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ETER, Czar, or Emperor of Russia, usually styled THE GREAT, was one of the most remarkable persons in the history of modern
times. A sketch of his life may therefore prove interesting, as furnishing an example of what may be accomplished for the benefit of mankind by one enterprising mind. But first as regards the country
over which it was his fortune to rule. Russia is a territory of vast extent in the northern part of Europe and Asia. Presenting every variety of climate, this extensive region, which is really an aggregation of various countries, was inhabited in the seventeenth century by a barbarous people, having little intercourse with the more civilised nations of the earth. The degree of advancement in knowledge or social
usages was very much that of Turkey in recent times. The Russian people knew little or nothing of the useful arts, were rude in manners, dressed in cumbrous garments, and the men wore long beards, according to the ancient Asiatic custom. There was scarcely any kind of school-learning or education ; even the priests were grossly ignorant and superstitious. For one thing, they believed and taught that the world was created in autumn, when the fruits were ripe ; unconscious that, when it is autumn in one hemisphere, it is spring in the other.
At the period to which we refer—the middle of the seventeenth century, or about the time of the Commonwealth in Englandthe Russian people might have been divided into four classes : the Boyards or noblemen, who estimated their wealth by the number of serfs or slaves upon their estates—these wretched serfs, of course, by far the most numerous body of all; and the military, a turbulent set, who, as we shall see, often resorted to the most violent means to obtain their ends. Indeed so common and revolutionary had been revolts of the Strelitzes, or soldiery of the capital, that the government has been epigrammatically called "a despotism tempered by assassination.” The fourth class, and one which often took part in the factions of the time, were the priesthood, the established religion being a form of the Greek church. The monarchy was absolute, the will of the sovereign being law; but it was not, as Poland was, an elective monarchy. The male issue, however, of the ancient sovereigns failing, and several pretenders to the throne having miserably perished, the chief Boyards assembled a council, at which they elected a youth, named Michael Romanow, to be czar. He was the son of a powerful nobleman, and related, by the mother's side, to the ancient czars. This took place in 1613, at the period when his. father was detained a prisoner by the Poles, with whom the Russians were at war. An exchange of prisoners, however, was soon after effected; and it is thought that, during the life
the old man, he governed, though in his son's name. It is not our purpose to enter into the wars or troubles of this reign. Michael Romanow made no alteration in the state, either to the improvement or corruption of the administration. He died in 1645, and was succeeded by his son, Alexis Michaelowitz (or son of Michael), who ascended the throne by hereditary right.
Alexis, who was the father of Peter the Great, appears to have been more enlightened than any of his predecessors. He introduced manufactures of silk and linen; and, though unable to keep them up, he had the merit of their first establishment. He endeavoured to form something like a code of laws, imperfect though they were ; and he peopled the deserts about the Wolga and the Kama with Polish and Tartarian families, whom he had taken prisoners in his wars, employing them in agriculturebefore his reign, prisoners of war being the slaves of those to whose lot they fell. But he had little time to perfect his plans,
being snatched away by a sudden death in 1677, at the age of forty-six. Alexis had been twice married. By his first wife, the daughter of the Boyard Meloslauski, he left two sons, and either four or six daughters. By his second wife, who was the daughter of the Boyard Nariskin, and who survived him, he left Peter and the Princess Nathalia, the former having been born at Moscow on the 30th of May 1672. Alexis had caused his eldest son, Theodore, to be acknowledged his successor a year before his death, and he ascended the throne at the age of fifteen: this prince inherited his father's abilities and disposition, but was of a sickly, feeble constitution. The second son was Ivan, or John, who was miserably infirm, being almost blind and deaf, and subject to convulsions. Of the six daughters, we need only mention Sophia, who was less remarkable for her great talents than for the wicked and mischievous use she made of them.
