Peter the Great
One summer day, Peter and an old Dutchman were visiting one of the country houses
belonging to the royal family. In a shed they discovered an old boat. Peter had never seen
anything like it.
“Timmerman!” called Peter. “What do you make of this?”
“It looks like an English sailboat, sir.”
“Why is it shaped like that? What does it do?”
The Dutchman smiled and opened his eyes very wide in amusement. “Why, it can sail into the wind – upstream!”
“Is it possible?” Peter cried. “Can you sail it? Can you make it do that?”
“I’ll find you someone who can, after it’s fixed up a bit. It will need a new mast, and some sails, and some patching here and there.”
When, at last, the boat was launched in the river, Peter watched breathlessly as it tacked back and forth upstream into the wind. After that, Peter spent every spare moment learning to sail. And on those sun-filled days Peter’s vision of the future began to take shape. He dreamed of more boats, bigger boats. Someday, Russia must have a navy and a port to put it in.
The young boy was growing into a man. Soon he would no longer play games; he would be ready to begin his life’s work: bringing Russia into the modern world.
Peter spent more and more time in the German suburb as the years passed. He dressed like the Europeans and tried to imitate their ways. What he longed for, more than anything else in the world, was to see Europe for himself. There was so much to learn!
He decided to do what no Russian tsar had ever done: he would travel to the West. But he would not travel in glory as the head of the great embassy, wasting precious time at tiresome parties and receptions in his honor. He would leave all that to Francis Lefort, his ambassador. Peter planned to travel disguised as a common soldier. As he now stood six feet, seven inches tall, however, and carried himself with great authority, it was easy to recognize him.
Before he left, Peter had a seal engraved for himself that read, “I am a pupil and need to be taught.”
In the spring of 1697 a grand procession of sledges, carriages, and wagons left Russia, carrying to the West 250 men – the ambassador, noblemen, priests, soldiers, clerks, cooks, and musicians who made up the embassy. They carried with them a huge quantity of sable furs with which they would pay their expenses. These men would be gone from all that was familiar to them for a year and a half, visiting Latvia, Poland, Germany, and Austria, but especially Holland and England, where Peter wanted to study shipbuilding.
It was the talk of Europe. Like creatures from another world these haughty Russians came, with their peculiar dress and terrible manners. They were scornful of the West, yet childlike in their amazement at all they saw. And the tsar pretending not to be the tsar – it was too funny!
When Peter reached Holland he could scarcely wait to begin. Using his own tools, he would work with his hands to learn shipbuilding as a carpenter learns it.
Early on the morning following his arrival, he hurried to the shipyard of Zaandam to begin. But the Dutch were wild with curiosity to see this carpenter-tsar. Crowds came by boat and on foot to stare at him. They pushed away the guards and poured into the shipyard. At last Peter was forced to flee to Amsterdam. There he was able to work in peace in the shipyard of the East India Company, closed to the public and surrounded by walls.
Peter didn’t want the luxurious house offered to him. He chose instead the master ropemaker’s house, where he lived with several of his men. He made his own fire, cooked his meals, and mended his clothes. He even learned to make shoes. Every morning at dawn he set out joyfully to the shipyard dressed as a Dutch workman. He was simply “Carpenter Peter’’ to them.
After four months, the ship was finished. Peter was given papers that said he was a master of the art of naval architecture. With great pride Peter would thereafter declare, “I, too, am a carpenter!”