Peter the Great’s Southern Fleet

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By spring 1699, the fleet was ready. Eighty-six ships of all sizes, including eighteen sea-going men-of-war carrying from thirty-six to forty-six guns were in the water. In addition, 500 barges had been built for carrying men, provisions, ammunition and powder. On May 7, 1699, this fleet left Voronezh and the villagers along the Don saw a remarkable sight: a fleet of full-rigged ships sailing past them down the river. Admiral Golovin was in nominal command, with Vice Admiral Cruys in actual command of the fleet. Peter took the role of captain of the forty-four-gun frigate Apostle Peter.

One day as the long procession of ships moved downriver, Peter saw a group of men on the bank preparing to cook some tortoises for dinner. To most Russians, eating tortoise was a repugnant idea, but Peter, ever curious, asked for some for his own table. His comrades dining with him tasted the new dish, not knowing what it was. Thinking it was young chicken and liking it, they finished what was on their plates, whereupon Peter ordered his servant to bring in the “feathers” of these chickens. When they saw the tortoise shells, most of the Russians laughed at themselves; two were sick.

On arriving at Azov on May 24, Peter anchored his fleet in the river and went ashore to inspect the new fortifications. There was no doubt that they were needed: Again that spring, a horde of Crimean Tatars had swept eastward across the southern Ukraine, approaching Azov itself, burning, raiding, leaving behind desolate fields, charred farms, villages in ashes and the population stricken and fleeing. Satisfied with the new defensive works, Peter moved on to visit Tagonrog, where dredging and construction were under way for the new naval base. When the ships had assembled there, Peter took them to sea, where they began to drill in signaling, gunnery and ship-handling. Through most of July the maneuvers continued, culminating in a mock sea battle of the sort Peter had witnessed on the Ij in Holland.

The fleet was ready, and now Peter faced the problem of what to do with it. It had been built for war with Turkey, to force a passage onto the Black Sea and to contest the right of the Turks to control that sea as a private lake. But the situation had changed. Prokofy Voznitsyn, an experienced diplomat, had remained in Vienna to salvage what he could for Russia from the negotiations which the allied powers, Austria, Poland, Venice and Russia, were about to begin with the partially defeated Turks. The problem was that, as the peace treaty would probably only confirm surrender of those territories actually occupied, Peter wanted the war to continue, at least for a while. It was, in fact, in order to press the war and seize Kerch, achieving entry onto the Black Sea, that he had labored so hard all winter to build his fleet.

When the peace congress finally met at Carlowitz, near Vienna, Voznitsyn urged the allied emissaries not to make peace until all of Russia’s objectives were met. But the weight of other national interests was against him. The Austrians already stood to regain all of Transylvania and most of Hungary. Venice was to keep its conquests in Dalmatia and the Aegean, and Poland would keep certain territories north of the Carpathians. The English ambassador in Constantinople, instructed to do everything possible to broker a peace and free Austria for the impending contest with France, persuaded the weary Turks to be generous; grudgingly, the Turks agreed to cede Azov to Russia, but refused absolutely to yield any territory not actually conquered, such as Kerch. Voznitsyn, isolated from his allies, could do nothing except refuse to sign the general treaty. Knowing that Peter was unready to attack the Turks on his own, he proposed instead a two-year truce, during which time the Tsar could prepare for more extensive offensive operations. The Turks agreed, and Voznitsyn wrote to Peter suggesting that the time also be used to send an ambassador directly to Constantinople to see whether Russia might gain by negotiation what she had so far failed to gain—and seemed uncertain of gaining in the future—by war.

All this happened during the winter of 1698–1699 while Peter was building his fleet at Voronezh. Now, with the fleet ready at Tagonrog and yet with the new Turkish truce making active use of it impossible, Peter decided to accept Voznitsyn’s suggestion. He appointed a special ambassador, Emilian Ukraintsev, the white-haired chief of the Foreign Ministry, to go to Constantinople to discuss a permanent treaty of peace. There was even in this plan a role for the new fleet: It would escort the Ambassador as far as Kerch, from where he would sail to the Turkish capital in the biggest and proudest of Peter’s new ships.

