THE succession of Peter to the throne of the empire was by no means pleasing to the majority of the Russian nobles, and it was particularly opposed by Prince Galitzin, the prime minister of the late czar. This able man had espoused the interests of Sophia (the sister of Feodor III. and Ivan, and half-sister of Peter), a young woman of eminent abilities and insinuating address. Sophia, upon the pretence of asserting the claims of her brother Ivan, who, though of a feeble constitution and weak intellect, was considered as the lawful heir to the crown, had really formed a design of securing the succession to herself; and, with that view, had not only insinuated herself into the confidence and good graces of Galitzin,-but had brought over to her interests the Strelitzes. These turbulent and licentious soldiers assembled ostensibly for the purpose of placing on the throne Prince Ivan, whom they proclaimed czar by acclamation. During three days these Russian Janizaries roved about the city of Moscow, committing the greatest excesses, and putting to death several of the chief officers of state who were suspected of being hostile to the designs of Sophia. The princess did not, however, entirely gain her point; for, as the new czar entertained a sincere affection for Peter (who, as already seen, was only his half-brother), he insisted that this prince should share with him the imperial dignity. This was at length agreed to ; and on the 6th of May, 1682, Ivan and Peter were solemnly crowned joint-emperors of all the Russias, while the princess Sophia was nominated their copartner in the government.
From the imbecility of Ivan, and the youth of Peter (now only ten years of age), the whole power of the government in fact rested on Sophia and her minister Galitzin, though until the year 1687 the names of Ivan and Peter only were annexed to the imperial decrees. Sophia had scarcely established her authority, when she was threatened with deposition, from an alarming insurrection of the Strelitzes. This was excited by their commander, Prince Kovanskoi, who, demanding of Sophia that she would marry one of her sisters to his son, met with a refusal. In consequence of this insurrection, which threw the whole city of Moscow into terror and consternation, Sophia and the two young czars took refuge in a monastery, about twelve leagues from the capital; and, before the Strelitzes could follow them thither, a considerable body of soldiers, principally foreigners, was assembled in their defence. Kovanskoi was taken prisoner, and instantly beheaded; and, though his followers at first threatened dreadful vengeance on his executioners, they soon found themselves obliged to submit, when the most guilty among the ringleaders suffered death.
The quelling of these disturbances gave opportunity to the friends of Peter to pursue the plans which they had formed for subverting the authority of Sophia; and their designs were favored by a rupture with Turkey. The Ottoman Porte was now engaged with Poland and the German empire, and both the latter powers had solicited the assistance of Russia against the common enemy. Sophia and her party were averse to the alliance ; but as the secret friends of Peter had sufficient influence to persuade the majority that a Turkish war would be of advantage to the state, they even prevailed on Galitzin to put himself at the head of the army, and thus removed their principal opponent. Assembling an army of nearly three hundred thousand men, he advanced to the confines of Turkey, and here consumed two campaigns in marches and countermarches, and lost nearly forty thousand men, partly in unsuccessful skirmishes with the enemy, but chiefly from disease.
While Galitzin was thus trifling away his time in the south, Peter, who already began to give proofs of those great talents which afterward enabled him to act so conspicuous a part in the theatre of the north, was strengthening his party among the Russian nobles. His ordinary residence was at a village not far from Moscow, and here he had assembled round him a considerable number of young men of rank and influence, whom he called his playmates. Under the appearance of a military game, Peter was secretly establishing himself in the affections of his young companions ; and he contrived effectually to lull the suspicions of Sophia, till it was too late for her to oppose his machinations.
In the year 1689, Peter, who had now attained his seventeenth year, determined to make an effort to deprive Sophia of all share in the government, and thus secure to himself the undivided sovereignty. An open rupture soon took place, and Sophia, finding that she could not openly oppose the party of the czar, attempted to procure his assassination; but her design was discovered, and an accommodation was agreed to, on condition that she would give up all claim to the regency and retire to a nunnery. She was consequently incarcerated in a monastery for the rest of her life. This princess was, considering the times in which she lived, a woman of extraordinary taste and literary acquirements. A tragedy, written by her when she was involved in state intrigues, and apparently absorbed in political turmoil, is still preserved. The commander of the Strelitzes, who was to have been her agent in the assassination of Peter, was beheaded, and the minister Galitzin sent into banishment to Archangel. Peter had now obtained the wished-for possession of the imperial throne; for though Ivan was still nominally czar, he had voluntarily resigned all participation in the administration of affairs, and retired to a life of obscurity. He survived until 1696.
