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 wrote it.

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 signature.

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 fasten them.

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 of brandy!”

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.

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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 letters.

“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 active.

“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….”

“Yes, but….”

“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 that.”

“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 own son.”

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 twitch.

“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 basket.

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!”

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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 disgrace us.”

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 hand.

“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 Alexis.”

“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!”

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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 hilarity.

“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 died.”

“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 unimportant ones.

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.”

“Sixty, sixty.”

“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!”

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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 stick.

“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 sheet!”

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 cabriolet.

“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 courtiers.

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.

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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 Peter-Paul Fortress.

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 together.”

“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 everlasting sameness.”

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!

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