, being surprised by the Tartars when unprepared, he leaped into the Irtish in full armor and tried to swim its rapid current. The armor he wore had been sent him by the czar, and had served him well in war. It proved too heavy for his powers of swimming, bore him beneath the hungry waters, and brought the career of the victorious brigand to an end. After his death his dismayed followers fled from Siberia, yielding it to Tartar hands again.

Yermak—in his way a rival of Cortez and Pizarro—gained by his conquest the highest fame among the Russian people. They exalted him to the level of a hero, and their church has raised him to the rank of a saint, at whose tomb miracles are performed. As regards the Russian saints, it may here be remarked that they have been constructed, as a rule, from very unsanctified timber, as may be seen from the examples we have heretofore given. Not only the people and the priests but the poets have paid their tribute to Yermak's fame, epic poems having been written about his exploits and his deeds made familiar in popular song.

Though the Cossacks withdrew after Yermak's death, others soon succeeded them. The furs of Siberia formed a rich prize whose allurement could not be ignored, and new bands of hunters and adventurers poured into the country, sustained by regular troops from Moscow. The advance was made through the northern districts to avoid the denser populations of the south. New detachments of troops were sent, who built forts and settled laborers around them, with the duty of supplying the garrisons with food, powder, and arms. By 1650 the Amur was reached and followed to the Pacific Ocean.

It was a brief period in which to conquer a country of such vast extent. But no organized resistance was met, and the land lay almost at the mercy of the invaders. There was vigorous opposition by the tribes, but they were soon subdued. The only effective resistance they met was that of the Chinese, who obliged the Cossacks to quit the Amur, which river they claimed. In 1855 the advance here began again, and the whole course of the river was occupied, with much territory to its south. Siberia, thus conquered by arms, is being made secure for Russia by a trans-continental railroad and hosts of new settlers, and promises in the future to become a land of the greatest prosperity and wealth.


On the 15th of May, 1591, five boys were playing in the court-yard of the Russian palace at Uglitch. With them were the governess and nurse of the principal child—a boy ten years of age—and a servant-woman. The child had a knife in his hand, with which he was amusing himself by thrusting it into the ground or cutting a piece of wood.

Unluckily, the attention of the women for a brief interval was drawn aside. When the nurse looked at her charge again, to her horror she found him writhing on the ground, bathed in blood which poured from a large wound in his throat.

The shrieks of the nurse quickly drew others to the spot, and in a moment there was a terrible uproar, for the dying boy was no less a person than Dmitri, son of Ivan the Terrible, brother of Feodor, the reigning czar, and heir to the crown of Russia. The tocsin was sounded, and the populace thronged into the court-yard, thinking that the palace was on fire. On learning what had actually happened they burst into uncontrollable fury. The child had not killed himself, but had been murdered, they said, and a victim for their rage was sought.

In a moment the governess was hurled bleeding and half alive to the ground, and one of her slaves, who came to her aid, was killed. The keeper of the palace was accused of the crime, and, though he fled and barred himself within a house, the infuriated mob broke through the doors and killed him and his son. The body of the child was carried into a neighboring church, and here the son of the governess, against whom suspicion had been directed, was murdered before it under his mother's eyes. Fresh victims to the wrath of the populace were sought, and the lives of the governess and some others were with difficulty saved.

As for the child who had killed himself or had been killed, alarming stories had recently been set afloat. He was said to be the image of his terrible father, and to manifest an unnatural delight in blood and the sight of pain, his favorite amusement being to torture and kill animals. But it is doubtful if any of this was true, for there was then one in power who had a reason for arousing popular prejudice against the boy.

That this may be better understood we must go back. Ivan had killed his ablest son, as told in a previous story, and Feodor, the present czar, was a feeble, timid, sickly incapable, who was a mere tool in the hands of his ambitious minister, Boris Godunof. Boris craved the throne. Between him and this lofty goal lay only the feeble Feodor and the child Dmitri, the sole direct survivors of the dynasty of Rurik. With their death without children that great line would be extinguished.

The story of Boris reminds us in several particulars of that of the Scotch usurper Macbeth. His future career had been predicted, in the dead of night, by astrologers, who said, "You shall yet wear the crown." Then they became silent, as if seeing horrors which they dared not reveal. Boris insisted on knowing more, and was told that he should reign, but only for seven years. In joy he exclaimed, "No matter, though it be for only seven days, so that I reign!"

This ambitious lord, who ruled already if he did not reign, had therefore a purpose in exciting prejudice against and distrust of Dmitri, the only heir to the crown, and in taking steps for his removal. Feodor dead, the throne would fall like ripe fruit into his own hands.

Yet, whether guilty of the murder or not, he took active steps to clear himself of the dark suspicion of guilt. An inquest was held, and the verdict rendered that the boy had killed himself by accident. At once the regent proceeded to punish those who had taken part in the outbreak at Uglitch. The czaritza, mother of Dmitri, who had first incited the mob, was forced to take the veil. Her brothers, who had declared the act one of murder, were sent to remote prisons. Uglitch was treated with frightful severity. More than two hundred of its inhabitants were put to death. Others were maimed and thrown into dungeons. All the rest, except those who had fled, were exiled to Siberia, and with them was banished the very church-bell which had called them out by its tocsin peal. A town of thirty thousand inhabitants was depopulated that, as people said, every evidence of the guilt of Boris Godunof might be destroyed.

This dreadful violence did Boris more harm than good. Macbeth stabbed the sleeping grooms to hide his guilt. Boris destroyed a city. But he only caused the people to look on him as an assassin and to doubt the motives of even his noblest acts.

A fierce fire broke out that left much of Moscow in ruin. Boris rebuilt whole streets and distributed money freely among the people. But even those who received this aid said that he had set fire to the city himself that he might win applause with his money. A Tartar army invaded the empire and appeared at the gates of Moscow. All were in terror but Boris, who hastily built redoubts, recruited soldiers, and inspired all with his own courage. The Tartars were defeated, and hardly a third of them reached home again. Yet all the return the able regent received was the popular saying that he had called in the Tartars in order to make the people forget the death of Dmitri.

A child was born to Feodor,—a girl. The enemies of the regent instantly declared that a boy had been born and that he had substituted for it a girl. It died in a few days, and then it was said that he had poisoned it.

Yet Boris went on, disdaining his enemies, winning power as he went. He gained the favor of the clergy by giving Russia a patriarch of its own. The nobles who opposed him were banished or crushed. He made the peasants slaves of the land, and thus won over the petty lords. Cities were built, fortresses erected, the enemies of Russia defeated; Siberia was brought under firm control, and the whole nation made to see that it had never been ruled by abler hands.

Boris in all this was strongly paving his way to the throne. In 1598 the weak Feodor died. He left no sons, and with him, its fifty-second sovereign, the dynasty of Rurik the Varangian came to an end. It had existed for more than seven centuries. Branches of the house of Rurik remained, yet no member of it dared aspire to that throne which the tyrant Ivan had made odious.

A new ruler had to be chosen by the voice of those in power, and Boris stood supreme among the aspirants. The chronicles tell us, with striking brevity, "The election begins; the people look up to the nobles, the nobles to the grandees, the grandees to the patriarch; he speaks, he names Boris; and instantaneously, and as one man, all re-echo that formidable name."

