The next victim demanded was Ivan Narishkin, who they were sure was somewhere concealed in the palace. Not finding him, they threatened to burn down the building unless he were delivered into their hands. At this terrifying threat the young man was taken from his place of concealment and brought to them by the patriarch, who held in his hands an image of the Virgin Mary which was said to have performed miracles. The princesses surrounded the victim, and, kneeling to the soldiers, prayed with tears for his life.
All their supplications and the demands of the venerable patriarch were without effect on the savage soldiery, who dragged their captives to the bottom of the stairway, went through the forms of a mock trial, and condemned them to the torture. They were sentenced to be cut to pieces, a form of punishment to which parricides are condemned in China and Tartary. This tragedy went on until all the proscribed on whom they could lay their hands had perished and Sophia felt secure in her power.
In the end, Ivan and Peter were declared joint sovereigns (1682), and their sister Sophia was made regent. The acts of the Strelitz were approved and they rewarded, the estates of their victims were confiscated in their favor, and a monument was erected on which the names of the victims were inscribed as traitors to their country.
The Strelitz had learned their power, and took frequent occasion to exercise it. Twice again they broke out in revolt during the regency of Sophia. After the accession of Peter their hostility continued. He had sent them to fight on the frontiers. He had supplanted them with regiments drilled in the European manner. He had organized a corps of twelve thousand foreigners and heretics. He had ordered the construction of a fleet of a hundred vessels, which would add to the weight of taxes and bring more foreigners into the country. And he proposed to leave Russia, to journey in the lands of the heretics, and to bring back to their sacred land the customs of profane Europe.
All this was too much for the leaders of the Strelitz, who represented old Russia, as Peter represented new. They resolved to sacrifice the czar to their rage. Tradition tells the following story, which, though probably not true, is at least interesting. Two leaders of the Strelitz laid a plot to start a fire at night, feeling sure that Peter, with his usual activity, would hasten to the scene. In the confusion attending the fire they meant to murder him, and then to massacre all the foreigners whom he had introduced into Moscow.
The time fixed for the consummation of this plot was at hand. A banquet was held, at which the principal conspirators assembled, and where they sought in deep potations the courage necessary for their murderous work. Unfortunately for them, liquor does not act on all alike. While usually giving boldness, it sometimes produces timidity. Two of the villains lost their courage through their potations, left the room on some pretext, promising to return in time, and hastened to the czar with the story of the plot.
Peter knew not the meaning of the words timidity and procrastination. His plans were instantly laid. The time fixed for the conflagration was midnight. He gave orders that the hall in which the conspirators were assembled should be surrounded exactly at eleven. Soon after, thinking that the hour had come, he sought the place alone and boldly entered the room, fully expecting to find the conspirators in the hands of his guards.
To his consternation, not a guard was present, and he found himself alone and unarmed in the midst of a furious band who were just swearing to compass his destruction.
The situation was a critical one. The conspirators, dismayed at this unlooked-for visit, rose in confusion. Peter was furious at his guards for having exposed him to this peril, but instantly perceived that there was only one course for him to pursue. He advanced among the throng of traitors with a countenance that showed no trace of his emotions, and pleasantly remarked,—
"I saw the light in your house while passing, and, thinking that you must be having a gay time together, I have come in to share your pleasure and drain a cup with you."
Then, seating himself at the table, he filled a cup and drank to his would-be assassins, who, on their feet about him, could not avoid responding to the toast and drinking his health.
But this state of affairs did not long continue. The courage of the conspirators returned, and they began to exchange looks and signs. The opportunity had fallen into their hands; now was the time to avail themselves of it. One of them leaned over to Sukanim, one of their leaders, and said, in a low tone,—
"Brother, it is time."
"Not yet," said Sukanim, hesitating at the critical moment.
At that instant Peter heard the footsteps of his guards outside, and, starting to his feet, knocked the leader of the assassins down by a violent blow in his face, exclaiming,—
"If it is not yet time for you, scoundrel, it is for me."
At the same moment the guards entered the room, and the conspirators, panic-stricken by the sight, fell on their knees and begged for pardon.
"Chain them!" said the czar, in a terrible voice.
Turning then to the commander of the guards, he struck him and accused him of having disobeyed orders. But the officer proving to him that the hour fixed had just arrived, the czar, in sudden remorse at his haste, clasped him in his arms, kissed him on the forehead, proclaimed his fidelity, and gave the traitors into his charge.
And now Peter showed the savage which lay within him under the thin veneer of civilization. The conspirators were put to death with the cruellest of tortures, and, to complete the act of barbarity, their heads were exposed on the summit of a column with their limbs arranged around them as ornaments.
Satisfied that this fearful example would keep Russia tranquil during his absence, Peter set out on his journey, visiting most of the countries of Western Europe. He had reached Vienna, and was on the point of setting out for Venice, when word was brought him from Russia that the Strelitz had broken out in open insurrection and were marching from their posts on the frontier upon Moscow.
The czar at once left Vienna and journeyed with all possible speed to Russia, reaching Moscow in September, 1698. His appearance took all by surprise, for none knew that he had yet left Austria.
He came too late to suppress the insurrection. That had been already done by General Gordon, who, marching in all haste, had met the rebels about thirty miles from Moscow and called on them to surrender. As they refused and attacked the troops, he opened on them with cannon, put them to flight, and of the survivors took captive about two thousand. These were decimated on the spot, and the remainder imprisoned.
This was punishment enough for a soldier, but not enough for an autocrat, whose mind was haunted by dark suspicions, and who looked upon the outbreak as a plot to dethrone him and to call his sister Sophia to the throne. In his treatment of the prisoners the spirit of the monster Ivan IV. seems to have entered into his soul, and the cruelty shown, while common enough in old-time Russia, is revolting to the modern mind.
The trial was dragged out through six weeks, with daily torture of some of the accused, under the eyes of the czar himself, who sought to force from them a confession that Sophia had been concerned in the outbreak. The wives of the prisoners, all the women servants of the princesses, even poor beggars who lived on their charity, were examined under torture. The princesses themselves, Peter's sisters, were questioned by the czar, though he did not go so far as to torture them. Yet with all this nothing was discovered. There was not a word to connect Sophia with the revolt.
The trial over, the executions began. Of the prisoners, some were hanged, some beheaded, others broken on the wheel. It is said that those beheaded were made to kneel in rows of fifty before trunks of trees laid on the ground, and that Peter compelled his courtiers and nobles to act as executioners, Mentchikof specially distinguishing himself in this work of slaughter. It is even asserted that the czar wielded the axe himself, though of this there is some doubt. The opinion grew among the people that neither Peter nor Prince Ramodanofsky, his cruel viceroy, could sleep until they had tasted blood, and a letter from the prince contains the following lurid sentence: "I am always washing myself in blood."
The headless bodies of the dead were left where they had fallen. The long Russian winter was just beginning, and for five months they lay unburied, a frightful spectacle for the eyes of the citizens of Moscow.
Of those hanged, nearly two hundred were left depending from a large square gallows in front of the cell of Sophia at the convent in which she was confined, and with a horrible refinement of cruelty three of these bodies were so placed as to hang all winter under her very window, one of them holding in his hand a folded paper to represent a petition for her aid.
The six regiments of Strelitz still on the frontier showed signs of a similar outbreak, but the news of the executions taught them that it was safest to keep quiet. But many of them were brought in chains to Moscow and punished for their intentions. Various stories are told of Peter's cruelty in connection with these executions. One is that he beheaded eighty with his own hand, Plestchef, one of his boyars, holding them by the hair. Another story, told by M. Printz, the Prussian ambassador, says that at an entertainment given him by the czar, Peter, when drunk, had twenty rebels brought in from the prisons, whom he beheaded in quick succession, drinking a bumper after each blow, the whole concluding within the hour. He even asked the ambassador to try his skill in the same way. It may be said here, however, that these stories rest upon very poor evidence, and that anecdote-makers have painted Peter in blacker colors than he deserves.
In the end the corps of the Strelitz was abolished, their houses and lands in Moscow were taken from the survivors, and all were exiled into the country, where they became simple villagers.
THE CRUSADE AGAINST BEARDS AND CLOAKS.
The return of Peter the Great from his European journey was marked by other events than his cruel revenge upon the rebellious Strelitz. That had affected only a few thousand people; the reforms he sought to introduce affected the nation at large. The Russians were then more Oriental than European in style, wearing the long caftan or robe of Persia and Turkey, which descended to their heels, while their beards were like those of the patriarchs, the man deeming himself most in honor who had the longest and fullest crop of hair upon his face.
To Peter, fresh from the West, and strongly imbued with European views, all this was ridiculous, if not abominable. He determined to reform it all, and at once set to work in his impetuous way, which could not brook a day's delay, to deprive the Russians of their beards and the tails of their coats. He had scarcely arrived before the boyars and leading citizens of Moscow, who flocked to congratulate him on his return, were taken aback by the edict that whiskers were condemned, and that the razor must be set at work without delay upon their honorable chins.
