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The time a Russian Tsar worked as a dockworker

PortandTerminal.com, October 8, 2020

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – Peter the Great was the founder of the Russian navy and the first tsar ever to venture outside of his country’s borders. He is also known for founding and developing the eponymous city of Saint Petersburg, which remained the capital of Russia until 1917.

Peter was born in 1672 at a time when Russia was still an isolated and medieval country. After a tumultuous childhood and once Peter had a firm grip on power, he wasted no time in setting out to modernize Russia.

One of his primary goals was to turn his country into a maritime power. Although Russia was a huge state in the 17th century, its only maritime outlet in the west was the White Sea as shown in the map below. By the time his reign ended upon his death in 1725, Peter had added port access for Russia’s navy in both the Baltic sea as well as in the far east of the country as well (shown in purple on the map).

Grand Embassy

In 1697 at the age of 25 the young tsar Peter left Russia to begin what is known as his “Grand Embassy” — a fact-finding mission to look into ways of modernizing his country. Russia in the late 17th century was a backward, medieval country that lagged its European neighbors to the west. Peter’s vision was to drag Russia onto a par with his more developed competitors.

Painting. Peter the Great in Holland during the Grand Embassy.
Peter the Great in Holland visiting its shipyards during the Grand Embassy. Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, 1910.

His first stop on his Grand Embassy was Holland – a country he admired for its “atmosphere of religious toleration”

While in Holland Peter studied shipbuilding in the dockyards of Zaandam. Peter had met the Zaandam blacksmith and craftsman Gerrit Kist when Kist had worked for the tsar in Moscow. Upon visiting Holland, Peter insisted on staying with Kist in his home, despite Kist’s protests that his house was a mere hovel, shared with the widow of one of his workers. The widow was paid to move out, and Peter spent a week as Kist’s houseguest.

The house Peter stayed in while in Holland still exists to this day at the Peter the Great Museum in Zaandam
The house Peter stayed in while in Holland still exists to this day at the Peter the Great Museum in Zaandam

Next, after soliciting the help of Holland’s King William III, Peter was able to arrange a visit to England, which in the late 17th century was an emerging naval power to be reckoned with. There was much to be learned there as well for the eager young tsar.

While in England, Peter was given the use of Sayes Court, a luxurious house next to the Deptford royal shipyard — in fact, its backyard led directly into the shipyard. It was quite a step-up from the humble house he had stayed in while in Holland.

The HMS St Albans at the Deptford Dockyard in England (1747)
The HMS St Albans at the Deptford Dockyard in England (1747)

It was during this time that Peter began to visit the Deptford Dockyard to watch the craftsmen as they worked. He is said to have enjoyed picking up tools and working alongside them and often would wear the disguise of a common shipwright as he roamed about the shipyard.

His visits were never really a secret though. Peter the Great measured at least 6’8” and would have towered over the other men on the shipyard.

PAINTING: Peter the Great at Deptford Dockyard by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870). Peter is shown here sawing a plank of wood.

Visit to Portsmouth (1698)

When Peter visited the dockyard in Portsmouth in the south of England on the English Channel, the king of England arranged for the fleet to put to sea and staged its first-ever mock battle in the Channel in his honor.

So impressed was the young tsar that he is quoted as saying that “If I were not the Russian tsar I would have wished to be an English admiral”

While in Portsmouth he is reported to have also asked to see the arrangements used for hanging sailors who had been given the death sentence. There was nobody scheduled for execution at the time, so Peter offered one of his own men for a demonstration. The offer was politely declined.

Return to Russia

When the time came for Peter to return to Russia the king of England gifted him a ship called Royal Transport, a luxuriously furnished yacht armed with 24 guns. Eager to kick-off a shipbuilding revolution in Russia upon his return, Peter also brought home a number of English naval craftsmen to help build his navy.

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