The History of Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia
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Peter the Great was a monarch of the Tsardom of Russia and later the Russian Empire from 7 May [O.S. 27 April] 1682 until his death in 1725, jointly ruling before 1696 with his elder half-brother, Ivan V. The History of Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia by Voltaire was published in 1759.

The History of Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia


The History of Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia

Chapter I.
Description of Russia

The empire of Russia is the largest in the whole globe, extending from west to east upwards of two thousand common leagues of France, and about eight hundred in its greatest breadth from north to south. It borders upon Poland and the Frozen Sea, and joins to Sweden and China. Its length from the island of Dago, in the westernmost part of Livonia, to its most eastern limits, takes in near one hundred and seventy degrees, so that when it is noon in the western parts of the empire, it is nearly midnight in the eastern. Its breadth from north to south is three thousand six hundred wersts, which make eight hundred and fifty of our common French leagues.

The limits of this country were so little known in the last century, that, in 1689, when it was reported, that the Chinese and the Russians were at war, and that in order to terminate their differences, the emperor Camhi on the one hand, and the czars Ivan or John, and Peter, on the other, had sent their ministers to meet an embassy within three hundred leagues of Pekin, on the frontiers of the two empires, the account was at first treated as a fiction.

The country now comprehended under the name of Russia, or the Russias, is of a greater extent than all the rest of Europe, or than ever the Roman empire was, or that of Darius subdued by Alexander; for it contains upwards of one million one hundred thousand square leagues. Neither the Roman empire, nor that of Alexander, contained more than five hundred and fifty thousand each; and there is not a kingdom in Europe the twelfth part so extensive as the Roman empire; but to make Russia as populous, as plentiful, and as well stored with towns as our southern countries, would require whole ages, and a race of monarchs such as Peter the Great.

The English ambassador, who resided at Petersburg in 1733, and who had been at Madrid, says, in his manuscript relation, that in Spain, which is the least populous state in Europe, there may be reckoned forty persons to every square mile, and in Russia not above five. We shall see in the second chapter, whether this minister was mistaken. Marshal Vauban, the greatest of engineers, and the best of citizens, computes, that, in France, every square mile contains two hundred inhabitants. These calculations are never very exact, but they serve to shew the amazing disproportion in the population of two different countries.

I shall observe here, that from Petersburg to Pekin, there is hardly one mountain to be met with in the route which the caravans might take through independent Tartary, and that from Petersburg to the north of France, by the road of Dantzic, Hamburg, and Amsterdam, there is not even a hill of any eminence to be seen. This observation leaves room to doubt of the truth of that theory, which makes the mountains to have been formed by the rolling of the waves of the sea, and supposes all that is at present dry land, to have been for a long time covered with water: but how comes it to pass, that the waves, which, according to the supposition, formed the Alps, the Pyrenees, and Mount Taurus, did not likewise form some eminence or hill from Normandy to China, which is a winding space of above three thousand leagues? Geography, thus considered, may furnish lights to natural philosophy, or at least give room for rational doubts.

Formerly we called Russia by the name of Muscovy, from the city of Moscow, the capital of that empire, and the residence of the grand dukes: but at present the ancient name of Russia prevails.

It is not my business in this place to inquire, why the countries from Smolensko, to the other side of Moscow, were called White Russia, or why Hubner gives it the name of Black, nor for what reason the government of Kiow should be named Red Russia.

It is very likely that Madies the Scythian, who made an irruption into Asia, near seven hundred years before our vulgar æra, might have carried his arms into these regions, as Gengis Khan and Tamerlane did afterwards, and as probably others had done long before Madies. Every part of antiquity is not deserving of our inquiries; that of the Chinese, the Indians, the Persians, and the Egyptians, is ascertained from illustrious and interesting monuments; but these monuments suppose others of a far more ancient date, since it required many ages to teach men the art of transmitting their thoughts by permanent signs, and no less time was required to form a regular language; and yet we have no such monuments even in this polite part of Europe. The art of writing was a long time unknown to all the North: the patriarch Constantine, who wrote the history of Kiow in the Russian language, acknowledges, that the use of writing was not known in these countries in the fifth century.