This edict was like a thunder-clap from a clear sky. The Russians admired and revered their beards. They were time-honored and sacred in their eyes. To lose them was like losing their family trees and patents of nobility. But Peter was without reverence for the past, and his word was law. He had ordered a mowing and reaping of hair, and the harvest must be made, or worse might come. General Shein, commander-in-chief of the army, was the first to yield to the imperative edict and submit his venerable beard to the indignity of the razor's edge. The old age seemed past and the new age come when Shein walked shamefacedly into court with a clean chin.
The example thus set was quickly followed. Beards were tabooed within the precincts of the court. All shared the same fate, none being left to laugh at the rest. The patriarch, it is true, was exempted, through awe for his high office in the Church, while reverence for advanced years reprieved Prince Tcherkasy, and Tikhon Streshnef was excused out of honor for his services as guardian of the czaritza. Every one else within the court had to submit to the razor's fatal edge or feel the czar's more fatal displeasure, and beards fell like "autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa."
An observer speaks as follows concerning a feast given by General Shein: "A crowd of boyars, scribes, and military officers almost incredible was assembled there, and among them were several common sailors, with whom the czar repeatedly mixed, divided apples, and even honored one of them by calling him his brother. A salvo of twenty-five guns marked each toast. Nor could the irksome offices of the barber check the festivities of the day, though it was well known he was enacting the part of jester by appointment at the czar's court. It was of evil omen to make show of reluctance as the razor approached the chin, and hesitation was to be forthwith punished with a box on the ears. In this way, between mirth and the wine-cup, many were admonished by this insane ridicule to abandon the olden guise."
For Peter to shave was easy, as he had little beard and a very thin moustache. But by the old-fashioned Russian of his day the beard was cherished as the Turk now cherishes his hirsute symbol of dignity or the Chinaman his long-drawn-out queue. Shortly after Peter came to the throne the patriarch Adrian had delivered himself in words of thunder against all who were so unholy and heretical as to cut or shave their beards, a God-given ornament, which had been worn by prophets and apostles and by Christ himself. Only heretics, apostates, idol-worshippers, and image-breakers among monarchs had forced their subjects to shave, he declared, while all the great and good emperors had indicated their piety in the length of their beards.
To Peter, on the contrary, the beard was the symbol of barbarity. He was not content to say that his subjects might shave, he decreed that they must shave. It began half in jest, it was continued in solid earnest. He could not well execute the non-shavers, or cut off the heads of those who declined to cut off their beards, but he could fine them, and he did. The order was sent forth that all Russians, with the exception of the clergy, should shave. Those who preferred to keep their beards could do so by paying a yearly tax into the public treasury. This was fixed at a kopeck (one penny) for peasants, but for the higher classes varied from thirty to a hundred rubles (from sixty dollars to two hundred dollars). The merchants, being at once the richest and most conservative class, paid the highest tax. Every one who paid the tax was given a bronze token, which had to be worn about the neck and renewed every year.
The czar would allow no one to be about him who did not shave, and many submitted through "terror of having their beards (in a merry humor) pulled out by the roots, or taken so rough off that some of the skin went with them." Many of those who shaved continued to do reverence to their beards by carrying them within their bosoms as sacred objects, to be buried in their graves, in order that a just account might be rendered to St. Nicholas when they should come to the next world.
The ukase against the beard was soon followed by one against the caftan, or long cloak, the old Russian dress. The czar and the leading officers of his embassy set the example of wearing the German dress, and he cut off, with his own hands, the long sleeves of some of his officers. "Those things are in your way," he would say. "You are safe nowhere with them. At one moment you upset a glass, then you forgetfully dip them in the sauce. Get gaiters made of them."
On January 14, 1700, a decree was issued commanding all courtiers and officials throughout the empire to wear the foreign dress. This decree had to be frequently repeated, and models of the clothing exposed. It is said that patterns of the garments and copies of the decrees were hung up together at the gates of the towns, while all who disobeyed the order were compelled to pay a fine. Those who yielded were obliged "to kneel down at the gates of the city and have their coats cut off just even with the ground," the part that lay on the ground as they kneeled being condemned to suffer by the shears. "Being done with a good humor, it occasioned mirth among the people, and soon broke the custom of their wearing long coats, especially in places near Moscow and those towns wherever the czar came."
This demand did not apply to the peasantry, and was therefore more easily executed. Even the women were required to change their Russian robes for foreign fashions. Peter's sisters set the example, which was quickly followed, the women showing themselves much less conservative than the men in the adoption of new styles of dress.
The reform did not end here. Decrees were issued against the high Russian boots, against the use of the Russian saddle, and even against the long Russian knife. Peter seemed to be infected with a passion for reform, and almost everything Russian was ordered to give way before the influx of Western modes. Western ideas did not come with them. To change the dress does not change the thoughts, and it does not civilize a man to shave his chin. Though outwardly conforming to the advanced fashions of the West, inwardly the Russians continued to conform to the unprogressive conceptions of the East.
It may be said that these changes did not come to stay. They were too revolutionary to take deep root. There is no disputing the fact that a coat down to the heels is more comfortable in a cold climate than one ending at the knees, and is likely to be worn in preference. Students in Russia to-day wear the red shirt, the loose trousers tucked into the high boots, and the sleeveless caftan of the peasant, to show that they are Slavs in feeling, while the old Russian costume is the regulation court dress for ladies on occasions of state.
We cannot here name the host of other reforms which Peter introduced. The army was dressed and organized in the fashion of the West. A navy was rapidly built, and before many years Russia was winning victories at sea. Peter had not worked at Amsterdam and Deptford in vain. The money of the country was reorganized, and new coins were issued. The year, which had always begun in Russia on September 1, was now ordered to begin on January 1, the first new year on the new system, January 1, 1700, being introduced with impressive ceremonies. Up to this time the Russians had counted their year from the supposed date of creation. They were now ordered to date their chronology from the birth of Christ, the first year of the new era being dated 1700 instead of 7208. Unluckily, the Gregorian calendar was not at the same time introduced, and Russia still clings to the old style, so that each date in that country is twelve days behind the same date in the rest of the Christian world.
Another reform of an important character was introduced. Peter had observed the system of local self-government in other countries, and resolved to have something like it in his realm. In Little Russia the people already had the right of electing their local officials. A similar system was extended to the whole empire, the merchants in the towns being permitted to choose good and honest men, who formed a council which had general charge of municipal affairs. Where bribery and corruption were discovered among these officials the knout and exile were applied as inducements to honesty in office. Even death was threatened; yet bribery went on. Honesty in office cannot be made to order, even by a czar.
MAZEPPA, THE COSSACK CHIEF.
Among the romantic characters of history none have attained higher celebrity than the hero of our present tale, whose remarkable adventure, often told in story, has been made immortal in Lord Byron's famous poem of "Mazeppa." Those who wish to read it in all its dramatic intensity must apply to the poem. Here it can only be given in plain prose.
Mazeppa was a scion of a poor but noble Polish family, and became, while quite young, a page at the court of John Casimir, King of Poland. There he remained until he reached manhood, when he returned to the vicinity of his birth. And now occurred the striking event on which the fame of our hero rests. The court-reared young man is said to have engaged in an intrigue with a Polish lady of high rank, or at least was suspected by her jealous husband of having injured him in his honor.
Bent upon a revenge suitable to the barbarous ideas of that age, the furious nobleman had the young man seized, cruelly scourged, and in the end stripped naked and firmly bound upon the back of an untamed horse of the steppes. The wild animal, terrified by the strange burden upon its back, was then set free on the borders of its native wilds of the Ukraine, and, uncontrolled by bit or rein, galloped madly for miles upon miles through forest and over plain, until, exhausted by the violence of its flight, it halted in its wild career. For a dramatic rendering of this frightful ride our readers must be referred to Byron's glowing verse.
The savage Polish lord had not dreamed that his victim would escape alive, but fortune favored the poor youth. He was found, still fettered to the animal's back, insensible and half dead, by some Cossack peasants, who rescued him from his fearful situation, took him to their hut, and eventually restored him to animation.
Mazeppa was well educated and fully versed in the art of war of that day. He made his home with his new friends, to whom his courage, agility, and sagacity proved such warm recommendations that he soon became highly popular among the Cossack clans. He was appointed secretary and adjutant to Samilovitch, the hetman or chief of the Cossacks, and on the disgrace and exile of this chief in 1687 Mazeppa succeeded him as leader of the tribe. He distinguished himself particularly in the war waged by the army of the Princess Sophia against the Turks and Tartars of the Crimea, in which Mazeppa led his Cossack followers with the greatest courage and skill.