The ruling passion of Peter the Great was a desire to extend his empire and consolidate his power; and accordingly his first act was to make war on the Turks, an undertaking which was at the outset imprudently conducted, and consequently unsuccessful. He lost thirty thousand men before Azov, and did not obtain permanent possession of the town until the year 1699, and then by an armistice. In the following year he was defeated in his intrenched camp at Narva, containing eighty thousand men, by eight thousand Swedes under Charles XII., then only a boy of seventeen ; and on many other occasions the Russians suffered severe checks and reverses. But at length the indomitable perseverance of Peter prevailed. In 1705, he carried Narva, the scene of his former defeat, by assault; and two years after, by the crowning victory of Poltava, where he showed the qualities of an able general, he sealed the fate of his gallant and eccentric adversary and the nation over which he ruled.
In 1711, Peter once more took the field against the Turks; but his troops were badly provisioned, and, having led them into a very disadvantageous position, where they were surrounded by the grand vizier's army, he was only enabled, by a present of his consort's jewels to the Turkish commander, to negotiate a humiliating peace, one of the conditions of which was that the king of Sweden, then a fugitive in Turkey, should be permitted to return to his own country.
Prom this period to 1718, Peter was constantly occupied in pursuing with vigor the plans which he had originated for extending the frontiers of his kingdom toward the west. In the latter year he drove thef Swedes out of Finland, made several descents upon the coast near Stockholm, destroyed whole towns, obliged her navy to fly, and finally, in 1721, by the peace of Nystadt, retained Esthonia, Livonia, Ingria, a part of Carelia and Finland, as well as the islands of Dago, Moen, Esel, &c.
Having now no enemy on the side of the Baltic, Peter turned his arms eastward, and took Derbend, on the Caspian, from the shah of Persia, in 1724 — an inglorious conquest, for only six thousand Persians were opposed to his veteran army of eleven thousand, besides Kalmucks and Cossacks. This was his last military achievement, for he died in 1725 (of a cold contracted in attempting to rescue some shipwrecked sailors near Kronstadt), in the fifty-second year of his age. His latter years were clouded by domestic infelicity: his second wife, Catherine, was more than suspected of being unfaithful to him; and his son Alexis was disobedient. The former he spared; the latter he brought to trial, and is believed to have put to death in prison—some accounts affirm, with his own hand !
We have said that the czar's ruling passion was to extend his empire and consolidate his power, but he likewise possessed in an eminent degree the national characteristics—a persevering mind and a resolute will, which bid defiance to all difficulties. By the assistance of his foreign officers, he succeeded in forming and bringing into a high state of discipline a large army; he found Russia without a fishing-smack, and bequeathed to her a navy to which that of Sweden, long established and highly efficient, lowered her flag; he built St. Petersburg, which may be said to float upon the waters of the Neva; he caused canals and other public works of utility to be constructed in various parts of his empire; endowed colleges and universities, and established commercial relations with China and almost every other nation on the globe. The czar likewise possessed the capability of enduring privation and bodily fatigue to an almost incredible extent, and seemed to act upon the idea that, by his own personal exertions and the versatility of his genius, he could accomplish for Russia that which it had taken centuries to effect in other countries, and fancied that he could infuse into her citizens an immediate appreciation of the mechanical and polite arts, as well as a taste for those things which are seen only in an advanced stage of civilization. Peter devoted his whole attention and energies to this theory; and, though he could not compass impossibilities, he was enabled, by the uncontrolled exercise of the imperial will and inexhaustible resources, to effect a most extraordinary and rapid change in the political and physical condition of his country.
