He had been receiving education from his mother, his tutors, and his sallies into the streets of Moscow. He was not precocious, but he was eager, curious, intelligent, fascinated by the mechanisms brought in from the West—watches, weapons, tools, and instruments. He longed for a Russia that would rival the West in industry and war. He loved to play war games with his rough companions—raising, attacking, and defending forts. Dreaming of a Russian navy before Russia had touched an ice-free sea, he built larger and larger boats, until he had to go eighty miles from Moscow to find, at Pereslavl, a lake in which he could set his little fleet afloat.
As he grew stronger he bore with rising impatience the ascendancy of a stepsister who, with Vasili Golitsyn, had appropriated the authority of both Ivan and himself. On July 18, 1689, Peter joined Ivan in the procession that annually celebrated Moscow’s liberation from the Poles. Contrary to custom, Sophia walked in the procession. Peter, now seventeen, commanded her to withdraw; she persisted; he left the city in anger, and sought allies against the Regent. He found them in the boyars, who had never reconciled themselves to being ruled by a woman, and in the Streltsi, who, having suffered some rebuffs from Sophia, were ready for stratagems and spoils. Boris Golitsyn, cousin to the minister, set the coup d’état in motion by sending a false message to Peter that Sophia was planning to arrest him. Peter, followed by his mother, his sister, and his recently acquired wife, fled to the Troitsko-Sergievskaya Monastery, forty-five miles from Moscow. Thence he sent orders to each colonel of the Streltsi to come to the Troitsko-Sergievskaya. Sophia forbade them to obey, but many went. Soon the leaders of the nobility came, and then Joachim, Patriarch of Moscow. Vasili Golitsyn was summoned, submitted, and was exiled to a village near Archangel. Several of Sophia’s supporters were captured; some were tortured, some were put to death. Peter wrote to Ivan for permission to take over the government; Ivan’s consent was given or presumed. Peter ordered Sophia to remove to a convent; she protested, rebelled, yielded. She was provided with every comfort and many servants, but was forbidden to leave the convent grounds. On October 16, 1689, Peter entered Moscow, was welcomed by Ivan, and assumed supreme power. Ivan gracefully retired from public life; and seven years later he died.
Peter, however, was not yet ready to rule. He left the government to the the illiberal and reactionary Boris Golitsyn, Joachim, and others, while he himself spent much of his time in the foreign colony. There he made new friends who strongly influenced his development. One was Patrick Gordon, a Scot soldier of fortune who was now at fifty-five an officer in the Russian army; from him Peter learned more of the art of war. Another was François Lefort, born in Geneva, now at thirty-four a Russian major general. His good looks, quick mind, and pleasant ways delighted the young czar, who dined twice or thrice a week with him, to the dismay of Muscovites, who regarded all foreigners as vicious heretics. Peter preferred the company of these aliens to that of the Russians. They seemed to be more civilized, though they drank as heavily; they far excelled the Russians in industrial, scientific, and military knowledge; and their talk and amusements were on a higher plane. Peter noted their mutual toleration in religion—Gordon a Catholic, Lefort a Protestant—and smilingly served as godfather for Catholic and Protestant children at the baptismal font. From the Germans and the Dutch he acquired enough of their languages for his purposes.
These were to make Russia strong in war, and have her rival the West in the arts of peace. He learned from the Dutch resident, Baron von Keller, how the Hollanders maintained their wealth and power by building good ships. He longed to find an outlet to the sea, and to build a salt-water fleet. He had no such outlet except at Archangel, which was icebound half the year. Nevertheless he made his way there in 1693; he bought a Dutch man-of-war lying in the harbor; when he overcame his fear of the sea and set forth on this vessel, he was drunk with delight. “You shall command her,” he wrote to Lefort, “and I will serve as a common sailor.” 16 He dressed himself like a Dutch sea captain, and mingled happily with Dutch sailors in the wineshops of the port. The salt air of that cold sea was a bracing breath from the West, from that region of industry, power, science, and art which called to him ever more and more temptingly.
There were two practicable ways to the West: one via the Baltic, closed by Sweden and Poland, the other via the Black Sea, closed by Tatars and Turks. The Tatars and Turks controlled at Azov the mouth of the Don; they made repeated raids into Muscovite territory, capturing Russians—sometimes twenty thousand in a year—to sell them as slaves in Constantinople. In 1695 Peter ordered his army to graduate from games to war, to march through the steppes, sail down the rivers, and attack Azov. Three generals were in divided command—Golovin, Gordon, Lefort; Peter humbly served as bombardier sergeant in the Preobrazhensky regiment. The affair was badly managed, the troops were poorly disciplined; after fourteen costly weeks the siege was abandoned, and Peter returned to Moscow swearing that he would train a better army, and try again.
