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Peter the Great by  Jacob Abbott

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T the time when the emperor issued his orders to so many of the sons of the nobility, requiring them to go and reside for a time in the cities of western Europe, he formed the design of going himself to make a tour in that part of the world, for the purpose of visiting the courts and capitals, and seeing with his own eyes what arts and improvements were to be found there which might be advantageously introduced into his own dominions. In the spring of the year 1697, he thought that the time had come for carrying this idea into effect.

The plan which he formed was not to travel openly in his own name, for he knew that in this case a great portion of his time and attention, in the different courts and capitals, would be wasted in the grand parades, processions, and ceremonies with which the different sovereigns would doubtless endeavor to honor his visit. He therefore determined to travel incognito, in the character of a private person in the train of an embassy. An embassy could pro- [113] ceed more quietly from place to place than a monarch traveling in his own name; and then besides, if the emperor occupied only a subordinate place in the train of the embassy, he could slip away from it to pursue his own inquiries in a private manner whenever he pleased, leaving the embassadors themselves and those of their train who enjoyed such scenes to go through all the public receptions and other pompous formalities which would have been so tiresome to him.

General Le Fort, who had by this time been raised to a very high position under Peter's government, was placed at the head of this embassy. Two other great officers of state were associated with him. Then came secretaries, interpreters, and subordinates of all kinds, in great numbers, among whom Peter was himself enrolled under a fictitious name. Peter took with him several young men of about his own age. Two or three of these were particular friends of his, whom he wished to have accompany him for the sake of their companionship on the journey. There were some others whom he selected on account of the talent which they had evinced for mechanical and mathematical studies. These young men he intended to have instructed in the art [114] of ship-building in some of the countries which the embassy were to visit.

Besides these arrangements in respect to the embassy, provision was, of course, to be made by the emperor for the government of the country during his absence. He left the administration in the hands of three great nobles, the first of whom was one of his uncles, his mother's brother. The name of this prince was Naraskin. The other two nobles were associated with Naraskin in the regency. These commissioners were to have the whole charge of the government of the country during the Czar's absence. Peter's little son, whose name was Alexis, and who was now about seven years old, was also committed to their keeping.

Not having entire confidence in the fidelity of the old Guards, Peter did not trust the defense of Moscow to them, but he garrisoned the fortifications in and around the capital with a force of about twelve thousand men that he had gradually brought together for that purpose. A great many of these troops, both officers and men, were foreigners. Peter placed greater reliance on them on that account, supposing that they would be less likely to sympathize with and join the people of the city in case of any popular discontent or disturbances. [115] The Guards were sent off into the interior and toward the frontiers, where they could do no great mischief, even if disposed.

At length, when every thing was ready, the embassy set out from Moscow. The departure of the expedition from the gates of the city made quite an imposing scene, so numerous was the party which composed the embassadors' train. There were in all about three hundred men. The principal persons of the embassy were, of course, splendidly mounted and equipped, and they were followed by a line of wagons conveying supplies of clothing, stores, presents for foreign courts, and other baggage. This baggage-train was, of course, attended by a suitable escort. Vast multitudes of people assembled along the streets and at the gates of the city to see the grand procession commence its march.

The first place of importance at which the embassy stopped was the city of Riga, on the shores of the Gulf of Riga, in the eastern part of the Baltic Sea. Riga and the province in which it was situated, though now a part of the Russian empire, then belonged to Sweden.

[116] It was the principal port on the Baltic in those days, and Peter felt a great interest in viewing it, as there was then no naval outlet in that direction from his dominions. The governor of Riga was very polite to the embassy, and gave them a very honorable reception in the city, but he refused to allow the embassadors to examine the fortifications. It had been arranged beforehand between the embassadors and Peter that two of them were to ask permission to see the fortifications, and that Peter himself was to go around with them as their attendant when they made their visit, in order that he might make his own observations in respect to the strength of the works and the mode of their construction. Peter was accordingly very much disappointed and vexed at the refusal of the governor to allow the fortifications to be viewed, and he secretly resolved that he would seize the first opportunity after his return to open a quarrel with the King of Sweden, and take this city away from him.

Leaving Riga, the embassy moved on toward the southward and westward until, at length, they entered the dominions of the King of Prussia. They came soon to the city of Konigsberg, which was at that time the capital. The reception of the embassy at this city was [117] attended with great pomp and display. The whole party halted at a small village at the distance of about a mile from the gates, in order to give time for completing the arrangements, and to await the arrival of a special messenger and an escort from the king to conduct them within the walls.

At length, when all was ready, the procession formed about four o'clock in the afternoon. First came a troop of horses that belonged to the king. They were splendidly caparisoned, but were not mounted. They were led by grooms. Then came an escort of troops of the Royal Guards. They were dressed in splendid red uniform, and were preceded by kettle-drums. Then a company of the Prussian nobility in beautifully decorated coaches, each drawn by six horses. Next came the state carriages of the king. The king himself was not in either of them, it being etiquette for the king to remain in his palace, and receive the embassy at a public audience there after their arrival. The royal carriages were sent out, however, as a special though indirect token of respect to the Czar, who was known to be in the train.

Then came a procession of pages, consisting of those of the king and those of the embassa- [118] dors marching together. These pages were all beautiful boys, elegantly dressed in characteristic liveries of red laced with gold. They marched three together, two of the king's pages in each rank, with one of the embassadors' between them. The spectators were very much interested in these boys, and the boys were likewise doubtless much interested in each other; but they could not hold any conversation with each other, for probably those of each set could speak only their own language.

Next after the pages came the embassy itself. First there was a line of thirty-six carriages, containing the principal officers and attendants of the three embassadors. In one of these carriages, riding quietly with the rest as a subordinate in the train, was Peter. There was doubtless some vague intimation circulating among the crowd that the Emperor of Russia was somewhere in the procession, concealed in his disguise. But there were no means of identifying him, and, of course, whatever curiosity the people felt on the subject remained ungratified.

Next after these carriages came the military escort which the embassadors had brought with them. The escort was headed by the embassadors' band of music, consisting of trumpets, [119] kettle-drums, and other martial instruments. Then came a body of foot-guards: their uniform was green, and they were armed with silver battle-axes. Then came a troop of horsemen, which completed the escort. Immediately after the escort there followed the grand state carriage of the embassy, with the three embassadors in it.

The procession was closed by a long train, of elegant carriages, conveying various personages of wealth and distinction, who had come from the city to join in doing honor to the strangers.

As the procession entered the city, they found the streets through which they were to pass densely lined on each side by the citizens who had assembled to witness the spectacle. Through this vast concourse the embassadors and their suite advanced, and were finally conducted to a splendid palace which had been prepared for them in the heart of the city. The garrison of the city was drawn up at the gates of the palace, to receive them as they arrived. When the carriage reached the gate and the embassadors began to alight, a grand salute was fired from the guns of the fortress. The embassadors were immediately conducted to their several apartments in the palace by the officers [120] who had led the procession, and then left to repose. When the officers were about to withdraw, the embassadors accompanied them to the head of the stairs and took leave of them there. The doors of the palace and the halls and entrances leading to the apartments of the embassadors were guarded by twenty-four soldiers, who were stationed there as sentinels to protect the precincts from all intrusion.

Four days after this there was another display, when the embassadors were admitted to their first public audience with the king. There was again a grand procession through the streets, with great crowds assembled to witness it, and bands of music, and splendid uniforms, and gorgeous equipages, all more magnificent, if possible, than before. The embassadors were conducted in this way to the royal palace. They entered the hall, dressed in cloth of gold and silver, richly embroidered, and adorned with precious stones of great value. Here they found the king seated on a throne, and attended by all the principal nobles of his court. The embassadors advanced to pay their reverence to his majesty, bearing in their hands, in a richly-ornamented box, a letter from the Czar, with which they had been intrusted for him. There were a number of attendants also, who were [121] loaded with rich and valuable presents which the embassadors had brought to offer to the king. The presents consisted of the most costly furs, tissues of gold and silver, precious stones, and the like, all productions of Russia, and of very great value.

The king received the embassadors in a very honorable manner, and made them an address of welcome in reply to the brief addresses of salutation and compliment which they first delivered to him. He received the letter from their hands and read it. The presents were deposited on tables which had been set for the purpose.

The letter stated that the Czar had sent the embassy to assure him of his desire "to improve the affection and good correspondence which had always existed, as well between his royal highness and himself as between their illustrious ancestors." It said also that "the same embassy being from thence to proceed to the court of Vienna, the Czar requested the king to help them on their journey." And finally it expressed the thanks of the Czar, for the "engineers and bombardiers" which the king had sent him during the past year, and who had been so useful to him in the siege of Azof.

[122] The king, having read the letter, made a verbal reply to the embassadors, asking them to thank the Czar in his name for the friendly sentiments which his letter expressed, and for the splendid embassy which he had sent to him.

All this time the Czar himself, the author of the letter, was standing by, a quiet spectator of the scene, undistinguishable from the other secretaries and attendants that formed the embassadors' train.

After the ceremony of audience was completed the embassadors withdrew. They were reconducted to their lodgings with the same ceremonies as were observed in their coming out, and then spent the evening at a grand banquet provided for them by the elector. All the principal nobility of Prussia were present at this banquet, and after it was concluded the town was illuminated with a great display of fireworks, which continued until midnight.

The sending of a grand embassage like this from one royal or imperial potentate to another was a very common occurrence in those times. The pomp and parade with which they were accompanied were intended equally for the purpose of illustrating the magnificence of the government that sent them, and of offering a [123] splendid token of respect to the one to which they were sent. Of course, the expense was enormous, both to the sovereign who sent and to the one who received the compliment. But such sovereigns as those were very willing to expend money in parades which exhibited before the world the evidences of their own grandeur and power, especially as the mass of the people, from whose toils the means of defraying the cost was ultimately to come, were so completely held in subjection by military power that they could not even complain, far less could they take any effectual measures for calling their oppressors to account. In governments that are organized at the present day, either by the establishment of new constitutions, or by the remodeling and reforming of old ones, all this is changed. The people understand now that all the money which is expended by their governments is ultimately paid by themselves, and they are gradually devising means by which they can themselves exercise a greater and greater control over these expenditures. They retain a far greater portion of the avails of their labor in their own hands, and expend it in adorning and making comfortable their own habitations, and cultivating the minds of their children, while they require [124] the government officials to live, and travel, and transact their business in a more quiet and unpretending way than was customary of yore.

Thus, in traveling over most parts of the United States, you will find the people who cultivate the land living in comfortable, well-furnished houses, with separate rooms appropriately arranged for the different uses of the family. There is a carpet on the parlor floor, and there are books in the book-case, and good supplies of comfortable clothing in the closets. But then our embassadors and ministers in foreign courts are obliged to content themselves with what they consider very moderate salaries, which do not at all allow of their competing in style and splendor with the embassadors sent from the old despotic monarchies of Europe, under which the people who till the ground live in bare and wretched huts, and are supplied from year to year with only just enough of food and clothing to keep them alive and enable them to continue their toil.

But to return to Peter and his embassy. When the public reception was over Peter introduced himself privately to the king in his own name, and the king, in a quiet and unofficial manner, paid him great attention. There were to be many more public ceremonies, ban- [125] quets, and parades for the embassy in the city during their stay, but Peter withdrew himself entirely from the scene, and went out to a certain bay, which extended about one hundred and fifty miles along the shore between Konigsberg and Dantzic, and occupied himself in examining the vessels which were there, and in sailing to and fro in them.

This bay you will find delineated on any map of Europe. It extends along the coast for a considerable distance between Konigsberg and Dantzic, on the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea.

When the embassadors and their train had finished their banquetings and celebrations in Konigsberg, Peter joined them again, and the expedition proceeded to Dantzic. This was at that time, as it is now, a large commercial city, being one of the chief ports on the Baltic for the exportation of grain from Poland and other fertile countries in the interior.

By this time it began to be every where well known that Peter himself was traveling with the embassy. Peter would not, however, allow himself to be recognized at all, or permit any public notice to be taken of his presence, but went about freely in all the places that he visited with his own companions, just as if he [126] were a private person, leaving all the public parades and receptions, and all the banquetings, and other state and civic ceremonies, to the three embassadors and their immediate train.

A great many elegant and expensive presents, however, were sent in to him, under pretense of sending them to the embassadors.

The expedition traveled on in this way along the coasts of the Baltic Sea, on the way toward Holland, which was the country that Peter was most eager to see. At every city where the stopped Peter went about examining the shipping. He was often attended by some important official person of the place, but in other respects he went without any ceremony whatever. He used to change his dress, putting on, in the different places that he visited, that which was worn by the common people of the town, so as not to attract any attention, and not even to be recognized as a foreigner. At one port, where there were a great many Dutch vessels that he wished to see, he wore the pea-jacket and the other sailor-like dress of a common Dutch skipper, in order that he might ramble about at his ease along the docks, and mingle freely with the seafaring men, without attracting any notice at all.

[129] The people of Holland were aware that the embassy was coming into their country, and that Peter himself accompanied it, and they accordingly prepared to receive the party with the highest marks of honor. As the embassy, after crossing the frontier, moved on toward Amsterdam, salutes were fired from the ramparts of all the great towns, that they passed, the soldiers were drawn out, and civic processions, formed of magistrates and citizens, met them at the gates to conduct them through the streets. The windows, too, and the roofs of all the houses, were crowded with spectators. Wherever they stopped at night bonfires and illuminations were made in honor of their arrival, and sometimes beautiful fireworks were played off in the evening before their palace windows.



Of course, there was a great desire felt every where among the spectators to discover which of the personages who followed in the train of the embassy was the Czar himself. They found it, however, impossible to determine this point, so completely had Peter disguised his person and merged himself with the rest. Indeed, in some cases, when the procession was moving forward with great ceremony, the object of the closest scrutiny in every part for thousands of [130] eyes, Peter himself was not in it at all. This was particularly the case on the occasion of the grand entry into Amsterdam. Peter left the party at a distance from the city, in order to go in quietly the next day, in company with some merchants with whom he had become acquainted. And, accordingly, while all Amsterdam had gathered into the streets, and were watching with the most intense curiosity every train as it passed, in order to discover which one contained the great Czar, the great Czar himself was several miles away, sitting quietly with his friends, the merchants, at a table in a common country inn.

The government and the people of Holland took a very great interest in this embassy, not only on account of the splendor of it, and the magnitude of the imperial power which it represented, but also on account of the business and pecuniary considerations which were involved. They wished very much to cultivate a good understanding with Russia, on account of the trade and commerce of that country, which was already very great, and was rapidly increasing. They determined, therefore, to show the embassy every mark of consideration and honor.

Besides the measures which they adopted for giving the embassy itself a grand reception, the [131] government set apart a spacious and splendid house in Amsterdam for the use of the Czar during his stay. They did this in a somewhat private and informal manner, it is true, for they knew that Peter did not wish that his presence with the embassy should be openly noticed in any way. They organized also a complete household for this palace, including servants, attendants, and officers of all kinds, in a style corresponding to the dignity of the exalted personage who was expected to occupy it.

But Peter, when he arrived, would not occupy the palace at all, but went into a quiet lodging among the shipping, where he could ramble about without constraint, and see all that was to be seen which could illustrate the art of navigation. The Dutch East India Company, which was then, perhaps, the greatest and most powerful association of merchants which had ever existed, had large ship-yards, where their vessels were built, at Saardam. Saardam was almost a suburb of Amsterdam, being situated on a deep river which empties into the Y, so called, which is the harbor of Amsterdam, and only a few miles from the town. Peter immediately made arrangements for going to these ship-yards and spending the time while the embassy remained in that part of the [132] country in studying the construction of ships, and in becoming acquainted with the principal builders. Here, as the historians of the times say, he entered himself as a common ship-carpenter, being enrolled in the list of the company's workmen by the name Peter Michaelhoff, which was as nearly as possible his real name. He lived here several months, and devoted himself diligently to his work. He kept two or three of his companions with him—those whom he had brought from Moscow as his friends and associates on the tour; but they, it is said, did not take hold of the hard work with nearly as much zeal and energy as Peter displayed. Peter himself worked for the greatest part of every day among the other workmen, wearing also the same dress that they wore. When he was tired of work he would go out on the water, and sail and row about in the different sorts of boats, so as to make himself practically acquainted with the comparative effects of the various modes of construction.

The object which Peter had in view in all this was, doubtless, in a great measure, his own enjoyment for the time being. He was so much interested in the subject of ships and ship-building, and in every thing connected with navigation, that it was a delight to him to [133] be in the midst of such scenes as were to be witnessed in the company's yards. He was still but a young man, and, like a great many other young men, he liked boats and the water. It is not probable, notwithstanding what is said by historians about his performances with the broad-axe, that he really did much serious work. Still he was naturally fond of mechanical occupations, as the fact of his making a wheelbarrow with which to construct a fortification, in his schoolboy days, sufficiently indicates.

Then, again, his being in the ship-yards so long, nominally as one of the workmen, gave him undoubtedly great facilities for observing every thing which it was important that he should know. Of course, he could not have seriously intended to make himself an actual and practical ship-carpenter, for, in the first place, the time was too short. A trade like that of a ship-carpenter requires years of apprenticeship to make a really good workman. Then, in the second place, the mechanical part of the work was not the part which it devolved upon him, as a sovereign intent on building up a navy for the protection of his empire, even to superintend. He could not, therefore, have seriously intended to learn to build ships him- [134] self, but only to make himself nominally a workman, partly for the pleasure which it gave him to place himself so wholly at home among the shipping, and partly for the sake of the increased opportunities which he thereby obtained of learning many things which it was important that he should know.

Travelers visiting Holland at the present day often go out to Saardam to see the little building that is still shown as the shop which Peter occupied while he was there. It is a small wooden building, leaning and bent with age and decrepitude and darkened by exposure and time. Within the last half century, however, in order to save so curious a relic from farther decay, the proprietors of the place have constructed around and over it an outer building of brick, which incloses the hut itself like a case. The sides of the outer building are formed of large, open arches, which allow the hut within to be seen. The ground on which the hut stands has also been laid out prettily as a garden, and is inclosed by a wall. Within this wall, and near the gate, is a very neat and pretty Dutch cottage, in which the custodian lives who shows the place to strangers.

While Peter was in the ship-yards the workmen knew who he was, but all persons were [135] forbidden to gather around or gaze at him, or to interfere with him in any way by their notice or their attentions. They were to allow him to go and come as he pleased, without any molestation. These orders they obeyed as well as they could, as every one was desirous of treating their visitor in a manner as agreeable to him as possible, so as to prolong his stay.

Peter varied his amusements, while he thus resided in Saardam, by making occasional visits in a quiet and private way to certain friends in Amsterdam. He very seldom attended any of the great parades and celebrations which were continually taking place in honor of the embassy, but went only to the houses of men eminent in private life for their attainments in particular branches of knowledge, or for their experience or success as merchants or navigators. There was one person in particular that Peter became acquainted with in Amsterdam, whose company and conversation pleased him very much, and whom he frequently visited. This was a certain wealthy merchant, whose operations were on so vast a scale that he was accustomed to send off special expeditions at his own expense, all over the world, to explore new regions and discover new fields for his commercial enterprises. In order also to im- [136] prove the accuracy of the methods employed by his ship-masters for ascertaining the latitude and longitude in navigating their ships, he built an observatory, and furnished it with the telescopes, quadrants, and other costly instruments necessary for making the observations—all at his own expense.

With this gentleman, and with the other persons in Amsterdam that Peter took a fancy to, he lived on very friendly and familiar terms. He often came in from Saardam to visit them, and would sometimes spend a considerable portion of the night in drinking and making merry with them. He assumed with these friends none of the reserve and dignity of demeanor that we should naturally associate with the idea of a king. Indeed, he was very blunt, and often rough and overbearing in his manners, not unfrequently doing and saying things which would scarcely be pardoned in a person of inferior station. When thwarted or opposed in any way he was irritable and violent, and he evinced continually a temper that was very far from being amiable. In a word, though his society was eagerly sought by all whom he was willing to associate with, he seems to have made no real friends. Those who knew him admired his intelligence and his energy, and they re- [137] spected his power, but he was not a man that any one could love.

Amsterdam, though it was the great commercial centre of Holland—and, indeed, at that time, of the world—was not the capital of the country. The seat of government was then, as now, at the Hague. Accordingly, after remaining as long at Amsterdam as Peter wished to amuse himself in the ship-yards, the embassy moved on to the Hague, where it was received in a very formal and honorable manner by the king and the government. The presence of Peter could not be openly referred to, but very special and unusual honors were paid to the embassy in tacit recognition of it. At the Hague were resident ministers from all the great powers of Europe, and these all, with one exception, came to pay visits of ceremony to the embassadors, which visits were of course duly returned with great pomp and parade. The exception was the minister of France. There was a coolness existing at this time between the Russian and the French governments on account of something Peter had done in respect to the election of a king of Poland, which displeased the French king, and on this account the French minister declined taking part in the special honors paid to the embassy.

[138] The Hague was at this time perhaps the most influential and powerful capital of Europe. It was the centre, in fact, of all important political movements and intrigues for the whole Continent. The embassy accordingly paused here, to take some rest from the fatigues and excitements of their long journey, and to allow Peter time to form and mature plans for future movements and operations.

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