And now Godunof played an amusing game. He held the reins of power so firmly that he could safely enact a transparent farce. He refused the sceptre. The grandees and the people begged him to accept it, and he took refuge from their solicitations in a monastery. This comedy, which even Caesar had not long played, Boris kept up for over a month. Yet from his cell he moved Russia at his will.

In truth, the more he seemed to withdraw the more eager became all to make him accept. Priests, nobles, people, besieged him with their supplications. He refused, and again refused, and for six weeks kept all Russia in suspense. Not until he saw before him the highest grandees and clergy of the realm on their knees, tears in their eyes, in their hands the relics of the saints and the image of the Redeemer, did he yield what seemed a reluctant assent, and come forth from his cell to accept that throne which was the chief object of his desires.

But Boris on the throne still resembled Macbeth. The memory of his crimes pursued him, and he sought to rule by fear instead of love. He endeavored, indeed, to win the people by shows and prodigality, but the powerful he ruled with a heavy hand, destroying all whom he had reason to fear, threatening the extinction of many great families by forbidding their members to marry, seizing the wealth of those he had ruined. The family of the Romanofs, allied to the line of Rurik, and soon to become pre-eminent in Russia, he pursued with rancor, its chief being obliged to turn monk to escape the axe. As monk he in time rose to the headship of the church.

The peasantry, who had before possessed liberty of movement, were by him bound as serfs to the soil. Thousands of them fled, and an insupportable inquisition was established, as hateful to the landowners as to the serfs. All this was made worse by famine and pestilence, which ravaged Russia for three years. And in the midst of this disaster the ghost of the slain Dmitri rose to plague his murderer. In other words, one who claimed to be the slain prince appeared, and avenged the murdered child, his story forming one of the most interesting tales in the history of Russia. It is this which we have now to tell.

About midsummer of the year 1603 Adam Wiszniowiecki, a Polish prince, angry at some act of negligence in a young man whom he had lately employed, gave him a box on the ear and called him by an insulting name.

"If you knew who I am, prince," said the indignant youth, "you would not strike me nor call me by such a name."

"Knew who you are! Why, who are you?"

"I am Dmitri, son of Ivan IV., and the rightful czar of Russia."

Surprised by this extraordinary statement, the prince questioned him, and was told a plausible story by the young man. He had escaped the murderer, he said, the boy who died being the son of a serf, who resembled and had been substituted for him by his physician Simon, who knew what Boris designed. The physician had fled with him from Uglitch and put him in the hands of a loyal gentleman, who for safety had consigned him to a monastery.

The physician and gentleman were both dead, but the young man showed the prince a Russian seal which bore Dmitri's arms and name, and a gold cross adorned with jewels of great value, given him, he said, by his princely godfather. He was about the age which Dmitri would have reached, and, as a Russian servant who had seen the child said, had warts and other marks like those of the true Dmitri. He possessed also a persuasiveness of manner which soon won over the Polish prince.

The pretender was accepted as an illustrious guest by Prince Wiszniowiecki, given clothes, horses, carriages, and suitable retinue, and presented to other Polish dignitaries. Dmitri, as he was thenceforth known, bore well the honors now showered upon him. He was at ease among the noblest; gracious, affable, but always dignified; and all said that he had the deportment of a prince.

He spoke Polish as well as Russian, was thoroughly versed in Russian history and genealogy, and was, moreover, an accomplished horseman, versed in field sports, and of striking vigor and agility, qualities highly esteemed by the Polish nobles.

The story of this event quickly reached Russia, and made its way with surprising rapidity through all the provinces. The czarevitch Dmitri had not been murdered, after all! He was alive in Poland, and was about to call the usurper to a terrible reckoning. The whole nation was astir with the story, and various accounts of his having been seen in Russia and of having played a brave part in the military expeditions of the Cossacks were set afloat.

Boris soon heard of this claimant of the throne. He also received the disturbing news that a monk was among the Cossacks of the Don urging them to take up arms for the czarevitch who would soon be among them. His first movement was the injudicious one of trying to bribe Wiszniowiecki to give up the impostor to him,—the result being to confirm the belief that he was in truth the prince he claimed to be.

The events that followed are too numerous to be given in detail, and it must suffice here to say that on October 31, 1604, Dmitri entered Russian territory at the head of a small Polish army, of less than five thousand in all. This was a trifling force with which to invade an empire, but it grew rapidly as he advanced. Town after town submitted on his appearance, bringing to him, bound and gagged, the governors set over them by Boris. Dmitri at once set them free and treated them with politic humanity.

The first town to offer resistance was Novgorod-Swerski, which Peter Basmanof, a general of Boris, had garrisoned with five hundred men. Basmanof was brave and obstinate, and for several weeks he held the force of Dmitri before this petty place, while Boris was making vigorous efforts to collect an army among his discontented people. On the last day of 1604 the two armies met, fifteen thousand against fifty thousand, and on a broad open plain that gave the weaker force no advantage of position.

But Dmitri made up for weakness by soldierly spirit. At the head of some six hundred mail-clad Polish knights he vigorously charged the Russian right wing, hurled it back upon the centre, and soon had the whole army in disorder. The soldiers flung down their arms and fled, shouting, "The czarevitch! the czarevitch!"

Yet in less than a month this important victory was followed by a defeat. Dmitri had been weakened by his Poles being called home. Boris gathered new forces, and on January 20, 1605, the armies met again, now seventy thousand Muscovites against less than quarter their number. Yet victory would have come to Dmitri again but for treachery in his army. He charged the enemy with the same fierceness as before, bore down all before him, routed the cavalry, tore a great gap in the line of the infantry, and would have swept the field had the main body of his army, consisting of eight thousand Zaporogues, come to his aid.

At this vital moment this great body of cavalry, half the entire army, wheeled and quit the field,—bribed, it is said, by Boris. Such a defection, at such a moment, was fatal. The Russians rallied; the day was lost; nothing but flight remained. Dmitri fled, hotly pursued, and his horse suffering from a wound. He was saved by his devoted Cossack infantry, four thousand in number, who stood to their guns and faced the whole Muscovite army. They were killed to a man, but Dmitri escaped,—favored, as we are told, by some of the opposing leaders, who did not want to make Boris too powerful.

All was not lost while Dmitri remained at liberty. Lost armies could be restored. He took refuge in Putivle, one of the towns which had pronounced in his favor, and while his enemies, who proved half-hearted in the cause of Boris, wasted their time in besieging a small fortress, new adherents flocked to his banner. Boris was furious against his generals, but his fury caused them to hate instead of to serve him. He tried to get rid of Dmitri by poison, but his agents were discovered and punished, and the attempt helped his rival more than a victory would have done.

Dmitri wrote to Boris, declaring that Heaven had protected him against this base attempt, and ironically promising to extend mercy towards him. "Descend from the throne you have usurped, and seek in the solitude of the cloister to reconcile yourself with Heaven. In that case I will forget your crimes, and even assure you of my sovereign protection."

All this was bitter to the Russian Macbeth. The princely blood which he had shed to gain the throne seemed to redden the air about him. The ghost of his slain victim haunted him. His power, indeed, seemed as great as ever. He was an autocrat still, the master of a splendid court, the ruler over a vast empire. Yet he knew that they who came with reverence and adulation into his presence hated him in their hearts, and anguish must have smitten the usurper to the soul.

His sudden death seemed to indicate this. On the 13th of April, 1605, after dining in state with some distinguished foreigners, illness suddenly seized him, blood burst from his mouth, nose, and ears, and within two hours he was dead. He had reigned six years,—nearly the full term predicted by the soothsayers.