At Voronezh he built a fleet of transports and men-of-war. In May, 1696, he sailed down the Don with 75,000 men, and resumed the siege of Azov. In July, chiefly by the bravery of the Don Cossacks, the city was taken. Peter at once ordered a large fleet to be built at Voronezh for service on the Black Sea. All Russia, including the great landlords, was taxed for the purpose; workers were conscripted; foreign mechanics were brought in. Fifty Russian nobles were sent at their own expense to Italy, Holland, and England, to learn the art of building ships. On March 10, 1697, Peter followed them.
Russia would have been horrified at the thought of its Czar going abroad into lands soiled with heresy. Therefore he organized an embassy of fifty-five nobles and two hundred attendants, led by Lefort, to visit “Europe” and seek allies against the Turks. Among the fifty-five emissaries was a noncommissioned officer answering only to the name Peter Mikhailov, and using as a seal the image of a shipwright and the inscription “My rank is that of a pupil, and I need masters.” 17 Once outside Russia, Peter wore this incognito loosely. It was as Czar of Russia that he was entertained by Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg, by King William III in England, by Emperor Leopold I in Vienna. Even in his royal state he shocked the courts by his rough manners and speech, his uncleanliness and untidiness, and his aversion to the use of knives and forks. 18 But he made his way.
The embassy encountered difficulties, which Peter never forgot, in moving through Swedish Livonia to Riga. Thence he hurried to Königsberg, where he signed with the Elector a treaty of trade and friendship. In Brandenburg he studied artillery and fortification with a Prussian military engineer, who gave him a certificate of progress. At Koppenbrügge Sophia, the widowed Electress of Hanover, and her daughter Sophia Charlotte, Electress of Brandenburg, persuaded him and his suite to dine and dance with them. The Dowager later described him:
The Czar is very tall, his features are fine, and his figure very noble. He has great vivacity of mind, and a ready and just repartee. . . . It could be wished that his manners were a little less rustic . . . He was very gay, very talkative, and we established a great friendship for each other. . . . He told us that he worked in building ships, showed us his hands, and made us touch the callous places that had been caused by work. . . . He is a very extraordinary man. . . . He has a very good heart, and remarkably noble sentiments. . . . He did not get drunk in our presence, but we had hardly left when the people of his suite made ample amends. . . . He is sensible to the charms of beauty, but . . . I found in him no disposition to gallantry. . . . The Muscovites, in dancing, took the whalebones of our corsets for our bones, and the Czar showed his astonishment by saying that the German ladies had devilish hard bones. 19
From Koppenbrügge the embassy sailed down the Rhine into Holland. Leaving most of the group at Amsterdam, Peter and a few intimates went on to Zaandam, then a great shipbuilding center (August 18, 1697); even in Russia he had heard much about the skill of the shipwrights in this picturesque town. In its streets he recognized a worker whom he had known in Moscow, Gerrit Kist. Asking him to respect his incognito, Peter proposed to live in Kist’s small wooden cottage. There he stayed for a week, dressing in the garb of a Dutch workingman, spending his days in watching the shipwrights at work, and finding time, at night, to make love to a servant girl at the local inn. In later years Joseph II and Napoleon visited the cottage as a shrine, Czar Alexander I decorated it with a marble slab, and a Dutch poet inscribed on the wall a famous line: “Nichts is den grooten man te klein” (To a great man nothing is too small). 20
Annoyed by the crowds that followed his every step at Zaandam, Peter went back to Amsterdam and his embassy. He again insisted on being incognito, but now he called himself “Carpenter Peter of Zaandam.” He persuaded the Dutch East India Company to let him join its workers in the shipyards at Oostenburg. There he labored for four months with ten of his followers, helping to build and launch a ship. He allowed no distinction to be made between himself and other workingmen, and he put his shoulder to the timber like the rest. At night he studied geometry and the theory of shipbuilding; his notebooks show how thorough these studies were. He found time to visit factories, workshops, anatomical museums, botanical gardens, theaters, and hospitals. He met the great physician and botanist Boerhaave, studied microscopy with Leeuwenhoek, and took the gentlemen of his suite into Boerhaave’s anatomical theater. He took up military engineering with Baron van Coehorn, architecture with Schynvoet, mechanics with van der Heyden. He learned to pull teeth, and some of his aides suffered under his zealous dentistry. He entered the homes of the Dutch to study their family life and domestic arrangements. He shopped in the markets, mingled with the people, marveled at their various trades, learned to mend his own clothes and cobble his shoes. He drank beer and wine with the Dutch in their saloons. Probably no man in history has been more eager to absorb and savor life.
In all this activity he did not lose sight of Russia. He guided by letter the actions of its deputed government. He engaged, and sent to Russia, several naval captains, thirty-five lieutenants, seventy-two pilots, fifty physicians, four cooks, 345 sailors; he dispatched to Russia 260 cases of guns, sailcloth, compasses, whalebone, cork, anchors, and tools, even eight blocks of marble for Russian sculptors to work on. 21 His interest lagged when it came to the refinement of manners, the graces of society, or the subtleties of thought; he had no time for metaphysics, balls, or salons; in any case those intangibles could wait. For the present his task was to introduce the crafts and practical sciences of the West into Russia “so that, having mastered them thoroughly, we can, when we return, be victors over the enemies of Jesus Christ” 22—i.e., take Constantinople and let Russia pass from its prison through the Bosporus into the world.
