Rising to Dizzy Heights
The two people who were to become most important to Peter came to the fore during the early stages of the Great North War; Prince Menshikov, a former stable hand[i] and Martha Skavronskaya, who was to become Peter’s mistress and later his wife. Menshikov had been discovered by Lefort and quickly attracted Peter’s attention. He joined the play army of Peter’s youth and gradually climbed the ranks.Menshikov then fought with Peter at Azov; by 1700 he was in charge of the Czar’s wardrobe. The start of the war saw Menshikov return to soldiering and he was involved in the founding of St Petersburg and in 1703 he was given responsibility for building one of the great bastions of the Peter and Paul fortress. The same year Menshikov was also made Governor of Ingria, Karelia and Estonia. But most important was his role as Peter’s friend, following the death of Lefort. Peter wrote of his friend.
‘He does what he likes without asking my opinion….but I for my part never decide anything without asking him his.’[ii]The orphan Martha Skavronskaya was befriended by a Lutheran minister, taken into his Marienburg household where she was expected to make herself useful. As the Swedes withdrew from Marienburg, Martha’s employer fell into the hands of Sheremetev’s victorious Russian army; by whom he was used as a translator. Martha herself was taken into Sheremetev’s household as a domestic servant.
By the time Martha entered Menshikov’s household, she had joined the Orthodox church and taken the name of Catherine. In the autumn of 1703 Menshikov took Catherine to Moscow; although it is not known if the pair became lovers, they did however become inseparable friends.Peter’s relationship with Anna Mons was breaking up[iii] and Peter was attracted to Catherine and she became his mistress. She continued to live at Menshikov’s house, along with Menshikov’s future wife Darya Arseneev and her sister[iv]. Darya and Catherine travelled together to join Menshikov and Peter where the Russian armies were encamped.
In the winter of 1704 Catherine gave birth to Peter’s son Pyotr[v]; another two children were born before her secret marriage to Peter in November 1707. The marriage was kept secret until March 1711 when Peter informed his family of this second marriage. In February 1712 Peter remarried Catherine, the only person who could deal with his convulsive fits, in a public ceremony. Prior to the ceremony Catherine was accepted publicly into the Orthodox church with her stepson, the Czarevitch Alexis, acting as her Godfather.In 1717 she was described by a German diplomat as;
‘In the prime of life and showed no signs of having possessed beauty. She was tall and strong, exceedingly dark, and would have seemed darker but for the rouge and whitening with which she covered her face. There was nothing unpleasant about her manners, and anyone who remembered the Princess’s origins would have been disposed to think them good……..She had a great desire to do well.’[vi]Changes
Peter was not a man to stay still and, even when not with his armies, he rarely stayed in one place for more than three months, criss-crossing the broad expanses of his country. He visited the shipyards, inspected new building works and military installations. Peter wrote laws and decrees, often on brown pieces of paper, usually on the move or in an inn en route to his next destination. The Russian people were not used to a mobile Czar; normally seen as figureheads sat in Moscow. Never before had so many ordinary people across Russia seen their ruler.
In 1706 Golovin died and his job as General-Admiral and Foreign Minister was divided among three men. Fedor Apraxin became General-Admiral, Gavril Golovkin became Foreign Minister and Peter Sharifov[vii] was made his deputy. New departments were created; the Department of the Navy, a Department of Artillery and a Department of the Mines.Peter discovered that the old Boyar council, now renamed the Privy Council, was being blamed for its decisions by members who claimed they had not been present when decisions, criticised by Peter, were made. To stop this Peter ordered that every member present at a meeting would have to sign off on decisions and the originals would be forwarded to the Czar wherever he was by courier.
To deal with all the paperwork pouring in from all parts of the country, for the Czar’s attention, a mobile personal chancellery, headed by Alexis Makarov, accompanied Peter everywhere.Rebellion
Peter’s wars and buildings projects exerted hardships on the Russian people unable to pay the taxes demanded and resentful of being pressed into labour gangs for the buildings works. To escape they melted away into the forests and thence, for many of them, down to the south and Ukraine.
17th century Astrakhan
Peter ordered the return of these runaway serfs and the Cossacks, after deliberation, refused. Astrakhan harboured remnants of the Streltsy and Peter’s increased taxes and pressure to introduce foreign ways help to foment rebellion. The rumour mills went on overtime.In 1705 the rumour that Peter had forbidden Russian men to marry for seven years so that Russian women could be married off to foreigners lit the spark. On 30th July 1705 one hundred women in Astrakhan were married off to Russian men in a mass wedding; a bid to avoid the purported decree.
