Page images

[1762 A.D.]

abominable inquisitorial court, the secret chancery, which had consigned so many victims to everlasting bondage, which had received delations from the most obscure and vicious of men, which had made every respectable master of a family tremble lest his very domestics should render him amenable to that terrible tribunal. Had this been the only benefit of his reign, well would he have been entitled to the gratitude of Russia. (2) He emancipated the nobles from the slavish dependence on the crown, so characteristic of that barbarous people. Previous to his reign, no boyar could enter on any profession, or forsake it when it when once embraced, or retire from public to private life, or dispose of his property, or travel into any foreign country, without the permission of the czar. By breaking their chains at one blow, he began the career of social emancipation. (3) The military discipline of the nation loudly demanded reform, and he obeyed the call. He rescued the officers from the degrading punishments previously inflicted; he introduced a better system of tactics; and he gave more independence to the profession. He did not, however, exempt the common soldier from the corporal punishment which at any moment his superior officers might inflict. (4) He instituted a useful court to take cognisance of all offences committed against the public peace, and to chastise the delinquencies of the men entrusted with the general police of the empire. (5) He encouraged commerce, by lessening the duties on certain imports, and by abolishing them on certain exports. (6) In all his measures, all his steps, he proved himself the protector of the poor. In fact, one reason for the dislike with which he was regarded by the nobles arose from the preference which he always gave to the low over the high.

Impolitic Acts of Peter III

But if impartial history must thus eulogise many of this monarch's acts, the same authority must condemn more. He exhibited everywhere great contempt for the people whom he was called to govern. He had no indulgence for their prejudices, however indifferent, however inveterate. Thus, in commanding that the secular clergy should no longer wear long beards, and should wear the same garb as the clergy of other countries, he offended his subjects to a degree almost inconceivable to us. In ordering the images to be removed from the churches- he was still a Lutheran, if anything- he did not lessen the odium which his other acts had produced. The archbishop of Novgorod flatly refused to obey him, and was in consequence exiled; but the murmurs of the populace compelled the czar to recall him. Still more censurable were his efforts to render the church wholly dependent on the state

to destroy everything like independence in its ministers; to make religion a mere engine in the hands of arbitrary power for the attainment of any object. His purpose, in fact, was to seize all the demesnes of the churchits extensive estates, its numerous serfs and to pension the clergy like other functionaries.

In the ukase published on this occasion, he expressed a desire to relieve ecclesiastics of the temporal cares so prejudicial to their ghostly utility; to see that they indeed renounced the world, and free from the burden of perishing treasures, applied their whole attention to the welfare of souls. He therefore decreed that the property of the church should in future be managed by imperial officers; and that the clergy should receive, from the fund thus accumulated, certain annual pensions, corresponding to their stations. Thus the archbishops of Novgorod, Moscow, and St. Petersburg were to have each

[1762 A.D.]

2,500 rubles; and the same sum was to be allowed for the support of their households, of their capitular clergy, and for the sustentation of the sacred edifices. But the twenty-three other archbishops and bishops were to have only 3,000 rubles for both purposes. The salaries of the other ecclesiastics were carefully graduated. The inferior were divided into three classesindividuals of the first to receive 500, of the second 300, of the third 150 rubles per annum. The surplus funds were to be applied to the foundation of hospitals, to the endowment of colleges, and to the general purposes of the state.

Peter attempted these and other innovations in virtue of the two-fold character which, from the time of his grandfather, the czars had been anxious to assume, as supreme heads alike of religion and of the state. Not even the grand lama of Thibet ever arrogated a higher degree of theocractic authority. Indeed, our only surprise is that in addition to their other functions they did not assume that of bishops; that they did not array themselves in pontificals, and celebrate mass at the altar. But they certainly laid something like a claim to the sacerdotal character. Thus, on the death of the patriarch, Peter I opposed the election of another supreme head of the church; and when he found that the synod durst not venture on so far irritating the people as to dispense with the dignity, he insisted on being elected himself. If the sultan of Constantinople combined with himself the two-fold character, why should it be refused to him? The reign of Peter was too short to permit his designs of spoliation to be carried into effect; but, by confirming the dangerous precedent of his grandfather, he had done enough, and his successor Catherine was enabled to complete the robbery which he commenced.

[ocr errors]

But the most impolitic measure of Peter-that which rendered those who might have defended him indifferent to his fate was his conduct towards the imperial guards. Two regiments he ordered to be in readiness for the Danish war. This was contrary to custom. In the faith of remaining near the court, most of the soldiers had embraced the military life; and they were as indignant as they were surprised when told that they must exchange the dissipations of a metropolis for the fatigues and privations attending a distant campaign. They were offended, too, with the introduction of the Prussian discipline, which they found by experience to be far more rigid than that to which they had hitherto been subject; and they patriotically condemned the innovation as prejudicial to the military fame of the empire. Still more irritating was the preference which he everywhere gave to the German over the native troops. His most intimate friends were Germans; the officers around his person were of the same nation; Germans directed the manœuvres not only of his household but of all his regiments; and a German - Prince George of Holstein, his uncle was placed at the head of all the imperial armies.