His manual dexterity and mechanical knowledge were great. Against the expressed wish of his boyars and the clergy, who thought it an irreligious act, he left Russia to make himself acquainted with the arts and inventions of other European nations, and worked with an adze in the principal dockyards of Holland; he not only built, but sailed his own boat, which, as remarked in a previous chapter, is still to be seen in St. Petersburg, as are specimens of his engraving, turning, and carpenter's work. He rose at four o'clock in summer; at six he was either in the senate or the admiralty: and his subjects must have believed that he had the gift of ubiquity, so many and so various were his occupations. He had also the virtue of economy, a quality rarely seen in a sovereign. He even found time to dabble in literature, and translated several works into Russian: among these was the "Architecture" of Le Clerc, and the "Art of Constructing Dams and Mills " by Sturm; these manuscripts are preserved.
During the czar's visit to London, he was much gazed at by the populace, and on one occasion was upset by a porter who pushed against him with his load; when Lord Carmarthen, fearing there would be a pugilistic encounter, turned angrily to the man, and said, " Don't you know that this is the czar ?"—" Czar!" replied the sturdy porter, with his tongue in his cheek, "we are all czars here!" Sauntering one day into Westminster hall with the same nobleman, when it was, as usual, alive with wigs and gowns, Peter asked who these people might be; and, when informed that they were lawyers, nothing could exceed his astonishment. " Lawyers !" he said, " why I have but two in all my dominions, and I believe I shall hang one of them the moment I get home !"
The vices of Peter were such as to have been expected in a man of his violent temperament, despotic in a barbarous country, and who in early life had been surrounded by flatterers and dissolute associates. But it would be foreign to the purpose of this work to enter into a discussion of this nature. The Russians date their civilization from his reign; but a slight glance at the history of some of the early czars will show that, in many of the points on which the greatness of his reputation rests, he was anticipated by his predecessors. Dark and savage as the early history of the country is, an attempt at public education had been made, religious toleration and an anxiety to promote commerce existed, and the institution of a code of laws had already occupied their attention. The untimely deaths of some of these princes deprived Russia of monarchs far more benevolent than Peter—men of finer and more generous minds, and, though not so ambitious, quite as anxious for her welfare. Under their sway no such rush at improvement would have been made ; no such influx of foreigners would have taken place ; but, if not so rapidly, at least as surely, these sovereigns would have effected quite as much real good. Peter left no code of laws established on the broad principles of justice ; he travelled in England and Holland, but thought only of their navies, and wholly overlooked the great principles of their governments, by which he might have ameliorated the condition of his own. Trial by jury never appears to have attracted his attention. The czar, it is true, reigned over a nation of serfs—so did Alfred the Great of England, and in the ninth instead of the eighteenth century.
Peter was succeeded by his consort Catherine, in whose favor he hadsome years before his death, altered the order of succession. She was the illegitimate daughter of a Livonian peasant. After some years spent in the service of a clergyman, she married a Swedish dragoon, who shortly afterward went on an expedition, and never returned. She then resided, it is doubtful whether as servant or paramour, with the Russian general Bauer, when Prince Menchikoff became enamored of her charms, and made her his" mistress. Peter the Great now distinguished her by his notice, and she became at first his mistress and afterward his empress.
Catherine I. conducted herself with great gentleness and prudence in the administration of the government. She reduced the annual capitation tax; recalled the greater part of those whom Peter had exiled to Siberia; caused every gallows to be taken down and all instruments of torture destroyed ; paid the troops their arrears; and restored to the Cossacks their privileges and immunities of which they had been deprived during the late reign. She concluded a treaty of alliance with the German emperor, by which it was stipulated that, in case of attack from an enemy, either party should assist the other with a force of thirty thousand men, and should each guaranty the possessions of the other. In her brief reign the boundaries of the empire were extended in the Trans-Caucasus; Catherine also founded the Academy of Sciences. Her indulgence in the use of intoxicating liquors produced a disease of which she died on the 17th of May, 1727, at the age of forty-one, having reigned only about two years.
Catherine settled the crown on Peter, the son of Alexis, and grandson of Peter the Great, by his first wife, Eudoxia, and who succeeded by the title of Peter II. This prince was only twelve years of age when he succeeded to the imperial throne, and his reign was short and uninteresting. He was influenced chiefly by Prince Menchikoff, whose daughter Catherine had decreed him to marry. This ambitious man, who, from a very mean condition, had risen to the first offices of the state under Peter the Great, and had, under Catherine, conducted the administration of the government, was now, however, drawing toward the end of his career. The number of his enemies had greatly increased, and their 'machinations succeeded so well, that Menchikoff and his whole family were banished to Siberia.
The artful counsellors of the young monarch, instead of cultivating his naturally good abilities, encouraged him to waste his time and exhaust his strength in hunting and other athletic exercises ; and it is supposed that the debility consequent on such fatigue increased the danger of the smallpox, with which he was attacked in January, 1780, and of which he died, at the age of only fifteen years.
Notwithstanding the absolute power with which Peter the Great and Catherine I. had settled by will the succession to the throne, the Russian senate and nobility,- upon the death of Peter II., ventured to set aside the order of succession which those sovereigns had established. The male issue of Peter was extinct; and the duke of Holstein (of Denmark), son to Peter's eldest daughter, was, by the destination of the late empress, entitled to the crown; but the Russians, for political reasons, chose Anne, duchess of Courland, second daughter to Ivan, Peter's half-brother; thus excluding her eldest sister, who was still living, because, as duchess of Mecklenburg, she was allied to one of the royal houses of Germany.
In 1735, a rupture took place between Russia and Turkey, occasioned partly by the mutual jealousies that had subsisted between these powers ever since the treaty on the Pruth, and partly by the depredations of the Tartars of the Crimea, then under the dominion of the Porte. A Russian army entered the Crimea, ravaged part of the country, and killed a considerable number of Tartars ; but having ventured too far, without a sufficient supply of provisions, was obliged to retreat, after sustaining a loss of nearly ten thousand men. This misfortune did not discourage the court of St. Petersburg; and, in the following year, another armament was sent into the Ukraine, under the command of Marshal Munich, while a second army, under Lascy, proceeded against Azov. Both these generals met with considerable success: the Tartars were defeated, and the fortress of Azov once more submitted to the Russian arms. A third campaign took place in 1737, when the Russians were assisted by a body of Austrian troops. Munich laid siege to Otchakov, which surrendered, while Lascy desolated the Crimea. No material advantages were, however, gained on either side, and disputes arose between the Austrian and Russian generals. At length, in 1739, Marshal Munich, having crossed the Boug at the head of a considerable army, defeated the Turks in a pitched battle near Stavutsham, made himself master of Jassy, the capital of Moldavia, and, before the end of the campaign, reduced the whole of that province to subjection. These successes of the Russian arms induced the Porte to propose terms of accommodation; but when, in the latter end of 1739, a treaty was concluded, Russia (probably through the influence of Austrian intrigue) again relinquished Azov and Moldavia, and only gained permission to build a fortress on the Don.
The empress Anne rendered herself memorable by the decisive turn she gave to the contests which arose in central Europe. She assisted the emperor Charles VI. of Germany; frustrated the schemes of the French ministry for placing Stanislaus on the throne of Poland, and actually procured the crown for his competitor Augustus, the elector of Saxony. Her chief merit, however, was in advancing the commerce of the country, and establishing silk and woollen manufactures—her chief folly, the building a palace of ice, to which she sent a prince Galitzin, one of her buffoons, and his wife, to pass the night of their wedding-day; the nuptial couch was also constructed of this cold material, as well as all the furniture, and four cannons which fired several rounds !
Anne died in 1740, after a reign of ten years, and was succeeded by her great-nephew, Ivan VI., when only two years of age. He was the son of the princess Anne of Mecklenburg, the daughter of her eldest sister, who had married Prince Anthony Ulric of Brunswick-Beveren. The administration of the princess Anne and her husband, in the name of their son, the infant czar, was upon many accounts unpopular, not only among the Russians, but with other powers of Europe; and, notwithstanding a successful war which they carried on with the Swedes, the princess Elizabeth Petrowna, daughter to Peter the Great by the empress Catherine, and born in 1709, formed a respectable party in her favor, by whom she was raised to the imperial dignity in December, 1741.
The princess of Mecklenburg, her husband, and son, were made prisoners, and the two former sent into banishment, to an island at the mouth of the Dwina, in the White sea, where the princess Anne died in child-bed in 1747. Ivan was for some time shut up in a monastery at Oranienburg; and, on attempting to escape, he was removed to the castle of Schlusselburg, where he was afterward cruelly put to death.