The story of Dmitri is a long one still, but must be dealt with here with the greatest brevity. Feodor, the son of Boris, was proclaimed czar by the boyars of the court. The oath of allegiance was taken by the whole city; all seemed to favor him; yet within six weeks this boyish czar was deposed and executed without a sword being drawn in his defence.

Basmanof, the leading general of Boris, had turned to the cause of Dmitri, and the army seconded him. The people of Moscow declared in favor of the pretender, there were a few executions and banishments, and on the 20th of June the new czar entered Moscow in great pomp, amid the acclamations of an immense multitude, who thronged the streets, the windows, and the house-tops; and the young man who, less than two years before, had had his ears boxed by a Polish prince, was now proclaimed emperor and autocrat of the mighty Russian realm.

It was a short reign to which the false Dmitri—for there seems to be no doubt of the death of the true Dmitri—had come. Within less than a year Moscow was in rebellion, he was slain, and the throne was vacant. And this result was largely due to his generous and kindly spirit, largely to his trusting nature and disregard of Russian opinion.

No man could have been more unlike the tyrant Ivan, his reputed father. Dmitri proved kind and generous to all, even bestowing honors upon members of the family of Godunof. He remitted heavy taxes, punished unjust judges, paid the debts contracted by Ivan, passed laws in the interest of the serfs, and held himself ready to receive the petitions and redress the grievances of the humblest of his subjects. His knowledge of state affairs was remarkable for one of his age, and Russia had never had an abler, nobler-minded, and more kindly-hearted czar.

But Dmitri in discretion was still a boy, and made trouble where an older head would have mended it. He offended the boyars of his council by laughing at their ignorance.

"Go and travel," he said; "observe the ways of civilized nations, for you are no better than savages."

The advice was good, but not wise. He offended the Russian demand for decorum in a czar by riding through the streets on a furious stallion, like a Cossack of the Don. In religion he was lax, favoring secretly the Latin Church. He chose Poles instead of Russians for his secretaries. And he excited general disgust by the announcement that he was about to marry a Polish woman, heretical to the Russian faith. The people were still more incensed by the conduct of Marina, this foreign bride, both before and after the wedding, she giving continual offence by her insistence on Polish customs.

While thus offending the prejudices and superstitions of his people, Dmitri prepared for his downfall by his trustfulness and clemency. He dismissed the spies with whom former czars had surrounded themselves, and laid himself freely open to treachery. The result of his acts and his openness was a conspiracy, which was fortunately discovered. Shuiski, its leader, was condemned to be executed. Yet as he knelt with the axe lifted above him, he was respited and banished to Siberia; and on his way thither a courier overtook him, bearing a pardon for him and his banished brothers. His rank was restored, and he was again made a councillor of the empire.

Clemency like this was praiseworthy, but it proved fatal. Like Caesar before him, Dmitri was over-clement and over-confident, and with the same result. Yet his answer to those who urged him to punish the conspirator was a noble one, and his trustfulness worth far more than a security due to cruelty and suspicion.

"No," he said, "I have sworn not to shed Christian blood, and I will keep my oath. There are two ways of governing an empire,—tyranny and generosity. I choose the latter. I will not be a tyrant. I will not spare money; I will scatter it on all hands."

Only for the offence which he gave his people by disregarding their prejudices, Dmitri might have long and ably reigned. His confidence opened the way to a new conspiracy, of which Shuiski was again at the head. Reports were spread through the city that Dmitri was a heretic and an impostor, and that he had formed a plot to massacre the Muscovites by the aid of the Poles whom he had introduced into the city.

As a result of the insidious methods of the conspirators, the whole city broke out in rebellion, and at daybreak on the 29th of May, 1606, a body of boyars gathered in the great square in full armor, and, followed by a multitude of townsmen, advanced on the Kremlin, whose gates were thrown open by traitors within.

Dmitri, who had only fifty guards in the palace, was aroused by the din of bells and the uproar in the streets. An armed multitude filled the outer court, shouting, "Death to the impostor!"

Soon conspirators appeared in the palace, where the czar, snatching a sword from one of the guards, and attended by Basmanof, attacked them, crying out, "I am not a Boris for you!"

He killed several with his own hands, but Basmanof was slain before him, and he and the guards were driven back from chamber to chamber, until the guards, finding that the czar had disappeared, laid down their arms.

Dmitri, seeing that resistance was hopeless, had sought a distant room, and here had leaped or been thrown from a window to the ground. The height was thirty feet, his leg was broken by the fall, and he fainted with the pain.

His last hope of life was gone. Some faithful soldiers who found him sought to defend him against the mob who soon appeared, but their resistance was of no avail. Dmitri was seized, his royal garments were torn off, and the caftan of a pastry-cook was placed upon him. Thus dressed, he was carried into a room of the palace for the mockery of a trial.

"Bastard dog," cried one of the Russians, "tell us who you are and whence you came."

"You all know I am your czar," replied Dmitri, bravely, "the legitimate son of Ivan Vassilievitch. If you desire my death, give me time at least to collect my senses."

At this a Russian gentleman named Valnief shouted out,—

"What is the use of so much talk with the heretic dog? This is the way I confess this Polish fifer." And he put an end to the agony of Dmitri by shooting him through the breast.

In an instant the mob rushed on the lifeless body, slashing it with axes and swords. It was carried out, placed on a table, and a set of bagpipes set on the breast with the pipe in the mouth.

"You played on us long enough; now play for us," cried the ribald insulter.

Others lashed the corpse with their whips, crying, "Look at the czar, the hero of the Germans."

For three days Dmitri's body lay exposed to the view of the populace, but it was so hacked and mangled that none could recognize in it the gallant young man who a few days before had worn the imperial robes and crown.

On the third night a blue flame was seen playing over the table, and the guards, frightened by this natural result of putrefaction, hastened to bury the body outside the walls. But superstitious terrors followed the prodigy: it was whispered that Dmitri was a wizard who, by magic arts, had the power to come to life from the grave. To prevent this the body was dug up again and burned, and the ashes were collected, mixed with gunpowder, and rammed into a cannon, which was then dragged to the gate by which Dmitri had entered Moscow. Here the match was applied, and the ashes of the late czar were hurled down the road leading to Poland, whence he had come.

Thus died a man who, impostor though he seems to have been, was perhaps the noblest and best of all the Russian czars, while the story of his rise and fall forms the most dramatic tale in all the annals of the empire over which for one short year he ruled.


We have told how the ashes of Dmitri were loaded into a cannon and fired from the gate of Moscow. They fell like seeds of war on the soil of Russia, and for years that unhappy land was torn by faction and harried by invasion. From those ashes new Dmitris seemed to spring, other impostors rose to claim the crown, and until all these shades were laid peace fled from the land.

Vassili Shuiski, the leader in the insurrection against Dmitri, had himself proclaimed czar. He was destined to learn the truth of the saying, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." For hardly had the mob that murdered Dmitri dispersed before rumors arose that their victim was not dead. His body had been so mangled that none could recognize it, and the story was set afloat that it was one of his officers who had been killed, and that he had escaped. Four swift horses were missing from the stables of the palace, and these were at once connected with the assumed flight of the czar. Rumor was in the air, and even in Moscow doubts of Dmitri's death grew rife.

