The Call of the West
Peter named Lefort[i] as head of the Great Embassy. One of Lefort’s two colleagues, Golovin, was a professional diplomat, to whom Peter entrusted conduct of foreign affairs. Voznitsyn also had previous diplomatic experience. Prominent among the noblemen and volunteers[ii] accompanying the embassy were Peter’s childhood friends Andrei Matveyev[iii] and Alexander Menshikov.
With them went Pyotr Mikhailov. To address the Czar as anything else, or to reveal that Peter was the Czar, or mention that he was accompanying the embassy was punishable by death.
To govern Russia in his absence Peter established a three man council, consisting of his uncle Lev Naryshkin, Prince Boris Galitzyne and Prince Peter Prozorovsky, the Czar’s treasurer. The man who actually ran the country, subordinate to these three, was Prince Fedor Rodomanovsky, the Governor General of Moscow.Just before the embassy’s departure three men were arrested; Ivan Tsykler[iv], colonel of one of the Streltsy regiments, and two boyars. The three men had been fulminating against the Czar’s perceived desertion of his wife and the Kremlin and of his consorting with foreigners. Their grumbles had been made too publicly and Peter was furious. The news of the arrest was brought to the Czar dining with his friends in the German Suburb; in his diary Gordon noted
‘A merry night has been spoiled by an accident of discovering treason against his Majesty.’[v]The three traitors were bloodily executed in Red Square, having touched a raw nerve in the Czar’s character.
A Czar AbroadThe embassy departed Moscow on 20th March 1697, leaving Russia via the Swedish province of Livonia[vi]. Peter studied the new Swedish fortress in Riga with great interest. The party then travelled through the Duchy of Courland[vii], where Peter was entertained lavishly by the reigning Duke, one of whose ministers wrote;
‘Open tables were kept everywhere with trumpets and music attended by feasting and excessive drinking as if his Tsarish Majesty had been another Bacchus. I have not yet seen such hard drinkers.’[viii]
Frederick of Brandenburg
The Russians were met by Frederick III[ix], the Elector of Brandenburg when they travelled on from Courland. Frederick was anxious to sign an alliance against the Swedes but Peter, still at war with the Ottoman Empire, was unwilling to provoke the Swedes at his back. Frederick and Peter eventually signed a mutual defence treaty.Peter lingered in Brandenburg waiting to discover who was to be Poland’s next king[x]. The news that Augustus of Saxony had been elected king of Poland, in preference to the French Prince de Conti, arrived in mid-August. Relieved of his fear that the Poles, under a French king, would withdraw from the fight against the Ottomans, Peter planned his departure to the Netherlands by sea. These plans were thwarted by the presence of a French squadron in the Baltic and reluctantly Peter travelled by land across Germany.
Sophia of Hanover
He was ambushed by Sophia, the Electress of Hanover[xi] and her daughter at Koppenbrügge, both were desperate to meet Peter. He was persuaded to join them for dinner, which lasted for four hours; after dining Peter was persuaded to dance with the first Western women he had ever got close to. He was surprised by their corsets; he amused mother and daughter by his comment,
‘These German women have devilish hard bones.’[xii]After the dinner Peter set out down the Rhine on the last leg of his journey to the Netherlands, leaving the remainder of his entourage to follow at a more normal pace.
In the Netherlands
On the 18th August Peter arrived in the small town of Zaandam, a town renowned for shipbuilding. In his impatience to arrive he bypassed Amsterdam. It was arranged that Peter would stay in the home[xiii] of a widow who lived next door to a Dutchman, Gerrit Kist, whom Peter had known in Moscow.Peter signed on as a common workman in one of the shipyards; during the day he worked on the ships; in the evenings he visited the wives and parents of Dutch workers in Russia. He bought a boat, haggling over the price and took it sailing.
The news of his identity spread throughout the country and soon crowds were descending upon the town, eager to see the Czar of Russia. His longed for stay in Zaandam lasted one week. Instead the preternaturally shy Peter moved to Amsterdam; at the time the greatest port on earth and the wealthiest city in the world.It was suggested that Peter work in the docks of the East India Company, whose shipyards were enclosed and barred to the public. To assist Peter’s shipbuilding education the company’s board ordered the laying of a keel for a new frigate and allocated Peter the use of the company’s master ropemaker’s house, within the shipyard walls. The ship was named the Apostles Peter and Paul.
Peter and ten of his volunteers started work immediately, while the remainder were allocated to jobs in rope making, sail making, mast turning, block and tackle construction and seamanship. Prince Alexander of Imeritia[xiv] was despatched to den Haag to study artillery.In France the Duchesse d’Orléans wrote of Peter to her aunt, the Electress of Hanover;
‘If he should fall on hard times, he will never starve to death, for he knows fourteen crafts. The great man here[xv] made fun of him for working with a shipwright in Holland and helping to build ships.’[xvi]Peter visited factories, sawmills, spinners, workshops, museums, botanical gardens and laboratories. He met with architects and sculptors and took drawing and sketching lessons. He attended dissections by a renowned professor of anatomy and met botanists and the inventor of the microscope. On his free days Peter wandered around Amsterdam, once stopping to interrogate an itinerant dentist, later practising on his servants. His curiosity was insatiable.