Let others examine whether the Huns, the Slavi, and the Tartars, formerly led their wandering and famished tribes towards the source of the Boristhenes; my design is to shew what czar Peter created, and not to engage in a useless attempt, to clear up the chaos of antiquity. We should always keep in mind, that no family upon earth knows its first founder, and consequently, that no nation knows its first origin.

I use the name of Russians to designate the inhabitants of this great empire. That of Roxolanians, which was formerly given them, would indeed be more sonorous, but we shall conform to the custom of the language in which we write. News-papers and other memoirs have for some time used the word Russians; but as this name comes too near to that of Prussians, I shall abide by that of Russ, which almost all our writers have given them. Besides, it appeared to me, that the most extensive people on the earth ought to be known by some appellation that may distinguish them absolutely from all other nations.

This empire is at present divided into sixteen large governments, that will one day be subdivided, when the northern and eastern countries come to be more inhabited.

These sixteen governments, which contain several immense provinces are the following: —


The nearest province to our part of the world is that of Livonia, one of the most fruitful in the whole North. In the twelfth century the inhabitants were pagans; at this time certain merchants of Bremen and Lubeck traded to this country, and a body of religious crusaders, called port-glaives, or sword-bearers, who were afterwards incorporated in the Teutonic order, made themselves masters of this province in the thirteenth century, at the time when the fury of the crusades armed the Christians against every one who was not of their religion. Albert, margrave of Brandenburg, grand-master of these religious conquerors, made himself sovereign of Livonia and of Brandenburg-Prussia, about the year 1514. From that time, the Russians and Poles began to dispute for the possession of this province. Soon afterwards it was invaded by the Swedes, and for a long while continued to be ravaged by these several powers. Gustavus Adolphus having conquered it, it was then ceded to the Swedes in 1660, by the famous treaty of Oliva; and, at length, czar Peter wrested it from these latter, as will be seen in the course of this history.

Courland, which joins to Livonia, is still in vassalage to Poland, though it depends greatly upon Russia. These are the western limits of this empire in Christendom.

Of the Governments of Revel, Petersburg, and Wyburg

More northward is the government of Revel and Esthonia. Revel was built by the Danes in the thirteenth century. The Swedes were in possession of this province, from the time that country put itself under the protection of that crown in 1561. This is another of the conquests of Peter the Great.

On the borders of Esthonia lies the gulf of Finland. To the eastward of this sea, and at the junction of the Neva with the lake Ladoga, is situated Petersburg, the most modern and best built city in the whole empire, founded by czar Peter, in spite of all the united obstacles which opposed its foundation.

This city is situated on the bay of Kronstat, in the midst of nine rivers, by which its different quarters are divided. In the centre of this city is almost an impregnable fortress, built on an island, formed by the main-stream of the river Neva: seven canals are cut from the rivers, and wash the walls of one of the royal palaces of the admiralty, of the dock-yard for the galleys, and of several buildings of manufactories. Thirty-five large churches contribute to adorn the city; among which five are allotted for foreigners of the Roman Catholic, Calvinist, and Lutheran religions: these are as so many temples raised to toleration, and examples to other nations. There are five palaces; the old one, called the summer palace, situated on the river Neva, has a very large and beautiful stone balustrade, which runs all along the river side. The new summer palace near the triumphal gate, is one of the finest pieces of architecture in Europe. The admiralty buildings, the school for cadets, the imperial college, the academy of sciences, the exchange, and the merchants’ warehouses, are all magnificent structures, and monuments of taste and public utility. The town-house, the public dispensary, where all the vessels are of porcelain, the court magazines, the foundery, the arsenal, the bridges, the markets, the squares, the barracks for the horse and foot guards, contribute at once to the embellishment and safety of the city, which is said to contain at present four hundred thousand souls. In the environs of the city are several villas or country seats, which surprise all travellers by their magnificence. There is one in particular which has waterworks superior to those of Versailles. There was nothing of all this in 1702, the whole being then an impassable morass. Petersburg is considered as the capital of Ingria, a small province subdued by Peter I. Wyburg, another of his conquests, and that part of Finland which was lost, and ceded by the Swedes in 1742, make another government.