Fuel soon fell on the flame. Three strangers in Russian dress, but speaking the language of Poland, crossed the Oka River, and gave the ferryman the high fee of six ducats, saying, "You have ferried the czar; when he comes back to Moscow with a Polish army he will not forget your service."

At a German inn, a little farther on, the same party used similar language. This story spread like wildfire through Russia, and deeply alarmed the new czar. To put it down he sought to play on the religious feelings of the Russians, by making a saint of the original Dmitri. A body was produced, said to have been taken from the grave of the slain boy at Uglitch, but in a remarkable state of preservation, since it still displayed the fresh hue of life and held in its hand some strangely preserved nuts. Tales of miracles performed by the relics of the new saint were also spread, but with little avail, for the people were not very ready to believe the man who had stolen the throne.

War broke out despite these manufactured miracles. Prince Shakhofskoi—the supposed leader of the party who had told the story at the Oka—was soon in the field with an army of Cossacks and peasants, and defeated the royal army. But the new Dmitri, in whose name he fought, did not appear. It seemed as if Shakhofskoi had not yet been able to find a suitable person to play the part.

Russia, however, was not long without a pretender. During Dmitri's reign a young man had appeared among the Cossacks of the Volga, calling himself Peter Feodorovitch, and claiming to be the son of the former czar Feodor. This man now reappeared and presented himself to the rebel army as the representative of his uncle Dmitri. He was eagerly welcomed by Shakhofskoi, who badly needed some one whom he might offer to his men as a prince.

And now we have to describe one of the strangest sieges in the annals of history. Shakhofskoi, finding himself threatened by a powerful army, took refuge in the fortified town of Toula. Here he was soon joined by Bolotnikof, a Polish general who had come to Russia with a commission bearing the imperial seal of Dmitri. In this stronghold they were besieged by an army of one hundred thousand men, led by the czar himself.

Toula was strong. It was vigorously defended, the garrison fighting bravely for their lives. No progress was made with the siege, and Shuiski grew disconsolate, for he knew that to fail now would be ruin.

From this state of anxiety he was relieved by a remarkable proposal, that of an obscure individual who promised to drown all the people of Toula and deliver the town into his hands. This extraordinary offer, made by a monk named Kravkof, was at first received with incredulous laughter, and it was some time before the czar and his council could be brought to listen to the words of an idle braggart, as they deemed the stranger. In the end the czar asked him to explain his plan.

It proved to be the following. Toula lay in a narrow valley, down whose centre flowed the little river Oupa, passing through the town. Kravkof suggested that they should dam this stream below the town. "Do as I say," he remarked, "and if the whole town is not under water in a few hours, I will answer for the failure with my head."

The project thus presented seemed feasible. Immediately all the millers in the army, men used to the kind of work required, were put under his orders, and the other soldiers were set to carrying sacks of earth to the place chosen for the dam. As this rose in height, the water backed up in the town. Soon many of the streets became canals, hundreds of houses, undermined by the water, were destroyed, and the promise of Kravkof seemed likely to be fulfilled.

Yet the garrison, confined in what had become a walled-in lake, fought with desperate obstinacy. Water surrounded them, yet they waded to the walls and fought. Famine decimated them, yet they starved and fought. A terrible epidemic broke out in the water-soaked city, but the garrison fought on. Dreadful as were their surroundings, they held out with unflinching courage and intrepidity.

The dam was the centre of the struggle. The besiegers sought to raise it still higher and deepen the water in the streets; the besieged did their best to break it down and relieve the city. It had grown to a great height with such rapidity that the superstitious people of Toula felt sure that magic had aided in its building and fancied that it might be destroyed by magic means. A monk declared that Shuiski had brought devils to his aid, but professed to be a proficient in the black art, and offered, for a hundred roubles, to fight the demons in their own element.

Bolotnikof accepted his terms, and he stripped, plunged into the river, and disappeared. For a full hour nothing was seen of him, and every one gave him up for lost. But at the end of that time he rose to the surface of the water, his body covered with scratches. The story he had to tell was, to say the least, remarkable.

"I have had a frightful conflict," he said, "with the twelve thousand devils Shuiski has at work upon his dam. I have settled six thousand of them, but the other six thousand are the worst of all, and will not give in."

Thus against men and devils alike, against water, famine, and pestilence, fought the brave men of Toula, holding out with extraordinary courage. Letters came to them in Dmitri's name, promising help, but it never came. At length, after months of this brave defence had elapsed, Shakhofskoi proposed that they should capitulate. The Cossacks of the garrison, furious at the suggestion, seized and thrust him into a dungeon. Not until every scrap of food had been eaten, horses and dogs devoured, even leather gnawed as food, did Bolotnikof and Peter the pretender offer to yield, and then only on condition that the soldiers should receive honorable treatment. If not, they would die with arms in their hands, and devour one another as food, rather than surrender. As for themselves, they asked for no pledges of safety.

Shuiski accepted the terms, and the gates were opened. Bolotnikof advanced boldly to the czar and offered himself as a victim, presenting his sword with the edge laid against his neck.

"I have kept the oath I swore to him who, rightly or wrongly, calls himself Dmitri," he said. "Deserted by him, I am in your power. Cut off my head if you will; or, if you will spare my life, I will serve you as I have served him."

This appeal was wasted on Shuiski. He forgot the clemency which the czar Dmitri had formerly shown to him, sent Bolotnikof to Kargopol, and soon after ordered him to be drowned. Peter the pretender was hanged on the spot. Shakhofskoi alone was spared. They found him in chains, which he said had been placed on him because he counselled the obstinate rebels to submit. Shuiski set him free, and the first use he made of his liberty was to kindle the rebellion again.

Thus ended this remarkable siege, one in some respects without parallel in the history of war. What followed must be briefly told. Though the siege of Toula ended with the hanging of one pretender to the throne, another was already in the field. The new Dmitri, in whose name the war was waged, had made his appearance during the siege. Some of the officers of the first Dmitri pretended to recognize him, but in reality he was a coarse, vulgar, ignorant knave, who had badly learned his lesson, and lacked all the native princeliness of his predecessor.

Yet he had soon a large army at his back, and with it, on April 24, 1608, he defeated the army of the czar with great slaughter. He might easily have taken Moscow, but instead of advancing on it he halted at the village of Tushino, twelve versts away, where he held his court for seventeen months.

Meanwhile still another pretender appeared, who called himself Feodor, son of the czar Feodor. He presented himself to the Don Cossacks, who brought him in chains to Dmitri, by whom he was promptly put to death. Soon afterwards Marina, wife of the first Dmitri, who had been released, with her father, by Shuiski, was brought into the camp of the pretender. And here an interesting bit of comedy was played. Marina, rather than go back to meet ridicule in Poland, was ready to become the wife of this vulgar impostor, though she saw at once that he was not the man he claimed to be.

She met him coldly at first, but at a second meeting she greeted him with a great show of tenderness before the whole army, being glad, it would appear, to regain her old position on any terms. The news that Marina had recognized the pretender brought over numbers to his side, and soon nearly all Russia had declared for him, the only cities holding out being Moscow, Novgorod, and Smolensk.

The false Dmitri had now reached the summit of his fortunes. A rapid decline followed. One of his generals, who laid siege to the monastery of the Trinity, near Moscow, was repulsed. His partisans were defeated in other quarters. Soon the whole aspect of the war changed. A new enemy to Russia came into the field, Sigismund, King of Poland, who laid siege to the strong city of Smolensk, while the army of the czar, which marched to its relief, suffered an annihilating defeat.