The war which had commenced between Russia and Sweden during the short regency of Anne of Mecklenburg, was now carried on with vigor and success by Elizabeth. The Russian forces took possession of Abo, and made themselves masters of the greater part of Finland. At length, in consequence of the negotiations that were carrying on relative to the succession of the Swedish crown, a peace was concluded between the two powers, in 1743, on condition that Elizabeth should restore the conquered part of Finland. On the eastern frontier of the empire, however, the Russian arms were less successful, several of the provinces wrested from Persia by Peter the Great having been reconquered by Nadir Kouli Khan.
Soon after her accession, Elizabeth determined to nominate her successor to the imperial throne, and had fixed on Charles Peter Ulric, son of the duke of Holstein-Gottorp, by Anne, daughter of Peter the Great. This prince was accordingly invited into Russia, persuaded to become a member of the Greek church, and proclaimed grand-duke of Russia, and heir of the empire.
Elizabeth now began to take an active part in the politics of Europe. The death of Charles VI., emperor of Germany, had left his daughter Maria Theresa, queen of Hungary, at the mercy of the enterprising king of Prussia, Frederick the Great (who immediately began the " Seven Years' War" by seizing the province of Silesia from the house of Austria), until a formidable party, more from jealousy at that monarch's military fame, than regard to the interests of an injured princess, was formed in her behalf. Frederick, whose sarcastic wit spared no one, having satirized in some verses Madame de Pompadour, the powerful and vindictive mistress of Louis XV., the French monarch at once espoused the cause of Austria; and it is remarkable that, from a like trivial cause, the Prussian king brought upon himself the vengeance of Elizabeth. Detesting Frederick for some coarse but truthful remark levelled at her mother, she made war on Prussia, which was conducted with great ferocity. Such was the mutual hatred excited by this contest, that after a battle the wounded soldiers of the two nations were seen tearing each other's flesh with their hands and teeth, even in the agonies of death; and Marshal Munich declared, in transmitting to the empress an account of a victory which he gained, but with the loss of half his army—" If I gain another such victory, I shall be compelled to go myself, on foot and alone, to St. Petersburg, to inform your majesty of the result!" Elizabeth persisted, however, in prosecuting the war; and was on the point of crushing the Prussian monarch, and possessing herself of his most valuable territories, when death suddenly closed her career, on the 5th of January, 1762, at the age of fifty-three, and in the twenty-first year of her reign.
The taste of this empress for architecture greatly contributed to embellish St. Petersburg, and the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in that capital was instituted by her. She was, however, a model of dissimulation and hypocrisy; and while from feelings of pretended humanity she abolished capital punishments (making a vow at her accession that none should take place during her reign), and deplored the miseries her troops suffered in the war with Prussia, she established a kind of star-chamber, in which justice and mercy were unknown. That her humanity was equivocal, is instanced in the shocking punishment which she inflicted upon the countess Bestucheff and Lapookin, who were publicly knouted, and had their tongues cut out, for betraying some secrets relating to the amours of the empress.
On the demise of Elizabeth, her nephew, the grand-duke Charles Peter Ulric, ascended the throne, by the name of Peter III. This prince entered on the government possessed of an enthusiastic admiration of the virtues of the king of Prussia, with whom he immediately made peace (thus saving that hero from his impending fame), and whose principles and practice he seems to have adopted as patterns for his imitation. Several wise decrees were passed by him: he suppressed the secret council established for the examination of political offenders, softened the rigor of military discipline, permitted his nobles to travel, lowered the duties in the Livonian ports, reduced the price of salt, abated the pressure of usury by the, establishment of a loan-bank, and instituted other salutary measures. He might have surmounted the effects even of those peculiarities which were unpopular in Russia; but it is said that he aimed at reformations in his dominions which even Peter the Great durst not carry through—among which was his attempt at cutting off the venerable beards of his clergy, and his abolition of some established and favorite military fashions. He was, however, so weak and vacillating in his disposition, that he had no opinions of his own, but childishly adopted the sentiments of any person who took the trouble to teach him. His tastes were, moreover, entirely German, which amounted to a crime in the eyes of the nobility. His chief amusement was buffoonery; and, as he was a comparative stranger to the country, its inhabitants, and thek manners, he is said to have suffered himself to be persuaded, by those about him, that the Russians were fools and beasts, unworthy of his attention, except to make them, by means of the Prussian discipline, good fighting-machines! These sentiments regulated his whole conduct, and prepared the way for the revolution which afterward dethroned him.
