Peter the Great: Emperor of All Russia

By Ian Grey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVI
The Voronezh Fleet 1698-1699

PETER found Voronezh transformed from a small town into a sprawling shipbuilding centre. All along the river banks, shipyards bustled with activity. Shipwrights, captains, and seamen of other nations busily directed and helped with the work. Twenty ships had already been launched, and the storehouses were filled with naval supplies. Nevertheless Voronezh had many problems.

Protasyev, appointed in charge of shipbuilding, had written often to Peter in Holland and England, explaining his difficulties and seeking instructions. Suitable timber had proved hard to find, although the surrounding forests had been carefully surveyed. The various foreign shipwrights followed their own national designs, which differed considerably, and so they quarrelled among themselves. Peter's orders that Dutch shipwrights were to work under supervision had given rise to further confusion. The Russian administration was grossly inefficient.

It was shortage of labour, however, that had become the shipyards' chief problem. Hundreds of peasants had fled, and sickness had reduced the numbers of those who remained. At times the labour corps had fallen to a mere half the size needed. Not even harsh punishments could deter the peasants from flight; corruption, so deeply ingrained in Russian officialdom, had aggravated this problem, for many officials took bribes from peasants to allow them to flee.

In spite of all these troubles, however, work had progressed and, as he made his first hasty inspection, Peter was pleased. But his pleasure soon gave way to despondency, because on closer examination, many

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