History of Russia

While England, under the first of her Scottish kings, was falling from the high estate she had occupied under her native princes; while in France the, genius of Richelieu was making itself felt; while the glory was departing from the Spanish monarchy; while the Thirty Years' War was beginning to desolate Germany; while the illustrious career of Gustavus Adolphus was opening upon Sweden; and while the warriors of Turkey were yet terrible to the nations of Europe, Michael Theodoriwitz, earliest of the dynasty of Romanoff, became Czar of Muscovy. His dominions were uncultivated, his subjects barbarous, and the country was in the utmost disorder; for on the extinction of the male line of the former Czars - the posterity of John Basilowitz, who had redeemed Russia from the Tartars - no fewer than five pretenders had aspired to the vacant throne, and involved the realm in civil war. But Michael, proving worthy of his elevation, reigned for more than thirty years, maintained his position with dignity, and beqeathed the crown to his heir.

Alexis, the son of Michael, succeeded in 1645, and applied himself with vigor to the harsh duties of reform. The necessity was indeed pressing; for Muscovy was still little better than a ferocious anarchy; and the capital was kept in perpetual consternation by the capricious violence of the Strelitzes - a militia formed in imitation of the celebrated Turkish Janizaries. But the new Czar proved himself an able ruler, and did much to create order. He published a code of laws, purified the courts of justice, restrained the power of the boyards over their serfs, and afforded much encouragement to agriculture and manufactures.

Toward the close of his reign Alexis was deprived by death of his first wife; and though he had a family of sow and daughters, the Czar determined upon a second matrimonial speculation. According to the fashion then pursued by the rulers of Russia, Alexis issued a proclamation inviting all the most beautiful damsels in his dominions, irrespective of their social condition, to repair to Moscow that he might select a fitting bride. Among the rest came a lady named Natalie. She, having attracted the eye of Alexis, was forthwith exalted to the dignity of Czarina; and, in due time, she became the mother of a prince who afterward rendered himself famous as Peter the Great.

When Alexis expired in 1676, he left, besides Peter, then a mere child, two sons, Theodore and Ivan, and a daughter, Sophia, who ere long played a conspicuous part in Russian affairs. Theodore, a sickly youth, inherited his father's crown, but did not survive to wear it more than a few years. On his death-bed he summoned the boyards to his presence, and recommended them to set aside Ivan on account of his bodily infirmities, and intrust the sceptre to the youthful Peter. To this scheme Sophia, who united much personal beauty with a strong will and a vaulting ambition, was vehemently opposed; and her smiles so completely won over the Captain of Strelitzes, and fascinated the populace, that the incapable Ivan was seated on the throne, while she assumed the functions of government. The widowed Czarina and her son, after being besieged in their palace, fled from the city, and sought an asylum in the Convent of Trinity; but they had scarcely taken refuge within its walls, when the soldiers of Sophia were heard clamoring at the outer gate. At this crisis a lucky thought crossed the agitated brain of the trembling Czarina. She placed her son on the high altar; and when the soldiers effected an entrance, the Superior of the Convent, pointing to the boy, exclaimed, 'Behold him I there he is with God.' The soldiers were touched with awe, till one of them, less scrupulous than his fellows, after a pause stepped forward, and brandished his weapon to strike the child. But a monk, arresting his arm, thrust him back, saying with cairn solemnity, 'Not in this sacred place.' At that moment the tread of cavalry was again heard, and the Superior having exclaimed, 'Here come our friends at last; let the enemies of God and the Czar tremble,' the edifice was speedily cleared of intruders, and the royal boy's life providentially saved.

The son of Natalie had other perils to encounter on the threshold of life. At an obscure village, situated at a distance from Moscow, he was sur rounded by a number of most profligate youths to corrupt his morals and debase his mind. But, instead of falling into the snare, Peter persuaded his comrades to have recourse to manly sports and martial exercises; he formed them into a small military force; and in this juvenile regiment, taking rank only as a private, he wrought his way gradually to command.

