Johann Georg Korb.

Scenes from the court of Peter the Great, based on the Latin diary of John G. Korb, a secretary of the Austrian legation at the court of Peter the Great online

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A Series of Monographs
Edited by Dr. F. L. Glaser




Based on the Latin Diary of F.

Korb, a secretary of the Austrian

Legation at the Court of Peter the


Based on the Diary of Johannes
Burchardus — /n preparation.

Scenes from the Court
of Peter the Great

Based on the Latin Diary of John G. Korb,

a Secretary of the Austrian Legation

at the Court of Peter the Great

Edited by

Dr, f. l. glaser






Two years before the birth of Peter Alexiewlcz,
better known to the world as Peter the Great and
first Emperor of Russia, the ancient Kremlin of
Moscow beheld a strange sight. Young maidens,
the loveliest of the realm, drawn from every province
and every class, entered the palace of the Czar on a
day appointed. Assembled there in the cramped
quarters allotted for their use, they spent their time
in the manner of Muscovite womanhood of that age,
their cloistered existence varied by some manual task
relieved with song and tale. At nightfall the weary
hours were forgotten and tense expectancy reigned,
for every maiden knew that she was a pawn in a
lottery and that the prize was supreme rank. When
darkness came figures passed through the dormitories
exchanging significant words and gestures as they
examined the sleepers. The Czar Alexis Mihailowicz
himself accompanied by his doctor was seeking a
wife among these unknown beauties, " the woman,"
as the time-honored formula had it, " worthy to be
the Sovereign's delight," perchance the daughter of
the meanest serf who might at his word become the
Czarina of all the Russias.


This custom, borrowed like so many other Rus-
sian traditions from the Byzantines, and maintained
through centuries, had proved a useful device to
escape the jealousy of noble families at home and
the humiliation of rejection by foreign dynasties, by
no means eager at that time to bestow their prin-
cesses upon the uncouth Czars of Russia. Thus the
custom had become definitely established and pre-
ceded the betrothal of every Czar. The minutiae of
etiquette were strictly observed in this proceeding.
Ladies and gentlemen of the court were deputed to
examine the young girls who journeyed to Moscow
in answer to the call of the Czar. Their inspection
was exacting and severe, extending to the most in-
timate details, and resulted in the selection of the
finest specimen for presentation to the Czar.

This time, however, in 1670, the hopes of the fair
candidates were doomed to disappointment, for the
Czar's choice had already been made before their
arrival in the Kremlin. Alexis, now thirty-eight
years of age, had lost his first wife, of the family
of Miloslavski, three years before. Of the five sons
and eight daughters whom she had borne him three
sons were already dead and two were sickly. A sec-
ond marriage was therefore desirable. Alexis, while
concerned with this serious question, met in the house
of his minister, Artamon MatveiefF, a beautiful
brunette, Nathalia Nariskine, who had been brought
up there in the atmosphere of western European cul-


ture and freedom. Alexis' choice fell upon Nathalia,
but before she could become his second wife she was
compelled to undergo the traditional ordeal of the

Of this marriage Peter I., called " the Great," was
born on June 9 (N. S.), 1672, although no less an
authority than Peter himself has thrown doubt on
his paternity. Contrary to all the legends of his
extraordinary precocity, history records that Peter
was a singularly backward child. He was over two
years old when he was weaned, and in his eleventh
year still enjoyed playing with wooden horses. At
that age he had barely learned to spell out the re-
ligious books on which the children of the Czars
were brought up. During his early years Peter was
surrounded by intrigues and rebellions, and his elec-
tion as Czar in 1682 under the regency of his half-
sister Sophia was but a signal for a fresh revolt.
More than once he had barely eluded the grasp of
death. One of his uncles was dragged from the
palace and killed before his eyes. Artamon Mat-
veiefF was hacked to pieces as he caught the sleeve of
the little Czar in a vain endeavor to find protection
from a savage mob. It is to such experiences, which
played havoc with the nerves of the young boy, that
the convulsions may be ascribed from which Peter
suffered in later years.