Couple these acts of imprudence with others of which he was hourly guilty. In his palace of Oranienbaum he constructed a Lutheran chapel; and though he appears to have been indifferent to every form of religion, he held this in much more respect than the Greek form, which in fact, he delighted to ridicule. If churchmen became his enemies, the people in general were not likely to become his friends when they heard of a boast probably a true one that in the last war he had acquainted the Prussian monarch with the secrets of the imperial cabinet. Lastly, he insulted men of honour by making them the jest of his buffoons.

Circumstances much less numerous and much less cogent than these would have sufficed so ambitious, able, and unprincipled a woman as Catherine to organise a powerful conspiracy against the czar. But he was accused

[1762 A.D.] of many other things of which he was perfectly innocent. In fact, no effort seems to have been spared to invent and propagate stories to his disadvantage. In some instances, it is scarcely possible to separate the true from the false. Whether, for example, he, from the day of his accession, resolved to divorce his wife, to marry his mistress, to set aside Paul from succession, and to adopt Ivan, still confined in the fortress of Schlüsselburg, can never be known with certainty. That he secretly visited that unhappy prince seems undoubted; but we have little evidence for the existence of the design attributed to him. If, in fact, he sincerely contemplated raising the daughter of Count Vorontzov to the imperial throne, he would scarcely have adopted Ivan, unless he felt assured that no issue would arise from the second marriage. He could not, however, entertain any regard for a consort who had so grievously injured him, and little for a boy whom he knew was not his own. And, as there is generally some foundation for every report, there seems to be no doubt that Peter had promised to marry his mistress if she survived his wife. The report was enough for Catherine: on it she built her own story that her life was in danger; and that if her son were not designed for a similar fate, he would at least have that of Ivan.

Catherine Plots against the Ozar

The anxiety of the empress to secure adherents was continually active; and as her husband passed so much time in drunkenness, her motions were not so closely scrutinised as they should have been. Gregory Orlov, her criminal favourite, was the man in whom she placed the most reliance. Gregory had four brothers- all men of enterprise, of courage, of desperation; and none of them restricted by the least moral principle. Potemkin, afterwards so celebrated, was the sixth. This man was, perhaps, the most useful of the conspirators, as by means of his acquaintance with the priests of the metropolis he was able to enlist that formidable body in the cause. They were not slow to proclaim the impiety of the czar, his contempt of the orthodox faith, his resolution "to banish the fear of the Lord" from the Russian court, to convert churches into hospitals and barracks, to seize on all revenues of the church, and to end by compelling the most orthodox of countries to embrace the errors of Luther. The archimandrites received these reports from the parish priests, the bishops from the archimendrites; nor was there much difficulty in obtaining an entrance for them into the recesses of the neighbouring monasteries. The hetman of the Cossacks, an officer of great authority and of great riches, was next gained. Not less effectual than he was the princess Dashkov, who, though the sister of Peter's mistress, was the most ardent of the conspirators: perhaps the threatened exaltation of that sister, by rendering her jealous, only strengthened her attachment to the czarina. Through the instrumentality of this woman, Count Panin, the foreign minister and the governor of the grand duke Paul, was gained over. Whether the argument employed was, as one writer asserts, the sacrifice of her sister, or whether, as another affirms, she was the daughter of the count, who notoriously intrigued with her mother, is of no moment. What is certain is, that the count was exceedingly fond of her; and one authority expressly asserts that he became acquainted with the details of the conspiracy before her, and admitted her into the plot. This, however, is less probable than the relation we have given; for the princess had long been the friend of Catherine.

Her activity was unceasing. A Piedmontese adventurer, Odart by name, being forced to leave his native country for some crime, and having tried in

[1702 A.D.]

vain to obtain a subsistence in the neighbouring capitals, wisely resolved to try his fortune in St. Petersburg-a city where guilt might reside with impunity, and where it had only to be successful to win the applause of mankind. As he had a considerable knowledge of the fine arts, especially of music and painting, he had little difficulty in obtaining an introduction to the princess Dashkov. She, who had a shrewd insight into human character, soon perceived that this supple, crafty, active, sober, intriguing, unprincipled foreigner was just the man that was required to act as spy and confidential agent. He was introduced to Catherine, whose opinion confirmed that of her favourite No choice could, indeed, have been better. Little cared he in what service he was employed. If a partisan were to be gained, no man could be more insinuating: if an enemy were to be removed, he had his pistols and his dirk, without which he never appeared in the street. His penetration soon enabled him to secure the aid of two other bravoes-the one, Possik, a lieutenant in the guards; the other, Globov, a lawyer in the employment of the senate. Of the character of these men, some notion may be formed from the fact that Possik offered to stab the emperor in the midst of the court. He knew how to ally duplicity with desperation; he was at once the hypocritical intriguer and the remorseless bravo.