Onlookers then rushed to the local government offices; beheaded the governor and elected a new government, claiming
‘The governor and other officers practised all kinds of idol worship[viii] and wished to compel us to it. But we have not allowed this to happen. We have taken the idols out of the house of the officials.’[ix]The rebels wrote to other towns on the Volga and to the Don Cossacks, inviting them to join the rebellion. Peter, in Courland besieging Mittau[x], sent Sheremetev to put down the rebellion[xi]. Peter invited the rebel leaders to come to Moscow and discuss their problems with Golovin, who was impressed by their complaints.
‘I have talked for some time with them and they seem faithful and honest people. Deign, sir, even to force yourself to show them mercy. Even we are not without rascals.’[xii]Peter offered an amnesty if the city submitted, but his leniency only encouraged the rebels, who ignored the offer, believing they could overpower Sheremetev’s troops. They were wrong, the amnesty was withdrawn after they attacked the soldiers and hundreds of rebels were sent to Moscow or broken on the wheel.
The same year unhappiness spread through the nomadic Bashkirs[xiii]; they were being squeezed by Russian settlers and, in their wake, Russian tax collectors. By early 1708 the tribes were in open revolt, burning new villages and their fighters were within twenty miles of Kazan. Peter sent troops and the western Bashkirs submitted; those in the east continued to devastate the countryside until put down by the Kalmucks, called in by Peter to deal with the rebellion; his regular troops had been required to fight the Swedes in the west.
Rebellion Number ThreePeter was determined to round up the army deserters and serfs who had fled to join the Don Cossacks. This determination led to the most dangerous of the rebellions, against Peter’s rule, during this period. In September 1707 Prince Yuri Dolgoruky arrived on the Don with 1,200 soldiers to enforce Peter’s decree. The Don Cossacks continued in their refusal to return the deserting soldiers and runaway serfs.
On the night of 9th October 1707 the Ataman of Bakhut, Konradty Bulavin, attacked the Russian camp and killed all the Russians. Bulavin called upon all Cossacks;
‘To defend the house of God’s Holy Mother and the Christian Church against the heathen and Hellenic teachings which the boyars and Germans wish to introduce.’[xiv]He promised to free the serfs at Azov and Taganrog and further promised a march on Moscow in the spring.
Fearing Peter’s wrath would descend on the region, a fellow Ataman Maximov, attacked Bulavin, who managed to escape. In the spring of 1708 he and his troops were attacked by a joint force of Maximov’s men and Russian troops. On the 9th April Bulavin defeated this army and the rebellion spread like wildfire. Peter now sent Vasily Dolgoruky[xv] with a force of 10,000 troops to the Don. In the interim Bulavin had executed Maximov and then attacked Azov.
Prince Vasily Dolgoruky
Dolgoruky’s orders were to
‘To extinguish this fire for once and all. This rabble cannot be treated other than with cruelty.’[xvi]Bolstered by a successful attack on one of Azov’s suburbs[xvii] Bulavin inexplicably divided his army into three and these mini armies were picked off individually. After the second defeat on 1st July 1708 many of Bulavin’s men petitioned the Czar for forgiveness. The Cossack elders turned on Bulavin, who was still heroically resisting the Russians.
Bulavin killed himself and the insurgency gradually faded; finally dying when the remainder of Bulavin’s troops were defeated by Dolgoruky’s men.Bibliography
Natasha’s Dance – Orlando Figes, Penguin Books Ltd 2002Russia and the Russians – Geoffrey Hosking, The Penguin Press 2001
Peter the Great – Robert K Massie, Abacus 1992The History of Charles XII of Sweden – Mr de Voltaire, C Davis & A Lyon 1732
[i] At Preobrazhenskoe
[ii] Peter the Great - Massie
[iii] Her ambition to become his Czarita foiled
[iv] Friends of Peter’s sister Natalya
[v] The child died in 1707. The couple had twelve children, all but two of whom died in childhood
[vi] Peter the Great - Massie
[vii] Golovin and Shafirov fell out after a while but were forced to continue working together by Peter, who felt he needed both men
[viii] These idols were wig stands for the new European style wigs Peter and his officials were now wearing
[ix] Peter the Great - Massie
[x] Now Jelgava
[xi] Letters from Moscow were stopped to avoid the spread of news
[xii] Peter the Great - Massie
[xiii] Muslim tribes living n the steppe between the Volga and the Urals
[xiv] Peter the Great - Massie
[xv] Brother of Yuri
[xvi] Peter the Great - Massie
[xvii] Later beaten off by the garrison