The resistance to Peter’s reforms rose from year to year. The Russians were accustomed to poverty, suffering, and despotism, but not even under Ivan the Terrible had they borne such burdens, or paid such taxes, or died in such numbers not only in battle but in forced labor, from hunger, cold, exhaustion, and disease. “Misery increases from day to day,” wrote Peter’s beloved Lefort in 1723; “the streets are full of people who try to sell their children . . . The government pays neither the troops, nor the navy, nor the [administrative] colleges, nor anybody.” 29 The Czar, bewildered by the growth of poverty amid his reforms, made it a crime to beg, or to give to beggars, and set up sixty organizations to distribute charity.
Begging continued, and crime spread. Serfs fleeing from servitude, soldiers and conscript laborers deserting their camps at the risk of their lives, almost ruled the roads. Sometimes they organized themselves into regiments, several hundred strong, which besieged and captured cities. “Moscow,” reported a general in 1718, “is a hotbed of brigandage, everything is devastated, the number of lawbreakers is multiplying, and executions never stop.” Some streets in Moscow were barricaded by the citizens, some houses were surrounded with high fences, to keep thieves out. Peter tried to suppress robbery by severity: captured brigands were to be hanged, housebreakers were to have their noses cut off to the bone, etc. The criminals were not deterred. Life was so hard for the poor that they looked upon capital punishment as hardly distinguishable from the life imprisonment of serfdom or forced toil, and they bore the most appalling tortures with the stoicism of deadened nerves.
Peter was so unpopular that many wondered that no one killed him. The nobles hated him for compelling them to serve the state, and for raising up the business classes to prominence and wealth; the peasants hated him for conscripting them into labor that uprooted them from their homes, often from their families; churchmen hated him as the Beast of the Apocalypse, who had made Christ himself the servant of the government; nearly all Russians distrusted him for consorting with foreigners and importing “heathen” ideas; all Russia feared him because of his violence and savage penalties. Russia did not want to be Westernized; it abominated the West; to preserve its own national spirit it had to be “Slavophil.” Desperate revolts broke out in Moscow in 1698, in Astrakhan in 1705, along the Volga in 1707, and sporadically throughout the empire and the reign.
Peter symbolized and intensified the conflict by twice returning to the West. In the fall of 1711 he went to Germany to preside at Torgau over the marriage of his son. There he received Leibniz, who proposed to him the establishment of a Russian Academy, of which the polymorphous philosopher hoped to be president. The Czar was back in St. Petersburg in January, 1712, but in October, amid a campaign against Sweden, he took the waters at Carlsbad, and visited Wittenberg. Some Lutheran clergymen took him to the house in which Luther had flung an inkwell at the Devil, and they showed him the ink spot on the wall. They asked him to write some comment on the wall; he wrote: “The ink is quite fresh, so that the story is evidently not true.” 30 Peter returned to his new capital in April, 1713. In February, 1716, he was off to the West again; he visited Germany and Holland, and in May, 1717, reached Paris, hoping to marry his daughter Elizabeth to Louis XV. Meeting the seven-year-old King, Peter lifted him up to embrace him; a few days later, received by Louis before the royal palace, Peter raised him like an infant and carried him up the steps, setting the court atremble. He spent six weeks in Paris as a sightseer, absorbing every aspect of the political, economic, and cultural life of the city. He had his portrait painted by Rigaud and by Nattier. He visited the aged Mme. de Maintenon at St.-Cyr. From Paris he went to Spa, and for five weeks he drank the waters there, for by this time he was suffering from a dozen ailments. At Berlin his wife, Catherine, joined him. She discovered that he had a mistress, but she forgave this as in the best traditions of European royalty. When they reached St. Petersburg (October 20, 1716) Peter faced one of the worst crises of his career.
His son Alexis, to whom he had hoped to bequeath the realm and the advancement of his reforms, had come to dislike many of those innovations, and the methods by which they were enforced. Physically and mentally Alexis was the son of Eudoxia rather than of Peter. He was small, timid, and weak, fond of books, and devoted to the Orthodox Church, for he had been reared in piety while Peter went off to war and the West. At the age of nine Alexis saw his mother dismissed to a convent (1699); when he was eleven he heard the priests mourning the melting of church bells for cannon; he asked his father why Russians should go out of Russia to fight for so distant a city as Narva; Peter was disgusted to find that his heir had no taste for bloodshed.