This result closed the reign of Shuiski. An insurrection broke out in Moscow, he was forced to become a monk, and in the end was delivered to Sigismund and died in prison. Thus was Dmitri avenged. The new condition of affairs proved as disastrous to the false Dmitri. His Poles deserted him, his power vanished, and he descended to the level of a mere Cossack robber. In December, 1610, murder ended his career.

Smolensk fell after a siege of eighteen months, but at the last moment a powder magazine exploded and set fire to the city, and Sigismund became master only of a heap of ruins. The Poles in Moscow, attacked by the Russians, took possession of the Kremlin, burned down most of the city, and massacred a hundred thousand of the people. Anarchy was rampant everywhere. New chiefs appeared in all quarters. Each town declared for itself. The Swedes took possession of Novgorod. A third Dmitri appeared, and dwelt in state for a while, but was soon taken and hanged. The whole great empire was in a state of frightful confusion, and seemed as if it was about to fall to pieces.

From this fate it was saved by one of the common people, a butcher of Nijni Novgorod, Kozma Minin by name. Brave, honest, patriotic, and sensible, this man aroused his fellow-citizens, who took up arms for the deliverance of their country. Other towns followed this example, an army was raised with Prince Pojarski at its head, and Minin, the patriotic butcher, seconded him in an administrative capacity, being hailed by the people as "the elect of the whole Russian empire."

Driving the Poles before him, Pojarski entered Moscow, and in October, 1612, became master of the Kremlin. The impostors all disappeared; Marina and her three-year-old son Ivan were captured, the child to be hanged and she to end her eventful life in prison; anarchy vanished, and peace returned to the realm.

The end came in 1613, when a national council was convened to choose a new czar. Pojarski refused the crown, and Michael Romanof, a boy of sixteen, scion of one of the noblest families of Russia, and allied to the Ruriks by the female line, was elected czar. His descendants still hold the throne.


The noble families of Russia, for the most part descendants of the Scandinavian adventurers who had come in with Rurik, were as proud in their way as the descendants of the vikings who came to England under William of Normandy. Their books of pedigree were kept with the most scrupulous care, and in these were set down not only the genealogies of the families, but every office that had been held by any ancestor, at court, in the army, or in the administration.

With this there is no special fault to be found. It is as well, doubtless, to keep the pedigrees of men as it is to keep those of horses and dogs; though the animals, being ignorant of their records, are less likely to make them a matter of pride and presumption. In Russia the fact that certain men knew the names and standing of their ancestors led to the most absurd consequences. The books of ancestry were constantly appealed to for the support of foolish pretensions, and the nobles of Russia strutted like so many peacocks in their insensate pride of family.

In no other country has the question of precedence been carried to such ridiculous lengths as it was in Russia in the days of the early Romanofs. If a nobleman were appointed to a post at court or a position in the army, he at once examined the books of ancestry to learn if the officials under whom he would serve had fewer ancestors on record than he. If such proved to be the case the office was refused, or accepted under protest, the government being, metaphorically, forced to fall on its knees to the haughtiness of its offended lordling.

The folly of the nobles went even farther than this. The height of their genealogy counted for as much as its length. They would refuse to accept positions under persons whose ancestors were shown by the books to have been subordinate to theirs in the same positions. If it appeared that the John of five centuries before had been under the Peter of that period, the modern Peter was too proud to accept a similar position under the modern John. And so it went, until court life became a constant scene of bickering and discontent, and of murmurs at the most trifling slights and neglects. In short, it became necessary that an office of genealogy should be established at court, in which exact copies of the family trees and service registers of the noble families were kept, and the officers here employed found enough to keep them busy in settling the endless disputes of their lordly clients.

In the reign of Theodore, the third czar of the Romanof dynasty, this ridiculous sentiment reached its climax, and it became almost impossible to appoint a wise man to office over a fool, if the fool's ancestors had happened to hold the same office over those of the man of wisdom. The fancy seemed to be held that folly and wisdom are handed down from father to son, a conceit which is often the very reverse of the truth.

Theodore was a feeble youth, who reigned little more than five years, yet in that time he managed to bury this folly out of sight. Annoyed by the constant bickerings of courtiers and officials, he consulted with his able minister, Prince Vassili Galitzin, and hit on a means of ridding himself of the difficulty.

Proclamation was made that all the noble families of the kingdom should deliver their service rolls into court by a fixed date, that they might be cleared of certain errors which had unavoidably crept into them. The order was obeyed, and a multitude of these precious documents were brought into the palace halls of the czar. The heads of the noble families and the higher clergy were now sent for, composing a proud assembly, before whom the patriarch, who had received his instructions, made an eloquent address. He ended by speaking of the claims to precedence in the following words:

"They are a bitter source of every kind of evil; they render abortive the most useful enterprises, in like manner as the tares stifle the good grain; they have introduced, even into the hearts of families, dissension, confusion, and hatred. But the pontiff comprehends the grand design of his czar; God alone could have inspired it!"

Though utterly ignorant of what that design was, the grandees felt compelled to express a warm approval of these words. At this Theodore, who pretended to be enraptured by their unanimous applause, suddenly rose, and, simulating a burst of patriotic enthusiasm, proclaimed the abolition of all their hereditary claims.

"That the very recollection of them may be forever extinguished," he exclaimed, "let all the papers relative to these titles be instantly consumed."

The fire was already prepared, and by his orders the precious papers were hurled into the flames before the anguished eyes of the nobles, who did not dare in that despotic court to express their true feelings, and strove to hide their dismay under hollow acclamations of assent.

As what they deemed their most valuable possessions were thus converted to ashes before their eyes, the patriarch again rose, and declared an anathema against any one who should dare to oppose this order of the czar. An "Amen" that was like a groan came from the lips of the horrified nobles, and precedence went up in flames.

The czar had no thought of effacing the noble families. New books were prepared, in which their ancestry was described. But the absurd claims which had caused such discord were forever abolished, and court life thereafter proved smoother and easier in consequence of the iconoclastic act of the czar Theodore.


Peter the Great, grandson of the first emperor of the Romanof line, was a man of such extraordinary power of body and mind, such a remarkable combination of common sense, mental activity, advanced ideas, and determination to lift Russia to a high place among the nations, with cruelty, grossness, and infirmities of vice and passion, that his reign of forty-three years fills as large a place in Russian history as do the annals of all the preceding centuries, and the progress of Russia during this short period was greater than in any other epoch of three or four times its length.

The character of the man showed in the boy, and while a mere child he began those steps of progress which were continued throughout his life. He had two brothers, both older than he, and sons of a different mother, so that the throne seemed far from his grasp. But Theodore, the oldest of the three, died after a brief reign, leaving no heirs to the throne. Ivan, the second son, was an imbecile, nearly blind, and subject to epileptic fits. The clergy and grandees, in consequence, looked upon Peter as the most promising successor to the throne. But he was still only a child, not yet ten years of age.

The czar Alexis had left also several daughters; but in those days the fate of princesses of the blood was a harsh one. They were not permitted to marry, and were consigned to convents, where they knew nothing of what was passing in the busy world without. One of the daughters, Sophia by name, had escaped from this fate. At her earnest request she was taken from the convent and permitted to nurse her sickly brother Theodore.