When Sophia attempted in 1689 to usurp the
title and power of autocrat, Peter, now seventeen,


supported by the foreign clement, openly broke with
her, deprived her of her power and consigned her to
the safe isolation of a nunnery. This coup, while
successful, did not greatly enhance the authority of
the young Czar, who postponed a decisive conflict
with the reactionary element and frequented the so-
ciety of foreigners. Eager for information and
susceptible to new impressions he already showed
indications of that energy and elasticity of mind
which later distinguished him. This was the period
of Peter's first marriage with Eudoxia Lapukine
whom he deserted again soon afterward. His chief
associates at this time were Fran9ois Lefort, a clever
and jovial adventurer of French-Swiss extraction,
and the Scotch royalist refugee Patrick Gordon.
From them he learned the methods of European
tactics and strategy, and soon felt sufficient confi-
dence to undertake campaigns in Southern Russia.
These expeditions were under the direction of his
military mentors, but their plans were subject to the
approval of the Bombardier of the Preobrashensky
regiment, none other than Peter himself, who had en-
tered his own army in the lowest rank.

In the spring of 1697 Peter left Russia for west-
ern Europe with a mission whose ostensible purpose
was the consolidation of alliances against the Turks
but whose real aim was to afford Peter an opportun-
ity to observe conditions in western Europe, and
satisfy his thirst for practical knowledge. At


Koenigsberg he learned the science of gunnery from
the famous engineer Streitner of Sternfeld. At
Lejden he made the acquaintance of the celebrated
anatomist Boerhove. While residing in Holland he
studied mathematics and astronomy, the science of
fortification and even dentistry. But ship-building
was now as ever his main passion. In his earlier
years he had superintended the construction of ships
on a little lake near Moscow, participating In the
work himself. Now he studied shipbuilding In Hol-
land and was proud of his certificate of proficiency
in naval architecture.

Peter's foreign tour was brought to an abrupt
conclusion after an absence of a year and a half. At
the moment that he was making preparations to go
to Venice he was suddenly recalled to his capital by
the revolt of the Strelitz or sharpshooters, a mercen-
ary bodyguard organized by Ivan the Terrible. Al-
though the rebellion never seriously threatened
Peter's throne and the revolting regiments were
beaten on their approach to Moscow within an hour's
time by the Czar's loyal army, of which only one
man was mortally wounded, the captive rebels were
treated with unheard-of cruelty. From the mid-
dle of September to the end of October, 1698, ban-
quets and di'inklng bouts alternated with torturings
and executions in which the Czar and his favorites
played the parts of inquisitors and headsmen. At
least a thousand of the captive Strelitz were done to


death during those two months with every refinement
of cruelty, and the hideous tragedy reached its
climax on October 17th when the Czar, surveying the
scene on horseback, commanded his favorites and
ministers to decapitate a number of the unfortunates
who had already been mangled by repeated tortures.

The aim of Peter, however, was not alone to wreak
vengeance on traitors but to frighten the masses of
the people who sympathized with them as upholders
of Muscovite traditions against the reforms and the
introduction of western European customs which
Peter undertook with great vigor after his return,
starting immediately with cutting off the beards and
long frocks of his subjects. The terrified people
submitted to him grudgingly, and the last feeble at-
tempt at revolt, which was connected with the name
of Alexius Petrowicz, Peter's son by his marriage
with Eudoxia, was suppressed by the Czar with even
greater cruelty which included the torturing to death
of Alexius. Historians have not unjustly com-
mented that Peter the Great deliberately cemented
the foundations of his Empire with the blood of his

Three years after the death of his son Peter was
acclaimed as " the Father of the Fatherland, Peter
the Great and Emperor of All Russia '* at the cele-
bration of the peace of Nystadt by which Sweden
surrendered the hegemony of the north to Russia.
Thus ended Peter's struggle with one of the strong-


est military powers of Europe. He had entered
the conflict with an army which firmly believed that
every Swedish soldier had a devil behind him to point
his musket and make him invulnerable, a superstition
which made the Russian soldiers run in numbers at
the first sight of a handful of Swedes. Such were
the men Peter led to victory and such was the enemy
he taught them to beat.

