вторник, 22 сентября 2009 г.

Franz Lefort

By Alexei Glukhov

There is a giant granite boulder still lying at Moscow's "German Cemetery". In the year 1699 Tsar Peter the Great ordered that the rock should be placed on the grave of his friend Franz Lefort, Swiss by nationality, Muscovite by residence and the first Russian Admiral.

Franz Lefort was buried with great pomp and fanfare with three army regiments leading the procession with lowered banners and cannons trailing behind. Slowly marching behind the funeral carriage, driven by 16 jet-black horses, were officers holding the deceased Admiral's hat, sword and spurs placed on black cushions. There was a horseman resplendent in black armor and feathers, followed by foreign ambassadors dressed in mourning attire with a nearly thousand-strong crowd of Moscow nobility trailing closely behind tо the somber beat of the drum.

The funeral procession was led by the Tsar himself followed by the first company of the elite Preobrazhensky regiment. Franz Lefort died at the relatively young age of 43 and there is not much that we know about his life, especially his younger days and the reasons why he decided to settle down in Moscow. And still, we do have something to tell you about this outstanding man.

As far as we know, Franz Lefort was born in the year 1656 in the family of a Geneva-based owner of a shop. A fairly well-educated man, he still opted for a military career later serving in the French and Dutch armies.

In a dramatic change of mind, the 19-year old officer, accompanied by his friend, Colonel Frosten, suddenly surfaced in Moscow in February 1675 only to be denied service with the Russian army. Russia was then ruled by Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, the father of the would-be Emperor Peter the Great, who was only 3 years old at the time.

After spending three fruitless years in the Russian capital, Franz Lefort was finally allowed to serve in the army as Captain, following a plea to the Russian authorities made by the Geneva legislature.

Soon the young officer learned the Russian language, got married and became a Russian citizen. Much liked by the all-powerful favorite, Prince Vasily Golitsin, he took part in two military campaigns in the Crimea and fought in the Russo-Turkish war. His close friendship with Peter the Great was a powerful boost to his military career. Historians are still divided on both the time this friendship began and the scope of Lefort’s influence on the Russian ruler. Some say it all began early in his career while others insist it happened at the very peak of the young Tsar's struggle for power with his sister, Princess Sofia. When the situation came to a head, Franz Lefort was the first foreigner to visit the Monastery of the Holy Trinity Saint Sergius Monastery where the Tsar was hiding at the time.

The historians' attitude towards the great Tsar's favorite is equally ambiguous with some of them saying he was a good advisor to the Tsar, some insisting he was a bad influence and still others denying he ever had any sway over the fiercely independent minded Peter. I personally have more faith in the Great Russian historian Sergey Solovyev who said the Tsar was very close to Franz Lefort. Hard-working and well-educated for his time, Lefort was a close aide and adviser to his patron. Sergey Solovyev described him as "a man of the world, bristling with energy, good-natured, open-hearted and likable person, a veritable heart of the society with a strong liking for organizing sumptuous feasts, so much liked by his master. Only a man like Franz Lefort could have so much influence on the young Tsar eventually becoming one of his closest friends. This influence was not so much visible in managing the сcountry’s internal affairs as it was in foreign policy matters with the all-powerful favorite prodding the young Tsar to send troops to the city of Azov join a Russian diplomatic mission abroad and allow foreigners to freely enter and leave the country."

That was a historian's view, however. Let's see how this relationship was described by the great author and connoisseur of Russian history, Alexei Tolstoy in his famous novel, Peter the Great:

“Day after day, Franz Lefort was increasingly becoming indispensable to the Tsar, just like a clever mother is to a child: he was quick on the uptake, always on his master's guard, teaching him to keep his eyes open to what was good and bad and, eventually developing a personal affection for the man he served. He was always by his patron's side, not for the sake of asking for more villages and peasants, like the boyars who were never tired of doing so, but only for the sake of promoting their common goals and eagerly sharing merry-making. Always dressed up, garrulous and good-natured, like a morning sun shining in the window, he appeared, always bowing and smiling, in Peter's bedroom filling the air with joyful expectations for the rest of the day. Peter saw in Lefort a reflection of his sweet dreams about faraway countries, beautiful cities and harbors lined up by ships and daredevil skippers all smelling of tobacco and rum — things he thought about when looking at the pictures and printed sheets brought in from other countries."