About this time Le Fort and Gordon, two adventurers of mark and likelihood, appeared in Russia. Le Fort was a native of Geneva, and had been originally destined for commercial pursuits; but with a soul above such matters, he had followed the bent of his inclination, and betaken himself to a military career. Gordon was of a different stamp, being the cadet of a Cavalier family in Scotland, who had in youth left his native soil to win fame and fortune, and who had served with the Swedes and Poles. Peter now attached these distinguished soldiers of fortune to his cause; and they rendered him most valuable aid in his schemes for the creation of that power which is now regarded as one of the most pernicious elements in European society.

When Peter had attained his seventeenth year he took to himself a wife; and this step so alarmed the aspiring Sophia, that in her haste she assumed the title of Empress, and dispatched a force to arrest the bridegroom. But her indications of enmity created such a ferment among the young hero's friends, that, in 1689, they compelled the haughty princess to abandon the struggle and retired to a convent, while Peter was installed as Czar.

Ambitious of learning the art of governing his people and of ameliorating their condition, Peter, in the company of Le Fort, who figured as ambassador, left his dominions to acquire information in foreign lands.

After visiting Berlin, he repaired to Holland, studied commerce at Amsterdam, and wrought as an ordinary shipwright in the docks of Saardam. He then passed over to England to complete his knowledge; and carried with him from Deptford, which he visited as a simple mechanic, sailors and artificers, whom he afterward promoted to places of honor and command in Russia.

On returning home it became the chief object of the Czar Peter to teach his barbarous subjects the art of civilized war, and to form a regularly disciplined army. And in Charles XII of Sweden he found an antagonist whose courage and enthusiasm called forth all his genius. In their first conflicts the Swedish monarch was triumphant, but Peter did not therefore blanch. 'I knew,' said he, after being defeated at Narva, 'that the Swedes would beat us but in time they will teach us to become their conquerors.' He soon after recovered Narva by a skillful assault, and then applied his energies to the building of that remarkable town so intimately associated with his celebrity as a ruler.

The Czar, in realizing his project, made choice of a singular site. Between Finland and Ingria was a marshy island, which during summer was a heap of mud and in winter a frozen pool. Growling bears and howling wolves had hitherto haunted the spot; but, resolute in his purpose, the Czar, bringing men from all parts of his realm, cleared forests, formed roads, erected mounds, and laid the foundation of St. Petersburg. Though inundations demolished the works, and fever carried off the workmen, the Czar persevered in the undertaking; and in 1714 he removed the council thither from Moscow, the ancient capital.

A few years passed over; and Peter assuming the title of Emperor of all the Russias, was formally acknowledged as such by the various powers of Europe. He established order throughout his dominions, provided education for youth, and adopted many useful reforms. But his temper was still so despotic, and his nature so fierce, that when Alexis, his son and heir, offended him by a dissolute life, and by opposing his schemes of civilization, the Czar ordered that he should suffer death. Peter himself expired in 1725, and was succeeded on the throne by his second spouse, the Czarina.

Catharine, originally a Livonian captive, exercised the functions of government with credit for the next three years, and was succeeded by Peter II, a son of the murdered Alexis. This Czar only reigned for a brief period; and the male line of the Romanoffs thus becoming extinct, the Russians elevated to the vacant throne Anne, duchess of Courtland, the second daughter of the Czar Peter's brother. The reign of Anne was happy and prosperous; but on her decease there took place a struggle for the succession, which terminated in the proclamation of Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great, and in the imprisonment of her rivals. Her reign was particularly fortunate. A war with Sweden was brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and the Czarina's fleets and armies were every where victorious. Russia, under the auspices of Elizabeth, took an important part in the Seven Years' War, and the position of Frederick the Great had gradually become one of the extreme peril, when the Empress died in 1762, and the throne was inherited by her nephew Peter III.