On August 5, twelve large Russian ships, all commanded by foreigners except the frigate whose skipper was Captain Peter Mikhailov, sailed from Tagonrog for the Strait of Kerch. The Turkish pasha commanding the fortress whose cannon dominated the strait which linked the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea was taken unawares. One day, he heard the salvos of Peter’s saluting cannon and rushed to his parapet to see a Russian naval squadron on his doorstep. Peter’s request was that a single Russian warship, the forty-six-gun frigate Krepost (Fortress), be allowed to pass through the strait bearing his ambassador to Constantinople. The pasha at first un-muzzled his guns and refused, saying that he had no orders from his capital. Peter riposted by threatening to break through by force if necessary, and his men-of-war were joined by galleys, brigantines and barges carrying soldiers. After ten days, the pasha consented, insisting that the Russian frigate submit to an escort of four Turkish ships. The Tsar withdrew, and the Krepost sailed through the strait. Once on the Black Sea, her Dutch captain, Van Pamburg, put on all sail and soon left his Turkish escort behind the horizon.

The moment was historic: For the first time, a Russian warship, bearing the banner of the Muscovite Tsar, was sailing alone and free on the Sultan’s private lake. At sundown on September 13 when the Russian man-of-war appeared at the mouth of the Bosphorus, Constantinople was surprised and shaken. The Sultan reacted with dignity. He sent a message of welcome and congratulations and dispatched caiques to bring Ukraintsev and his party ashore. The Ambassador, however, refused to leave the ship and demanded that it be permitted to sail up the Bosphorus and carry him directly into the city. The Sultan bowed and the Russian warship moved up the Bosphorus, finally anchoring in the Golden Horn directly in front of the Sultan’s palace on Seraglio Point in full view of the Elect of God. For nine centuries, since the middle days of the great Christian empire of Byzantium, no Russian ship had anchored beneath those walls.

The Turks, staring out at the Krepost, were disquieted not only by the appearance but also by the size of the Russian ship—they could not understand how so large a vessel could have been built in the shallow Don—but were calmed to some extent by their naval architects, who pointed out that the vessel must be very flat-bottomed and would therefore be unstable as a gun platform in the open sea.

Ukraintsev was handsomely treated. A number of high officials waited at the dock when he came ashore, a splendid horse was provided for him and he was escorted to a luxurious seaside guest villa. Thereafter, in accordance with Peter’s orders to display to the fullest Russia’s new naval capacity, the Krepost was opened to visitors. Hundreds of boats came alongside and crowds of people of all classes swarmed aboard. The culmination was a visit by the Sultan himself, who, with an escort of Ottoman captains, inspected the ship in great detail.

The visit went peacefully, although Van Pamburg, the exuberant Dutch captain, once almost brought ruin on himself and the larger diplomatic mission. He was entertaining Dutch and French acquaintances on board and kept them until after midnight. Then, as he sent them ashore, he decided to salute them by firing all forty-six of his guns with powder but no shot. The cannonade directly beneath the walls of the palace awakened the whole city, including the Sultan, who thought it must be a signal for a Russian fleet to attack the city from the sea. The following morning, the angry Turkish authorities ordered the frigate seized and the captain arrested, but Van Pamburg threatened to blow up his ship when the first Turkish soldier set foot on it. Subsequently, with apologies and promises not to repeat the offense, the incident was smoothed over.

Meanwhile, however, the Turks were in no hurry to accommodate Ukraintsev. Not until November, three months after the Russian envoy’s arrival in Constantinople, did they even consent to open negotiations. Thereafter, Ukraintsev held twenty-three meetings with his Ottoman counterparts until in June 1700 a compromise of sorts was reached. In the beginning, Peter’s hopes had been ambitious. He demanded the right to keep Azov and the fortresses captured on the lower Dnieper, all already in his possession by conquest. He asked permission to sail Russian commercial (but not war) vessels on the Black Sea. He asked the Sultan to forbid the Crimean Khan to make further raids into the Ukraine, and to cancel the Khan’s right to ask for annual tribute from Moscow. Finally, he asked that a Russian ambassador be permanently accredited to the Porte, as Britain, France and other powers were so represented, and that Orthodox churchmen have special privileges at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

For months, the Turks gave no definitive answers as wrangling, disputes and delays arose over even the smallest details of the proposed agreement. Ukraintsev sensed that the other diplomatic representatives in Constantinople—those of Austria, Venice and England as well as France—were determined to impede his mission in order to prevent Russia and the Ottoman Empire from becoming too intimate. “I get no sort of assistance and not even any information from the Emperor or from Venice,” Ukraintsev complained in a report to Peter. “The English and Dutch ministers range themselves beside the Turks and have better intentions toward them than they have toward you, Sire. They hate you and envy you because you have begun to build ships and have inaugurated navigation at Azov as well as at Archangel. They fear this will hamper their maritime trade.” The Tatar Khan of the Crimea was even more anxious to prevent an agreement. “The Tsar,” he wrote to his master, the Sultan, “is destroying the old customs and faith of his people. He is altering everything according to German methods and is creating a powerful army and fleet, thereby annoying everyone. Sooner or later he will perish at the hands of his own subjects.”

On one point the Turks were adamant and needed no bolstering from West European ambassadors or Tatar chieftains: They refused absolutely Peter’s demand that Russian ships of any kind be allowed access to the Black Sea. “The Black Sea and its coasts are ruled by the Ottoman Sultan alone,” they told Ukraintsev. “From time immemorial no foreign ship has sailed its waters, nor ever will sail them.… The Ottoman Porte guards the Black Sea like a pure and undefiled virgin which no one dares to touch, and the Sultan will sooner permit outsiders to enter his harem than consent to the sailing of foreign vessels on the Black Sea.” In the end, Turkish resistance proved too strong. Although generally defeated in the war, the Turks now faced only a single enemy, Russia, and they could not be forced to give up more than they had already lost in battle. Peter, too, was anxious to conclude the negotiations, as he had more tempting prospects to the north in the Baltic. The agreement, called the Treaty of Constantinople, was not a treaty of peace but a thirty-year truce which abandoned no claims, left all questions open and assumed that on expiration, unless it was renewed, the war would begin again.

The terms were a compromise. Territorially, Russia was allowed to keep Azov and a band of territory to the distance of ten days’ journey from its walls. On the other hand, the forts on the lower Dnieper, seized from the Turks, were to be razed, and the land returned to Turkish possession. A zone of unpopulated, supposedly demilitarized land was to stretch across the Ukraine from east to west, separating the lands of the Crimean Tatars from Peter’s domain. The demand for Kerch and access to the Black Sea had previously been dropped by the Russians.

In the non-territorial clauses, Ukraintsev was more successful. The Turks promised informally to assist Orthodox Christians in their access to Jerusalem. Peter’s refusal to pay further tribute to the Tatar Khan was formally accepted. This infuriated the incumbent Khan, Devlet Gerey, but the ancient aggravation was finally ended and never reintroduced, even after the disaster that befell Peter eleven years later on the Pruth. Finally, Ukraintsev secured for Russia what Peter considered a major concession: the right to keep a permanent ambassador at Constantinople on equal footing with England, Holland, Austria and France. This was an important step in Peter’s drive to have Russia recognized as a major European power, and Ukraintsev himself remained on the Bosphorus to become the Tsar’s first permanent ambassador to a foreign power.

Ironically, the signing of a thirty-year truce with Turkey largely negated the great effort which had gone into the fleet built at Voronezh. Long before the thirty years had passed, the crews would have been dispersed and the timbers of the ships rotted away. At the time, of course, in Peter’s mind the truce was only a postponement. Although his primary attention was beginning to turn to the Great Northern War with Sweden, the projects in the south, at Voronezh, Azov and Tagonrog, only slowed and did not come to a halt. Never in his lifetime did Peter give up the idea of an eventual thrust out onto the Black Sea; indeed, to the anger and despair of the Turks, the shipbuilding at Voronezh continued, new ships sailed down to Tagonrog and the walls of Azov grew higher.

As it happened, Peter’s fleet was never used in battle and Azov’s walls were never attacked. The fate of ships and city was decided not in a battle at sea, as Peter had hoped, but by the struggle of armies hundreds of miles to the west. And in this struggle, the ships did serve their master. When Charles XII, invading deep into Russia, bid for a Turkish alliance in the months before Poltava, the fleet at Tagonrog was one of Peter’s strongest cards in persuading the Turks and Tatars not to intervene. In those critical months in the spring of 1709, Peter urgently strengthened the fleet and doubled the number of troops at Azov. In May, two months before the climactic battle at Poltava, he went himself to Azov and Tagonrog and maneuvered his fleet before a Turkish envoy. The Sultan, impressed by his envoy’s report, forbade Devlet Gerey, the Tatar Khan, to take his thousands of Tatar horsemen to Charles’ side. This effect of the Voronezh fleet alone justified all the effort expended on it.

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