Peter was married, in 1745, to the German princess Catherine, born in 1729, and daughter to the prince of Anhalt-Zerbst. In addition to his other great faults, Peter was addicted to low society and to the most scandalous excesses; and Catherine, even in her youth, was by no means remarkable for chastity. With the inconsistency usually to be observed in such cases, each party reproached the other: Catherine, stung by her husband's brutality, became still more openly indecorous in her conduct, and Peter indulged in low wassail to such an extent, that he must have been deranged. The empress, who was as talented as she was ambitious, took every means in her power to secure the good will of her Russian subjects. She engaged in her party many of the principal families, and what Peter lost in popularity was gained by the emissaries of Catherine. While the latter, in spite of her intrigues, was thus high in the public esteem and affection, Peter became so infatuated by his disgust for Catherine and his son, and his passion for one of his mistresses, the countess Woronzow, that . he determined to divorce and imprison the former, and make the latter his empress. Catherine saw her danger, and instantly formed her resolution, foreseeing that she must either submit to perpetual imprisonment, and perhaps a cruel and ignominious death, or contrive to hurl her husband from the throne. The proper steps to carry out her design were immediately taken; folly and imbecility fell before abilities and address; and, in three days, the revolution was accomplished. Peter was seized and sent as a prisoner to the small palace of Ropscha, about twenty miles from St. Petersburg ; but, as there were many who were dissatisfied with the new order of things, it was soon found that there was little chance of tranquillity while he lived. His death was therefore determined on; and, at the connivance if not at the positive command of the empress, the unfortunate monarch was assassinated by the hand of her chief favorite, Prince Alexis Orloff, in the thirty-fourth year of his age, after having enjoyed the imperial dignity only six months. This tragic event occurred in July, 1762, and in the next month the czarina was solemnly crowned empress of all the Russias, under the name of Catherine II.
The reign of this extraordinary woman is one of the most remarkable in Russian history. In the early part of it she interfered in the affairs of Poland, which produced a civil war, and terminated eventually in the partition and conquest of that unfortunate country. In 1769, the Turks declared war against Russia, which was at first favorable to their arms ; but they were afterward defeated with great slaughter on the Dniester, and compelled to abandon Choczim. At this period was fought the celebrated action before Tchesme, in which the Turkish fleet was completely destroyed — an achievement that was mainly owing to the gallant conduct of Admirals Elphinstone and Greig, and Lieutenant Dugdale, Englishmen in the Russian service.
In a succeeding campaign, the Russians carried the lines of Perecop, in the Crimea, defended by nearly sixty thousand Turks and Tartars, and thus wrested that important and fertile peninsula from the Porte, while Romanzoff gained several victories in the Danubian provinces. These conquests were, however, dearly purchased. The plague passed from the Turkish into the Russian armies, and the frightful malady was carried by the troops into the very tieart of the country: eight hundred persons died daily at Moscow, and the disease subsided only with the severity of the ensuing winter.
It was at this period that the Calmuck Tartars (as alluded to in a previous chapter), who had been for upward of half a century settled near the steppes of the Volga, north of Astrakhan, suddenly, and to the number of half a million of souls, left the Russian territory for their old haunts on the Chinese borders—an affront offered to them by the empress having been said to be the cause of this extraordinary flight.
Every attempt at negotiation having failed, the contest with the Turks was renewed in 1773; and, although the Russians again suffered severe losses, Romanzoff brought the war to a successful termination. By the treaty of peace concluded in the following year, his country obtained the free navigation of the Black sea, the cession of Kilburne and Enikaleh, together with a tract between the Boug and the Dnieper, and also the town of Taganrog on the sea of Azov. Russia restored her other conquests, and the Turks paid into the Russian treasury four millions of roubles toward the expenses of the war; they also acknowledged the independence of the Crimea, which in the year 1784 fell altogether into the hands of Russia, as well as the island of Taman, and part of the Kouban in the Caucasus.
Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855