Peter the Great
continued from No. 20
From Holland, Peter went to England, where he worked at the Deptford Shipyard. He wandered about the city freely, often dressed in sailor’s clothes. Everywhere he went he took his curiosity with him. “What does it do?” he would ask. “How does it work?”
He went into a watchmaker’s to have his watch repaired and stayed to learn to take a watch apart and put it together again.
He studied the anatomy of the human body and believed that he was a qualified surgeon, though he limited himself, fortunately, to pulling teeth.
He could not cross a bridge without stopping to see how it was constructed.
Anything that was interesting – and transportable – he shipped back to Russia: microscopes, barometers, a wind dial, an English coffin, even a stuffed crocodile. He hired over eight hundred specialists: engineers, naval officers, doctors, barbers, shipwrights, technicians of all kinds. Peter had to charter ten ships to carry them all. The West was coming to Russia at last.
As Peter’s visit drew to a close, King William III of England prepared a grand surprise for him. Knowing Peter’s fascination with ships, the king divided his navy into opposing forces and staged a sea battle for him. The ships’ cannons did not fire cannonballs, of course, but they gave off smoke and made plenty of noise. Peter watched from the deck of the flagship as the great vessels maneuvered around one another, playing at war. The English sailors scurried about the decks as Peter watched admiringly. It was all so thrilling to the twenty-five-year-old tsar who had seen his first sailboat only ten years before.
At last Peter was prepared to return home from his great adventure. He had a lot of work to do.
On Peter’s arrival, the Russian noblemen gathered at his door to welcome him home. They fell to the floor before their almighty tsar as they had always done. But Peter raised them up.
“You must stop doing that,” he said. “If you give such honor to a man, what is left to give to God?”
And then, in a hurry to begin making changes, Peter produced a razor and began removing the noblemen’s long beards. To these men their beards were a symbol of their religious belief. God made men with beards; it was therefore a sin to shave them off. No matter! Peter had seen his embassy ridiculed by the Europeans for those beards. It was not modern.
It was not the fashion.
He passed a law that all men, except priests and peasants, must shave. If a man insisted on keeping his beard, he could pay a yearly tax on it and wear around his neck, at all times, a bronze medal with a picture of a beard and the words, “Beards are a ridiculous ornament.”
With the beards gone, could those impossible long robes be far behind?
“These things are in your way,” he said to his unhappy noblemen, while cutting off their sleeves. “First you knock over a glass, then you dip them in the sauce.”
He had them kneel down, and then he cut their robes at the point where they touched the floor. “There,” he said. “That’s better.”
The horrified noblemen looked at the mangled remains of their fine robes – exquisite embroidery cut away, gems hanging loose, priceless heirlooms destroyed.
Soon all men and women were forced by law to dress in the western manner. Pictures of the latest fashions were posted in public places for people to copy.
They didn’t like it. They didn’t like any of it. They wanted things to be the way they had been before. But they might as well have tried to stop the wind as to stop Peter now.
In Europe, Peter had met women who dined and danced with their husbands and even joined them in conversation. He felt ashamed of the women of Russia. Shut away from the world like caged birds, they were ignorant and helpless. By ancient custom Russian women painted their teeth black as a sign of modesty. They did not wear corsets, as European ladies did, and hid their womanly shapes under layers of bulky garments.
Fathers married off their young daughters to men chosen for reasons of business or property. Each daughter was handed over to a stranger, like so much baggage, along with a whip symbolizing the transfer of absolute power to the new husband.
Peter saw that this was wrong and had to change. Instead of hiding when their husbands had guests, Peter commanded women to come forward and dine with them. He even arranged parties so that men and women could practice the strange new custom of talking to one another. Young people were not to be forced into arranged marriages anymore, and the bridegroom would no longer carry a whip but offer his bride a kiss instead.
Peter rose at four every day, hours before the sun lit his room. Bursting with energy, he called for his ministers while still in his bedclothes. He often worked fourteen hours a day. There was so much to do!
He was determined that Russia be governed by wise and able men, whether or not of noble birth. So he decreed that any man could serve the government, that everyone must begin at the bottom and work his way up, and that any man who was corrupt or abused his office would be punished savagely, even if he were Peter’s closest friend.
But no matter how modern the Russians looked, no matter how well planned their government, unless they were educated they would always be a backward people. Soon books and newspapers popped up everywhere. Schools of mathematics and navigation were built. Peter established an Academy and Museum of Science which was not only free to all: coffee and wine were served to encourage the people to come.
He built a system of canals, established vineyards, and set up factories of all kinds making new goods for Russia.
Peter dashed from place to place, tirelessly overseeing everything. When a bed was not handy and he needed to rest, he would stretch out on the ground to sleep, using a servant’s stomach as a pillow. He wore comfortable old clothes, caring little for luxury. His mind was on something greater: moving, by force if necessary, his beloved country into the modern world.