A Tsar's Journey
- By Simon Shuster
- Oct. 04 2010 00:00
Peter the great's journey to Holland was one of discovery and change.
In August of 1697, a huge young man with bug eyes and a wispy little mustache arrived in the Dutch shipbuilding village of Zaandam, looking a bit unaccustomed to the workers' outfit he was wearing. He was accompanied by a friend he called Alexashka, and aside from noticing his freakish height — more than two meters — nobody paid him any attention. He passed unnoticed through an inclined street that would one day be renamed in his honor and then turned with his companion toward the home of an old acquaintance, a craftsman named Gerrit Kist. At least in the village of Zaandam, Kist was the only person who knew that the guest was not just an aspiring shipbuilder with a funny accent. He was also Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov, or Peter I, the 25-year-old tsar of Russia.
After a modest dinner that evening, Kist put the young men up in a small wooden cottage adjoining his house. It had two rooms, and the tsar had to stoop deeply to pass from one to the other. The sleeping quarters were a small closet with two large shelves stacked one on top of the other, forcing Peter to bring his knees almost up to his chest when he slept there along with Alexashka, who was in fact the tsar's most trusted cohort, Alexander Menshikov.
The following day, they started work in the city's shipyards — a reigning tsar, who had no shortage of intrigue, war and politics to deal with back home, was planing and chiseling pieces of wood at the docks. That was the point of his journey to the village — the creation of the Russian fleet. This, and his somewhat childish obsession with navies and handicrafts, brought him to Zaandam to learn to make a modern ship, traveling incognito the whole way there. Eight days later, he cut his visit short.
The problem was that his host could not keep a secret. Or maybe it was Menshikov who started bragging about his boss, perhaps like Arsenio Hall's character in the 1998 Eddie Murphy film "Coming to America." Historians aren't really sure. But somehow, the people of Zaandam found out that the tall guy working in the shipyard was an emperor wearing dockworkers' clothes, and they came by the hundreds to have a look. For Peter, who despised publicity, the gawkers made it impossible to work, and before the month of August was over he left Zaandam for Amsterdam to continue his apprenticeship there. He stayed until January of the following year, having given up all hope of blending in.
Although it's a matter of debate which city made the greatest impression on the tsar during his 18-month tour of Europe, Amsterdam was clearly the inspiration for the future capital of the Russian empire, St. Petersburg, which he established five years later. St. Petersburg's foundation on a swamp, its system of dykes and canals, its line-ruled web of streets — all were modeled on Amsterdam, and the Dutch navy, which was at the time superior even to that of the British, was the model for the fleet Peter would build to defend the new northern capital, as well as the empire that he eventually expanded to a size of 3 billion acres.
His Dutch education, however, was selective, and not at all sentimental. Just as the current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made clear during his visit to Silicon Valley this June ("My goal is to see how everything works," Medvedev said. "This is not a tour."), Peter the Great had practical aims in mind. He was collecting Europe's newest technologies and trying to hire the best brains to come with him back to Russia. In a word, he had set out to modernize the Russian economy and military, which could not compete with those of Europe at the time. But much like Medvedev's modernization drive, Peter did not seek to change the political system very much, even though the tsar had a lot to learn about governance from the Dutch.
At the time of his first visit (he would make a shorter, official one in 1717), the Netherlands had been a republic for well over a century. Its founding document would later inspire the authors of the U.S. Constitution, while the Dutch declaration of independence, which broke the provinces of the Netherlands away from Spanish rule in 1581, reads a lot like the one written up by the Americans almost 200 years later. But none of this seemed to interest Peter very much at all. One day during his stay in Amsterdam, city mayor Nicolaas Witsen invited him to attend a session of the Dutch Parliament. Hardly an hour passed before the Russian tsar became so bored with the endless speeches and debates that he asked his friend to order everyone in the chamber to look away. Again eschewing publicity, he did not want anyone to recognize him as he left the chamber. But the members of the parliament were not used to taking orders, and Peter was left pulling his wig down over his face as he stomped out of hall.
"He did try to behave like a European during his visit, but his obsessions were limited to new technology, not new kinds of society," says Michel Didier, a Dutch author and historian and expert on the relationship between the Dutch and Russian royalty. "His autocracy and his very physical, oppressive side were very much of the Asian cut, very close to Ivan the Terrible. Torture, for example, was fine."
That became clear within a year of his return to Russia from his European tour, in 1698, when Peter dealt with a group of conspirators who had tried to have him deposed. More than a thousand of these men, called the Streltsy, were tortured and killed, their bodies put on display as a warning to others.
While still back in Amsterdam, his lack of refinement may also have worked against him in trying to recruit the best inventors and scientists for the modernization of Russia. In the fall of 1697, for instance, he was working in the shipyards along with a crew of Russians when a group of local workers came over to have a look at the foreign men. Words were exchanged, and a brawl broke out. The Dutchmen, it seems, got a beating, and people started to whisper. This was not really the kind of behavior one expected from a European king. Likewise, Peter's distaste for theater and the arts did not win him any admirers among the Dutch intellectuals. Historical records only show him attending one theater performance while in the Netherlands — and that was probably because it included the recreation of a naval battle on the stage. This was his kind of show, while displays of the local painters, the Dutch Masters considered among the best in European history, did not get any of his attention.
"At the time, Russia was very much seen as a backward country, a place where only adventurers went, or people who had not been successful in Europe," says Yvonne Hilgers, an amateur historian and tour guide for Russians in Amsterdam. At least one astrologer was afraid of being tortured and killed by the zealots of the Orthodox church and declined Peter's invitation to come to Russia. Peter's invitation was also snubbed by the celebrated Dutch inventor Jan van der Heyden, who invented state-of-the-art fire extinguishers that pumped water up from the canals.
During his four decades on the throne, Peter the Great perhaps had more success than any other Russian leader in changing his nation's mentality, in part because (to paraphrase George W. Bush) things are a heck of a lot easier when you're a dictator. In the years that followed his tour of Europe, Peter simply forced the Russian elite to look and act more European. All officials of the state and the military were forced to shave their beards and wear western clothing, and the tsar's court was moved closer to the West, literally, by about 400 miles. St. Petersburg, the new capital, was also outfitted with European architecture, and near its center, New Holland Island was built to look like a miniature version of Amsterdam.
Yet the impression that Peter left on the Dutch capital was not nearly as pronounced as the imprint that his visit left on him and the future of his country. Only one small plaque exists in Amsterdam commemorating his time there. Installed on the side of the building where he worked as a carpenter building ships and coffins (it is now the office of the city council), one needs to peer through the bars of a fence to see its rendering of Peter with protruding eyes and long, wavy hair. It states rather dryly that he completed courses in crafts such as planing, drilling and cutting and had proven himself a "very respectable carpenter."
For all his well-documented carousing and drinking, Peter also failed to leave a permanent mark on the Dutch bars of his day. Three good ones are still around in Amsterdam from that period, including The Ape, founded in 1519, whose long-bearded bartender Jan van Doorn allows that Peter might have wandered in along with the other shipyard workers.
"But I haven't heard any stories about it," he says. "In any case, from what I understand, he wasn't a very friendly guest to have."
The town of Zaandam, being a province with far fewer claims to history than Amsterdam, has of course made a bigger deal of the visit of a tsar, even if he barely stayed a week. A huge bronze statue of Peter whittling the hull of a ship as if it were a wooden bowl stands in one of the city's main squares, and little blue and yellow tiles in the shape of footsteps mark the path from the statue down Tsar Peter the Great Street to the house where the monarch stayed for eight days. It does not get many visitors, and in the garden, a bust of Peter wearing an elaborate hat stands covered in spider webs.
There was, however, one fairly distinguished guest at the museum on a Tuesday afternoon this August. The deputy mayor of Krasnodar, Boris Staroselsky, was on his third visit there, and had come this time to show it to his wife, Tatyana.
"[Peter] came here with a specific professional mission, to see how everything works, and the window he opened on Europe at that time is still providing brilliant light," Staroselsky said, referencing the famous line from "The Bronze Horseman" by Alexander Pushkin, who wrote that Peter had managed to break a window into Europe. The line from that poem uses the Russian verb прорубить — to hack, as with an ax — which seems to fit the tsar's unsubtle approach to the issue of modernization: Take the technology, leave the politics and force the elites to be presentable for a change.
"Now Medvedev's drive to modernize Russia is a continuation of that visit, and if he manages to break not only a window but a door to Europe, then things will be even better," Staroselsky said.
"Yeah, maybe this time the rest of Russia will get to climb through it, too," Tatyana added.