Franz Lefort played a major role in the reorganization and retraining of the Russian armed forces, largely modeled on the armies they had in the West. It all started with the so-called "funny regiments" and, when it was time for some real fighting, the Tsar's favorite was already a Major General and was later promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General.

Franz Lefort is believed to be largely behind the Tsar's decision to send troops down to the city of Azov in order to get access to the Black Sea. Of course it's an oversimplification because the decision was actually dictated by the need to economically and culturally upgrade the country and establish closer trading ties with the European countries. It so happened that, by end of the 17th century the gigantic country had no access to the Baltic and Black Seas, having neither sea ports nor ships to sail the seas. Russia had long been locked in a desperate struggle to win access to the Black Sea cutting deeper and deeper into the south. Peter's father, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, and his sister, Princess Sofia, made repeated attempts to gain access to the sea, but their military expeditions all ended in failure. At the very start of 1695, the young Tsar ordered a new campaign, later known as the First Azov Expedition. Franz Lefort was one of the commanders of the military campaign he personally inspired.

At this point I would like to make a brief recourse and tell you more about the role he played in the numerous military campaigns undertaken by Peter the Great.

It took the 30,000-strong Russian army a whole two months to reach the city of Azov that appeared where Greeks and Romans once used to settle along the Sea of Azov thousands of years ago. Between the 8th and 12th centuries A.D., the city was controlled by the Khazar Empire, and then ancient Russians took over only to cede control of the city to the nomads late in the 12th century. From the 13th century on the city became part of the Golden Horde position on the main trading route into China. In the 14th century the city became home to a host of Venetian and Genoan colonies. Destroyed by Tamerlane's hordes at the very close of the 14th century, the city rose up again rebuilt by the Genoans in a matter of only five years. At the end of the 15th century the city fell to the Turks who turned it into a formidable fortress blocking entrance to the Sea of Azov. The city was surrounded by impregnable ramparts and a wide moat with a stone-walled fortress rising 5 meters up in the air immediately behind the earthen bulwark. In front of the fortress, there were smaller fortifications built on both sides of the Don River.

Peter and his men anticipated an easy victory, but their expectations were dashed after three attempts to overrun the heavily fortified city in the summer of 1695 were all beaten back by the enemy. One reason for the failure was that each Russian commander acted on his own resulting in a hopeless lack of coordination on the part of their forces. The main problem, however, was that the besieged Turkish garrison was getting all reinforcements, food and ammunition needed by sea, while the non-possessing fleet Russians were just standing there unable to intervene. After another bungled attempt to break the enemy defenses failed in September, the Russian command decided to end the siege and beat a retreat during which many people drowned in the Don River or starved and froze to death when the ill-dressed Russian army was crossing the desert gripped by winter that struck very early that year.

Undaunted, Peter decided to make another try and, without losing time, he got down to work. The first thing was to build a navy and Voronezh, a small town lost in the southern woods, seemed to be the best choice of place for the would-be fleet…

Tsar Peter also needed the fleet to put into practice his longstanding dream of some day winning access to both the Black and Baltic Seas. The latter was then fully in the hands of Swedes… Another ambition was the Caspian Sea, so convenient for trade relations with the rich Asian countries.

In a letter addressed to his Geneva friends back in 1694, Lefort wrote that “They are talking about a trip to Kazan and Astrakhan a couple of years from now. Maybe this never happens, but, anyway, I'm always ready to do my bit. There are plans to build several warships and sail into the Baltic Sea". In that same letter, he also said they were going to elevate him to the rank of Admiral to command all His Majesty's ships. "That's the wish of our great Tsar, Pyotr Alexeyevich", he wrote.

In another letter sent in the autumn of that same year, Lefort said they were going to build five big ships and two galleys next summer and, two years later would sail, with God’s permission, down to the city of Astrakhan to sign major agreements with Persia".