While Peter busied himself building St. Petersburg, Alexis remained in Moscow, loving its churches and ancient ways. He resented the disruption of the patriarchate and the confiscation of monastic property by the state. His confessor taught him always to defend the church, at whatever cost. Alexis became the idol and hope of the ecclesiastical and aristocratic groups that hated Peter’s secularization and Westernization of Russia, and they waited impatiently for the time when this religious and manageable youth would succeed to the throne. Peter seldom saw him, and then usually scolded him, sometimes struck him, as when the Czar found that the boy had secretly visited his mother in her nunnery. The youth’s disaffection came near to hatred. He admitted to his confessor Ignatiev that he wished his father were dead. Ignatiev thought this no sin. “God will forgive you,” he told Alexis; “we all wish for his death, because the people have to bear such heavy burdens.” 31
In 1708 Peter sent his son to Dresden to study geometry and fortification. At Torgau in 1711 Alexis married Princess Charlotte Christina Sophia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. He could not pardon her refusal to abandon her Lutheran faith for the Russian Orthodox religion. He took mistresses, even from brothels, and drank heavily. Shortly after Charlotte had borne him a child he visited her in the company of a courtesan. 32 A year later his wife died in childbirth (1715). Peter summoned him to St. Petersburg in an angry letter containing ominous words: “I do not spare my own life, nor that of any of my subjects; I will make no exception in your case. You will mend your ways, and you will make yourself useful to the state; otherwise you shall be disinherited.” 33 Alexis sought to appease his father by resigning his rights to the throne; he would be satisfied, he said, to lead a quiet life in the country. Peter felt that this was no solution. On January 30, 1716, he wrote to Alexis:
I cannot believe your oath. . . . David said that all men are liars, so that [even] if you wished to keep it you could be dissuaded by the long-beards. . . . It is known to everyone that you hate my deeds, which I do for the people of this nation, not sparing my health, and after my death you will destroy them. For that reason, to stay as you would like to be, neither fish nor flesh, is impossible. Therefore either change your character, and without hypocrisy be my worthy successor, or become a monk. Give me immediately an answer. . . . If you do not do this, I will treat you as a criminal. 34
Alexis’ friends advised him to become a monk. “A monk’s cowl is not nailed on a man,” said one of them; “it can be laid aside again.” Alexis wrote to his father that he was willing to become a monk. Peter relented, and told him to take half a year to make up his mind. The Czar went off to the West (February, 1716). On June 29 Peter’s sister Natalia counseled Alexis to leave Russia and put himself under the protection of the Emperor. In September Peter wrote to his son from Copenhagen saying that the half year was up, and that Alexis must enter a monastery at once, or join his father in Denmark, prepared for military service. Alexis pretended that he was going to his father; he obtained funds from Menshikov and the Senate, and proceeded not to Copenhagen but to Vienna (November 10). He begged the Imperial Vice-Chancellor to secure for him the protection of the Emperor Charles VI. “My father,” he said, “is incredibly wrathful and vengeful, and spares no man; and if the Emperor gives me back to my father it is all the same as taking my life.” 35 The Vice-Chancellor sent him to the Castle of Ehrenberg in the Tirol. There Alexis remained in concealment and disguise, under surveillance but supplied with all comforts, and allowed to keep with him his mistress Afrosinia, dressed as a page. Peter’s agents traced him there; Alexis, warned, fled to Naples, where he was guarded in the Castel Sant’ Elmo. Peter’s agents found him and urged him to return to Russia in confidence of his father’s mercy. He consented, on condition that Peter allow him to live with Afrosinia in rural retirement. Peter so promised in a letter of November 28, 1717. Alexis arranged to have Afrosinia stay in Italy till she bore her child. On his long journey to Russia he sent her the tenderest letters.
He reached Moscow at the end of January. On February 3 Peter received him in a solemn assembly of the leading dignitaries of state and church. Alexis, kneeling and in tears, asked pardon. Peter granted it, but disinherited him, and declared Catherine’s son Peter Petrovich, now in his third year, heir to the throne. Alexis pledged allegiance to the new Czarevich. Peter now made his pardon conditional on Alexis’ confession of his accomplices in the opposition to his father’s reforms. Alexis implicated many; they were arrested and were tortured to elicit further details; several were banished to Siberia, some were executed after the most barbarous torments. Alexis, in apparent freedom, was installed in a house near the Czar’s palace in St. Petersburg, and was allotted an annual pension of forty thousand rubles. He wrote to Afrosinia that his father treated him well and had invited him to his table. He looked forward to her coming, and to happiness with her in rural peace.
She arrived in April. She was at once arrested; she was subjected not to torture but to a severe examination; she broke down, and confessed that Alexis had rejoiced at news of rebellions against his father, that he had expressed his intention, on coming to power, to abandon St. Petersburg and the navy, and to reduce the army to the needs of defense. This was nothing worse than what Peter already knew, and he left Alexis at liberty for two months more. Then, spurred on by new revelations not known to us, he announced that since his pardon of Alexis had presumed a full confession, and he now had evidence that the confession had been insincere and incomplete, he withdrew the pardon. On June 14 Alexis was arrested, and was confined in the SS. Peter and Paul Fortress.