Peter who was animated by an enthusiastic admiration of the Prussian King's talent and courage, immediately consented to a peace, and the new reign commenced auspiciously. The nobles and gentry were freed from vassalage, and placed on an equality with those in other countries; and the laborers were, to some extent, relieved from the burden of taxation. But being a Lutheran, Peter shocked the clergy by his contempt for the Greek Church, while he offended the army by his partiality for the Holstein Guards, and thus raised up a host of foes. The unfortunate Emperor had made another enemy, still more uncompromising. Before coming to the throne he had espoused Catharine, a princess of Anhalt Zerbst, a woman of great ability and boundless ambition. Their tastes, habits, and dispositions, were, however, utterly dissimilar; and fierce quarrels arising between them, Peter became so deeply enamored of the Countess of Woronzoff, that ere long a rumor crept about of his intention to shut up the Empress in prison and raise the Countess to share his throne. The rumor cost him dear; for while he was seeking consolation in the society of the lady of his heart, Catharine marched against the devoted Czar at the head of a strong party, proclaimed that he had ceased to reign, and threw him into prison, where he soon after breathed his last, under suspicious circumstances.

The masculine Empress then ascended the Russian throne with the title of Catharine II, and commenced her reign by flattering the prejudices which her illfated husband had so fatally wounded. But a large share of her attendon was speedily bestowed upon the affairs of Poland. When Augustus, king of that illfated country, expired at Dresden in 1763, the Empress, by the influence of Russian bayonets, procured the election of Stanislaus Augustus, one of her former favorites. Almost from the opening of the reign, Poland was the scene of disorder and desolation; for Catherine, having transported to Siberia a number of senators hostile to her designs, roused the indignant spirit of the nation. A band of patriotic Poles, seizing on Cracow and Bar, formed a league for their deliverance from a foreign yoke, and implored assistance from Louis XV. Fifteen hundred Frenchmen, under Dumouriez, marched to the assistance of the confederates, and Turkey took part in the quarrel. But the Russians were completely victorious; Bender was captured; the Turkish fleet was destroyed; and the Crimea was annexed to Catherine's dominions. Flushed with success, and unscrupulous by nature, the Empress projected the dismemberment of Poland, forced her scheme upon Maria Theresa, and in 1772 entered into a treaty of partition with the rulers of Austria and Prussia. The Polish Diet was intimidated by menaces; and the several provinces, about one-third of the Polish territory, which had been allotted to the spoilers, were surrendered.

Scarcely had the Russian Empress perpetrated this piece of ruthless injustice, when she was alarmed by the serious rebellion of a Cossack, who, assuming the name and character of her dead husband, pretended that he had escaped from the hands of those employed to assassinate him. The Cossack bore a striking resemblance to the deceased Czar, and was successful in arraying a considerable band of followers under his banner. He boldly took the field, and, possessing both skill and valor, was for a time victorious over the generals of Catherine. But at length he was totally defeated, taken prisoner, carried to Moscow in an iron cage, and beheaded as a traitor.

Danger soon arose from another quarter. After undertaking one of the most pompous processions on record to be crowned at Cherson, Catharine, on her return to St. Petersburg, was disturbed by a declaration of war on the part of Turkey: but the Ottoman power lost considerably by the operations, and the Dneister was henceforth recognized as the frontier of the hostile empires.

Soon after this Catharine was startled with the outbreak of the French revolution, and against it she issued a strong declaration. But she refrained from taking any active part in opposition to its promoters; for while other countries were binding themselves up for the fierce struggle that ensued, the Czarina seized the occasion to make a second onslaught on devoted Poland. In 1788 the Poles, in their aspirations after liberty, increased their army, and framed a new constitution, which rendered the crown hereditary in the family of the Elector of Saxony. The Empress thereupon sent an army into Poland, under pretense of maintaining the settlement of 1772, but in reality to complete the subjugation of the unhappy country, which, in 1793, she effected, with the aid of the King of Prussia. The Polish nobles, however, took up arms to rescue their native land, and, under the brave Kosciusko, were at first victorious, but the defeat and captivity of their general rendered further resistance unavailing.