On the return of the army to Moscow, Prince Galitzin, its leader, brought into the capital a strong force of Cossacks, with Mazeppa at their head. It was the first time the Cossacks had been allowed to enter Moscow, and their presence gave great offence. It was supposed to be a part of the plot of Sophia to dethrone her young brother and seize the throne for herself. It was known that they would execute to the full any orders given them by their chief; but their motions were so restricted by the indignant people that the ambitious woman, if she entertained such a design, found herself unable to employ them in it.
The daring hetman of the Cossacks became afterwards a cherished friend of Peter the Great, who conferred on him the title of prince, and severely punished those who accused him of conspiring with the enemies of Russia. Having the fullest confidence in his good faith, Peter banished or executed his foes as liars and traitors. Yet they seem to have been the true men and Mazeppa the traitor, for at length, when sixty-four years of age, he threw off allegiance to Russia and became an ally of the Swedish enemies of the realm.
The fiery and ungovernable temper of Peter is said to have been the cause of this. The story goes that one day, when Mazeppa was visiting the Russian court, and was at table with the czar, Peter complained to him of the lawless character of the Cossacks, and proposed that Mazeppa should seek to bring them under better control by a system of organization and discipline.
The chief replied that such measures would never succeed. The Cossacks were so fierce and uncontrollable by nature, he said, and so fixed in their irregular habits of warfare, that it would be impossible to get them to submit to military discipline, and they must continue to fight in their old, wild way.
These words were like fire to flax. Peter, who never could bear the least opposition to any of his plans or projects, and was accustomed to have everybody timidly agree with him, broke into a furious rage at this contradiction, and visited his sudden wrath on Mazeppa, as usual, in the most violent language. He was an enemy and a traitor, who deserved to be and should be impaled alive, roared the furious czar, not meaning a tithe of what he said, but saying enough to turn the high-spirited chief from a friend to a foe.
Mazeppa left the czar's presence in deep offence, muttering the displeasure which it would have been death to speak openly, and bent on revenge. Soon after he entered into communication with Charles XII. of Sweden, the bitter enemy of Russia, which he was then invading. He suggested that the Swedish army should advance into Southern Russia, where the Cossacks would be sure to be sent to meet it. He would then go over with all his forces to the Swedish side, so strengthening it that the army of the czar could not stand against it. The King of Sweden might retain the territory won by his arms, while the Cossacks would retire to their own land, and become again, as of old, an independent tribe.
The plot was well laid, but it failed through the loyalty of the Cossacks. They broke into wild indignation when Mazeppa unfolded to them his plan, most of them refusing to join in the revolt, and threatening to seize him and deliver him, bound hand and foot, to the czar. Some two thousand in all adhered to Mazeppa, and for a time it seemed as if a bloody battle would take place between the two sections of the tribe, but in the end the chief and his followers made their way to the Swedish camp, while the others marched back and put themselves under the command of the nearest Russian general.
Mazeppa was now sentenced to death, and executed,—luckily for him, in effigy only. In person he was out of the reach of his foes. A wooden image was made to represent the culprit, and on this dumb block the penalties prescribed for him were inflicted. A pretty play—for a savage horde—they made of it. The image was dressed to imitate Mazeppa, while representations of the medals, ribbons, and other decorations he usually wore were placed upon it. It was then brought out before the general and leading officers, the soldiers being drawn up in a square around it. A herald now read the sentence of condemnation, and the mock execution began. First Mazeppa's patent of knighthood was torn to pieces and the fragments flung into the air. Then the medals and decorations were rent from the image and trampled underfoot. Finally the image itself was struck a blow that toppled it over into the dust. The hangman now took it in hand, tied a rope round its neck, and dragged it to a gibbet, on which it was hung. The affair ended in the Cossacks choosing a new chief.
The remainder of Mazeppa's story may soon be told. The battle of Pultowa, fought, it is said, by his advice, ended the military career of the great Swedish general. The Cossack chief made his escape, with the King of Sweden, into Turkish territory, and the reward which the czar offered for his body, dead or alive, was never claimed. Mentchikof took what revenge he could by capturing and sacking his capital city, Baturin, while throughout Russia his name was anathematized from the pulpit. Traitor in his old days, and a fugitive in a foreign land, the disgrace of his action seemed to weigh heavily upon the mind of the old chief of the Ukraine, and in the following year he put an end to the wretchedness of his life by poison.
A WINDOW OPEN TO EUROPE.
Peter the Great hated Moscow. It was to him the embodiment of that old Russia which he was seeking to reform out of existence. Had he been able to work his own will in all things, he would never have set foot within its walls; but circumstances are stronger than men, even though the latter be Russian czars. In one respect Peter set himself against circumstance, and built Russia a capital in a locality seemingly lacking in all natural adaptation for a city.
In the early days of the eighteenth century his armies captured a small Swedish fort on Lake Ladoga near the river Neva. The locality pleased him, and he determined to build on the Neva a city which should serve Russia as a naval station and commercial port in the north. Why he selected this spot it is not easy to say. Better localities for his purpose might have been easily chosen. There was old Novgorod, a centre of commerce during many centuries of the past, which it would have been a noble tribute to ancient Russian history to revive. There was Riga, a city better situated for the Baltic commerce. But Peter would have none of these; he wanted a city of his own, one that should carry his name down through the ages, that should rival the Alexandria of Alexander the Great, and he chose for it a most inauspicious and inhospitable site.
The Neva, a short but deep and wide stream, which carries to the sea the waters of the great lakes Ladoga, Onega, and Ilmen, breaks up near its mouth and makes its way into the Gulf of Finland through numerous channels, between which lie a series of islands. These then bore Finnish names equivalent to Island of Hares, Island of Buffaloes, and the like. Overgrown with thickets, their surfaces marshy, liable to annual overflow, inhabited only by a few Finnish fishermen, who fled from their huts to the mainland when the waters rose, they were far from promising; yet these islands took Peter's fancy as a suitable site for a commercial port, and with his usual impetuosity he plunged into the business of making a city to order.
In truth, he fell in love with the spot, though what he saw in it to admire is not so clear. In summer mud ruled there supreme: the very name Neva is Finnish for "mud." During four months of the year ice took the place of mud, and the islands and stream were fettered fast. The country surrounding was largely a desert, its barren plains alternating with forests whose only inhabitants were wolves. Years after the city was built, wolves prowled into its streets and devoured two sentries in front of one of the government buildings. Moscow lay four hundred miles away, and the country between was bleak and almost uninhabited. Even to-day the traveller on leaving St. Petersburg finds himself in a desert. The great plain over which he passes spreads away in every direction, not a steeple, not a tree, not a man or beast, visible upon its bare expanse. There is no pasturage nor farming land. Fruits and vegetables can scarcely be grown; corn must be brought from a distance. Rye is an article of garden culture in St. Petersburg, cabbages and turnips are its only vegetables, and a beehive there is a curiosity.
Yet, as has been said, Peter was attracted to the place, which in one of his letters he called his "paradise." It may have reminded him of Holland, the scene of his nautical education. The locality had a certain sacredness in Russian tradition, being looked upon as the most ancient Russian ground. By the mouth of the Neva had passed Rurik and his fellows in their journeys across the Varangian sea,—their own sea. The czar was willing to restore to Sweden all his conquests in Livonia and Esthonia, but the Neva he would not yield. From boyhood he had dreamed of giving Russia a navy and opening it up to the world's commerce, and here was a ready opening to the waters of the Baltic and the distant Atlantic.
St. Petersburg owed its origin to a whim; but it was the whim of a man whose will swayed the movements of millions. He was not even willing to begin his work on the high ground of the mainland, but chose the Island of Hares, the nearest of the islands to the gulf. It was a seaport, not a capital, that he at first had in view. Legend tells us that he snatched a halberd from one of his soldiers, cut with it two strips of turf, and laid them crosswise, saying, "Here there shall be a town." Then, dropping the halberd, he seized a spade and began the first embankment. As he dug, an eagle appeared and hovered above his head. Shot by one of the men, it fluttered to his feet. Picking up the wounded bird, he set out in a boat to explore the waters around. To this event is given the date of May 16, 1703.
The city began in a fortress, for the building of which carpenters and masons were brought from distant towns. The soldiers served as laborers. In this labor tools were notable chiefly for their absence. Wheelbarrows were unknown; they are still but little used in Russia. Spades and baskets were equally lacking, and the czar's impatience could not wait for them to be procured. The men scraped up the earth with their hands or with sticks and carried it in the skirts of their caftans to the ramparts. The czar sent orders to Moscow that two thousand of the thieves and outlaws destined for Siberia should be despatched the next summer to the Neva.
The fort was at first built of wood, which was replaced by stone some years afterwards. Logs served for all other structures, for no stone was to be had. Afterwards every boat coming to the town was required to bring a certain number of stones, and, to attract masons to the new city, the building of stone houses in Moscow or elsewhere was forbidden. As for the fortress, which was erected at no small cost in life and money, it soon became useless, and to-day it only protects the mint and cathedral of St. Petersburg.
