Peter the Great
It was spring in the year 1685.
In the hush of dawn the soldiers crept noiselessly to their positions, their weapons loaded. Within minutes they would attack the fort below them on the banks of the quiet river.
Peter crouched beside his cannon awaiting the command to fire.
The command came. With a dreadful blast, mortars and cannons pounded the fort, shattering it and sending wood and earth flying. With whoops of triumph the soldiers clambered over the wreckage and claimed complete victory.
Miles away, already hard at work in the fields, peasants heard the noise and grumbled, “There’s the tsar, playing his games again!”
It was true. The soldier who fired his cannon with such excitement was Peter Alexeevich, future tsar of all Russia and her eight million people. And, though tall for his age, he was only a boy of thirteen, playing soldiers.
Like any spoiled child, Peter believed that whatever he wanted, he should have, and the sooner the better. As a little boy, he had trained monkeys and dancing bears to entertain him. A whole staff of dwarves waited on him.
When he grew older and wanted to play soldier, he was given his own army of children, complete with barracks to live in, uniforms to wear, and plenty of muskets and cannons to make noise with. All his life he would want fantastic things, and want them right away.
Most boys who happened to be kings and to have an army of children to play with, would make themselves commander-in-chief. But Peter never did, either as a child or as a man. He assigned himself the lowest rank and worked his way up. He slept, ate, and worked with the other boys, expecting no special treatment. Peter always believed that honors should be earned through learning and hard work, not handed out to people because they were rich or important.
Russia was vast, the largest nation on earth. It spread from Europe on the west to the Pacific Ocean on the east. In Europe, wonderful things were happening: scientists, explorers, painters, musicians, and writers were changing their world.
But the Russians did not wish to change. They firmly believed that the old ways were best and that life should continue as it had been in their fathers’, and their grandfathers’, and their great-grandfathers’ time. They did not wish to visit Europe to see the exciting new discoveries, and they did not wish for Europeans to visit them. The Russians simply wished to be left alone.
There were, however, a few Europeans living in Russia as advisors to the government, most of them to help run the army.
They were not permitted to live among the Russians and were kept together in a settlement called the “German suburb.” They weren’t all Germans, of course, but the Russians never could tell one European from another.
This elegant little European town had grand mansions along tree-lined avenues, little parks with splashing fountains, and, most of all, Europeans. These modern men and women dressed in the stylish mode of the day, read foreign books, and entertained one another at dinner parties where they talked about marvelous things.
Peter knew many of them personally, for they were his teachers in military matters. He couldn’t believe how different their world was from that of Russia. He thought their world was wonderful. How he wished his country could be like theirs!