Although the decision was to build the fleet in Voronezh, Moscow was also actively involved in the project with all the decisions originating there and all the resources and manpower needed for the upcoming war concentrated in the capital. While in Voronezh they were building transport ships, naval galleys were being put together at the village of Preobazhenskoye just outside Moscow. The construction of a galley shipyard and later a number of sawmills turned this once peaceful suburb into a busy workshop that was also turning out a wide array of sails, ropes and cables. The finished galley parts were then assembled at the Voronezh shipyard. Meanwhile, instructors were hard at work in Moscow training Russia's first naval crews.

Franz Lefort was working day and night both in Voronezh and in Moscow. Feeling sick, he still accompanied the Tsar on an inspection trip tо Voronezh. The character оf this man is very much evident from the letter he wrote to the Tsar shortly before they both set out on a trip to Voronezh. Here is an excerpt from the letter that was written on March 23, 1696:

"It's going to be a hell of a trip with ice-cold weather and winds blowing away, and, still I'll be on my way already next week… I'll take my medicine and, without waiting any longer, will hit the road. I hear Your Majesty is short of good beer. Stay rested, My Lord, I'm bringing some very good beer for you. We've also sent you a good deal of wood planks along with ropes and cables". Well, quite a tell-tale picture, isn't it?

By the spring of 1696 the fleet was already there comprising 2 warships, 23 galleys, 4 fire-ships all adding up to dozens of big barges, dinghies and small boats. Admiral Franz Lefort was assigned to command the fleet.

The great effort bent to build the fleet was more than compensated with the Russian troops taking the Azov stronghold in the first major victory won by the new-born Russian navy.

The capital gave a warm welcome tо the victorious Russian troops who entered the city marching under a triumphal arc, especially erected for the grand occasion. The structure was supported by the giant statues of Hercules and Mars with the figures of the enslaved Turkish warriors and the commander of thee vanquished Azov stronghold pictured underneath all bewailing the loss of the theretofore impregnable fortress.

The procession was led by the victorious Russian generals, among them Franz Lefort, all comfortably seated in carriages. It was the finest hour of his life. In one of his letters abroad, he wrote: "Never before had this city seen a ceremony like the one we had that day…" He was right. Trailing closely behind the generals' carriages was a "sailors’ caravan" led by Tsar Peter himself resplendent in jet-black German suit, a white-feathered hat and a gold-plated spear in hand. He had walked all the way from the village of Preobazhenskoye with soldiers trailing behind dragging the 16 Turkish banners captured by the victorious Russian army after the fall of the besieged Azov stronghold. The procession continued all day with soldiers, placed on both sides of the street, happily firing their guns in the air.

Six months later Peter the Great sent to Europe the so-called "great diplomatic mission" led by three high-ranking officials, among them Franz Lefort. Tsar Peter was also traveling with the mission without disclosing his true identity. The mission was charged with efforts to cement Russia's relations with a number of European countries with a view to fighting the Turks in the northern Black Sea region, recruiting foreign experts for service in Russia and purchasing arms and ammunition Russia desperately needed to continue the war. All told, as many as 250 people, including servants and security guards, had been assigned to serve on the mission. The Great Ambassadors worked day and night to ensure the mission's success, especially in Holland and Britain. From Vienna Peter was going to make a trip to Venice, but, learning about a military revolt in Moscow, he urgently returned to Russia. Shortly after the successful crushing of the Moscow revolt, Franz Lefort died on Mach 2, 1699.

Lefort's magnificent palace has lived up to these days.

Surrounded by the so-called Lefortovsky Park, the palace can still be seen overlooking the Yauza River. The place, one of the most attractive in Moscow, is still called Lefortovo while the palace itself is an architectural masterpiece artfully executed in the tradition of the so-called Moscow baroque style.

Shortly before his death, Peter the Great was going to erect a monument commemorating his friend and comrade-in-arms who spent most of his life selflessly serving the interests of this country. For some reason, the monument was never erected, but the name of this outstanding man has forever gone down in the history of Moscow and Russia.

Source:The Voice of Russia

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