After four months in Holland he asked William III if he might visit England, still semi-incognito. William sent the royal yacht to fetch him. Peter arrived in London in January, 1698. Though it was winter, he frequented the docks and the naval establishments. He visited the Royal Society and the Mint, where he may have met Newton. Evelyn turned over his house and carefully groomed grounds at Deptford to Peter and his staff; later the English government allowed Sir John £ 350 to repair the damage done by the Russians. The Czar astonished his neighbors by going to bed early, rising at four, and walking to the shipyards with an ax over his shoulder and a pipe in his mouth. He made a mistress of a leading actress, who complained that he underpaid her. He received the degree of Doctor of Laws at Oxford, and attended Protestant services with such decorum that parsons expected him to convert Russia to the Reformation. Bishop Burnet worked upon him, found him curious but noncommittal, and concluded that the Czar seemed “designed by nature rather to be a ship-carpenter than a great prince.” 23
Having spent four months in England, Peter sailed back to Amsterdam, rejoined his embassy, and moved on with it through Leipzig and Dresden to Vienna (June 26, 1698). Through an impatient month he labored in vain to bring the Emperor into an alliance against Turkey. He was pleasant to the Jesuits, who began to dream of a Roman Catholic Russia. Then, just as he was about to leave for Venice, a message reached him that the Streltsi were in revolt, and were threatening to seize Moscow and the government. He started at once for Russia, but near Cracow he received assurance that the revolt had been put down. At Rava he tarried four days with Augustus II of Poland. He was surprised and delighted to find a king who could match him in physical strength, wild hunting, and hard drinking. They fell in love with each other, kissed, and debated whether Sweden or Turkey should be the first victim of their friendship. On September 4 Peter reached Moscow, after eighteen months of a journey that in Macaulay’s judgment marked “an epoch in the history not only of his own country, but . . . of the world.” 24 Russia had discovered Europe, and Europe had discovered Russia. Leibniz began to study Russian.
But Peter was still a seventeenth-century Muscovite. He had never forgiven the Streltsi their share in the murder of his uncles and Matveev, and in the usurpation of power by Sophia. His plans for a new army left no room for this troublesome Praetorian Guard. When he learned that Sophia had from her convent negotiated with them to restore her to power, that they had threatened Lefort and others of the “German colony,” that they had spread rumors that he was betraying the religion of Russia in his love of the West, his fury became a convulsion of revenge. He ordered a considerable number of the Streltsi to be tortured, with a view to making them confess Sophia’s share in their uprising; they bore the most terrible torments without implicating her. He had her attendants tortured with the same end and result. Sophia was forced to take the vows, and was closely confined in her convent, where she died six years later. A thousand Streltsi were put to death; Peter executed five with his own hand, and compelled his aides to do likewise; Lefort refused. By 1705 the Streltsi had disappeared from history.
Peter began at once to build a new army. The old one had been composed of Streltsi, of foreign mercenaries, and of peasant levies raised by noblemen. Peter replaced this motley with a standing army of 210,000 men by conscripting one man from every twenty peasant households. These troops were dressed in “European” uniforms, and were drilled in the tactics of the West. The term of service for all ranks was for life. In addition Peter called upon 100,000 Cossacks. Ships were hurriedly built on lakes, rivers, seas; by 1705 the Russian navy had forty-eight men-of-war, eight hundred smaller vessels, and 28,000 men.
All this was still in process, far from complete, when Patkul came to Moscow and proposed that Peter join Frederick IV of Denmark and Augustus II of Poland to drive Sweden from the mainland and wrest from her the control of the Baltic. All those ships that were abuilding longed for the sea. Preferably the warm Mediterranean—but the Turkish Empire was still discouragingly strong, Constantinople was a hard nut to crack, and Austria and France were now friends with the Turks. Russia must look to the other door, must seek some outlet in the north. It was untimely that Swedish envoys had just come to Moscow and had secured Peter’s consent to renew the Treaty of Kardis pledging Russia and Sweden to peace. But geography and commerce laugh at treaties. Besides, had not the Baltic littoral between the Neva and Narva rivers—the provinces of Ingria and Karelia—formerly belonged to Russia, and been surrendered to Sweden in 1616 only because Russia, then in her Time of Troubles, was powerless to resist? Why should not force recapture what force had taken away? On November 22, 1699, Peter joined the coalition against Sweden, and prepared to cut his way through to the Baltic. On August 8, 1700, he cleared his southern front as well as a treaty could, by signing peace with Turkey. On that same day he ordered his army to march into Swedish Livonia.