She was a woman of high intelligence, bold and ambitious by nature, and during her residence in court learned much of the politics of the empire and took some part in its government. After the death of Theodore she contrived to have herself named regent for her two brothers, Ivan being plainly unfit to rule, and Peter too young.

There are many stories told about her, of which probably the half are not true. It is said that she kept her young brother at a distance from Moscow, where she surrounded him with ministers of evil, whose business it was to encourage him in riot and dissipation, to the end that he might become a moral monster, odious and insupportable to the nation at large. Such a course had been pursued with Ivan the Terrible, and to it was largely due his incredible iniquity.

If Sophia had really any such purpose in view, she was playing with edge-tools. She quite mistook the character of her young brother, and forgot that the same rule may work differently in different cases. The steps taken to make the boy base, if really so intended, aided to make him great. His morals were corrupted, his health was impaired, and his heart hardened by the excesses of his youth, but his removal from the palace atmosphere of flattery and effeminacy tended to make him self-reliant, while his free life in the country and the activity which it encouraged helped to develop the native energy of his character.

It is probable that Sophia had no such intention to corrupt the nature of the child, for she showed no ill will against him. It was apparently to his mother, rather than to his sister, that his residence in the country was due, and he was obliged to go frequently to Moscow, to take part in ceremonial affairs, while his name was used in all public documents, many of which he was required to sign.

From early life the boy had shown himself active, intelligent, quick to learn, and full of curiosity. He was particularly interested in military affairs, and playing at soldiers was one of the leading diversions of his youth. Only a day or two after a great riot in Moscow, in which numbers of nobles were slaughtered, and in which the child had looked unmoved into the savage faces of the rioters, he sent to the arsenal for drums, banners, and arms. Uniforms and wooden cannon were supplied him, and on his eleventh birthday—in 1683—he was allowed to have some real guns, with which he fired salutes.

From his country home at Preobrajensk messengers came almost daily to Moscow for powder, lead, and shot; small brass and iron cannon were supplied the boy, and drummer-boys, selected from the different regiments, were sent to him. Thus he was allowed to play at soldier to his heart's content.

A company was formed from the younger domestics of the place, fifty in number, the officers being sons of the boyars or lords. But these were required by the alert boy to pass through all the grades of the service, which he also did himself, serving successively as private, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain, and finally as colonel of the regiment which grew from this youthful company. Peter called his company "the guards," but it was known in Moscow as the "pleasure company," or "troops for sport." In time, however, it grew into the Preobrajensky Guards, a celebrated regiment which is still kept up as the first regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard, and of which the emperor is always the colonel. Another company, formed on the same plan in an adjoining village, became the Semenofsky Regiment. From these rudiments grew the present Russian army.

These military exercises soon ceased to be child's play to the active lad. He gave himself no rest from his prescribed duties, stood his watch in turn, shared in the labors of the camp, slept in the tents of his comrades, and partook of their fare. He used to lead his company on long marches, during which the strictest discipline was maintained, and the camps at night were guarded as in an enemy's country.

On reaching his thirteenth year the boy took further steps in his military education, building a small fortress, whose remains are still preserved. This was constructed with great care, and took nearly a year to build. At the suggestion of a German officer it was named Pressburg, the name being given with much ceremony, Peter leading from Moscow a procession of most of the court officials and nobles to take part in the performance.

These military sports were not enough for the active mind of the boy, who kept himself busy at a dozen labors. He used to hammer and forge in the blacksmith's shop, became an expert with the lathe, and learned the art of printing and binding books. He built himself a wheelbarrow and other articles which he needed, and at a later date it was said that he "knew excellently well fourteen trades."

When in Moscow, Peter spent much of his time in the foreign quarter, joining his associates there in the beer, wine, and tobacco of which they were specially fond, and questioning them about a thousand subjects unknown to the Russians, thus acquiring a wide knowledge of men and affairs. He troubled himself little about rank or position, making a companion of any one, high or low, from whom anything could be learned, while any mechanical curiosity particularly attracted him.

A sextant and astrolabe were brought him from France, of whose use no one could inform him, though he asked all whom he met. At length a Dutch merchant, Franz Timmermann by name, was brought him, who measured with the instrument the distance to a neighboring house.

Peter was delighted, and eagerly asked to be taught how to use the instrument himself.

"It is not so easy," replied Timmermann; "you must first learn arithmetic and geometry."

Here was a new incentive. The boy at once set to work, spending all his leisure time, day and night, over these studies, to which he afterwards added geography and fortification. It was in this desultory way that his education was gained, no regular course of training being prescribed, and his strong self-will breaking through all family discipline.

We may end here what we have to say about the boy's military activity. His army gradually grew until it numbered five thousand men, mainly foreigners, who were commanded by General Gordon, a Scotch officer. Lefort, a Swiss, who had become one of Peter's favorite companions, now undertook to raise an army of twelve thousand men. He succeeded in this, and unexpectedly found himself made general of this force.

It is, however, of the boy's activity in naval affairs that we must now speak. Timmermann had become one of his constant companions, and was always teaching him something new. One day in 1688, when Peter was sixteen years old, he was wandering about one of the country estates of the throne, near the village of Ismailovo. An old building in the flax-yard attracted his attention, and he asked one of the servants what it was.

"It is a storehouse," the man said, "in which was put all the rubbish that was left after the death of Nikita Romanof, who used to live here."

Peter at once, curious to see this "rubbish," had the doors opened, went in, and looked about. In one corner, bottom upward, lay a boat, very different in build from the flat-bottomed, square-sterned boats which were in use on the Russian rivers.

"What is that?" he asked.

"It is an English boat," said Timmermann.

"But what is it good for? Is it better than our boats?" demanded Peter.

"Yes. If you had sails for it, you would find that it would not only go with the wind, but against the wind."

"Against the wind! Is that possible? How can it be possible?"

With his usual impatience, the boy wanted to try it at once. But the boat proved to be too rotten for use. It would need to be repaired and tarred, and a mast and sails would have to be made.

Where could these be had? Who could make them? Timmermann was able to tell him. Some thirty years before, a number of Dutch ship-carpenters had been brought from Holland and had built some vessels on the Volga River for the czar Alexis. These had been burned by a brigand, and Brandt, the builder, had returned to Moscow, where he still worked as a joiner. In those days it was easier to get into Russia than to get out again, foreigners who entered the land being held there as virtual prisoners. Even General Gordon tried in vain to get back to his native land.

Old Brandt was found, looked over the boat, put it in order, and launched it on a neighboring stream. To Peter's surprise and delight, he saw the boat moving under sail up and down the river, turning to right and left in obedience to the helm. Greatly excited, he called on Brandt to stop, jumped in, and, under the old man's directions, began to manage the boat himself.

But the river was too narrow and the water too shallow for easy sailing, and the energetic boy had the boat dragged overland to a large pond, where it went better, but still not to his satisfaction. Where was a better body of water? He was told that there was a large lake about fifty miles away, but that it would be easier to build a new boat than to drag the English boat that distance.

"Can you do that?" asked the eager boy.

"Yes, sire," said Brandt, "but I will need many things."

"Oh, that does not matter at all," said Peter. "We can have anything."

No time was lost. Brandt, with one of his old comrades and Timmermann, went to work at once in the woods bordering the lake, Peter working with them when he could get away from Moscow, where he was frequently needed. It took time. Timber had to be prepared, a hut built to live in, and a dock to launch the boats, which were built on a larger scale than the small English craft. Thus it was not until the following spring that the new boats were ready to launch.