Higher up, proceeding towards the north, is the province of Archangel, a country entirely new to the southern nations of Europe. It took its name from St. Michael, the Archangel, under whose patronage it was put long after the Russians had embraced Christianity, which did not happen till the beginning of the eleventh century; and they were not known to the other nations of Europe till the middle of the sixteenth. The English, in 1533, endeavouring to find out a north-east passage to the East Indies, Chancellor, captain of one of the ships fitted out for this expedition, discovered the port of Archangel in the White Sea; at that time it was a desert place, having only one convent, and a little church, dedicated to St. Michael, the Archangel.

The English sailing up the river Dwina, arrived at the midland part of the country, and at length at Moscow. Here they easily made themselves masters of the trade of Russia, which was removed from the city of Novogorod, where it was carried on by land to this sea-port, which is inaccessible indeed during seven months in the year; but, nevertheless, this trade proved more beneficial to the empire than the fairs of Novogorod, that had fallen to decay in consequence of the wars with Sweden. The English obtained the privilege of trading thither without paying any duties; a manner of trading which is apparently the most beneficial to all nations. The Dutch soon came in for a share of the trade of Archangel, then unknown to other nations.

Long before this time, the Genoese and Venetians had established a trade with the Russians by the mouth of the Tanais or Don, where they had built a town called Tana. This branch of the Italian commerce was destroyed by the ravages of Tamerlane, in that part of the world; but that of Archangel continued, with great advantages both to the English and Dutch, till the time that Peter the Great opened a passage into his dominions by the Baltic Sea.

Russian Lapland

Of the Government of Archangel.

To the west of Archangel, and within its government, lies Russian Lapland, the third part of this country, the other two belonging to Sweden and Denmark. This is a very large tract, occupying about eight degrees of longitude, and extending in latitude from one polar circle to the North Cape . The natives of this country were confusedly known to the ancients, under the name of troglodytes and northern pigmies; appellations suitable enough to men, who, for the most part, are not above four feet and a half high, and dwell in caverns; they are just the same people they were at that time. They are of a tawny complexion, though the other people of the north are white, and for the most part very low in stature; though their neighbours, and the people of Iceland, under the polar circle, are tall: they seem made for their mountainous country, being nimble, squat, and robust; their skins are hard, the better to resist the cold, their thighs and legs are slender, their feet small, to enable them to run more nimbly amongst the rocks, with which their province is covered. They are passionately fond of their own country, which none but themselves can be pleased with, and are able to live no where else. Some have affirmed, upon the credit of Olaus, that these people were originally natives of Finland, and that they removed into Lapland, where they diminished in stature: but why might they not as well have made choice of lands less northerly, where the conveniences of life were to be had in greater plenty? How comes it that they differ so totally from their pretended ancestors in features, figure, and complexion? Methinks we might, with as great reason, suppose that the grass which grows in Lapland is produced from that of Denmark, and that the fishes, peculiar to their lakes, came from those of Sweden. It is most likely that the Laplanders are, like their animals, the produce of their own country, and that nature has made the one for the other.

Those who inhabit the frontiers of Finland, have adopted some of the expressions of their neighbours, as happens to every people: but when two nations give to things of common use, to objects which are continually before their eyes, names absolutely different, it affords a strong presumption, that one of them is not a colony from the other. The Finlanders call a bear Karu, the Laplanders Muriet: the sun in the Finnish language is called Auringa, in the Lapland tongue Beve. Here is not the least analogy. The inhabitants of Finland, and Swedish Lapland, formerly worshipped an idol whom they called Iumalac, and since the reign of Gustavus Adolphus, to whom they are indebted for the appellation of Lutherans, they call Jesus Christ the son of Iumalac. The Muscovite or Russian Laplanders, are at present thought to be of the Greek church; but those who wander about the mountains of the North Cape, are satisfied with adoring one God under certain rude forms, as has been the ancient custom of all the nations called Nomades, or wandering nations.

This race of people, who are inconsiderable in numbers, have but very few ideas, and are happy in not having more, which would only occasion them to have new wants which they could not satisfy: at present they live contented, and free from diseases, notwithstanding the excessive coldness of their climate; they drink nothing but water, and attain to a great age. The custom imputed to them of entreating strangers to lie with their wives and daughters, which they esteem as an honour done to them, probably arose from a notion of the superiority of strangers, and a desire of amending, by their means, the defects of their own race. This was a custom established amongst the virtuous Lacedemonians. A husband would entreat a favour of a comely young man, to give him handsome children, whom he might adopt. Jealousy, and the laws, prevent the rest of mankind from giving their wives up to the embraces of another; but the Laplanders have few or no laws, and are in all probability, strangers to jealousy.


Ascending the river Dwina from north to south, we travel up the country till we come to Moscow, the capital of the empire. This city was long the centre of the Russian dominions, before they were extended on the side of China and Persia.

Moscow, lying in 55 degrees and a half, north latitude, in a warmer climate, and more fruitful soil than that of Petersburg, is situated in the midst of a large and delightful plain on the river Moskwa, and two lesser rivers, which with the former lose themselves in the Occa, and afterwards help to swell the stream of the Wolga. This city, in the 13th century, was only a collection of huts inhabited by a set of miserable wretches, oppressed by the descendants of Gengis Khan.

The Kremlin, or ancient palace of the great dukes, was not built till the 14th century; of such modern date are cities in this part of the world. This palace was built by Italian architects, as were several churches in the Gothic taste which then prevailed throughout all Europe. There are two built by the famous Aristotle, of Bologna, who flourished in the 15th century; but the private houses were no better than wooden huts.

The first writer who brought us acquainted with Moscow, was Olearius; who, in 1633, went thither as the companion of an embassy from the duke of Holstein. A native of Holstein must naturally be struck with wonder at the immense extent of the city of Moscow, with its five quarters, especially the magnificent one belonging to the czars, and with the Asiatic splendour which then reigned at that court. There was nothing equal to it in Germany at that time, nor any city by far so extensive or well peopled.

On the contrary, the earl of Carlisle, who was ambassador from Charles II. to the czar Alexis, in 1633, complains in his relation that he could not meet with any one convenience of life in Moscow; no inns on the road, nor refreshments of any kind. One judged as a German, the other as an Englishman, and both by comparison. The Englishman was shocked to see most of the Boyards or Muscovite noblemen, sleep upon boards or benches, with only the skins of animals under them; but this was the ancient practice of all nations. The houses, which were almost all built of wood, had scarcely any furniture, few or none of their tables were covered with cloth; there was no pavement in the streets; nothing agreeable; nothing convenient; very few artificers, and those few extremely awkward, and employed only in works of absolute necessity. These people might have passed for Spartans, had they been sober.

But, on public days, the court displays all the splendour of a Persian monarch. The earl says, he could see nothing but gold and precious stones on the robes of the czar and his courtiers. These dresses were not manufactured in the country; and yet, it is evident, that the people might be rendered industrious long before that time. In the reign of the czar Boris Godonow, the largest bell was cast at Moscow, in Europe; and in the patriarchal church there were several ornaments in silver, worked in a very curious manner. These pieces of workmanship, which were made under the direction of Germans and Italians, were only transient efforts. It is daily industry, and the continual exercise of a great number of arts, that makes a nation flourishing. Poland, and the neighbouring nations, were at that time very little superior to the Russians. The handicraft trades were not in greater perfection in the north of Germany, nor were the polite arts much better known, than in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Though the city of Moscow, at that time, had neither the magnificence nor arts of our great cities in Europe, yet its circumference of twenty miles; the part called the Chinese town, where all the rarities of China are exhibited; the spacious quarter of the Kremlin, where stood the palace of the czars; the gilded domes, the lofty and conspicuous turrets; and, lastly, the prodigious number of its inhabitants, amounting to near 500,000. All this together, rendered Moscow one of the most considerable cities in the world.

