What then was Peter to do? He must work on, increase his resources, and add to his experience.
Continuing The Battle of Poltava,
our selection from Peter the Great by Kazimierz Waliszewski published in 1898. The selection is presented in eight easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Battle of Poltava.
Place: Poltava. Central Ukraine
Meanwhile Charles XII tarried in Poland, where Augustus’ affairs were going from bad to worse. A diet convened at Warsaw in February, 1704, proclaimed his downfall. After the disappearance of James Sobieski, whose candidature was put a stop to by an ambuscade, into which the dethroned King lured the son of the deliverer of Vienna, Charles, who was all-powerful, put forward that of Stanislaus Lesczynski. Though he gave little thought just then to Russia and to the Russian sovereign, the Czar was beginning to be alarmed as to the consequences which the Swedish King’s position in Poland and in Saxony might entail on himself. Charles was sure to end by retracing his steps, and an encounter between Sheremetief and Loewenhaupt, at Hemauerthorf in Courland (July 15, 1705), clearly proved that the Russian army, unless in the case of disproportionate numerical superiority over the enemy, was not yet capable of resisting well-commanded Swedish troops. On this occasion Sheremetief lost all his infantry and was himself severely wounded.
What then was Peter to do? He must work on, increase his resources, and add to his experience. If Sheremetief and his likes proved unequal to their task, he must find foreign generals and instructors, technical and other; he must keep patience, he must avoid all perilous encounters, he must negotiate, and try to obtain peace, even at the price of parting with some of the territory he had conquered. The years between 1705 and 1707 were busy ones for him.
A treaty of peace among his enemies took him by surprise and found him quite unprepared. He soon made good his mistakes, took a swift decision, and adopted the course which was infallibly to bring him final victory. He evacuated Poland, retired backward, and, pushing forward the preparations which Charles’ long stay in Saxony had permitted him to carry on with great activity, he resolved that the battle should be fought on his ground, and at his chosen time. He took fresh patience, he resolved to wait, to wear out his adversary, to draw back steadily and leave nothing but a void behind him. Thus he would force the enemy to advance across the desert plains he had deliberately devastated, and run the terrible risk, which had always driven back the ancient foes of his country, whether Turks, Tartars, or Poles — a winter sojourn in the heart of Russia. This was to be the final round of the great fight. The Czar, as he expressed it, was to set ten Russians against every Swede, and time and space and cold and hunger were to be his backers.
Charles, the most taciturn general who ever lived, never revealed the secret inspiration which drove him to play his adversary’s game, by marching afresh on Grodno. During 1707 he seemed to give the law to Europe, from his camp in Saxony. France, which had been vanquished at Blenheim and Ramillies, turned a pleading glance toward him, and the leader of the victorious allies, Marlborough himself, solicited his help.
Charles may have had an idea of making Grodno his base for a spring attack on the Czar’s new conquests in the North. This supposition would seem to have been the one accepted by Peter, if we may judge by the orders given, just at this time, to insure the safety of Livonia and Ingria, by completing their devastation; and these very orders may have induced the King of Sweden to abandon his original design, in favor of another, the wisdom of which is still contested by experts, but which, it cannot be denied, was of noble proportions. Charles, too, had found an ally to set against those natural ones with which Russia had furnished the Czar, and he had found him within the borders of the Czar’s country. The name of this ally was Mazeppa.
The stormy career of the famous hetman, so dramatic, both from the historic and domestic point of view — from that adventure with the pan Falbowski, so naively related by Pasek, down to the romance with Matrena Kotchoubey, which colored the last and tragic incidents of his existence — is so well known that I will not narrate it here, even in the concisest form. Little Russia was then passing through a painful crisis — the consequence of Shmielnicki’s efforts at emancipation, which had been warped and perverted by Russian intervention. The Polish lords, who formerly oppressed the country, had been replaced by the Cossacks, who not only ground down the native population, but railed at and quarreled with their own chief. The hetmans and the irregular troops were at open war, the first striving to increase their authority and make their power hereditary, the others defending their ancient democratic constitution.
The Swedish war increased Mazeppa’s difficulties. He found himself taken at a disadvantage between the claims of the Czar, who would fain have his Cossacks on every battle-field in Poland, Russia, and Livonia, and the resistance of the Cossacks themselves, who desired to remain in their own country. Being himself of noble Polish birth, brought up by the Jesuits, having served King John Casimir of Poland, and sworn allegiance to the Sultan, he saw no reason for sacrificing his interests, much less his life, for Peter’s benefit. The approach of Charles XII made him fear he might, like his predecessor Nalevaiko, be deserted by his own followers, and given up to the Poles.
The appearance of Charles on the Russian frontier forced him to a definite resolution, and, in the spring of 1708, his emissaries appeared at Radoshkovitse, southeast of Grodno, where Charles had established his head-quarters. The King of Sweden’s idea, at that decisive moment, would seem to have been to take advantage of the hetman’s friendly inclination, to find his way into the heart of Russia, using the rich Southern Provinces as his base, to stir up, with Mazeppa’s help, the Don Cossacks, the Astrakhan Tartars, and, it may have been, the Turks themselves, and thus attack the Muscovite power in the rear. Then Peter would have been forced back upon his last entrenchments, at Moscow or elsewhere, while General Luebecker, who was in Finland with fourteen thousand men, fell on Ingria and on St. Petersburg, and Leszcynski’s Polish partisans, with General Krassow’s Swedes, held Poland.
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