Peter meanwhile had been married. But the charms of his wife could not keep him from his beloved boats. Back he went, aided in completing and launching the new craft, and took such delight in sailing them about the lake that he could hardly be induced to return to Moscow for important duties.

In this humble way began the Russian navy, which had grown to large proportions before Peter died. The little English boat, which some think was one sent by Queen Elizabeth to Ivan the Terrible, has ever since Peter's time been known as the "Grand-sire of the Russian navy." It is kept with the greatest care in a small brick building within the fortress at St. Petersburg, and was one of the principal objects of interest in the great parade in that city in 1870 on the two hundredth anniversary of Peter's birth.

It will suffice to say, in conclusion, that shortly after these events Peter became the reigning czar, and turned from sport to earnest. Sophia had enjoyed so long the pleasure of ruling that her ambition grew with its exercise, and she sought to retain her position as long as possible. It is even said that she laid a plot to assassinate Peter, so that only the feeble Ivan should be left. The boy, told that assassins were seeking him, fled for his life. His fright seems to have been groundless, but it made him an undying enemy of his sister. The affair ended in the bulk of the nobility and soldiery turning to his side and in Sophia being obliged to leave the throne for a convent, where she spent the remainder of her life in the misery of strict seclusion.


On the banks of the river Zaan, about five miles from Amsterdam, lies the picturesque little town of Zaandam, with its cottages of blue, green, and pink, half hidden among the trees, while a multitude of windmills surround the town like so many monuments to thrift and enterprise. Here, two centuries ago, ship-building was conducted on a great scale, the timber being sawed by windmill power, while the workmen were so numerous that a vessel was often on the sea in five weeks after the keel had been laid.

To this place, in August, 1697, came a workman of foreign birth, who found humble quarters in a small frame hut and entered himself as a ship-carpenter at the wharf of Lynst Rogge. There was nothing specially noticeable about the stranger, who wore a workman's dress and a tarpaulin hat. But with him were some comrades dressed in the strange garb of Russia, who attracted the attention of the people.

As for the new workman, he did not long escape curious looks. The rumor had got about that no less a personage than the Czar of Russia was in the town, and it began to be suspected that this unobtrusive stranger might be the man, so that it was not long before inquisitive eyes began to follow him wherever he went. The rumor soon brought large crowds from Amsterdam, whose presence made the streets of the small Dutch town anything but comfortable.

It was well known that Peter I., Czar of Russia, was travelling through the nations of the West. A large embassy, composed of several hundred people, some of them the highest officials of the court, had left the Muscovite kingdom, and visited the several courts and large cities on their route, being everywhere received with the greatest distinction. But the czar did not appear openly among them. He was there in disguise, but had given strict orders that his presence should not be revealed. He hated crowds, hated adulation, and wished only to be let alone to see and learn all he could. So while the ambassadors were receiving the highest honors of kingdoms and courts and bowing and parading to their hearts' content, the czar kept himself in the background as an amused spectator, thought by most observers to be one of the servants of the gorgeous train.

And thus he reached Zaandam, which he had been told was the best place to learn how ships were built. Here he saw fishing in the river one of his old acquaintances of the foreign quarter of Moscow, a smith named Gerrit Kist. Calling him from his rod, and binding him to secrecy, he told him why he had come to Holland, and insisted on taking up quarters in his house. This house, a small frame hut, is now preserved as a sacred object, enclosed within a brick building, and has long been a place of pilgrimage even for royal travellers. Emperors and kings have bent their lofty heads to enter its low door.

Yet Peter lived in Zaandam only a week, and during that week did little work at ship-building, spending much of his time in rowing about among the shipping, and visiting most of the factories and mills, at one of which he made a sheet of paper with his own royal hands.

One day the disguised emperor met with an adventure. He had bought a hatful of plums, and was eating them in the most plebeian fashion as he walked along the street, when he met a crowd of boys. He shared his fruit with some of these, but those to whom he refused to give plums began to follow him with boyish reviling, and when he laughed at them they took to pelting him with mud and stones. Here was a situation for an emperor away from home. The Czar of all the Russias had to take to his heels and run for refuge to the Three Swans Inn, where he sent for the burgomaster of the town, told who he was, and demanded aid and relief. At least we may suppose so, for an edict was soon issued threatening punishment to all who should insult "distinguished persons who wished to remain unknown."

The end of Peter's stay soon came. A man in Zaandam had received a letter from his son in Moscow, saying that the czar was with the great Russian embassy, and describing him so closely that he could no longer remain unknown. This letter was seen by Pomp, the barber of Zaandam, and when Peter came into his place with his Russian comrades he at once knew him from the description and spread the news.

From that time the czar had no rest. Wherever he went he was followed by crowds of curious people. They grew so annoying that at length he leaped in anger from his boat and gave one of the most forward of his persecutors a sharp cuff on the cheek.

"Bravo, Marsje!" cried the crowd in delight: "you are made a knight."

The czar rushed angrily to an inn, where he shut himself up out of sight. The next day a large ship was to be moved across the dike by means of capstans and rollers, a difficult operation, in which Peter took deep interest. A place was reserved for him to see it, but the crowd became so great as to drive back the guards, break down the railings, and half fill the reserved space. Peter, seeing this, refused to leave his house. The burgomaster and other high officials begged him to come, but the most he could be got to do was to thrust his head out of the door and observe the situation.

"Te veel volks, te veel volks" ("too many people"), he bluntly cried, and refused to budge.

The next day was Sunday, and all Amsterdam seemed to have come to Zaandam to see its distinguished guest. He escaped them by fleeing to Amsterdam. Getting to a yacht he had bought, and to which he had fitted a bowsprit with his own hands, he put to sea, giving no heed to warnings of danger from the furious wind that was blowing. Three hours after he reached Amsterdam, where his ambassadors then were, and where they were to have a formal reception the next day.

Receptions were well enough for ambassadors, but they were idle flummery to the czar, who had come to see, not to be seen, and who did his best to keep out of sight. He visited the fine town hall, inspected the docks, saw a comedy and a ballet, consented to sit through a great dinner, witnessed a splendid display of fireworks, and, most interesting to him of all, was entertained with a great naval sham fight, which lasted a whole day.

Zaandam has the credit of having been the scene of Peter the Great's labor as a shipwright, but it was really at Amsterdam that his life as a workman was passed. At his request he was given the privilege of working at the docks of the East India Company, a house being assigned him within the enclosure where he could dwell undisturbed, free from the curiosity of crowds. As a mark of respect it was determined to begin the construction of a new frigate, one hundred feet long, so that the distinguished workman might see the whole process of the building of a ship. With his usual impetuosity Peter wished to begin work immediately, and could hardly be induced to wait for the fireworks to burn themselves out. Then he set out for Zaandam on his yacht to fetch his tools, and the next day, August 30, presented himself as a workman at the East India Company's wharf.

For more than four months, with occasional breaks, Peter worked diligently as a ship-carpenter, ten of his Russian companions—probably much against their will—working at the wharf with him. He was known simply as Baas Peter (Carpenter Peter), and, while sitting on a log at rest, with his hatchet between his knees, was willing to talk with any one who addressed him by this name, but had no answer for those who called him Sire or Your Majesty. Others of the Russians were put to work elsewhere, to study the construction of masts, blocks, sails, etc., some of them were entered as sailors before the mast, and Prince Alexander of Imeritia went to the Hague to study artillery. None of them was allowed "to take his ease at his inn."