The new city, named Petersburg from its founder, has long been known as St. Petersburg. While the fort was in process of erection a church was also built, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. The site of this wooden edifice is now occupied by the cathedral, begun in 1714, ten years later. As regarded a home for himself, Peter was easily satisfied. A hut of logs—his palace he called it—was built near the fortress, fifty-five feet long by twenty-five wide, and containing but three rooms. At a later date, to preserve this his first place of residence in his new city, he enclosed it within another building. Thus it still remains, a place of pilgrimage for devout Russians. It contains many relics of the great czar. His bedroom is now a chapel.
Such a city, in such a situation, should have taken years to build. Peter wished to have it done in months, and he pushed the labor with little regard for its cost in life and treasure. Men were brought from all sections of Russia and put to work. Disease broke out among them, engendered by the dampness of the soil; but the work went on. Floods came and covered the island, drowning some of the sick in their beds; but there was no alleviation. History tells us that Swedish prisoners were employed, and that they died by thousands. Death, in Peter's eyes, was only an unpleasant incident, and new workmen were brought in multitudes, many of them to perish in their turn. It has been said that the building of the city cost two hundred thousand lives. This is, no doubt, an exaggeration, but it indicates a frightful mortality. But the feverish impatience of the czar told in results, and by 1714 the city possessed over thirty-four thousand buildings, with inhabitants in proportion.
The floods came and played their part in the work of death. In that of 1706, Peter measured water twenty-one inches deep on the floor of his hut. He thought it "extremely amusing" as men, women, and children were swept past his windows on floating wreckage down the stream. What the people themselves thought of it history does not say.
As yet Peter had no design of making St. Petersburg the capital of his empire. That conception seems not to have come to him until after the crushing defeat of the Swedish monarch Charles XII. at the battle of Pultowa. And indeed it was not until 1817 that it was made the capital. It was the fifth Russian capital, its predecessors in that honor having been Novgorod, Kief, Vladimir, and Moscow.
To add a commercial quarter to the new city, Peter chose the island of Vasily Ostrof,—the Finnish "Island of Buffaloes,"—where a town was laid out in the Dutch fashion, with canals for streets. This island is still the business centre of the city, though the canals have long since disappeared. The streets of St. Petersburg for many years continued unpaved, notwithstanding the marshy character of the soil, and in the early days boats replaced carriages for travel and traffic.
The work of building the new capital was not confined to the czar. The nobles were obliged to build palaces in it,—very much to their chagrin. They hated St. Petersburg as cordially as Peter hated Moscow. They already had large and elegant mansions in the latter city, and had little relish for building new ones in this desert capital, four hundred miles to the north. But the word of the czar was law, and none dared say him nay. Every proprietor whose estate held five hundred serfs was ordered to build a stone house of two stories in the new city. Those of greater wealth had to build more pretentious edifices. Peter's own taste in architecture was not good. He loved low and small rooms. None of his palaces were fine buildings. In building the Winter Palace, whose stories were made high enough to conform to others on the street, he had double ceilings put in his special rooms, so as to reduce their height.
The city under way, the question of its defence became prominent. The Swedes, the mortal enemies of the czar, looked with little favor on this new project, and their prowling vessels in the gulf seemed to threaten it with attack. Peter made vigorous efforts to prepare for defence. Ship-building went on briskly on the Svir River, between Lakes Ladoga and Onega, and the vessels were got down as quickly as possible into the Neva. Peter himself explored and measured the depth of water in the Gulf of Finland. Here, some twenty miles from the city, lay the island of Cronslot, seven miles long, and in the narrowest part of the gulf. The northern channel past this island proved too shallow to be a source of danger. The southern channel was navigable, and this the czar determined to fortify.
A fort was begun in the water near the island's shores, stone being sunk for its foundation. Work on it was pressed with the greatest energy, for fear of an attack by the Swedish fleet, and it was completed before the winter's end. With the idea of making this his commercial port, Peter had many stone warehouses built on the island, most of which soon fell into decay for want of use. But to-day Cronstadt, as the new town and fortress were called, is the greatest naval station and one of the most flourishing commercial cities in Russia, while its fortifications protect the capital from dangers of assault.
In those early days, however, St. Petersburg was designed to be the centre of commerce, and Peter took what means he could to entice merchant vessels to his new city. The first to appear—coming almost by accident—was of Dutch build. It arrived in November, 1703, and Peter himself served as pilot to bring it up to the town. Great was the astonishment of the skipper, on being afterwards presented to the czar, to recognize in him his late pilot. And Peter's delight was equally great on learning that the ship had been freighted by Cornelis Calf, one of his old Zaandam friends. The skipper was feasted to his heart's content and presented with five hundred ducats, while each sailor received thirty thalers, and the ship was renamed the St. Petersburg. Two other ships appeared the same year, one Dutch and one English, and their skippers and crews received the same reward. These pioneer vessels were exempted forever from all tolls and dues at that port.
St. Petersburg, as it exists to-day, bears very little resemblance to the city of Peter's plan. To his successors are due the splendid granite quays, which aid in keeping out the overflowing stream, the rows of palaces, the noble churches and public buildings, the statues, columns, and other triumphs of architecture which abundantly adorn the great modern capital. The marshy island soil has been lifted by two centuries of accretions, while the main city has crept up from its old location to the mainland, where the fashionable quarters and the government offices now stand.
St. Petersburg is still exposed to yearly peril by overflow. The violent autumnal storms, driving the waters of the gulf into the channel of the stream, back up terrible floods. The spring-time rise in the lakes which feed the Neva threatens similar disaster. In 1721 Peter himself narrowly escaped drowning in the Nevski Prospect, now the finest street in Europe.
Of the floods that have desolated the city, the greatest was that of November, 1824. Driven into the river's mouth by a furious southwest storm, the waters of the gulf were heaped up to the first stories of the houses even in the highest streets. Horses and carriages were swept away; bridges were torn loose and floated off; numbers of houses were moved from their foundations; a full regiment of carbineers, who had taken refuge on the roof of their barracks, perished in the furious torrent. At Cronstadt the waters rose so high that a hundred-gun ship was left stranded in the market-place. The czar, who had just returned from a long journey to the east, found himself made captive in his own palace. Standing on the balcony which looks up the Neva, surrounded by his weeping family, he saw with deep dismay wrecks of every kind, bridges and merchandise, horses and cattle, and houses peopled with helpless inmates, swept before his eyes by the raging flood. Boats were overturned and emptied their crews into the stream. Some who escaped death by drowning died from the bitter cold as they floated downward on vessels or rafts. It seemed almost as if the whole city would be carried bodily into the gulf.
The official reports of this disaster state that forty-five hundred of the people perished,—probably not half the true figure. Of the houses that remained, many were ruined, and thousands of poor wretches wandered homeless through the drenched streets. Such was one example of the inheritance left by Peter the Great to the dwellers in his favorite city, his "window to Europe," as it has been called.
FROM THE HOVEL TO THE THRONE.
The reign of Peter the Great was signalized by two notable instances of the rise of persons from the lowest to the highest estate, ability being placed above birth and talent preferred to noble descent. A poor boy, Mentchikof by name, son of a monastery laborer, had made his way to Moscow and there found employment with a pastry-cook, who sent him out daily with a basket of mince pies, which he was to sell in the streets. The boy was destitute of education, but he had inherited a musical voice and a lively manner, which stood him in good stead in proclaiming the merits of his wares. He could sing a ballad in taking style, and became so widely known for his songs and stories that he was often invited into gentlemen's houses to entertain company. His voice and his wit ended in making him a prince of the empire, a favorite of the czar, and in the end virtually the emperor of Russia.
Being one day in the kitchen of a boyar's house, where dinner was being prepared for the czar, who had promised to dine there that day, young Mentchikof overheard the master of the house give special directions to his cook about a dish of meat of which he said the czar was especially fond, and noticed that he furtively dropped a powder of some kind into it, as if by way of spice.
This act seemed suspicious to the acute lad. Noting particularly the composition of the dish, he betook himself to the street, where he began again to exalt the merits of his pies and to entertain the passers-by with ballads. He kept in the vicinity of the boyar's house until the czar arrived, when he raised his voice to its highest pitch and began to sing vociferously. The czar, attracted by the boy's voice and amused by his manner, called him up, and asked him if he would sell his stock in trade, basket and all.
"I have orders only to sell the pies," replied the shrewd vender: "I cannot sell the basket without asking my master's leave. But, as everything in Russia belongs to your majesty, you have only to lay on me your commands."
This answer so greatly pleased the czar that he bade the boy come with him into the house and wait on him at table, much to the young pie-vender's joy, as it was just the result for which he had hoped. The dinner went on, Mentchikof waiting on the czar with such skill as he could command, and watching eagerly for the approach of the suspected dish. At length it was brought in and placed on the table before the czar. The boy thereupon leaned forward and whispered in the monarch's ear, begging him not to eat of that dish.