Peter was but four years old at the time of his father's death, and was for a while little regarded. But the czars married without regard to birth, and had likewise the power of choosing a successor; and, conscious that his brother Ivan was incapacitated by his infirmities for governing, Theodore, on his deathbed, nominated his younger brother Peter heir to the crown. This occurred when Peter was in his tenth year, but not before his promising abilities had aroused the jealousy of his sister Sophia. Probably from the difficulty of finding suitable husbands for them, it had been the custom for the daughters of the czars to retire into a monastery; but this designing princess had no such inclination; and on the death of Theodore, she found herself almost the natural guardian of two brothers, one of whom was, from his infirmities, incapable of governing; and the other, on account of his youth, she believed it possible to depose. In a word, she aimed at sovereignty, although pretending to advocate the claim of Ivan, and representing that she desired only to hold the reins for him.
A succession of revolts was the consequence of her stratagems and intrigues; and the most savage cruelties were perpetrated by all parties. Sophia evidently sought some pretence for deposing Peter, and accordingly she employed emissaries to stir up the soldiery against the Nariskin family, especially the two uncles of Peter, spreading a report that one of them had put on the imperial robes, and had attempted to strangle Prince John; adding, moreover, that the late czar, Theodore, had been poisoned at their instigation by a Dutch physician. Finally, she made out a list of forty noblémen, whom she denounced as enemies to the state, and deserving of death. The mutineers began by attacking two nobles, named Dalgorouki and Matheof, whom they threw out of the palace windows. These unfortunates were received by the Strelitzes on the points of their spears, and speedily despatched, their dead bodies being afterwards dragged into the great square. Soon after this, meeting with Athanasius Nariskin, brother to the young czarina, and one of the uncles of Peter, they murdered
, a where some of the proscribed had taken refuge, they dragged them from the altar, and stabbed them to death. But it would be a horrible task to narrate the atrocities which followed uithe murder of the innocent physician and of the other Nariskin, and the dreadful tortures by the knout,* and other forms which'were practised on the wretched victims.
Finally, Sophia succeeded in associating the name of her im becile brother in the sovereignty; the two princes, John and nated' co-regent with them. She then publicly approved of the Peter, being proclaimed joint czars in 1682, and herself denomioutrages which had been committed, and rewarded the trators of them, confiscating, for this purpose, the estates of the proscribed ; and so completely did she enjoy all the honours of a sovereign, that her bust was engraven on the public coin. She signed all despatches, held the first place in the council, and exercised unlimited power. But new insurrections broke out; and finally, she was induced to strengthen her authority by ad mitting to her councils her favourite and lover, Prince Basil Galitzin, whom she created generalissimo, minister of state, and lord-keeper. This new minister was a man of distinguished abi. lities, and had received a much better education than the rest of his countrymen. One of his prudent measures was to distribute the most mutinous of the Strelitzes among different regiments, situated at distant parts of the empire.
While Galitzin was engaged with the army, Sophia governed and acted at Moscow as it altogether independent of her brothers the czars. A circumstance, however, soon took place which put an end to her intrigues and interference. In 1689, Peter's marriage with Eudoxia Federowna Lapuchin, effected through the influence of his prudent mother, withdrew him in a great measure from those dissipating vices which Sophia had done all in her power to encourage, and thus gave him a new hold on the affections of the people. Sophia having desired to be present, as regent, at á religious celebration at which czar's themselves were commonly present, Peter opposed it in vain; and a few faithful Strelitzes having betrayed to him her intention to assassinate him, with his wife, mother, and sister, he took refuge with them for a while in the convent of the Trinity. Here he summoned to his aid General Gordon, a Scotchman, who, with all the foreign officers, immediately hastened to Peter. The young czar soon found himself surrounded by numerous friends; and these, animated by his personal bravery, and encouraged by his affable and generous
The knout is a kind of whip, made of a thick thong of cow-hide, knotted and prepared so as to inflict the severest blows. It has been long the favourite instrument of punishment in Russia, and is often so severely applied as to cause the death of the criminal —a circumstance not to be wondered at, seeing that a sentence sometimes decrees four hundred, six hundred, or even a thousand stripes.