Peter’s ministers in Moscow were reluctant to act without their master’s authority and he was inundated with letters and requests. Now thousands of miles away from home, Peter began to show more interest in ruling his country than ever before. He attempted to deal with his correspondence every Friday.
Peter and William
Peter was invited to meet King William III at Utrecht. Of all the European leaders William was Peter’s foremost hero. His Dutch, German and other foreign friends in the German Suburb had long admired the dauntless William. An aficionado of all things Dutch Peter was greatly moved by this meeting, informing his host;
‘I have accomplished my wish and I am sufficiently rewarded for my journey by having enjoyed your presence. It is your military genius that has inspired my sword, and the noble emulation of your exploits has aroused in my heart the first thoughts I ever had of enlarging my empire.’[xvii]Peter’s proposal that he and William join in an anti-Turk alliance met no favour from a man committed to fighting French hegemony in Europe. The Great Embassy presented their proposals to the States General, but the focus of the Dutch politicians was on western not eastern Europe. Burdened with debt and the need to replenish their own navy; the Dutch refused the request to help the Russians build and arm seventy warships and more than one hundred galleys.
When he was not working in the shipyards, Peter travelled across the Netherlands. Early on in his visit Peter met Admiral Gilles Schey[xviii]. Schey organised a mock naval battle for Peter’s edification; held at Ij. Peter tried to lure Schey back to Russia; Schey refused the offer but suggested an alternative, Admiral Cornelius Cruys[xix]. A reluctant Cruys was persuaded by Schey and other Dutch prominente to accept the post, understanding that he would be in a position to influence Russian trade with the Netherlands.Peter and William met on numerous occasions; the meetings between these two very private individuals were unrecorded. Peter had become dissatisfied with the way the Dutch built their ships; each shipwright having his own quirky ways. At a meeting with William, Peter expressed a wish to visit England to look at the way the English built their ships. He arrived in England on 10th January 1698
Peter in EnglandWilliam sent an escort to ferry Peter across the channel; he travelled with Menshikov and a number of the volunteers, leaving Lefort and the Great Embassy in the Netherlands. He met William a number of times; observed a ball being held in honour of Princess Anne, the heir apparent and spent much of his free time roaming around London, visiting workshops and factories.
Peter discussed religion with the leaders of the established church and purchased a watch and learnt how to dismantle, repair and reassemble his new possession. His interests seemed boundless, but his main concentration was on the acquisition of shipbuilding skills. Once again he took to working in the shipyards, this time at Deptford.
Plan of Sayes Court
While working at Deptford Peter stayed at the diarist John Evelyn’s house, Sayes Court; the place was almost trashed by Peter and his servants. Evelyn’s servant despaired;
‘The Czar lies next your library, and dines in the parlour next your study.’[xx]When Peter left Evelyn sent in a bill for £150[xxi] to repair and clean his house.
In London Peter visited the arsenal, the Royal Mint and the Royal Society; these visits were to help inspire his vision of a Russian state based on modern Western ideals. He also visited the theatre on numerous occasions and indulged himself in an affair with a Mrs Cross, an actress. He had his portrait painted by Godfrey Kneller and presented the painting to William.
Peter the Great by Kneller
Peter left England on 23rd April 1698, giving William a ruby valued at £10,000[xxii], wrapped in a piece of brown paper. He returned to the Netherlands on the Royal Transport, a present from William[xxiii].
BibliographyNatasha’s Dance – Orlando Figes, Penguin Books Ltd 2002
A Woman’s Life in the Court of the Sun King – translated Elborg Forster, The John Hopkins University Press 1984Russia and the Russians – Geoffrey Hosking, The Penguin Press 2001
William and Mary – John van der Kiste, Sutton Publishing 2003Peter the Great – Robert K Massie, Abacus 1992
William and Mary – Henri & Barbara van der Zee, History Book Club 1973www.wikipedia.en
[i] By now also Governor-General of Novgarod
[ii] Those who had been chosen by Peter to learn shipbuilding in the west
[iii] Son of Artamon Matveyev murdered in front of Peter in the Streltsy uprising
[iv] Who had been expecting great things of his transfer of allegiance from Sophia, was angered by a posting to Azov
[v] Peter the Great - Massie
[vi] On the eastern shores of the Baltic
[vii] In western Latvia
[viii] Peter the Great - Massie
[ix] Later to be Frederick I of Prussia
[x] Jan Sobieski had died in June 1696
[xii] Peter the Great - Massie
[xiii] Now a museum, Peter returned here several times
[xiv] Part of modern Georgia around the Rioni river
[xv] Louis XIV
[xvi] A Woman’s Life in the Court of the Sun King - Forster
[xvii] William and Mary – Henri & Barbara van der Zee
[xix] Who was to become the commander of the Russian Baltic fleet
[xx] William and Mary – Henri & Barbara van der Zee
[xxiii] Presented on 2nd March 1698