Warsaw still holding out, and refusing to surrender, the Russians, under Suwarrow, assailed the town; and there ensued a fierce conflict, in which the Poles perished by thousands. After a resistance of eight hours they laid down their arms; but even then a multitude of unarmed and defenseless human beings were mercilessly sacrificed by fire and sword. Suwarrow entered with the pride of a victor; and the Te Deum was sung to celebrate his triumph. Next year Stanislaus made a formal resignation of his thorny crown. 'I can cheerfully,' he said, 'surrender what has brought me so much calamity.'

With insatiable ambition the Czarina next cast her eyes longingly on Courland, and allured its Duke to her court. During his absence the nobles of that fertile and populous district assembled the states, to annex their country to Russia. To this scheme there was at first serious opposition; but a Russian general suddenly appearing in the assembly silenced all objections, and the deposed Duke retired to extensive estates which he had purchased in Prussia.

In 1796, after a successful war with Persia, Catherine was summoned to another state of existence; and the empire which she had rendered so extensive, was inherited by her son Paul. The deceased Czarina had confined herself to verbal denunciations in her hostility to revolutionary France; but her successor, eager to signalize his ascension by some brilliant exploit, entered - with singular zeal for the cause of sovereigns into a confederation against the Republic. After setting the brave Kosciusko at liberty, and making peace with Persia, he took an active part in the war against France, and sent a powerful force into Italy to the aid of Austria. Under Suwarrow the Russian army afterward entered Switzerland, and menaced that Republic; but the veteran conqueror of Poland was there utterly unsuccessful, and, depressed with the loss of renown, he returned with his shattered army to die of despair, under the frowns of his despotic sovereign.

Jealous of the maritime greatness and naval ascendency of England, and swayed by a chivalrous admiration of Napoleon, the capricious Czar changed his politics, allied himself with France, seized the British ships in his ports, and organized the Northern Confederacy, which was dissolved by the victory of Copenhagen. But ere the news of that event could reach his ear, Paul had met a terrible fate; for his tyrannies had so provoked his courtiers, that they declared his death b be essential to the welfare of the empire. At dead of night, in March 1801, the Emperor, in his regimentals, was reposing on a sofa, when the conspirators glided into his apartments. A hussar, who kept guard, opposing their entrance, was cut down with the stroke of a sabre; and the Emperor, awakening at the noise, sprang to his feet, and endeavored to intrench himself behind chairs and tables. Finding his assailants resolute, the Emperor implored mercy, and even promised to make them all princes; but observing that they were inexorable, he sprang forward to escape through a high window. At length a blow prostrated him on the floor, and a young Hanoverian, twining his sash round the victim's neck, and giving one end to an accomplice, twisted with all his might till the life of the miserable Emperor was extinct. The conspirators then retired, without molestation, from the palace. At early morn the intelligence was bruited about that Paul had died of appoplexy; and, in the course of the day, his eldest son, Alexander, was proclaimed Emperor of all the Russias.

The new Czar, for awhile, maintained neutrality between contending nations; but in 1804, when the Duke d'Enghien was seized at Ettenheim, carried to Paris, and shot in the wood of Vincennes, he assumed an attitude of hostility toward Bonaparte, formed a coalition with Austria and England, and undertook a campaign. The rapid successes of the French so bewildered Mack that he capitulated at Him; and Napoleon, after his entry into Vienna, marching into Moravia to meet the Russians, encountered their army, with the remains of the Austrians, at Austerlitz, and obtained one of the most glorious victories on record. Another coalition was soon formed; and Napoleon, appearing in Poland, fought at Eylau a battle bloody and indecisive; but at Friedland he completely vanquished the Russians, and forced the Czar to sue for peace. On a raft on the river Niemen, a conference was held between Napoleon and the vanquished sovereigns of Prussia, Russia, and Austria. This resulted in the Peace of Tilsit, in the erection of the Duchy of Warsaw, and in the acknowledgment of the elector of Saxony as its sovereign.

