It was a source of mortification to the tzar that he was dependent upon foreigners for the construction of his ships. He accordingly sent sixty young Russians to the sea-ports of Venice and Leghorn, in Italy, to acquire the art of ship-building, and to learn scientific and practical navigation. Soon after this he sent forty more to Holland for the same purpose. He sent also a large number of young men to Germany, to learn the military discipline of that warlike people.
He now adopted the extraordinary resolve of traveling himself, incognito, through most of the countries of Europe, that he might see how they were governed, and might become acquainted with the progress they had made in the arts and sciences. In this European tour he decided to omit Spain, because the arts there were but little cultivated, and France, because he disliked the pompous ceremonials of the court of Louis XIV. His plan of travel was as ingenuous as it was odd. An extraordinary embassage was sent by him, as Emperor of Russia, to all the leading courts of Europe. These embassadors received minute instructions, and were fitted out for their expedition with splendor which should add to the renown of the Russian monarchy. Peter followed in the retinue of this embassage as a private gentleman of wealth, with the servants suitable for his station.
Three nobles of the highest dignity were selected as embassadors. Their retinue consisted of four secretaries, twelve gentlemen, two pages for each embassador, and a company of fifty of the royal guard. The whole embassage embraced two hundred persons. The tzar was lost to view in this crowd. He reserved for himself one valet de chambre, one servant in livery, and a dwarf. “It was,” says Voltaire, “a thing unparalleled in history, either ancient or modern, for a sovereign, of five and twenty years of age, to withdraw from his kingdoms, only to learn the art of government.” The regency, during his absence, was entrusted to two of the lords in whom he reposed confidence, who were to consult, in cases of importance, with the rest of the nobility. General Gordon, the Scotch officer, was placed in command of four thousand of the royal troops, to secure the peace of the capital.
The embassadors commenced their journey in April, 1697. Passing directly west from Moscow to Novgorod, they thence traversed the province of Livonia until they reached Riga, at the mouth of the Dwina. Peter was anxious to examine the important fortifications of this place, but the governor peremptorily forbade it, Riga then belonging to Sweden. Peter did not forget the affront. Continuing their journey, they arrived at Konigsburg, the capital of the feeble electorate of Brandenburg, which has since grown into the kingdom of Prussia. The elector, an ambitious man, who subsequently took the title of king, received them with an extravagant display of splendor. At one of the bacchanalian feasts, given on the occasion, the bad and good qualities of Peter were very conspicuously displayed. Heated with wine, and provoked by a remark made by La Fort, who was one of his embassadors, he drew his sword and called upon La Fort to defend himself. The embassador humbly bowed, folded his hands upon his breast, and said,