Peter the Great
continued from No. 21
It was impossible for any country to make so many changes at the same time, and so quickly. But Peter always got what he wanted, and what he wanted most was a modern Russia. He worked hard and made sacrifices; he believed that his countrymen should be willing to do the same.
They were bled dry by taxes and more taxes, for Peter was not only rebuilding Russia; he was also at war with Sweden. As usual, it was the peasants – poor working men and women who owned no land and had few rights – who bore the greatest burden. They had to send their sons to fight in the army for a term of twenty-five years. They had to pay taxes on candles and nuts, boots and hats, horses, beehives, beards, chimneys, and drinking water. Peter had a regular committee whose job it was to think up more taxes.
And what of Peter’s greatest dream, the reason he had learned to build ships? Russia must have a navy of her own! Now, at last, he had a place to put it: in the war with Sweden he had captured a marshy strip of land on the Gulf of Finland. And although it was far to the north, freezing cold, and little more than a swampy wilderness, Peter planned to build there, not just a port and a fortress to protect it, but a whole city. It was to be called St. Petersburg after his patron saint, and it would become the new capital of Russia!
Most cities begin as small settlements and grow gradually over hundreds of years. Peter wanted his city overnight. An army of workers was ordered to this frigid, desolate place. There was no wood or stone to build with and no food to feed the workers; everything had to be brought up from Moscow. Because picks and shovels were scarce, in the early years workers were forced to dig the foundations with their bare hands. Through floods in summer and unbearable cold in winter the work went on. Thousands of men lost their lives. The Russians called it a “city built on bones.”
Naturally, no one wanted to live on that damp, icy, isolated marsh, so Peter ordered them to come. The royal family, noblemen, and many rich merchants had to leave their comfortable lives in Moscow and build, at their own expense, grand houses in the new city. Simply because Peter wanted it, there grew up out of nothing one of the loveliest cities in the world, a remarkable blend of east and west. With its graceful and majestic buildings in soft yellows and blues and its many bridges joining the nineteen islands to the shore, it is known as the “Venice of the North.”
On January 16, 1725, while he was busy with the building of his city, Peter fell ill with an infection and took to his bed. He continued to work at the business of government in his dressing gown, propped up with pillows and anxiously watched by his doctors. Many times Peter had been sick and recovered to work even harder. But now he grew worse and had to send his ministers away. A priest was called to give him the last rites of the church.
“I hope God will forgive me my many sins,” Peter whispered, “because of the good I have tried to do for my people.”
In the morning chill of January 28, after days of hovering between life and death, Peter died. He was fifty-three years old.
The north wind blew snow in great gusts as a solemn procession carried the coffin to the Fortress Cathedral. As they trudged noiselessly through the snow some must have thought, “Now I can go home to Moscow. And perhaps the taxes will stop.” Others surely asked, “How can we go on without him? How could such a man die?”
In the cathedral they prayed for his soul. “O men of Russia!” said the priest. “What is this that we do? The man we lay to rest this day is surely Peter the Great! He has gone, but his work will survive him. He made Russia powerful, and so she will remain.”
Though his life was ended and other tsars would sit on his throne, what Peter began went on and on, and Russia was changed forever.