Surprised at this request, and quick to suspect something wrong, the czar rose and walked into an adjoining room, bidding the boy accompany him.
"What do you mean?" he asked. "Why should I not eat of that particular dish?"
"Because I am afraid it is not all right," answered the boy. "I was in the kitchen while it was being prepared, and saw the boyar, when the cook's back was turned, drop a powder into the dish. I do not know what all this meant, but thought it my duty to put your majesty on your guard."
"Thanks for your shrewdness, my lad," said the czar; "I will bear it in mind."
Peter returned to the table with his wonted cheerfulness of countenance, giving no indication that he had heard anything unusual.
"I should like your majesty to try that dish," said the boyar: "I fancy that you will find it very good."
"Come sit here beside me," suggested Peter. It was the custom at that time in Moscow for the master of a house to wait on the table when he entertained guests.
Peter put some of the questionable dish on a plate and placed it before his host.
"No doubt it is good," he said. "Try some of it yourself and set me an example."
This request threw the host into a state of the utmost confusion, and with trembling utterance he replied that it was not becoming for a servant to eat with his master.
"It is becoming to a dog, if I wish it," answered Peter, and he set the plate on the floor before a dog which was in the room.
In a moment the brute had emptied the dish. But in a short time the poor animal was seen to be in convulsions, and it soon fell dead before the assembled company.
"Is this the dish you recommended so highly?" said Peter, fixing a terrible look on the shrinking boyar. "So I was to take the place of that dead dog?"
Orders were given to have the animal opened and examined, and the result of the investigation proved beyond doubt that its death was due to poison. The culprit, however, escaped the terrible punishment which he would have suffered at Peter's hands by taking his own life. He was found dead in bed the next morning.
We do not vouch for the truth of this interesting story. Though told by a writer of Peter's time, it is doubted by late historians. But such is the fate of the best stories afloat, and the voice of doubt threatens to rob history of much of its romance. The story of Mentchikof, in its most usual shape, states that Le Fort, general and admiral, was the first to be attracted to the sprightly boy, and that Peter saw him at Le Fort's house, was delighted with him, and made him his page.
The pastry-cook's boy soon became the indispensable companion of the czar, assisted him in his workshop, attended him in his wars, and at the siege of Azov displayed the greatest bravery. He accompanied Peter in his travels, worked with him in Holland, and distinguished himself in the wars with the Swedes, receiving the order of St. Andrew for gallantry at the battle of the Neva. In 1704 he was given the rank of general, and was the first to defeat the Swedes in a pitched battle. At the czar's request he was made a prince of the Holy Roman Empire.
As Prince Mentchikof the new grandee loomed high. His house in Moscow was magnificent, his banquets were gorgeous with gold and silver plate, and the ambassadors of the powers of Europe figured among his guests. Such was the bright side of the picture. The dark side was one of extortion and robbery, in which the favorite of the czar out-did in peculation all the other officials of the realm.
Peculation in Russia, indeed, assumed enormous proportions, but this was a crime towards which Peter did not manifest his usual severity. Two of the robbers in high places were executed, but the others were let off with fines and a castigation with Peter's walking-stick, which he was in the habit of using freely on high and low alike. As for Mentchikof, he was incorrigible. So high was he in favor with his master that the senators, who had abundant proofs of his robberies and little love for him personally, dared not openly accuse him before the czar. The most they ventured to do was to draw up a statement of his peculations and lay the paper on the table at the czar's seat. Peter saw it, ran his eye over its contents, but said nothing. Day after day the paper lay in the same place, but the czar continued silent. One day as he sat in the senate, the senator Tolstoi, who sat beside him, was bold enough to ask him what he thought of that document.
"Nothing," Peter replied, "but that Mentchikof will always be Mentchikof."
The death of Peter placed the favorite in a precarious position. He had a host of enemies, who would have rejoiced in his downfall. These, who formed what may be called the Old Russian party, wished to proclaim as monarch the grandson of the deceased czar. But Mentchikof and the party of reform were beforehand with them, and gave the throne to Catharine, the widow of the late monarch. Under her the pastry-cook's boy rose to the summit of his power and virtually governed the country. Unluckily for the favorite, Catharine died in two years, and a new czar, Peter II., grandson of Peter the Great, came to the throne.
Mentchikof had been left guardian of the youthful czar, to whom his daughter was betrothed, and whom he took to his house and surrounded with his creatures. And now for a time the favorite soared higher than ever, was practically lord of the land, and made himself more feared than had been Peter himself.
But he had reached the verge of a precipice. There was no love between the young czar and Mary Mentchikof, and the youthful prince was soon brought to dislike his guardian. Events moved fast. Peter left Mentchikof's house and sought the summer palace, to which his guardian was refused admittance. Soon after he was arrested, the shock of the disgrace bringing on an apoplectic stroke. In vain he appealed to the emperor; he was ordered to retire to his estate, and soon after was banished, with his whole family, to Siberia. This was in 1727. The disgraced favorite survived his exile but two years, dying of apoplexy in 1729. Four months afterwards the new czar followed in death the man he had disgraced.
The other instance of a rise from low to high estate was that of the empress herself, whose career was very closely related to that of Mentchikof. There are various instances in history of a woman of low estate being chosen to share a monarch's throne, but only one, that of Catharine of Russia, in which a poor stranger, taken from among the ruins of a plundered town, became eventually the absolute sovereign of that empire into which she had been carried as captive or slave.
It was in 1702, during the sharply contested war between Russia and Sweden, that, while Charles XII. of Sweden was making conquests in Poland, the Russian army was having similar success in Livonia and Ingria. Among the Russian successes was the capture of a small town named Marienburg, which surrendered at discretion, but whose magazines were blown up by the Swedes. This behavior so provoked the Russian general that he gave orders for the town to be destroyed and all its inhabitants to be carried off.
Among the prisoners was a girl, Catharine by name, a native of Livonia, who had been left an orphan at the age of three years, and had been brought up as a servant in the family of M. Gluck, the minister of the place. Such was the humble origin of the woman who was to become the wife of Peter the Great, and afterwards Catharine I., Empress of Russia.
In 1702 Catharine, then seventeen years of age, married a Swedish dragoon, one of the garrison of Marienburg. Her married life was a short one, her husband being obliged to leave her in two days to join his regiment. She never saw him again. She could neither read nor write, and, like Mentchikof, never learned those arts. She was, however, handsome and attractive, delicate and well formed, and of a most excellent temper, being never known to be out of humor, while she was obliging and civil to all, and after her exaltation took good care of the family of her benefactor Gluck. As for her first husband, she sent him sums of money until 1705, when he was killed in battle.
It was a common fate of prisoners of war then to be sold as slaves to the Turks, but the beauty of Catharine saved her from this. After some vicissitudes, she fell into the hands of Mentchikof, at whose quarters she was seen by the czar. Struck by her beauty and good sense, Peter took her to his palace, where, finding in her a warm appreciation of his plans of reform and an admirable disposition, he made her his own by a private marriage. In 1711 this was supplemented by a public wedding.
Catharine was soon able amply to reward the czar for the honor he had conferred upon her. He was at war with the Turks, and, through a foolish contempt for their generalship and military skill, allowed himself to fall into a trap from which there seemed no escape. He found himself completely surrounded by the enemy and cut off from all supplies, and it seemed as if he would be forced to surrender with his whole force to the despised foe.
From this dilemma Catharine, who was in the camp, relieved him. Collecting a large sum of money and presents of jewelry, and seeking the camp of the enemy, she succeeded in bribing the Turkish general, or in some way inducing him to conclude peace and suffer the Russian army to escape. Peter repaid his able wife by conferring upon her the dignity of empress.
The death of the czar was followed, as we have said, by the elevation of his wife to the vacant throne, principally through the aid of Mentchikof, her former lord and master, aided by the effect of her seemingly inconsolable grief and the judicious distribution of money and jewels as presents.
For two years Catharine and Mentchikof, whose life had begun in the hovel, and who were now virtually together on the throne, were the unquestioned autocrats of Russia. Catharine had no genius for government, and left the control of affairs to her minister, who was to all intents and purposes sovereign of Russia. The empress, meanwhile, passed her days in vice and dissipation, thereby hastening her end. She died in 1727, at the age of about forty years. In the same year, as already stated, the man who had grown great with her fell from his high estate.
BUFFOONERIES OF THE RUSSIAN COURT.
Amid the serious matters which present themselves so abundantly in the history of Russia, buffooneries of the coarsest character at times find place. Numerous examples of this might be drawn from the reign of Peter the Great, whose idea of humor was broad burlesque, and who, despite the religious prejudices of the people, did not hesitate to make the church the subject of his jests. One of the broadest of these farces was that known as the Conclave, the purpose of which was to burlesque or treat with contumely the method of selecting the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
At the court of the czar was an old man named Sotof, a drunkard of inimitable powers of imbibition, and long a butt for the jests of the court. He had taught the czar to write, a service which he deemed worthy of being rewarded by the highest dignities of the empire.
Peter, who dearly loved a practical joke, learning the aspirations of the old sot, promised to confer on him the most eminent office in the world, and accordingly appointed him Kniaz Papa that is, prince-pope, with a salary of two thousand roubles and a palace at St. Petersburg. The exaltation of Sotof to this dignity was solemnized by a performance more gross than ludicrous. Buffoons were chosen to lift the new dignitary to his throne, and four fellows who stammered with every word delivered absurd addresses upon his exaltation. The mock pope then created a number of cardinals, at whose head he rode through the streets in procession, his seat of state being a cask of brandy which was carried on a sledge drawn by four oxen.
The cardinals followed, and after them came sledges laden with food and drink, while the music of the procession consisted of a hideous turmoil of drums, trumpets, horns, fiddles, and hautboys, all playing out of time, mingled with the ear-splitting clatter of pots and pans vigorously beaten by a troop of cooks and scullions. Next came a number of men dressed as Roman Catholic monks, each carrying a bottle and a glass. In the rear of the procession marched the czar and his courtiers, Peter dressed as a Dutch skipper, the others wearing various comic disguises.
The place fixed for the conclave being reached, the cardinals were led into a long gallery, along which had been built a range of closets. In each of these a cardinal was shut up, abundantly provided with food and drink. To each of the cardinals two conclavists were attached, whose duty it was to ply them with brandy, carry insulting messages from one to another, and induce them, as they grew tipsy, to bawl out all sorts of abuse of one another. To all this ribaldry the czar listened with delight, taking note at the same time of anything said of which he might make future use against the participants.
This orgy lasted three days and three nights, the cardinals not being released until they had agreed upon answers to a number of ridiculous questions propounded to them by the Kniaz Papa. Then the doors were flung open, and the pope and his cardinals were drawn home at mid-day dead drunk on sledges,—that is, such of them as survived, for some had actually drunk themselves to death, while others never recovered from the effect of their debauch.
This offensive absurdity appealed so strongly to the czar's idea of humor that he had it three times repeated, it growing more gross and shameless on each successive occasion; and during the last conclave Peter indulged in such excesses that his death was hastened by their effects.
As for the national church of Russia, Peter treated it with contemptuous indifference. The office of patriarch becoming vacant, he left it unfilled for twenty-one years, and finally, on being implored by a delegation from the clergy to appoint a patriarch, he started up in a furious passion, struck his breast with his fist and the table with his cutlass, and roared out, "Here, here is your patriarch!" He then stamped angrily from the room, leaving the prelates in a state of utter dismay.
Soon after he took occasion to make the church the subject of a second coarse jest. Another buffoon of the court, Buturlin by name, was appointed Kniaz Papa, and a marriage arranged between him and the widow of Sotof, his predecessor. The bridegroom was eighty-four years of age, the bride nearly as old. Some decrepit old men were chosen to play the part of bridesmaids, four stutterers invited the wedding guests, while four of the most corpulent fellows who could be found attended the procession as running footmen. A sledge drawn by bears held the orchestra, their music being accompanied with roars from the animals, which were goaded with iron spikes. The nuptial benediction was given in the cathedral by a blind and deaf priest, who wore huge spectacles. The marriage, the wedding feast, and the remaining ceremonies were all conducted in the same spirit of broad burlesque, in which one of the sacred ceremonies of the Russian Church was grossly paraphrased.
Peter did not confine himself to coarse jests in his efforts to discredit the clergy. He took every occasion to unmask the trickery of the priests. Petersburg, the new city he was building, was an object of abhorrence to these superstitious worthies, who denounced it as one of the gates of hell, prophesying that it would be overthrown by the wrath of heaven, and fixing the date on which this was to occur. So great was the fear inspired by their prophecies that work was suspended in spite of the orders of the terrible czar.
To impress the people with the imminency of the peril, the priests displayed a sacred image from whose eyes flowed miraculous tears. It seemed to weep over the coming fate of the dwellers within the doomed city.
"Its hour is at hand," said the priests; "it will soon be swallowed up, with all its inhabitants, by a tremendous inundation."
When word of this seeming miracle and of the consternation which it had produced was brought to the czar, he hastened with his usual impetuosity to the spot, bent on exposing the dangerous fraud which his enemies were perpetrating. He found the weeping image surrounded by a multitude of superstitious citizens, who gazed with open-eyed wonder and reverence on the miraculous feat.
Their horror was intense when Peter boldly approached and examined the image. Petrified with terror, they looked to see him stricken dead by a bolt from heaven. But their feelings changed when the czar, breaking open the head of the image, explained to them the ingenious trick which the priests had devised. The head was found to contain a reservoir of congealed oil, which, as it was melted by the heat of lighted tapers beneath, flowed out drop by drop through artfully provided holes, and ran from the eyes like tears. On seeing this the dismay of the people turned to anger against the priests, and the building of the city went on.
The court fool was an institution born in barbarism, though it survived long into the age of civilization, having its latest survival in Russia, the last European state to emerge from barbarism. In the days of Peter the Great the fool was a fixed institution in Russia, though this element of court life had long vanished from Western Europe. In truth, the buffoon flourished in Russia like a green bay-tree. Peter was never satisfied with less than a dozen of these fun-making worthies, and a private family which could not afford at least one hired fool was thought to be in very straitened circumstances.
In the reign of the empress Anne the number of court buffoons was reduced to six, but three of the six were men of the highest birth. They had been degraded to this office for some fault, and if they refused to perform such fooleries as the queen and her courtiers desired they were whipped with rods.
Among those who suffered this indignity was no less a grandee than Prince Galitzin. He had changed his religion, and for this offence he was made court page, though he was over forty years of age, and buffoon, though his son was a lieutenant in the army, and his family one of the first in the realm. His name is here given in particular as he was made the subject of a cruel jest, which could have been perpetrated nowhere but in the Russian court at that period.
The winter of 1740, in which this event took place, was of unusual severity. Prince Galitzin's wife having died, the empress forced him to marry a girl of the lowest birth, agreeing to defray the cost of the wedding, which proved to be by no means small.
As a preliminary a house was built wholly of ice, and all its furniture, tables, seats, ornaments, and even the nuptial bedstead, were made of the same frigid material. In front of the house were placed four cannons and two mortars of ice, so solid in construction that they were fired several times without bursting. To make up the wedding procession persons of all the nations subject to Russia, and of both sexes, were brought from the several provinces, dressed in their national costumes.
The procession was an extraordinary one. The new-married couple rode on the back of an elephant, in a huge cage. Of those that followed some were mounted on camels, some rode in sledges drawn by various beasts, such as reindeer, oxen, dogs, goats, and hogs. The train, which all Moscow turned out to witness, embraced more than three hundred persons, and made its way past the palace of the empress and through all the principal streets of the city.
The wedding dinner was given in Biren's riding-house, which was appropriately decorated, and in which each group of the guests were supplied with food cooked after the manner of their own country. A ball followed, in which the people of each nation danced their national dances to their national music. The pith of the joke, in the Russian appreciation of that day, came at the end, the bride and groom being conducted to a bed of ice in an icy palace, in which they were forced to spend the night, guards being stationed at the door to prevent their getting out before morning.
Though not so gross as Peter's nuptial jests, this was more cruel, and, in view of the social station of the groom, a far greater indignity.
A Russian state dinner during the reign of Peter the Great, as described by Dr. Birch, speaking from personal observation, was one in which only those of the strongest stomach could safely take part. On such occasions, indeed, the experienced ate their dinners beforehand at home, knowing well what to expect at the czar's table. Ceremony was absolutely lacking, and, as two or three hundred persons were usually invited to a feast set for a hundred, a most undignified scuffling for seats took place, each holder of a chair being forced to struggle with those who sought to snatch it from him. In this turmoil distinguished foreigners had to fight like the natives for their seats.
Finally they took their places without regard to dignity or station. "Carpenters and shipwrights sit next to the czar; but senators, ministers, generals, priests, sailors, buffoons of all kinds, sit pell-mell, without any distinction." And they were crowded so closely that it was with great difficulty they could lift their hands to their mouths. As for foreigners, if they happened to sit between Russians, they were little likely to have any appetite to eat. All this Peter encouraged, on the plea that ceremony would produce uneasiness and stiffness.
There was usually but one napkin for two or three guests, which they fought for as they had for seats; while each person had but one plate during dinner, "so if some Russian does not care to mix the sauces of the different dishes together, he pours the soup that is left in his plate either into the dish or into his neighbor's plate, or even under the table, after which he licks his plate clean with his finger, and, last of all, wipes it with the table-cloth."
Liquids seem to have played as important a part as solids at these meals, each guest being obliged to begin with a cup of brandy, after which great glasses of wine were served, "and betweenwhiles a bumper of the strongest English beer, by which mixture of liquors every one of the guests is fuddled before the soup is served up." And this was not confined to the men, the women being obliged to take their share in the liberal potations. As for the music that played in the adjoining room, it was utterly drowned in the noise around the table, the uproar being occasionally increased by a fighting-bout between two drunken guests, which the czar, instead of stopping, witnessed with glee.
We may close with a final quotation from Dr. Birch. "At great entertainments it frequently happens that nobody is allowed to go out of the room from noon till midnight; hence it is easy to imagine what pickle a room must be in that is full of people who drink like beasts, and none of whom escape being dead drunk.
"They often tie eight or ten young mice in a string, and hide them under green peas, or in such soups as the Russians have the greatest appetites to, which sets them a kicking and vomiting in a most beastly manner when they come to the bottom and discover the trick. They often bake cats, wolves, ravens, and the like in their pastries, and when the company have eaten them up, they tell them what they have in their stomachs.
"The present butler is one of the czar's buffoons, to whom he has given the name of Wiaschi, with this privilege, that if any one calls him by that name he has leave to drub him with his wooden sword. If, therefore, anybody, by the czar's setting them on, calls out Wiaschi, as the fellow does not know exactly who it is, he falls to beating them all around, beginning with prince Mentchikof and ending with the last of the company, without excepting even the ladies, whom he strips of their head clothes, as he does the old Russians of their wigs, which he tramples upon, on which occasion it is pleasant enough to see the variety of their bald pates."
On reading this account of a Russian court entertainment two centuries ago, we cannot wonder that after the visit of Peter the Great and his suite to London it was suggested that the easiest way to cleanse the palace in which they had been entertained might be to set it on fire and burn it to the ground.
HOW A WOMAN DETHRONED A MAN.
We have told how one Catharine, of lowly birth and the captive of a warlike raid, rose to be Empress of Russia. We have now to tell how a second of the same name rose to the same dignity. This one was indeed a princess by descent, her birthplace being a little German town. But if she began upon a higher level than the former Catharine, she reached a higher level still, this insignificant German princess becoming known in history as Catharine the Great, and having the high distinction of being the only woman to whose name the title Great has ever been attached. We may here say, however, that many women have lived to whom it might have been more properly applied.
In 1744 this daughter of one of the innumerable German kinglings became Grand Duchess of Russia, through marriage with Peter, the coming heir to the throne. We may here step from the beaten track of our story to say that Russia, at this period of its history, was ruled over by a number of empresses, though at no other time have women occupied its throne. The line began with Sophia, sister of Peter the Great, who reigned for some years as virtual empress. Catharine, the wife of Peter, became actual empress, and was followed, with insignificant intervals of male rulers, by Anne, Elizabeth, and Catharine the Great. These male rulers were Peter II., whose reign was brief, Ivan, an infant, and Peter III., husband of Catharine, who succeeded Elizabeth in 1762. It is with the last named that we are concerned.
Peter III., though grandson of Peter the Great, was as weak a man as ever sat on a throne; Catharine a woman of unusual energy. For years of their married life these two had been enemies. Peter had the misfortune to have been born a fool, and folly on the throne is apt to make a sorry show. He had, besides, become a drunkard and profligate. The one good point about him, in the estimation of many, was his admiration for Frederick the Great, since he came to the throne of Russia at the crisis of Frederick's career, and saved him from utter ruin by withdrawing the Russian army from his opponents.
His folly soon raised up against him two powerful enemies. One of these was the army, which did not object, after fighting with the Austrians against the Prussians, to turn and fight with the Prussians against the Austrians, but did object to the Prussian dress and discipline, which Peter insisted upon introducing. It possessed a discipline of its own, which it preferred to keep, and bitterly disliked its change of dress. The czar even spoke of suppressing the Guards, as his grandfather had suppressed the corps of the Strelitz. This was a fatal offence. It made this strong force his enemy, while he was utterly lacking in the resolution with which Peter the Great had handled rebels in arms.
The other enemy was Catharine, whom he had deserted for an unworthy favorite. But her enmity was quiet, and might have remained so had he not added insult to injury. Heated by drink, he called her a "fool" at a public dinner before four hundred people, including the greatest dignitaries of the realm and the foreign ministers. He was not satisfied with an insult, but added to it the folly of a threat, that of an order for her arrest. This he withdrew,—a worse fault, under the circumstances, than to have made it. He had taught Catharine that her only safety lay in action, if she would not be removed from the throne in favor of the worthless creature who had supplanted her in her husband's esteem.
Events moved rapidly. It was on the 21st of June, 1762, that the insult was given and the threat made. Within a month the czar was dead and his wife reigned in his stead. On the 24th Peter left St. Petersburg for Oranienbaum, his summer residence. He did not propose to remain there long. He had it in view to join his army and defeat the Danes, his present foes, with the less defined intention of gaining glory on some great battle-field at the side of his victorious ally Frederick the Great. The fleet with which Denmark was to be invaded was not ready to sail, many of the crew being sick; but this little difficulty did not deter the czar. He issued an imperial ukase ordering the sick sailors to get well.
On going to his summer residence Peter had imprudently left Catharine at St. Petersburg, taking his mistress in her stead. On the 29th his wife received orders from him to go to Peterhof. Thither he meant to proceed before setting out on his campaign. His feast-day came on the 10th of July. On the morning of the 9th he set out with a large train of followers for the palace of Peterhof, where the next day Catharine was to give a grand dinner in his honor.
It was two o'clock in the afternoon when Peterhof was reached. To the utter surprise of the czar, there were none but servants to meet him, and they in a state of mortal terror.
"Where is the empress?" he demanded.
No one could tell him. She had simply gone,—where and why he was soon to learn. As he waited and fumed, a peasant approached and handed him a letter, which proved to be from Bressau, his former French valet. It contained the astounding information that the empress had arrived in St. Petersburg that morning and had been proclaimed sole and absolute sovereign of Russia.
The tale was beyond his powers of belief. Like a madman he rushed through the empty rooms, making them resound with vociferous demands for his wife; looked in every corner and cupboard; rushed wildly through the gardens, calling for Catharine again and again; while the crowd of frightened courtiers followed in his steps. It was in vain; no voice came in answer to his demand, no Catharine was to be found.
The story of what had actually happened is none too well known. It has been told in more shapes than one. What we know is that there was a conspiracy to place Catharine on the throne, that the leaders of the troops had been tampered with, and that one of the conspirators, Captain Passek, had just been arrested by order of the czar. It was this arrest that precipitated the revolution. Fearing that all was discovered, the plotters took the only available means to save themselves.
The arrest of Passek had nothing to do with the conspiracy. It was for quite another cause. But it proved to be an accident with great results, since the Orlofs, who were deep in the conspiracy, thought that their lives were in danger, and that safety lay only in prompt action. As a result, at five A.M.. on July 9, Alexis Orlof suddenly appeared at Peterhof, and demanded to see the empress at once.
Catharine was fast asleep when the young officer hastily entered her room. He lost no time in waking her. She gazed on him with surprise and alarm.
"It is time to get up," he said, in as calm a tone as if he had been announcing that breakfast was waiting. "Everything is ready for your proclamation."
"What do you mean?" she demanded.
"Passek is arrested. You must come," he said, in the same tone.
This was enough. A long perspective of peril lay behind those words. The empress arose, dressed in all haste, and sprang into the coach beside which Orlof awaited her. One of her women entered with her, Orlof seated himself in front, a groom sprang up behind, and off they set, at headlong speed, for St. Petersburg.
The distance was nearly twenty miles, and the horses, which had already covered that distance, were in very poor condition for doubling it without rest. In his haste Orlof had not thought of ordering a relay. His carelessness might have cost them dear, since it was of vital moment to reach the city without delay. Fortunately, they met a peasant, and borrowed two horses from his cart. Those two horses perhaps won the throne for Catharine.
Five miles from the city they met two others of the conspirators, devoured with anxiety. Changing to the new coach, the party drove in at breakneck pace, and halted before the barracks of the Ismailofsky regiment, with which the conspirators had been at work.
It was between six and seven o'clock in the morning. Only a dozen men were at the barracks. Nothing had been prepared. Excitement or terror had turned all heads. Yet now no time was lost. Drummers were roused and drums beaten. Out came soldiers in haste, half dressed and half asleep.
"Shout 'Long live the empress!'" demanded the visitors.
Without hesitation the guardsmen obeyed, their only thought at the moment being that of a free flow of vodka, the Russian drink. A priest was quickly brought, who, like the soldiers, was prepared to do as he was told. Raising the cross, he hastily offered them a form of oath, to which the soldiers subscribed. The first step was taken; the empress was proclaimed.
The proclamation declared Catharine sole and absolute sovereign. It made no mention of her little son Paul, as some of the leaders in the conspiracy had proposed. The Orlofs controlled the situation, and the action of the Ismailofsky was soon sanctioned by other regiments of the guard. They hated the czar and were ripe for revolt.
One regiment only, the Preobrajensky, that of which the czar himself was colonel, resisted. It was led against the other troops under the command of a captain and a major. The hostile bodies came face to face a few paces apart; the queen's party greatest in number, but in disorder, the czar's party drawn up with military skill. A moment, a word, might precipitate a bloody conflict.
Suddenly a man in the ranks cried out, "Oura! Long live the empress!" In an instant the whole regiment echoed the cry, the ranks were broken, the soldiers embraced their comrades in the other ranks, and, falling on their knees, begged pardon of the empress for their delay.
And now the throng turned towards the neighboring church of Our Lady of Kasan, in which Catharine was to receive their oaths of fidelity. A crowd pushed in to do homage, composed not only of soldiers, but of members of the senate and the synod. A manifesto was quickly drawn up by a clerk named Tieplof, printed in all haste, and distributed to the people, who read it and joined heartily in the cry of "Long live the empress!"
Catharine next reviewed the troops, who again hailed her with shouts. And thus it was that a czar was dethroned and a new reign begun without the loss of a drop of blood. There was some little disorder. Several wine-shops were broken into, the house of Prince George of Holstein was pillaged and he and his wife were roughly handled, but that was all: as yet it had been one of the simplest of revolutions.
Catharine was empress, but how long would she remain so? Her empire consisted of the fickle people of St. Petersburg, her army of four regiments of the guards. If Peter had the courage to strike for his throne, he might readily regain it. He had with him about fifteen hundred Holsteiners, an excellent body of troops, on whose loyalty he could fully rely, for they were foreigners in Russia, and their safety depended on him. At the head of these troops was one of the first soldiers of the age, Field-Marshal Muenich. The main Russian army was in Pomerania, under the orders of the czar, if he were alert in giving them. He had it in view to annihilate the Danes, to show himself a hero under Frederick of Prussia; surely a handful of conspirators and a few regiments of malcontents would have but a shallow chance.
Yet Catharine knew the man with whom she dealt. The grain of courage which would have saved Peter was not to be found in his make-up, and Muenich strove in vain to induce him to act with manly resolution. A dozen fancies passed through his mind in an hour. He drew up manifestoes for a paper campaign. He sent to Oranienbaum for the Holstein troops, intending to fortify Peterhof, but changed his mind before they arrived.
Muenich now advised him to go to Cronstadt and secure himself in that stronghold. After some hesitation he agreed, but night had fallen before the whole party, male and female, set off in a yacht and galley, as if on a pleasure-trip. It was one o'clock in the morning when they arrived in sight of the fortress.
"Who goes there?" hailed a sentinel from the ramparts.
"There is no emperor. Keep off!"
Delay had given Catharine ample time to get ahead of him.
"Do not heed the sentry," cried Muenich. "They will not dare to fire on you. Land, and all will be safe."
But Peter was below deck, in a panic of fear. The women were shrieking in terror. Despite Muenich, the vessels were put about. Then the old soldier, half in despair at this poltroonery, proposed another plan.
"Let us go to Revel, embark on a war-ship, and proceed to Pomerania. There you can take command of the army. Do this, sire, and within six weeks St. Petersburg and Russia will be at your feet. I will answer for this with my head."
But Peter was hopelessly incompetent to act. He would go back to Oranienbaum. He would negotiate. He arrived there to learn that Catharine was marching on him at the head of her regiments. On she came, her cap crowned with oak leaves, her hair floating in the wind. The soldiers had thrown off their Prussian uniforms and were dressed in their old garb. They were eager to fight the Holstein foreigners.
No opportunity came for this. A messenger met them with a flag of truce. Peter had sent an offer to divide the power with Catharine. Receiving no answer, in an hour he sent an offer to abdicate. He was brought to Peterhof, where Catharine had halted, and where he cried like a whipped child on receiving the orders of the new empress and being forcibly separated from the woman who had ruined him.
A day had changed the fate of an empire. Within little more than six months from his accession the czar had been hurled from his throne and his wife had taken his place. Peter was sent under guard to Ropcha, a lonely spot about twenty miles away, there to stay until accommodations could be prepared for him in the strong fortress of Schluesselburg.
He was never to reach the latter place. He had abdicated on July 14. On July 18 Alexis Orlof, covered with sweat and dust, burst into the dressing-room of the empress. He had a startling story to tell. He had ridden full speed from Ropcha with the news of the death of Peter III.
The story was that the czar had been found dead in his room. That was doubtless the case, but that he had been murdered no one had a shadow of doubt. Yet no one knew, and no one knows to this day, just what had taken place. Stories of his having been poisoned and strangled have been told, not without warrant. A detailed account is given of poison being forced upon him by the Orlofs, who are said to have, on the poison failing to act, strangled him in a revolting manner by their own hands. Though this story lacks proof, the body was quite black. "Blood oozed through the pores, and even through the gloves which covered the hands." Those who kissed the corpse came away with swollen lips.
That Peter was murdered is almost certain; but that Catharine had anything to do with it is not so sure. It may have been done by the conspirators to prevent any reversal of the revolution. Prison-walls have hidden many a dark event; and we only know that the czar was dead and Catharine on the throne.
A STRUGGLE FOR A THRONE.
While the armies of Catharine II. were threatening with destruction the empire of Turkey, and her diplomats were deciding what part of dismembered Poland should fall to her share, her throne itself was put in danger of destruction by an aspirant who arose in the east and for two years kept Russia from end to end in a state of dire alarm. The summary manner in which Peter III. had been removed from the throne was not relished by the people. Numerous small revolts broke out, which were successively put down. St. Petersburg accepted Catharine, but Moscow did not, and on her visits to the latter city the political atmosphere proved so frigid that she was glad to get back to the more genial climate of the city on the Neva.
Years passed before Russia settled down to full acceptance of a reign begun in violence and sustained by force, and in this interval there were no fewer than six impostors to be dealt with, each of whom claimed to be Peter III. Murdered emperors sleep badly in their graves. The example of the false Dmitris, generations before, remained in men's minds, and it seemed as if every Russian who bore a resemblance to the vanished czar was ready to claim his vacated seat.
Of these false Peters, the sixth and most dangerous was a Cossack of the Don, whose actual name was Pugatchef, but whose face seemed capable of calling up an army wherever it appeared, and who, if his ability had been equal to his fortune, might easily have seated himself on the throne. The impostor proved to be his own worst foe, and defeated himself by his innate barbarity.
Pugatchef began his career as a common soldier, afterwards becoming an officer. Deserting the army after a period of service, he made his way to Poland, where he dwelt with the monks of that country and pretended to equal the best of them in piety. Here he was told that he bore a striking resemblance to Peter III. The hint was enough. He returned to Russia, where he professed sanctity, dressed like a patriarch of the church, and scattered benedictions freely among the Cossacks of the Don. He soon gained adherents among the old orthodox party, who were bitter against the religious looseness of the court. Finally he gave himself out as Peter III., declaring that the story of his death was false, that he had escaped from the hands of the assassins, and that he desired to win the throne, not for himself, but for his infant son Paul.
The first result of this announcement was that the impostor was seized and taken to Kasan as a prisoner. But the carelessness of his guards allowed him to escape from his prison cell, and he made his way to the Volga, near its entrance into the Caspian Sea, where he began to collect a body of followers among the Cossacks of that region. His first open declaration was made on September 17, 1773, when he appeared with three hundred Cossacks at the town of Yaitsk, and published an appeal to orthodox believers, declaring that he was the czar Peter III. and calling upon them for support.
His handful of Cossacks soon grew into an army, multitudes of the tribesmen gathered around him, and in a brief time he found himself at the head of a large body of the lowest of the people. The man was a savage at heart, betraying his innate depravity by foolish and useless cruelties, and in this way preventing the more educated class of the community from joining his ranks.
Yet he contrived to gather about him an army of several thousand men, and obtained a considerable number of cannon, with which he soon afterwards laid siege to the city of Orenburg. Both Yaitsk and Orenburg defied his efforts, but he had greater success in the field, defeating two armies in succession. These victories gave him new assurance. He now caused money to be coined in his name, as though he were the lawful emperor, and marched northward at the head of a large force to meet the armies of the state.
His army was destitute of order or discipline and he woefully deficient in military skill, yet his proclamation of freedom to the people, and the opportunities he gave them for plunder and outrage, strengthened his hands, and recruits came in multitudes. The Tartars, Kirghis, and Bashkirs, who had been brought against their will under the Russian yoke, flocked to his standard, in the hope of regaining their freedom. Many of the Poles who had been banished from their country also sought his ranks, and the people of Moscow and its vicinity, who had from the first been opposed to Catharine's reign, waited his approach that they might break out in open rebellion.