CHARLES XII.—NARVA—ST. PETERSBURG
The Baltic was at this time a Swedish sea. Finland, Livonia, and all the territory on the eastern coast, where once the Russians and the German knights had struggled, was now under the sovereignty of an inexperienced young king who had just ascended the throne of his father Charles XI., King of Sweden. If Peter ever “opened a window” into the West, it must be done by first breaking through this Swedish wall. Livonia was deeply aggrieved just now because of some oppressive measures against her, and her astute minister, Patkul, suggested to the King of Poland that he form a coalition between that kingdom, Denmark, and Russia for the purpose of breaking the aggressive Scandinavian power in the North. The time was favorable, with disturbed conditions in Sweden, and a youth of eighteen without experience upon the throne. The Tsar, who had recently returned from abroad and had settled matters with his Streltsui in Moscow, saw in this enterprise just the opportunity he desired, and joined the coalition.
At the Battle of Narva (1700) there were two surprises: one when Peter found that he knew almost nothing about the art of warfare, and the other when it was revealed to Charles XII. that he was a military genius and his natural vocation was that of a conqueror. But if Charles was intoxicated by his enormous success, Peter accepted his humiliating defeat almost gratefully as a harsh lesson in military art. The sacrifice of men had been terrible, but the lesson was not lost. The next year there were small Russian victories, and these crept nearer and nearer to the Baltic, until at last the river upon which the great Nevski won his surname was reached—and the Neva was his! Peter lost no time. He personally superintended the building of a fort and then a church which were to be the nucleus of a city; and there may be seen in St. Petersburg to-day the little hut in which lived the Tsar while he was founding the capital which bears his name (1703). No wonder it seemed a wild project to build the capital of an empire, not only on its frontier, but upon low marshy ground subject to the encroachments of the sea from which it had only half emerged; and in a latitude where for two months of the year the twilight and the dawn meet and there is no night, and where for two other months the sun rises after nine in the morning and sets before three. Not only must he build a city, but create the dry land for it to stand upon; and it is said that six hundred acres have been reclaimed from the sea at St. Petersburg since it was founded.