Peter insisted on being treated as a common workman, and would not permit any difference to be made between him and his fellow-laborers. He also demanded the usual wages for his work. On one occasion, when the Earl of Portland and another nobleman came to the yard to have a sight of him, the overseer, to indicate him, called out, "Carpenter Peter of Zaandam, why don't you help your comrades?" Without a word, Peter put his shoulders under a log which several men were carrying, and helped to lift it to its place.

His evenings were spent in studying the theory of ship-building, and his spare hours were fully occupied in observation. He visited everything worth seeing, factories, museums, cabinets of coins, theatres, hospitals, etc., constantly making shrewd remarks and inquiries, and soon becoming known from his quick questions, "What is that for? How does that work? That will I see."

He went to Zaandam to see the Greenland whaling fleet, visited the celebrated botanical garden with the great Boerhaave, studied the microscope at Delft under Leuwenhoek, became intimate with the military engineer Coehorn, talked with Schynvoet of architecture, and learned to etch from Schonebeck. An impression of a plate made by him, of Christianity victorious over Islam, is still extant.

He made himself familiar with Dutch home life, mingled with the merchants engaged in the Russian trade, went to the Botermarkt every market-day, and took lessons from a travelling dentist, experimenting on his own servants and suite, probably not much to their enjoyment. He mended his own clothes, learned enough of cobbling to make himself a pair of slippers, and, in short, was insatiable in his search for information of every available kind.

His work on the frigate whose keel he had helped to lay was continued until it was launched. It was well built, and for many years proved a good and useful ship, braving the perils of the seas in the East India trade. But with all this the imperial carpenter was not satisfied. The Dutch methods did not please him. The ship-masters seemed to work without rules other than the "rule of thumb," having no theory of ship-building from which the best proportions of a vessel could be deduced.

Learning that things were ordered differently in English ship-yards, that there work was done by rule and precept, Peter sent an order to the Russian docks not to allow the Dutch shipwrights to work as they pleased, but to put them under Danish or English overseers. For himself, he resolved to go to England and follow up his studies there. King William had sent him a warm invitation and presented him a splendid yacht, light, beautifully proportioned, and armed with twenty brass cannon. Delighted with the present, he sailed in it to England, escorted by an English fleet, and in London found an abiding-place in a house which a few years before had been the refuge of William Penn when charged with treason. Here he slept in a small room with four or five companions, and when the King of England came to visit him, received his fellow-monarch in his shirt-sleeves. The air of the room was so bad that, though the weather was very cold, William insisted on a window being raised.

In England the czar, though managing to see much outside the ship-yards, worked steadily at Deptford for several months, leaving only when he had gained all the special knowledge which he could obtain. His admiration for the English ship-builders was high, he afterwards saying that but for his journey to England he would have always remained a bungler. While here he engaged many men to take service in Russia, shipwrights, engineers, and others; he also engaged numerous officers for his navy from Holland, several French surgeons, and various persons of other nationality, the whole numbering from six to eight hundred skilled artisans and professional experts. To raise money for their advance payment he sold the monopoly of the Russian tobacco trade for twenty thousand pounds. Sixty years before, his grandfather Michael had forbidden the use of tobacco in Russia under pain of death, and the prejudice against it was still strong. But in spite of this the use of tobacco was rapidly spreading, and Peter thus threw down the bars.

Great numbers of anecdotes are afloat about Peter's doings in Holland and England,—many of them, doubtless, invented. The sight of a great monarch going about in workman's clothes and laboring like a common ship-carpenter was apt to aid the imagination of story-tellers and give rise to numerous tales with little fact to sustain them.

In May, 1698, Peter left England and proceeded to Amsterdam, where his embassy had remained, often in great distress about him, for the winter was cold and stormy and at one time no news was received from him for a month. From Amsterdam he made his way to Vienna, whence he proposed to go to Venice and Rome, but was prevented by disturbing news from Moscow, which turned his steps homeward. Here he was to show a new phase of his varied character, as will be seen in the following tale.


History presents us with four instances of an imperial soldiery who took the power into their own hands and for a time ruled as the tyrants of a nation. These were the Pretorian Guards of Rome, the Mamelukes of Egypt, the Janissaries of Turkey, and the Strelitz of Russia. Of these, the Pretorian Guards remained pre-eminent, and made emperors at their will. The other three came to a terrible end. History elsewhere records the tragic fate of the Mamelukes and the Janissaries: we are here concerned only with that of the Strelitz corps of Russia.

The Strelitz were the first regular military force of Russia, a permanent militia of fusileers, formed during the early reign of Ivan the Terrible, and themselves in time becoming a terror to the nation. The first serious outbreak of this dangerous civic guard was on the nomination of Peter I. to the throne of the czar. They did not dream then of the terrible revenge which this despised boy would take upon them.

Two days after the funeral of the czar Theodore the insurrection began, the Strelitz marching in an armed body to the Kremlin, where they accused nine of their colonels of defrauding them of their pay. The frightened ministers hastened to dismiss these officers, but this did not satisfy the savage soldiery, who insisted on their being delivered into their hands. This done, the unfortunate officers were sentenced to be scourged, some of them by that fearful Russian whip called the knout.

Their success in this outbreak led the Strelitz to greater outrages. The tiger in their savage natures was let loose, and only blood could appease its rage. Marching to the Kremlin, they declared that the late czar had been poisoned by his doctor, and demanded the death of all those in the plot. Breaking into the palace, they seized two of the suspected princes and flung them from the windows, to be received upon the pikes of the soldiers in the street below. The next victim was one of the Narishkins, the uncles of Peter the Great. He was massacred in the same brutal manner and his bleeding body dragged through the streets. Three of the proscribed nobles had fled for sanctuary to a church, but were torn from the altar, stripped of their clothing, and cut to pieces with knives.

The next victim was a friend and favorite of the Strelitz, who was killed under the belief that he was one of the Narishkins. Discovering their error, the assassins carried the mangled body of the young nobleman to the house of his father for interment. The old man, timid by nature, did not dare to complain of the savage act, and even rewarded them for bringing him the body of his son. For this weakness he was bitterly reproached by his wife and daughters and the weeping wife of the victim.

"What could I do?" pleaded the helpless father; "let us wait for an opportunity to be revenged."

A revengeful servant overheard these words and repeated them to the soldiers. In a sudden fury the savages returned, dragged the old man from the room by the hair of his head, and cut his throat at his own door.

Meanwhile some of the Strelitz, seeking the Dutch physician Vongad, who had attended the dying czar and was accused of poisoning him, met his son and asked where his father was. "I do not know," replied the trembling youth. His ignorance was instantly punished with death.

In a few minutes a German physician fell in their way. "You are a doctor," they cried. "If you have not poisoned our master Theodore, you have poisoned others. You deserve death." And in a moment the unlucky doctor fell a victim to their blind rage.

The Dutch physician was at length discovered and dragged to the palace. Here the princesses begged hard for his life, declaring that he was a skilful doctor and a good man and had worked hard to save their brother's life. They answered that he deserved to die as a sorcerer as well as a physician, for they had found the skeleton of a toad and the skin of a snake in his cabinet.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse