VORONEZH AND THE SOUTHERN FLEET
From the hour of his return to Moscow, Peter had longed to see his ships being built at Voronezh. Even while the tortures continued at Preobrazhenskoe, while he and his friends drank through the gloomy autumn and winter nights, the Tsar desired to be on the Don, joining the Western shipwrights whom he had recruited and who even now were beginning to work in the shipyards on the riverbank.
He had made a first visit late in October. Many of the boyars, anxious to remain in the Tsar's good graces by staying close to his person, followed him south. Prince Cherkassky, the respected elder whose beard had been spared, was left behind as prefect of Moscow, but soon discovered that his authority was not unique. Typically, Peter had confided the government not to one but several. Before leaving, he had also said to Gordon, "To you I commit everything." And to Romodanovsky, "Meanwhile I commit all my affairs to your loyalty." It was Peter's absentee government: By dividing power among and confusing all as to what power each had, they would remain in constant dissent and confusion. The system was not likely to promote efficient government in his absence, but it would prevent a single regent from ever challenging his power. With the causes of the Streltsy revolt still undetermined, this was Peter’s first consideration.
At Voronezh, in the shipyards strolling along the banks of the broad and shallow river, Peter found the carpenters sawing and hammering, and he found many problems. There were shortages and great wastage of both men and materials. In haste to comply with the Tsar’s commands, the shipwrights were using high and seasoned timber, which would rot quickly and the water. On arriving from Holland, vice Admiral Cruys inspected the vessels and ordered many hauled out to be rebuilt and strengthened. The foreign ship rights, each following his own designs without guidance are control from above, quarreled frequently. The Dutch ship rights, commanded by Peter’s orders from London to work only under the supervision of others, were sullen and sluggish. The Russian artisans were in no better mood. Summoned by decree to Voronezh to learn shipbuilding, they understood that if they showed aptitude, they would be sent to the west to perfect their skills. Accordingly, many prefer to do just enough work to get by, hoping somehow to be allowed to return home.
The worst problems and the greatest sufferings were among the masses of unskilled laborers. Thousands of men had been drafted – peasants and serfs who had never seen a belt bigger than a barge for a body of water wider than a river. They came carrying their own hatchets and axes, sometimes bringing their own forces, to cut and trend the trees and float them down the rivers to Voronezh. Living conditions were primitive, disease spread quickly and death was common. Many ran away, and eventually the shipyards had to be surrounded by a fence and guards. If caught, deserters were beaten and return to work.