His labors, however, as well as his excesses had
already undermined his iron constitution and though
not yet fifty-three years of age, he was already an
old man. During the summer of 1724 the state of
Peter's health caused grave anxiety and in autumn
he had another violent attack of his paroxysms.
Ignoring the advice of his physicians he undertook
an arduous tour of inspection and visited some of
his iron mines, even digging out with his own hands
a piece of iron ore weighing 120 pounds. In the
beginning of November, at Lakhta, seeing a boat
grounded on a shoal, loaded with soldiers in imminent
danger of being drowned, he plunged into the water
to go to their rescue and stayed immersed for a
considerable time. He returned to St. Petersburg
dangerously ill and after a protracted and painful
agony he died on the evening of February 8 (N. S.),
1725, in the arms of his second wife, the Empress
Catherine. Of his last message scribbled on a sheet
of paper two words only were legible : " Forgive


The importance of the " Diary '* published in this
volume may be estimated from the foregoing sketch
of Peter's life. Johann Gcorg Korb, the author,
was the secretary to the Austrian Envoy who was
sent by the Emperor Leopold I. to Moscow with the
avowed purpose of reporting on the operations of
the Russian armies against the Turks, but with the
real mission of intervening on behalf of the Jesuit
missionaries in Russia. The Austrian Envoy
started on his journey on the 10th of January 1698,
arrived on the 29th of April, and left Moscow again
more than a year later. The observations of the
secretary thus cover a period embracing the second
half of 1698 and the earlier part of 1699 and reveal
to us the real reign of Peter. A few months after
the arrival of the Austrian Envoy in Moscow the
young Czar returned from his foreign tour, which
had been interrupted by the revolt of the Strelitz,
to sit in judgment on this last serious rebellion
against him and to start immediately afterwards on
his rude regime of reckless reforms of which we find
traces on almost every page of this diary.

The young official who noted down these impres-
sions during a year's residence in Moscow was
scarcely two years older than the Czar, having been
born in 1670, but his insight into the Czar's char-
acter is remarkable, and we find here and there the
most curious observations of the Czar's complex
character, — corroborated by the testimony of other


eyewitnesses in later years. For among all the
peculiar personalities which have been called upon
to rule over human beings Peter was one of the most
abnormal and remarkable. Neuropathic, if not by
inheritance then through the experiences of his early
youth, Peter spent his brief maturity between rest-
less work and reckless excesses of so violent a char-
acter that his companions of a weaker constitution
succumbed at an earlier age than he. His gigantic
deformity of character alone in fact would be suffi-
cient to earn for Peter the title of " the Great."
The personality of this astonishing man was com-
posed of many elements, horny-handed woodcutter,
unrivalled organizer, madman in his pleasures and
criminal in his passions. Wastefulness and stingi-
ness were strangely combined in him. For many
years he elected to live in a low wooden cottage at
Preobashensko while his favorites were building
palaces for themselves, and he would use the mathe-
matical instruments, which never left his person, to
measure the daily consumption of cheese at his table,
while to compensate for the poor wages of his cook
he turned the meals to which he invited his friends
into picnics at a ducat a head.

In his intercourse with foreign diplomats he
worked on a system of his own, combining Slavic
shrewdness with Oriental cunning. He threw the
negotiators off their guard in a manner peculiar to
himself by unexpected acts of familiarity or rude-


ness, by sudden caresses or insults. He would in-
terrupt a speaker by kissing him on the brow, he
would make long speeches, intended for the gallery,
of which his hearer could not understand a word, and
would then dismiss them before they had time to ask
for an explanation.

Other peculiarities of Peter's were no less bizarre.
After his return from Holland he always carried a
case of surgical instruments about with him, and
never let slip an opportunity of using them, to the
bad fortune of his patients. A bag full of teeth ex-
tracted by him was preserved until recently in the
Museum of Arts at Petrograd. Many of them
are in perfect condition and were so when he ex-
tracted them. His valet complained to him one day
that his wife, under the pretext of a bad tooth, had
long refused to perform her conjugal duties. Peter
sent for the unfortunate lady, operated on her then
and there in spite of her tears and screams, and
warned her that if she continued obdurate he would
pull out every tooth in her two jaws. His own wife,
later the Empress Catherine I., fared little better.
During a visit to a museum in her company he was
a^ttracted to a figure of a pagan god, one of those
with which the Greeks and Romans frequently
adorned the nuptial chamber. Peter beckoned to his
wife and commanded her to kiss the figure. When
she objected he shouted, " Kop ab!" (Head off!)
the implication of which was unmistakeable. He


then requested that the object kissed by the Czarina
should be presented to him. His curiosity often as-
sumed strange forms. When the Czarina, Martha
Apraxin, Theodore's widow, died in 1715 at the age
of fifty-one, he insisted on performing the autopsy
upon the corpse with his own hands.

