I once read a story (about why one should not be rude to strangers or rude in general) in a local magazine that, once Tsar Peter I asked about directions from a Sergeant. Sergeant (not knowing whom he was talking to) rudely answered. Tsar asked that what did he do for living to which Sergeant replied that he's in the army. Tsar asked whether he was a soldier, "Go up", sergeant replied. And after two to or three "going ups", sergeant said yes. Out of curiosity he asked Tsar what did he do for a living. "I'm also in the army." Tsar replied. "Soldier?", "Go up!". And after going up about some 10-15 times and finally above General the sergeant started crying and begged mercy from the Tsar, for he had been rude.

My question is, is this story true? And if it is, can someone please share the source?

  • It's unlikely to be from Tolstoy as we very rude about the Tsar in a novel of his I once looked at - I forget which though. Jun 8, 2019 at 7:40
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    This story belongs to the specific genre: "(Russian) Historical Anectodes". The genre became quite popular in the second half of XVIII century and there're like thousands of curious/didactic/just-fun stories about famous persons of aprox. Peter I and later times (but not just tsars). It's quite difficult to trace to the roots of each specific story (many Russian writers collected and narrate the stories, but most of this is basically a folklore with "no author"). Is this story true - No, just as any folklore, such stories may have some basis but should never be perceived literally. Jun 8, 2019 at 9:06

2 Answers 2


I note that Peter the Great was very tall - 6 feet 8 inches - and so unlikely to be mistaken for some random stranger.

There are many stories about important people being mistaken for less important people.

For example, in one story Joseph II, Emperor of the Romans 1765-1790, was travelling incognito, possibly in France, and was asked to be a witness at a baptism. And he filled out the spaces in the baptismal registration form. Personal name "Joseph", surname "The Second", occupation "Emperor".

William T. Sherman was the commanding general of the United States Army from 1869 to 1883. He usually made his headquarters in St. Louis instead of Washington, DC, and made many inspection trip in the west. Sherman usually dressed very shabbily. According to one story, Sherman saw a soldier brutally beating a mule and told him to stop. The soldier kept on beating the mule. Sherman asked if the soldier knew who he was. The soldier said something like "Don't try that with me. Every bum claims he's General Sherman."

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    There is a ring of truth in that Peter the Great liked to attempt to go incognito. This often failed because, as you note, he was easy to recognize
    – user15620
    Jun 8, 2019 at 20:47
  • (Not saying it happened, just that this is one of those probably false anecdotes that covers an underlying truth the way Sherman's does.)
    – user15620
    Jun 8, 2019 at 20:53

The anecdote contains an anachronism. It alludes to two major events of Peter's reign separated by more twenty years, his supposedly incognito Grand Embassy (1697-8) and his Table of Ranks (1722). Taking this story at face value, the episode could have occurred at the very end of Peter's life after the new ranks were well-known.

Perhaps, but I'd wager that Peter did not get lost on any incognito countryside walks in his old age.


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