On June 19, 1718, after examination by the High Court of Justice, he was put to the torture for the first time, receiving twenty-five blows of the knout. He confessed that he had desired his father’s death, and that his confessor had told him, “We all wish for his death.” He was confronted with Afrosinia, who repeated what she had told the Czar; nevertheless he vowed that he would love her till his death. He admitted, “By degrees not only everything about my father, but his very person, became odious to me.” He acknowledged that he would have used the Emperor’s help “to conquer the crown by main force.” 36 On June 24 a further torture by fifteen blows of the knout drew from him nothing more. The High Court pronounced him guilty of treason, and condemned him to death. Alexis begged to be allowed to embrace his mistress before his execution; we do not know if this was granted him. Peter did not sign the sentence. Twice again (June 25 and 26) Alexis was interrogated under torture, the second time in the presence of the Czar and members of the court; and Lefort later reported, “Though I am not sure of this, I am assured that his father struck the first blows.” 37 That afternoon Alexis died in prison, apparently from the effects of torture. One story says that Catherine bade the doctors open his veins; we cannot say whether this was an act of mercy or of ambition for her son. Afrosinia received a share of Alexis’ property, married an officer of the guard, and lived comfortably in St. Petersburg for thirty years more.
Peter hoped to raise Catherine’s son to succeed him, but the boy died in 1719. Catherine bore two more sons, Peter and Paul, but both died before the Czar. He consoled himself with the majestic titles awarded him after the peace with Sweden. In that year 1721 the Senate and the Holy Synod conferred the title of empress upon Catherine. After allowing Russia its one year of peace since the beginning of his active rule, Peter turned his forces against Persia. He hoped to clear and control a caravan route to Central Asia, at last to India; his informants told him that gold could be found on the way; and he anticipated the industrial possibilities of Caucasian and Middle Eastern oil. 38 In 1722 he sent a fleet over the Caspian to attack Persia. It captured Baku and some of the Persian Caspian coast; but storms destroyed most of the ships, disease decimated the army, and Peter returned from the campaign of 1724 exhausted, pessimistic, and near death.
He had for years been suffering from syphilis, 39 and from the medicines taken to cure it. Heavy drinking had made matters worse, and the excitements of war, revolution, revolts, and terroristic violence had finally exhausted his giant physique. In November, 1724, he jumped into the icy Neva to help rescue sailors on a grounded vessel. He worked through a whole night in water up to his waist. On the next day he had a fever, but he survived it, and resumed a heavy schedule of activities. On January 25 he took to his bed with painful inflammation of the bladder. Not till February 2 would he admit that death was upon him. He confessed some of his sins, and received the sacraments. On the sixth he signed a proclamation freeing all prisoners except those condemned for murder or offenses against the state. He startled his attendants with his cries of pain. He called for a slate on which to write his will; but when he had written only the words “Give all,” the pen fell from his hand. Soon he lapsed into a coma, which continued thirty-six hours, and from which he did not awake. He was pronounced dead on February 8, 1725. He was fifty-two years old.
Russia breathed with relief, as if a long and terrible nightmare had ended at last. The Kings of Sweden and Poland rejoiced; they expected Russia to fall into anarchy, and be no longer a danger to the West. The old medieval Russia raised its head and begged for a return to the past. The nation had been too violently propelled, and it had been hurt in its soul and pride by too indiscriminate an imitation of the West. Reaction was widespread and victorious. Many of the reforms were allowed to die from lack of support. The administrative bureaucracy was reduced, but its framework endured till 1917. The nobles regained much of their old power; they recovered their rights to the timber and minerals on their lands. The business class, so suddenly elevated by Peter, returned to its former subjection. Many of the new industries collapsed through inadequate machinery, or incompetence in labor or management. The incipient capitalism faded away, and economic Russia remained for another two hundred years essentially as she had been before the Petrine revolution. The commercial reforms had better success; trade with the West continued to increase. Some improvement of manners resulted from the contacts with Europe, but the old native costumes returned under Catherine II (1762–96), and beards came back into style with Alexander II (1855–81). Corruption continued. Morals showed no gain, and perhaps Peter’s example of drunkenness, licentiousness, and brutality left his people morally worse than before. Only those changes survived that had sunk their roots in time.
Peter was among the less lovable figures of modern history. And yet his achievement was immense. His failures attest the limitations of genius as a factor in history, but the mark that he left upon Russia is a tribute to the power of personality. He gave Russia an army and navy; he opened the ports that allowed her to trade goods and ideas with the West; he established mining and metallurgy; he founded schools and an academy. With one savage pull he drew Russia out of Asia into Europe and made her a factor in European affairs. Henceforth Europe would have to reckon more and more with that vast heartland, those hardy, patient, stoic multitudes, and their imperious and inescapable destiny.