Continental Europe was now at Napoleon's feet; but against his prodigious power and inordinate ambition another confederation was formed; and, in this league, Russia took a conspicuous part. The Emperor of the French thereupon repaired to Dresden, and fruitlessly attempted to lure back the Czar to his interests. But failing in that object, Napoleon took the field at the head of four hundred thousand men, crossed the Niemen, and advanced to Wilna. The Diet of Warsaw, after proclaiming the liberation of their country, demanded that the invader should recognize the independence of Poland; and Napoleon, returning an evasive answer, drove the Russians before him to Smolensko, where preparations had been made to arrest his progress.

On the 16th of August, 1812, Napoleon was before the ancient city, and at noon next day the conflict began. The French, at the point of the bayonet, drove the Russians within the walls, and the battle raged fiercely till sunset; but, when night set in, the city was in flames. Next morning the French, entering without resistance, found the place abandoned, save by men who were yielding their latest breath amidst the glare of the conflagration; and Smolensko was soon a heap of ruins. The Russians, laying waste the country, retreated towards Moscow, and the command of their army was transferred to Prince Kutosoff, a hoary and experienced general, whose arrival was hailed with delight. He announced that no more retrograde movements should be made, encouraged the troops by his presence, and exhorted them to defend Moscow to the last. This place was the ancient and venerable capital of their Empire; and its vast suburbs, its magnificent buildings, its towers, its domes, its spires, and its terraces, rendered Moscow one of the most interesting places in Europe, and the pride of the Russian Empire.

Both leaders exercised their utmost ingenuity, and made their dispositions with military skill. Along the Russian lines priests bore the sacred relics that had been saved at Smolensk; and inspired the soldiers with religious enthusiasm; and while their breasts were yet glowing with excite anent, Prince Kutosoff implored them, in lofty and inspiriting words, ' to think of their wives, their children, and their Emperor, and to write their faith and fealty on the field of their country with the life's blood of the invader and his legions.'

On the morning of the 7th of September, Napoleon, who, aware of his veteran antagonist's genius, had become more cautious in his operations, issued from his tent, and addressed his officers and soldiers in befitting terms. The hostile armies then met at Borodino, and the contest was maintained for hours with desperate valor. At one time the victor of Austerlitz had 'the mortification to see the choicest of his troops driven from the field. Bayonets and sabres flashed, and artillery thundered till night arrived, when both parties laid claim to the victory. But the Russian general decided on leaving Moscow to its fate; the inhabitants precipitately abandoned their houses; and the governor formally evacuated the city at the head of forty thousand persons.

Next morning the French, glowing with exultation, presented themselves at the gate, and forced an entrance; but scarcely had they done so, when they became aware that Moscow was in a blaze. The Exchange, an extensive building, containing warehouses stored with valuable merchandise, was first consigned to the flames, and, subsequently, a strong wind prevailing, the whole city was a sheet of fire, and the sky was obscured by volumes of smoke. The pillage soon commenced, and Napoleon's camp in the fields was filled with rich spoil.

But now, deprived of the prospect of wintering at Moscow, the position of the Emperor of the French became perilous in the extreme; for he had. penetrated into the heart of a hostile country; the cold season was, approching; and the ruined city offered no asylum from the rigor of the climate. He, therefore, humbled his pride so far as to commence negotiations with Alexander; but finding his efforts fruitless, after forty days he abandoned his scheme of conquest, and issued orders for a retreat. But the Russians, believing the conqueror of Europe to be at length in their power, were bent upon revenge; and Kutosoff remarked -'The French have proclaimed the campaign terminated at Moscow, but on our part the warfare is about to begin.'

The retreat of Napoleon was disastrous beyond all precedent. The Russian armies seized every opportunity of attacking his troops the winter set in with unusual severity and the troops were paralyzed with cold.

The Cossacks, whose sole delight was war, under their celebrated leader, the Hetman Platoff, now mercilessly assailed the retiring legions, wrought fearful havoc, broke down bridges in the line of march, and harassed them on all sides. Scarcely had the French, after a day's toilsome march, stretched themselves on the ground to enjoy a little repose, when these vigilant foes rushed impetuously into the camp, and, ere the sleepers could resist, slaughtered them in heaps, and carried offstores and artillery. A scene of unparalleled horrors ensued; and the situation of the French forces became quite desperate. Cold and famine preyed upon the troops; flights of ravens hovered over their line of march; and troops of dogs followed in the rear to consume their remains. The horses perished by thousands; the cannon and wagons were abandoned; and all military order was at an end.

With his army in this evil plight, Napoleon, on the 23d of November, had to cross the Beresina in presence of the enemy, and a scene, replete with horrors, occurred. The river, though covered with floating ice, was not yet frozen over, and rafts had to be constructed and launched under the enemy's fire. Multitudes were engulfed in the waters; and the pas sage of the Beresina proved more fatal than the most sanguinary field.

On the 5th of December, Napoleon, mortified and sick at heart, abandoned the miserable wreck of his once magnificent army, and repaired to Paris.

Though the mighty Emperor had been defeated more by the elements than the Russian foe, the result of the campaign was to raise the renown of the Czar's arms; and Alexander, to complete the work thus begun, called upon the other powers of Europe to vindicate their independence against his former ally. The invitation was not unavailing; for with the reverses of the French arms commenced the defection of Napoleon's allies. A triple alliance was formed between Russia, Austria, and Prussia; the Emperor of the French was designated as the common enemy; the allied sovereigns undertook their campaign for the liberties of Europe, and their army marched triumphantly into Paris.

The Congress of Vienna assembled in 1814; and while Prussia was bent on the acquisition of Saxony, Alexander applied his energies to obtaining the duchy of Warsaw, which was still occupied by his troops. He was successful in his object; and what remained of Poland was handed over to the Czar, on condition of his ruling it by a special and constitutional government.

Ten years passed over; Alexander, in 1825, died of a fever at Taganrog; Constantine, the next son of the murdered Paul, a man of savage spirit, renounced his hereditary claim to the crown, and the vacant throne was ascended by his younger brother, Nicholas. That daring autocrat, within a year of his accession, undertook against Persia a war, which terminated in his favor; and, in 1828, he availed himself of the temporary weakness of Turkey to commence hostilities, to cross the Balkan mountains, and to impose upon the Sultan, among other hard terms, the Protectorate of the Danubian Principalities.

Meanwhile, the policy of Nicholas, and the personal character of the Grand Duke Constantine, rendered the condition of the Poles intolerable; a general insurrection took place in 1830; and the Czar, deeming that this outbreak released him from his engagements, determined upon the extirpation of Polish nationality. His army marched with that object into Po land; the nobles of the unhappy nation were exiled to Siberia; the patrician ladies were given as helpmates to the invading soldiers; and their infants were conveyed away to be educated with Russian ideas, and inspired with Russian sentiments. The constitution of Poland was then withdrawn; her laws were abrogated; and the ancient nation, over which John Sobieski had reigned, and for which Kosciusko had fought, was declared an integral part of an Empire that had been fostered into importance by the genius of Peter the Great, extended in its limits by the lawless appropriations of the second Catherine, and aggrandized by the unscrupulous ambition of her despotic descendants. The death of Nicholas took place in 1855, at the time when the combined armies of Turkey, England, and France, were besieging Sebastopol, the details of which are given in the preceding pages. He was succeeded by his son Alexander II.