Extraordinary as was his conduct in serious mat-
ters, he was a complete buffoon in his pleasures.
The "jolly company" of his earlier years he or-
ganized into a sort of mock hierarchy in whose so-
ciety he found relief from his overstrained nerves in
amusements which inevitably degenerated into orgies.
Masquerades were a favorite pastime at the courts
of that period, but Peter's feasts with sham cardinals
and mock monks where crosses made of long Dutch
pipes were worshipped and the nuptials of old men
and women made drunk were celebrated in public,
were entirely of his own invention. Here his prone-
ness to exaggeration displayed itself without inhibi-
tion, and he lavished on all sides the most absurd
drolleries, the most startling obscenities and un-
heard-of profanities. His friend, Peter Ivanowicz
Boutourlin, he appointed Archbishop of St. Peters-
burg " in the diocese of drunkards, gluttons and
madmen." Others he called kings and kaisers, while
he himself in his favorite costume as a Dutch sailor
marched on beating a drum in the drunken proces-

Yet even in his orgies Peter showed a spark of


logic. The church had dared to resist his reforms,
the church must therefore be degraded in order that
the authority of the Czar should be unchallenged.
And as the Bourbons in France, following the in-
genious plan of Richelieu, demoralized their restive
aristocracy with the frivolities of Versailles, so
Peter, pursuing a less elegant tradition, summoned
his boyars to the debauches of the pothouse, where
in drinking bouts of days* duration he never forgot
to carry tablets to note down suspicious utterances
dropped by wine-loosened tongues.

This not wholly unsophisticated joy in buffoonery
and harlequinade was together with his satanic
cruelty one of the most strongly marked features of
Peter's character. None but a madman could have
carried his former mistress in his own arms to the
scaffold, as Peter did, kissing her fainting form as
her head was laid on the block, taking up the head
again after it had fallen, and exhibiting to his en-
tourage the severed veins and vertebrae, then kissing
it again, crossing himself and departing. Still the
same man who blithely sent favorites to torture
chamber and scaffold could bear with patience the
blows of an exasperated cook whom he had infuriated
by some practical joke.

The work which Peter accomplished was as com-
posite as his personality. He grafted European
civilization on to the old Russian culture, though
branches and trunk were not well fitted. He left a


Dutch fleet, a German army, and a Swedish ad-
ministration. The fear haunted him, that his work
might not survive him, for with all his perversity
his mind was clear, penetrating, and exact, going to
the point unhesitatingly and unswervingly like a
sharp tool wielded by a sure hand.

Peter, though certainly no genius, possessed a re-
markable ingenuity and his abnormally restless brain
expressed itself in an atmosphere of the most ab-
solute power. With unmistakable traits of great-
ness he combined features of extreme vulgarity.
His rustic humor and childish gayety Avas trans-
formed on the moment into savagery at the slightest
provocation. He superintended his household like a
small shopkeeper, thrashed his wife like a peasant,
and sought his pleasures like a brawler.

All these characteristics of the full grown man we
find indicated in the younger Peter depicted by our
diarist. Peter's energy in extinguishing a fire is
mentioned there as well as his efficiency in executing
a criminal with his own hand. Nor is his aptitude
overlooked for appealing to the lowest instincts of
the mob. Even minor traits are not omitted. When
Peter visited England William III. complained that
the Czar seemed quite indifferent to the beauties of
architecture and gardening; and John Evelyn spoke
regretfully of certain holly hedges of his own plant-
ing at Sayes court after Peter had sojourned there
for a few months in 1698, mourning " his now ruined


garden, thanks to tlic Czar of Muscovy." The same
heedlessness of Peter about horticulture is mentioned
by Korb in his entry of April 5th, 1699. He re-
marks also the dirtiness of the Czar's silver plate,
a fact confirmed by later diplomatic reports which
explain that the vessels were not cleaned because it
had been discovered that they lost weight thereby.

This diary, though published in Latin and there-
fore accessible only to a comparatively small circle
of readers, led to serious friction between the Rus-
sian and Austrian courts until the Emperor Leopold
I. gave permission that the unsold copies of the diary
were to be destroyed. Even then the agents of the
Czar were active in buying up every available copy
and one was publicly burned by the executioner in
Moscow. The publication of the diary made the
Austrian envoy, Baron de Guarient, persona non
grata, and eliminated him from a later mission to
Moscow. The author, Korb, lived unharmed until
his death in 1741 as a Privy Councilor and Knight
in the Bavarian service. Outside of Russia the
diary was soon recognized as one of the most im-
portant sources of Russian history of that period.
It has been extensively copied for instance in Eleazar
de Mauvillon's " Histoire de Pierre I." which ap-
peared in 1742. But the persecution by Peter soon
made it a very rare work. It is estimated that there
are to-day scarcely more than ten copies existing,
most of them being in the possession of famous li-


braries. There arc copies in the British Museum
and the former Imperial Library in Vienna.
Strangely enough the copy in the National Library
in Berlin was formerly the property of the same
Baron Muenchhausen to whom are ascribed the well
known tales. Only one copy of the Latin original
is held in the western hemisphere. It is in the pos-
session of the Congressional Library in Washington,
D. C.

The earliest translations of this diary from the
original Latin text were done in Russian, one for
Peter himself, which is full of omissions and misun-
derstandings. No German translation has ever
been undertaken and in French there exists only that
part of the diary dealing with the revolt of the
Strelitz. The English version on which the follow-
ing pages are based is the only English translation,
and was made by Count Macdonnell in the middle
of the nineteenth century. It was published in Lon-
don in 1863 and has also become comparatively rare.
Charles Macdonnell, an Austrian Count, was de-
scended from the ancient Macdonnells of Antrim, a
leading branch of the Scottish clan Donnell, but he
had suffered financial reverses and lived abroad.

In the preface to his translation Count Mac-
donnell gives a picturesque account of the circum-
stances under which he came to make it :

" Some few summers ago the translator happened
to pass a •villeggiatura at Frascati, in the neighbor-


hood of Rome, a solitary bird of passage left behind
after the season of the great flight northwards :
Henry, Cardinal of York, the last Prince of the
Royal Stuarts, who had struck medals upon Charles
Edward's death with the royal titles of " Henry IX.
by the Grace of God, but not by will of men. King of
England, France, Scotland, and Ireland, Defender
of the Faith," was at one time Bishop of Frascati,
and Frascati was his favorite residence even after
he was translated to another see. At his death he
bequeathed his library to the College in that town,
directing that it should be always accessible to the
public for study. Attracted by its connection with
the last of that royal race, the translator obtained
access to its shelves. The sultry heat of a Roman
summer rendered out-of door excursions in that beau-
tiful neighborhood impossible, except in the early
morning and in the evenings. Much of his time was
spent, in consequence, in poring over the dusty tomes
in the Stuart library. There he discovered a copy
of this rare and curious Diary; and there, seated
day after day in the identical arm-chair in which —
so said the living local tradition — fifty years prev-
iously, the crownless heir of three kingdoms was wont
to sit and read, the translation was undertaken and
half accomplished. The rest was completed in the
autumn of the following year in Vienna."

Count Macdonnell points out his efforts to render
as literally as possible into English the " slovenly


Latin " of the German diplomat, thus endeavoring
to make this translation as faithful as possible to the
original. His translation is fairly complete except
for a few slight omissions made as a concession to
the mid- Victorian taste of his time.

In this edition no effort has been made to repro-
duce the diary in full as that would involve the in-
clusion of a large amount of redundant and unin-
teresting matter, important only to the meticulous
savant. The editor has rather aimed at a careful
selection of those portions of the work which are
important and significant and those which reveal the
personality of Peter the Man whose human interest
will outlive the political power of the Romanoff
dynasty. For it is the intention of tnis volume as

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Online LibraryJohann Georg KorbScenes from the court of Peter the Great, based on the Latin diary of John G. Korb, a secretary of the Austrian legation at the court of Peter the Great → online text (page 1 of 11)