Through the same Princess Dashkov, Volkonski, major-general of the guards, was won; and by Potemkin, or his ghostly allies, the archbishop of Novgorod was soon in the secret. The hetman of the Cossacks went further. Great as was the danger of entrusting that secret to many, he assembled the officers who served under him, assured them that he had heard of a conspiracy to dethrone the emperor, too irresistible to be appeased; and exhorted them to seize the favourable moment of propitiating the favour of the czarina, rather than, by remaining hostile or inactive, to bring down vengeance on their own heads. His advice had all the success that he could desire.

While these most vicious and in every way most worthless of men were thus employed in her behalf, Catherine was no less active. She knew that Count Panin espoused the cause of her son-less, perhaps, from affection to his charge, than from the hope of exercising more power under an infant emperor than under one of the mother's enterprising character. Her promise, that his influence should be second only to her own, made him her willing instrument. His defection constrained the rest of the conspirators: there was no more heard of a regency; and Catherine was to be proclaimed autocratrix of all the Russias.

Without increasing unnecessarily the number of the initiated, she yet prepared the minds of many for some impending change, and rendered them eager for its arrival by her artful and seasonable insinuations. If an officer of the guards stood near her, she whispered in his ear that the emperor had resolved on disbanding the present force, and exiling its chiefs; if an ecclesiastic, she bewailed the fate of the pure orthodox church; if a less interested person, she lamented her own misfortunes and those of her son - both doomed to immediate imprisonment, and she, at least, to an ultimate death. If a senator were near, she deplored the meditated destruction of the venerable and patriotic body to which he belonged; the transformation of the debauchees, perpetually around the emperor, into judges; and the substitution of the Code Frédéric for the ancient law of Russia.

By these means she prepared the minds of the people for the revolution: her affabiuty, in fact, was the theme of their praise. But she did not trust merely to their good-will. She knew that, unless two or three regiments were secured, the insurrection might not find immediate supporters, and that the

[1762 A.D.] critical moment might be lost. Without money this object could not be obtained; and though both she and her confidential agents voluntarily disbursed all that they could command, and converted their most valuable effects into coin, the amount was alarmingly inadequate. In this emergency she applied to the French ambassador for a loan; and when he showed less readiness to accommodate her than she expected, she addressed herself, we are told, to the ambassador from England, and with more success. But this statement is untrue: it was not the English ambassador, but an English merchant, who furnished her with the sum she demanded. With this aid, she prevailed on the greater part of three regiments to await the signal for joining her.

Though the conspirators were, in point of numbers, formidable, their attempt was one of danger. Peter was about to leave Russia for Holstein, to prosecute the war against the Danish king; and of the troops whom he had assembled, though the greater part were on their march, some were now with him, and might be induced to defend him. Besides, the two great divisions of his fleet were at Kronstadt and Revel, and nobody could foresee how they would act. The conspirators agreed that he should be taken by surprise; that midnight should see him transferred from the throne to a dungeon. The festival of St. Peter and St. Paul- one of high importance in the Greek church was approaching: the following day the emperor had resolved to depart. It was to be celebrated at Peterhov; there it was resolved to arrest him.

But accident hastened the execution of the plot. Until the arrival of the festival, Peter left St. Petersburg for Oranienbaum, to pass in riot and debauchery the intervening time. Accompanied by the most dissolute of his favourites, and by many of the court ladies, he anticipated the excesses which awaited his arrival. That he had received some hints of a plot, though he was unacquainted alike with its object and authors, is exceedingly probable. His royal ally of Prussia is said to have advised him to be on his guard, and several notes are supposed to have been addressed to him by his own subjects. If such information was received, it made no impression on him; and indeed its vagueness might well render him indifferent to it. But on the eve of his departure, when the superior officer of Passik, who had accidentally learned that danger attended the steps of the emperor, denounced the lieutenant, and the culprit was arrested, he had an opportunity of ascertaining all the details of the conspiracy. He treated the denunciation with contempt; affirmed that Passik belonged to the dregs of the people, and was not to be dreaded; and proceeded to Oranienbaum. The culprit, though narrowly watched, had time to write a line to the hetman, whom he exhorted to instant action, if they wished to save their lives. The note fell into the hands of the princess Dashkov, who immediately assembled the conspirators.

Not a moment was to be lost: the presence of Catherine was indispensable; and, though it was midnight and she was at Peterhov, seven leagues distant from St. Petersburg, one of the Orlovs went to bring her. He arrived at the fortress, entered a private door, and by a secret staircase ascended to the apartments occupied by the empress. It was now two o'clock in the morning: the empress was asleep; and her surprise was not unmixed with terror, when she was awakened by a soldier. In a moment she comprehended her situation: she arose, called one of her women, and both, being hastily clad in a strange habit, descended with the soldier to one of the gates, passed the sentinel without being recognised, and stepped into the carriage which was waiting for her. Orlov was the driver, and he urged the horses with so much severity that before

[ocr errors][ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »