The Great Czar by August Strindberg
On the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland lay the little village
Strelna, halfway between Petersburg and the half-completed Peterhof. At
the end of the village, on the edge of the Strelka stream, stood a
simple country-house under oaks and pines. It was painted green and
red, and the window-shutters were still fastened, for it was only four
o'clock on a summer morning.
The Gulf of Finland lay smooth under the rays of the rising sun. A
Dutch trading vessel, which had wished to enter the harbour and reach
the Admiralty House, now furled its sails and dropped anchor. It
carried a flag at its main-top which hung down idly.
Near the red and green country-house stood an ancient lime-tree with
a split trunk; in the cleft a wooden platform with a railing had been
fitted, and a flight of steps led up to this arbour. In this early
morning hour there sat a man in the tree at an unpainted, unsteady
table, writing letters. The table was covered with papers, but there
was still room for a clock without a glass, a compass, a case of
drawing instruments, and a large bell of bronze.
The man sat in his shirt-sleeves; he wore darned stockings which
were turned down, and large shoes; his head seemed incredibly large,
but was not so in reality; his neck was like that of an ox, and his
body that of a giant; the hand which was now writing was coarse, and
stained with tar; he wrote carelessly, with lines somewhat slanting,
but quickly. The letters were short and to the point, with no
introductions and no conclusions, merely signed “Pe ter,” the name
divided in two, as though it had been split by the heavy hand which
There were probably about a million men bearing that name in Russia;
but this Peter was the only one of importance, and everyone recognised
The lime-tree was alive with bees, the little Strelka brook bubbled
and fretted like a tea-kettle, and the sun rose gloriously; its rays
fell between the leaves of the lime-tree, and threw patches of light on
the strange face of one of the strangest and most incomprehensible men
who have ever lived.
Just now this handsome head, with its short hair, looked like that
of a wild boar; and when the writer licked his goose-quill like a
school-boy, he showed teeth and a tongue like those of a memorial lion.
Sometimes his features were convulsed with pain, as though he were
being tortured or crucified. But then he took a new sheet, and began a
new letter; his pen ran on; his mouth smiled till his eyes disappeared,
and the terrible man looked roguish. Still another sheet, and a little
note which was certainly directed to a lady; now the face changed to
that of a satyr, melted so to speak, into harmonious lines, and finally
exploded in a loud laugh which was simply cynical.
His morning correspondence was now ended. The Czar had written fifty
letters. He left them unsealed. Kathia, his wife, would collect and
The giant stretched himself, rose with difficulty, and cast a glance
over the bay. With his spy-glass he saw Petersburg and his fleet, the
Fort of Kronstadt, which had been commenced, and finally discovered the
trading-vessel. “How did that come in without saluting?” he thought,
“and dare to anchor immediately before my house!”
He rang, and a valet-de-chambre came at once, running from the row
of tents which stood concealed behind the pines-trees, and where both
soldiers and servants lodged.
“Take five men in a boat,” he ordered, “and hail that brig! Can you
see what country it belongs to?”
“It is Dutch, your Majesty!”
“Dutch! Bring the captain here, dead or alive. At once! On the spot!
But first my tea!”
“The household is asleep, most gracious lord.”
“Then wake it up, you ass! Knock at the shutters! Break the door in!
Asleep in broad daylight!”
He rang again. A second servant appeared. “Tea! and brandy—plenty
The servants ran, the household was aroused, and the Czar occupied
the interval by making notes on slate tablets. When he became
impatient, he got down, and knocked at all the shutters with his stick.
Then a voice was heard from within: “Wait a moment.”
“No! that I won't; I am not born to wait. Hurry! or I will set the
house on fire!”
He went into his gardens, cast a glance at his medicinal plants,
plucked up some weeds, and watered here and there. He went into the
cattle-sheds, and looked at some merino sheep which he himself had
introduced. Here he found a trave which had been broken; he took a saw
and plane, and mended it. He threw some oats in the manger of his
favourite trotting-horse. He drove for the most part, when he did not
go on foot; riding seemed to him unworthy of a seaman, and it was as a
seaman that the Czar chiefly wished to be regarded. Then he went into
the lathe-shop, sat for a while on the turning-bench, and worked. At
the window stood a table with a copper-engraver's tools; with the
graving-tool he drew some lines which were wanting in the map plate. He
was about to proceed to the smithy, when a woman's voice called him
under the lime-tree.
On the platform stood his wife the Czarina, in her morning dress.
She had massive limbs and large feet; her face was stout and plain, her
eyes were not level, but had a steady expression.
“How early you are up this morning, Little Father?” she said.
“Is it early? It is six at any rate!”
“It is only just five.”
“Five? Then it shall be six.”
He pushed the hand of the clock an hour forward. His wife smiled a
little superciliously, but took care not to irritate him, for she knew
how dangerous it was to do so. Then she gave him his tea.
“There is some occupation for you,” said Peter, pointing to his
“But how many there are!”
“If there are too many I can get help.”
The Czarina, did not answer, but began to look through the letters.
The Czar liked that, for then there would be occasion for quarrelling;
and he always wished for a quarrel in order to keep his energies
“Pardon me, Peter,” said his wife, “but is it right that you should
apply to the Swedish Government about the Dutch ships?”
“Yes, it is! All that I do is right!”
“I don't understand it. Our Russians fired by mistake at friendly
Dutch vessels, and you demand indemnity from the Swedes because the
mischance occurred in Swedish waters.”
“Yes, according to Roman law, the injury must be made good in the
land where it happened....”
“It is all the same anyhow: he who can pay, pays; I cannot, and the
Dutch will not, therefore the Swedes must! Do you understand?”
“The Swedes have incited the Turks against me; they must pay for
“May be! But why do you write so harshly to the Dutch Government
since you like the Dutch?”
“Why! Because since the Peace of Utrecht, Holland is on the decline.
It is all over with Holland; on to the rubbish-heap with it! I hold on
to England, since France is also declining.”
“Should one abandon one's old friends?...”
“Certainly, when they are no more good. Moreover, there is no
friendship in love and in politics. Do you think I like this wretched
August of Poland? No! I am sure you don't. But I must go with him
through thick and thin, for my country, for Russia. He who cannot
sacrifice his little humours and passions for his country is a Don
Quixote, like Charles the Twelfth. This fool, with his mad hatred
against August and myself, has worked for Sweden's overthrow and
Russia's future. But that this Christian dog should incite the Turks
against us was a crime against Europe, for Europe needs Russia as a
bulwark against Asia. Did not the Mongol sit for two hundred years on
our frontier and threaten us? And when our ancestors had at last driven
him away, there comes a fellow like this and brings the heathen from
Constantinople upon us. The Mongols were once in Silesia, and would
have destroyed Western Europe if we Russians had not saved it. Charles
XII is dead, but I curse his memory, and I curse everyone who seeks to
hinder me in my laudable endeavour to raise Russia from a Western
Asiatic power to an Eastern European one. I shall beat everyone down,
whoever he may be, who interferes with my work, even though it were my
There was silence for some moments. The last words referred to the
Delicate topic of Alexis, Peter's son by his first marriage, who was
now a prisoner awaiting his death-sentence in the Peter-Paul Fortress.
He was accused of having endeavoured to hinder his father's work in the
civilisation of Russia, and was suspected of having taken part in plots
of rebellion. The Czar's first divorced wife Eudoxia was confined in
the convent of Suzdal.
Katharina naturally did not love Alexis, since he stood in the way
of her children, and she would have been glad of his death, but did not
wish to incur the guilt of it. Since Peter also did not wish to take
the responsibility for it, he had appointed a court of a hundred and
twenty-seven persons to try his son.
The topic therefore was an unwelcome one, and, with his
extraordinary facility for quick changes of thought and feeling, Peter
broke the silence with the prosaic question, “Where is the brandy?”
“You will get no brandy so early, my boy.”
“Kathrina!” said Peter in a peculiar tone, while his face began to
“Be quiet, Lion!” answered his wife, and stroked his black mane,
which had begun to bristle. She took a bottle and a glass out of a
The Lion cheered up, swallowed the strong drink, smiled, and stroked
his spouse's expansive bust.
“Will you see the children?” asked Katherine, in order to bring him
into a milder mood.
“No, not to-day! Yesterday I beat them, and they would think I was
running after them. Keep them at a distance. Keep them under, or they
will get the better of you!”
Katherine had taken the last letter, as though absent-mindedly, and
began to read it. Then she coloured, and tore it in two. “You must not
write to actresses. That is too great an honour for them, and can only
The Czar smiled, and was not angry. He had not intended to send the
letter, but only scribbled it in order to excite his wife, perhaps also
to show off.
There was a sound of approaching footsteps underneath.
“See! there is my friend, the scoundrel!”
“Hush!” said Katherine, “Menshikoff is your friend.”
“A fine friend! Already once I have condemned him to death as a
thief and deceiver; but he lives still, thanks to your friendship.”
Menshikoff (he was a great soldier, an able statesman, an
indispensable favourite, enormously rich) came hurrying up the wooden
stairs. It was in his house that the Czar had found his Katherine. He
was handsome, looked like a Frenchman, dressed well, and had polished
manners. He greeted the Czar ceremoniously, and kissed Katherine's
“Now they are there again,” he commenced.
“The Strelitzil? [Footnote: a Russian body-guard first established
by Ivan the Terrible.] Have I not rooted them out?”
They grow like the dragon's seed, and now they want to deliver
“Have you any more exact information?”
“The conspirators meet this evening at five o'clock.”
“Number fourteen the Strandlinje, at an apparently harmless meal.”
“Strand—14,” wrote the Czar on his tablets. “Any more?”
“To-night at two o'clock they fire the city.”
“At two o'clock?” The Czar shook his head, and his face twitched.
“I build up, and they pull down. But now I will extirpate them root
and branch. What do they say?”
“They look back to Holy Moscow, and regard the building of
Petersburg as a piece of godlessness or malice. The workmen die, like
flies, of marsh fever, and they regard your Majesty's building in the
midst of a marsh as an act of bravado a la Louis Quatorze, who built
Versailles on the site of a swamp.”
“Asses! My town is to command the mouth of the river, and to be the
Key to the sea, therefore it must be there. The marsh shall be drained
off into canals, which will carry boats like those of Amsterdam. But so
it is when monkeys judge!”
He rang; a servant appeared; “Put the horses to the cabriolet”; he
called down, “and now, goodbye, Katherine; I shall not be home till
to-morrow. It will be a hot day. But don't forget the letters.
Alexander can help you.”
“Will you not dress, little son?” answered Katherine.
“Dress? I have my sabre.”
“Put at least your coat on.”
The Czar put on his coat, drew the belt which held the sabre some
holes tighter, and sprang at one bound from the platform.
“Now it will come off,” whispered Menshikoff to Katherine.
“You have not been lying, Alexander?”
“A few lies adorn one's speech. The chief point is gained.
To-morrow, Katherine, you can sleep quietly in the nursery with the
heirs to the throne.”
“Can any misfortune happen to him?”
“No! he never has misfortune.”
* * * * *
The Czar ran down to the seashore; he never walked, but always ran.
“Life goes fast,” he was wont to say, “and there is much to do.”
When he reached the gravel bank he found a boat landing, with five
men and the Dutch prisoner. The latter sat stolidly by the rudder, and
smoked his pipe. But when he saw the Czar, he took off his cap, threw
it in the air, and cried, “Hurrah!”
Czar Peter shaded his eyes, and, when he recognised his old teacher
and friend, Jaen Scheerborck from Amsterdam, he jumped into the boat
over the rowers' shoulders and knees, rushed into Jaen's arms and
kissed him, so that his pipe broke and the seaman's great grey beard
was full of smoke and nearly took fire. Then the Czar lifted the old
man up, and carried him in his arms like a child to the shore.
“At last, you old rascal! I have you here with me! Now you shall see
my city and my fleet, which I have built myself, for you have taught
me. Bring the cabriolet here, boy! and a grapnel from the boat; we will
go, and tack about. Quickly!”
“Dear heart alive!” said the old man, picking the tobacco-ashes out
of his beard, “to think that I have seen the Carpenter-Czar before I
die; that is....”
“Into the cabriolet, old fellow! Boy, hang the grapnel behind. Where
are you to sit? On my knees, of course!”
The cabriolet had only room for one person, and the captain actually
had to sit on the Czar's lap. Three horses were yoked to it
tandem-fashion, and a fourth ran beside the leader. The whip cracked,
and the Czar played being at sea. “A good wind, isn't it? Twelve knots!
Furl the sheet! so!”
A toll-gate appeared, and the captain, who knew the Czar's wild
tricks but also his skill, began to cry “There is a toll-gate! Stop!”
But the Czar, who had found again his youth with his old friend of
former times, and with his indestructible boyishness, liked practical
jokes and dangers, whipped on the horses, whistled and shouted, “Let
her go! Clear for action! Jump!”
The toll-gate was burst clean open, and the old man laughed so that
he swayed on the Czar's knees. And so they drove along the shore. At
the town gate the sentinels presented arms and saluted; on the streets
people cried “Hurrah!” and when they reached the Admiralty, cannon were
fired and the yards manned. But the Czar seriously or in play, as
though he were on the sea, shouted “Anchor!”
So saying, he so threw the grapnel towards the wall, that it caught
in a torch-holder, which bent but did not break. But the horses, which
were still running, were suddenly forced back, and sank on their knees.
The first of the three rose no more; it had been fatally injured by
bursting in the toll-gate.
Three hours later, when the fleet and docks had been inspected, the
Czar and Jaen Scheerborck sat in a seamen's tavern. The cabriolet stood
without, and was “anchored” to a thatched roof. Brandy was on the
table, and their pipes had filled the room with smoke. The two friends
had discussed serious matters. The Czar had paid six visits, one to his
staff of generals, from which he returned in a very excited state to
the waiting captain. But, with his extraordinary capacity for shaking
off what was unpleasant and for changing his moods, he now beamed with
“You ask whence I shall get the inhabitants for my new town. I first
brought fifty thousand workmen here. That was the nucleus. Then I
commanded all officials, priests, and great landowners to build
houses—each of them, one—whether they intended to live in it or not.
Now I have a hundred thousand. I know they talk and say that I build
towns, but don't dwell in them myself. No! I build not for myself, but
for the Russians. I hate Moscow, which smells of the Khan of the
Tartars, and would prefer to live in the country. That is no one else's
affair. Drink, old man! We have the whole day before us till five
o'clock. Then I must be sober.”
The old man drank cautiously, and did not know exactly how to behave
in this grand society, which was at the same time so nautical.
“Now you must tell me some of the stories which the people relate
about me. You know lots of them, Jaen.”
“I know some certainly, but it is not possible....”
“Then I will tell some,” said Peter, “Do you know the story of the
pair of compasses and the cheese? No? Well, it runs thus: 'The Czar is
so covetous that he always carries a box of drawing instruments in his
pocket. With a pair of compasses he measures his cheese, to see whether
any of it has been stolen since the last meal!' That is a good story!
Here is another! 'The Czar has a Tippler's Club. Once they determined
to hold a festival, and the guests were shut up three days and three
nights in order to drink. Each guest had a bench behind him, on which
to sleep off his intoxication, besides two tubs, one for food and one
for ... you understand?'“
“No, that is too absurd!”
“Such are the stories they like to tell in Petersburg. Have you not
heard that I also extract teeth? In my palace, they say, there is a
sack full of them. And then I am said to perform operations in
hospital. Once I drew off so much water from a dropsical woman that she
“Do the people believe that?”
“Certainly they do. They are so stupid, you see; but I will cut off
their asses' ears and singe their tongues....”
His eyes began to sparkle, and it was plain what direction his
thoughts were taking. But however confidential he might be, there
always seemed to be secret checks at work, so that, even when
intoxicated, he always kept his great secrets though he told
Just then an adjutant came in, and whispered something to the Czar.
“Exactly at five o'clock,” answered the Czar in a loud voice. “Sixty
grenadiers, with loaded guns and cutlasses! Adieu! Jaen,” continued the
Czar, giving a sudden turn to his thoughts, “I will buy your loom, but
I will not give more than fifty roubles for it.”
“You Satan of a Dutchman! You skinflint! If I offer fifty, that is
an honour for you! Indeed it is!”
The Czar's anger rose, but it was connected with the adjutant's
message, not with the loom. The pot was boiling, and the cover had to
fly. “You miserable peddlers of groceries! Always fleecing people! But
your time is past! Now come the English! They are another sort!”
Jaen the seaman became gloomy, and that annoyed the Czar still more.
He wanted to enjoy Jaen's company, and therefore sought to divert his
thoughts. “Landlord,” he cried, “bring champagne!”
The landlord came in, fell on his knees, and begged for mercy, for
he had not the luxurious drink in his store-cellar. This superfluous
word “store-cellar” might sound ironical and provocative, though
unintentionally. Still it was welcome as an occasion for using the
“Have you a store-cellar, you rascal? Will you tell me that the
keeper of a seaman's alehouse has a cellar of spirits!” And now the
stick danced. But as the Dutchman turned away with a gesture of
disapproval, the Czar's fury broke loose. From time to time his
disposition necessitated such outbreaks. His sabre flew out of its
sheath; like a madman, he broke all the bottles on the dresser and cut
all the legs off the chairs and tables. Then he made a pile out of the
fragments, and prepared to burn the landlord on it.
Then a door opened, and a woman entered with a little child on her
arm. When the child saw its father prostrate with his neck stretched
out, it began to scream. The Czar paused, quieted down, went to the
woman, and accosted her. “Be easy, mother; no mischief is going on; we
are only playing at sailors.”
Then he turned to the landlord: “Send the account to Prince
Menshikoff; he will pay. But if you scratch me.... Well, I forgive you
this time.... Now let us go, Jaen. Up with the anchor, and stand by the
Then they drove into the town. The Czar ran up into various houses
and came down again, until it was noon. They then halted before
Menshikoff's palace. “Is dinner ready?” asked the Czar from the
“Yes, your Majesty,” answered a lackey.
“Serve up for two! Is the Prince at home?”
“No, your Majesty.”
“Never mind. Serve up for two.”
It was the Czar's habit thus to make himself a guest in his friends'
houses, whether they were at home or not, and he is said once to have
thus quartered himself upon somebody, with two hundred of his
After a splendid dinner, the Czar went into an ante-room and laid
down to sleep. The captain had already gone to sleep at the table. But
the Czar laid a watch beside him; he could wake whenever he wished.
When he awoke, he went into the dining-room, and found Jaen
Scheerborck sleeping at the table.
“Bring him out!” commanded the Czar.
“Is he not to accompany your Majesty any more?” the chamberlain, who
was a favourite, ventured to ask.
“No! I have had enough of him; one should not meet people more than
once in a lifetime. Carry him to the pump—that will sober him, and
then take him to his ship”—and with a contemptuous glance he added,
“You old beast!”
Then he felt whether his sabre was secure, and went out.
After his sleep, Peter was again the Emperor—lofty, upright,
dignified. He went along the promenade, serious and sedate, as though
to a battle. When he had found Number 14, he entered at once, sure of
finding his fifty men there. On the right hand ground-floor towards the
courtyard, all the windows stood open. There he saw the conspirators
sitting at a long table and drinking wine. He stepped into the room,
saw many of his friends there, and felt a stab at his heart.
“Good-day, comrades!” was his cheery greeting.
The whole company rose like one man. They exchanged looks and put on
faces for the occasion.
“Let us drink a glass together, friends!” Peter threw himself on a
chair; then he looked at a clock in the room, and saw it was only
half-past four. He had made a mistake of half an hour. Was it his own
error, or was Menshikoff's clock wrong?
“Half an hour!” he thought to himself, but in the next second he had
emptied a huge glass, and began to sing a very popular soldiers' song,
keeping time by knocking the glass against the table.
The effect of the song was magical. They had sung it as victors at
Pultowa; they had marched to the accompaniment of its strains; it
carried their memories to better, happier times, and they all joined
in. Peter's strong personality, the winning amiable air he could assume
when he liked, had an attractive power for all. One song led to
another, and singing relieved the terrible embarrassment. It was the
only possible way of avoiding a conversation. Between the songs the
Czar proposed a health, or drank to an old friend, reminding him of
some experience which they had shared in common. He dared not look at
the clock lest he should betray himself, but he found the half hour in
this den of murderers intolerably long.
Several times he saw two exchanging glances, but then he threw in a
jesting word and the thread was broken. He was playing for his life,
and he played well, for he misled them with his cheerfulness and
naivete, so that they could not tell whether he knew anything or not.
He played with their irresolution.
At last he heard the rattle of arms in the courtyard, and with one
bound he was out of the window.
“Massacre!” was his only word of command, and then the blood-bath
began. He himself stood at the window, and when any one tried to jump
out, the Czar struck off his head. “Alles tot!” he exclaimed in German,
when it was all over. Then he went his way in the direction of the
He was received by the Commandant, and had himself conducted to
Prince Alexis, his only surviving and eldest son, on whom he had built
his hope and Russia's destiny.
With the key in his hand, he remained standing before the cell, made
the sign of the cross and prayed half-aloud:—“O Eternal God of armies,
Lord of Hosts, who hath put the sword into the hands of rulers that
they may guide and protect, reward and punish, enlighten thy poor
servant's understanding that he may deal righteously. Thou hast
demanded from Abraham his son, and he obeyed. Thou hast crucified Thine
own Son in order to redeem mankind. Take my sacrifice, O Terrible One,
if Thou requirest it. Yet not my will be done, but Thine. May this cup
pass if it be Thy will. Amen! in the name of Christ, Amen!”
He entered the cell, and remained there an hour. When he came out
again, he looked as though he had been weeping; but he said nothing,
handed the key to the Commandant, and departed. There are many varying
rumours regarding what passed that evening between father and son. But
one thing is certain: Alexis was condemned to death by a hundred and
twenty-seven judges, and the verdict was entered on the State records.
But the Crown Prince died before the execution of the sentence.
* * * * *
The same evening, about eight o'clock, the Czar entered his
country-house and sought Katherine. “The old has passed away,” he said.
“Now we will begin the new—you and I and our children.”
The Czarina asked no questions, for she understood. But the Czar was
so tired and exhausted, that she feared lest he should have one of the
attacks which she knew so well. And the only way of quieting him was
the old customary one.
She sat down in the corner of the sofa; he laid down resting his
head on her capacious bosom; then she stroked his hair till he fell
asleep. But she had to sit for three hours without moving.
A giant child on a giant bosom, the great champion of the Lord lay
there, his face looked small, his high brow was hidden by his long
hair; his mouth was open, and he snored like a little child asleep.
When at last he awoke, he looked up at first astonished, to find
himself where he was. Then he smiled, but did not say Thank you, and
did not fondle her.
“Now we will have something to eat,” was the first thing he said.
“Then something to drink, and then a great firework. I will light it
myself down on the shore. But Jaen Scheerborck must be present.”
“You have thrown him out.”
“Have I? He was drunk, the fellow. Send for him at once.”
“You are so strange, Peter! Never the same for two minutes
“I will not be the same; it would be too monotonous. Always
something new! And I am always new. What! I do not weary you with
His orders were carried out. Jaen was brought, but had to be bound
first; he was angry with Peter because of his ducking at the pump, and
refused to come. But when he landed, he was embraced and kissed on the
mouth, and then his wrath blew over.
They ate and drank and had their firework display, which was a great
pleasure for the Czar.
So ended the fateful day which secured the succession to the throne
to the house of Romanoff. And such was the man who termed himself “the
Great, the Self-ruler, the Emperor of All the Russias.”
The Barbarian, who civilised his Russia; who built towns and did not
dwell in them himself; who beat his wife, and allowed extensive liberty
to women,—his life was great, copious, and useful on the public side
of it; in private, as it might chance to be. But he had a beautiful
death, for he died in consequence of an illness contracted when saving
a life from shipwreck—he who, with his own hand, had taken the lives
of so many!