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The Will of Peter the Great / Testament of Peter the Great

In the eighteenth century, Muscovy was transformed from a static, somewhat isolated, traditional state into the more dynamic, partially Westernized, and secularized Russian Empire. This transformation was in no small measure a result of the vision, energy, and determination of Peter the Great (1682-1725). Historians disagree about the extent to which Peter himself transformed Russia, but they generally concur that he laid the foundations that shaped the empire over the next two centuries. The era he initiated signaled the advent of Russia as a major European power.

Peter died without making a will, without even being able to name his successor; his efforts to speak were cut short by weakness. Nevertheless, a paper known as the 'Testament of Peter the Great' was in the 19th Century in circulation and frequently quoted. The so-called will of Peter the Great, made a prominent figure in the discussions of European politics, particularly with reference to Russia and Turkey. It assumed to mark out a policy for the weakening and gradual absorption of the East, and of all the neighboring States of the West, and the ultimate conquest of the whole West by Russia.

The celebrated will of Peter the Great is among the mysteries of European history. It is generally believed to have been published in Europe through the instrumentality of the notorious Chevalier d'Eon, who obtained it in 1755 while he was acting as reader to Catherine the Great. It may be apocryphal, but by Persians and by many Russians its genuineness was not doubted. Even if it was not the actual political testament of Peter, it was accepted as embodying the national aspirations of Russia in the first half of the eighteenth century, and as such it deserves to be studied. Its tenor is uniformly aggressive, Russia being urged to aim at almost universal dominion.

The existence of a document corresponding more or less with the current texts of this enigmatical programme of Russian policy was asserted in the last century. Nothing can be more precise than this extract of a report from Podewils to the great Friedrich, lately discovered in the Berlin archives, in which the Prussian minister speaks of a conversation with the Russian envoy: "Kaiserlingk told me that he remembered to have seen an autograph manuscript of the deceased Czar Peter on the fundamental maxims of his house, in which his successors were recommended to maintain friendship with Prussia." The Berlin archives also contain a report of a Baron Leutrim's conversation with Friedrich in 1754, when the king reminded him of the will of Peter "of glorious memory." Further, in 1798 Friedrich Wilhelm gave his ministers a memorandum which he said had been laid before the French government by one Sokolnicy, who professed official connections with Poland. This paper included an approximate text of Peter's will written from memory by the Pole after a perusal of the original, which he said was in the secret Russian archives. These facts, or shadows of facts, were cabinet secrets till the year 1812.

It first appeared in the book called 'Des Progres de la puissance russe depuis son origine jusqu au commencement due XIX eiecle,' published at Paris in 1812, by Charles Louis Lesur, an attache of the Department of Foreign Affairs. M. Lesur, a clerk in the French foreign office, published a large book, "Progress of the Russian Power, from Its Origin to the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century", which gave without any other explanation as to authenticity than a mere "we are assured " not a will, but a "risumi of a plan" sketched by Peter. The abstract of the paper was prefaced by the words: "I am assured that there exist in the private archives of the Emperors of Russia, secret memoirs, written in the hand of Peter I., in which are exposed without evasion the projects which that Prince had conceived, which he recommended to the attention of his successors, and which many of them have in effect followed with a persistence which may be called religious." This summary consists of fourteen articles, of which the first twelve are nothing more than a statement of the policy of Russia as shown up to the year 1812.

In 1836, the Eastern question became prominent, and it again became necessary to show Russia's desire of world-conquest, the will reappears, but this time re-written in more diplomatic and precise language, in the form of an actual testament in Les Memoires du Chevalier d' Eon, by Gaillardet, one of the celebrated collaborators with A. Dumas, the well-known French novelist, of the melodrama "La Tour de Nesle." This is in substance the same as published in the book of M. Lesur, though it is put in a more formal way, beginning: 'In the Name of the Most Holy and Indivisible Trinity,' somewhat enlarged, and divided differently.

Neither the famous nor infamous Chevalier d' Eon nor M. Gaillardet can be considered as authorities on an historical question. The Count d' Eon is perhaps the most ridiculous character that figured during the 18th Century in French history. Louis the XV in 1755 sent him on a secret mission to the Court of Russia. He assumed the dress of a female and obtained the appointment of reader to the Empress Elizabeth. In 1762 he obtained an appointment to the Court of Great Britain. He was soon superceded by Count Guerchey, whose appointment he denied and preferred an indictment against the Count for an attempt to poison him. The Count was discharged, but he was convicted of a libel. Failing to answer for judgment h^e was outlawed. In 1772 an action was tried before Lord Mansfield on a bet to determine his sex. The jury determined that he was a female. On his return to France he was ordered by Louis the XV. to wear the dress of a female, which he did until his death in 1784. A post-mortem examination conclusively established that he was a man. This in brief is an outline of the character of the person who is said to have obtained a copy of this pretended Will while reader to the Empress Elizabeth at the Court of Russia.

The document is next heard of in 1839. Leonard Chodzko, living at Paris, published a work under the title of 'La Pologne Historique, Littraire, Monumentale, et Ulustree,' in which he gives details which seem to have been unknown even by Gaillardet, stating that it was in 1709, after the battle of Poltava, that Peter first drew up the plan of his will, which he renewed in 1724. The text given by him is the same as that published by Gaillardet.

In 1854, during the Crimean War, when there was again reason to excite public opinion in Europe against Russia, Mr. J. Correard, a military writer, published a map of the annexations of Russia from Peter L to our days, and on the margin, among other notices, quotes the Will of Peter the Great, saying: 'This political testament was sketched out by Peter L in 1710, after the battle of Poltava, revised by him in 1722 after the peace of Nystad, and put into definite form by the Chancellor Osterman,' quoting it from the work of Chodzko.'

In 1866, Gaillardet, who had gone to New York and become the editor of the 'Courrier des Etats-Unis,' published a new edition of his book, in which he admitted many mystifications and falsehoods in the first edition, but insisted that the new one was entirely based upon authentic documents. In this he still claimed for himself the credit of being the first to discover the copy of the 'Will of Peter the Great.'

The forgery of the will of Peter the Great was due to the desire of Napoleon to frighten Europe and thus to give him excuses and pretexts for entering upon his Moscow campaign. It is possible that that some Urtext of the will was made up by anti-Russian Poles about 1790, that this got into the hands of the French government, and was afterwards touched up by Napoleon. The hypothesis is simple and likely: but the probable has not always happened; and this explanation does not sufficiently connect the canonical document with the statement of Podewils.

Whatever may have been the virtues or the faults of Peter the Great there is nothing in his history that would point to him as the author of the malignant Will. The fictitious character of the so-called testament of Peter the Great is so well established that it would be absurd to discuss the principles there laid down for the conquest of Europe and of Asia, or to investigate the reasons dictating such a policy.




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