Theodore, or Fœdor, eldest brother to Peter the Great, began to improve Moscow. He ordered several large houses to be built of stone, though without any regular architecture. He encouraged the principal persons of his court to build, advancing them sums of money, and furnishing them with materials. He was the first who collected studs of fine horses, and made several useful embellishments. Peter, who was attentive to everything, did not neglect Moscow at the time he was building Petersburg; for he caused it to be paved, adorned it with noble edifices, and enriched it with manufactures; and, within these few years, M. de Showalow, high chamberlain to the empress Elizabeth, daughter to Peter the Great, has founded an university in this city. This is the same person who furnished me with the memorials, from which I have compiled the present history, and who was himself much more capable to have done it, even in the French language, had not his great modesty determined him to resign the task to me, as will evidently appear from his own letters on this subject, which I have deposited in the public library of Geneva.


Westward of the duchy of Moscow, is that of Smolensko, a part of the ancient Sarmatia Europea. The duchies of Moscow and Smolensko composed what is properly called White Russia. Smolensko, which at first belonged to the great dukes of Russia, was conquered by the great duke of Lithuania, in the beginning of the fifteenth century, and was retaken one hundred years afterwards by its old masters. Sigismund III. king of Poland, got possession of it in 1611. The czar Alexis, father of Peter I. recovered it again in 1654, since which time it has always constituted part of the Russian empire. The panegyric of Peter the Great, pronounced in the academy of sciences at Paris, takes notice, that before his time the Russians had made no conquests either to the west or south; but this is evidently a mistake.

Of the Governments of Novogorod and Kiow, or the Ukraine

Between Petersburg and Smolensko, lies the province of Novogorod; and is said to be the country in which the ancient Slavi, or Sclavonians, made their first settlements. But from whence came these Slavi, whose language has spread over all the north-east part of Europe? Sla signifies a chief, and slave one belonging to a chief. All that we know concerning these ancient Slaves is, that they were a race of conquerors; that they built the city of Novogorod the Great, at the head of a navigable river; and that this city was for a long time in possession of a flourishing trade, and was a potent ally to the Hanse Towns. Czar Iwan Wassiliawitsch (or John Basilowitz) made a conquest of it in 1467, and carried away all its riches, which contributed to the magnificence of the court of Moscow, till then almost unknown.

To the south of the province of Smolensko, we meet with the province of Kiow, otherwise called the Lesser Russia, Red Russia, or the Ukraine, through which runs the Dnieper, called by the Greeks the Boristhenes. The difference of these two names, the one so harsh to pronounce, and the other so melodious, served to shew us, together with a hundred other like instances, the rudeness of all the ancient people of the North, in comparison with the graces of the Greek language. Kiow, the capital city, formerly Kisow, was built by the emperors of Constantinople, who made it a colony: here are still to be seen several Greek inscriptions upwards of twelve hundred years old. This is the only city of any antiquity in these countries, where men lived so long together without building walls. Here it was that the great dukes of Russia held their residence in the eleventh century, before the Tartars brought it under their subjection.

The inhabitants of the Ukraine, called Cossacks, are a mixture of the ancient Roxolanians, Sarmatians, and Tartars, blended together. Rome and Constantinople, though so long the mistress of other nations, are not to compare in fertility of country with the Ukraine. Nature has there exerted her utmost efforts for the service of mankind; but they have not seconded those efforts by industry, living only upon the spontaneous productions of an uncultivated, but fruitful soil, and the exercise of rapine. Though fond, to a degree of enthusiasm, of that most valuable of all blessings, liberty; yet they were always in subjection, either to the Poles or to the Turks, till the year 1654, when they threw themselves into the arms of Russia, but with some limitations. At length they were entirely subdued by Peter the Great.

Other nations are divided into cities and towns; this into ten regiments. At the head of which is a chief, who used to be elected by a majority of votes, and is called by the name of Hetman, or Itman. This captain of the nation was not invested with supreme power. At present the itman is a person nominated by the czar, from among the great lords of the court; and is, in fact, no more that the governor of the province, like governors of the pays d’etats in France, that have retained some privileges.

At first the inhabitants of this country were all either Pagans or Mahometans; but, when they entered into the service of Poland, they were baptized Christians of the Roman communion; and now, that they are in the service of Russia, they belong to the Greek church.

Amongst these are comprehended the Zaporavian Cossacks, who are much the same as our Bucaniers, or freebooters, living upon rapine. They are distinguished from all other people, by never admitting women to live among them; as the Amazons are said never to have admitted any man. The women, whom they make use of for propagation, live upon other islands on the river; they have no marriages amongst them, nor any domestic economy; they enroll the male children in their militia, and leave the girls to the care of their mothers. A brother has frequently children by his sister, and a father by his daughter. They know no other laws than customs, introduced by necessity: however, they make use of some prayers from the Greek ritual. Fort St. Elizabeth has been lately built on the Boristhenes, to keep them in awe. They serve as irregulars in the Russian armies, and hapless is the fate of those who fall into their hands.

Of the Governments of Belgorod, Woronitz, and Nischgorod

To the north-east of the province of Kiow, between the Boristhenes and the Tanais, or Don, is the government of Belgorod, which is as large as that of Kiow. This is one of the most fruitful provinces of Russia, and furnishes Poland with a prodigious number of that large cattle known by the name of Ukraine oxen. These two provinces are secured from the incursions of the petty Tartar tribes, by lines extending from the Boristhenes to the Tanais, and well furnished with forts and redoubts.

Farther northward we cross the Tanais, and come into the government of Worownitz, or Veronise, which extends as far as the banks of the Palus Mæotis. In the neighbourhood of the capital of this province, which is called, by the Russians, Woronestch, at the mouth of the river of the same name, which falls into the Don, Peter the Great built his first fleet; an undertaking which was at that time entirely new to the inhabitants of these vast dominions. From thence we come to the government of Nischgorod, abounding with grain, and is watered by the river Wolga.


From the latter province we proceed southward to the kingdom of Astracan. This country reaches from forty-three and a half degrees north latitude (in a most delightful climate) to near fifty, including about as many degrees of longitude as of latitude. It is bounded on one side by the Caspian Sea, and on the other by the mountains of Circassia, projecting beyond the Caspian, along mount Caucasus. It is watered by the great river Wolga, the Jaick, and several other lesser streams, between which, according to Mr. Perry, the English engineer, canals might be cut, that would serve as reservoirs to receive the overflowing of the waters; and by that means answer the same purposes as the canals of the Nile, and make the soil more fruitful: but to the right and left of the Wolga and Jaick, this fine country was inhabited, or rather infested, by Tartars, who never apply themselves to agriculture, but have always lived as strangers and sojourners upon the face of the earth.

The above named engineer, Perry, who was employed by Peter the Great in these parts, found a vast track of land covered with pasture, leguminous plants, cherry and almond trees, and large flocks of wild sheep, who fed in these solitary places, and whose flesh was excellent. The inhabitants of these countries must be conquered and civilized, in order to second the efforts of nature, who has been forced in the climate of Petersburg.

The kingdom of Astracan is a part of the ancient Capshak, conquered by Gengis Khan, and afterwards by Tamerlane, whose dominion extended as far as Moscow. The czar, John Basilides, grandson of John Basilowitz, and the greatest conqueror of all the Russian princes, delivered his country from the Tartarian yoke, in the sixteenth century, and added the kingdom of Astracan to his other conquests, in 1554.

Astracan is the boundary of Asia and Europe, and is so situated as to be able to carry on a trade with both; as merchandizes may be conveyed from the Caspian Sea, up to this town, by means of the Wolga. This was one of the grand schemes of Peter the Great, and has been partly carried into execution. An entire suburb of Astracan is inhabited by Indians.


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