Peter the Great

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

During the reign of Peter I, 1689-1725, the gathering forces of change, modernism, and the movement to European ways in culture and technology were given direction and impetus under the great Czar. The clash of the traditional and the Western factors in Russia’s political and social life left a lasting imprint on its development as a nation; that many of the innovations introduced under Peter’s rule were promoted under conditions often of civil unrest and of almost continuous war further underscored the elements of upheaval during this period that signaled overall a change in the course of Russian history. As portrayed by Robert K. Massie, the life and times of Peter the Great are unfolded as a vast and panoramic narrative, an evocation of the man and his world within the many spheres of activity by which Peter and his associates effected the transformation of Russia. In a work of history on a direct human level, many of the leading personalities, soldiers, administrators, and heads of state are portrayed within the encompassing perspective of the great Czar. As befits the outsized, larger-than-life figure of Peter himself, Massie’s work is very long, yet inspired by the relentless energy and attention, both to the Russian land and people, and to European capitals and battlefields, that were characteristic of the Russian ruler himself.

The beauty and also the brutality of old Russia are presented at the outset: the Kremlin and the splendid churches of Moscow take their place beside Massie’s description of the seclusion of women and the punishment of civil and criminal offenders. As yet, Russia remained a distant outpost on the borders of the Western world. From his early years, Peter had chafed at the rigid, tradition-bound ways of old Muscovy; while still young, he had witnessed the violence and horror of a revolt of the strel’tsy (old guard musketeers). Quite unabashedly, he had sought the company of craftsmen and soldiers in the foreign suburb outside the capital. There he found some of his earliest friends, among such older, hardened military men as Patrick Gordon, a Scotsman, and the Swiss Franz LeFort. With their assistance, he proceeded with the formation of army units in the European style; in their company he indulged in those epic drunken entertainments that so frequently were to provide diversion from his labors. He had a characteristic penchant for personal initiative and for work with his own hands; he cut timber for ships and in person led his troops under enemy fire during the first of his campaigns, against the Turks at Azov in 1695-1696.

The first Czar to travel outside his own country, Peter’s great embassy of 1697-1698 furnished the opportunity for first-hand study of shipyards and laboratories. Notwithstanding some destructive excesses, when their hosts were appalled by the antics of the exuberant Russians, Peter was able to converse with churchmen and heads of state. In Holland and England, skilled workers were recruited for service in Russia. His return to Moscow rendered the more urgent by a revolt of the strel’tsy, Peter exacted a fearful retribution; the interrogations, torture, and public executions are described by Massie in grim detail. His authority within Russia unchallenged, Peter embarked on that series of military ventures that incontrovertibly were to establish Russia’s status as a great power, during the Great Northern War of 1700-1721.

One of the features that adds a certain depth to Massie’s work—which in some places, however, amounts to digression—is the extent to which other lands and rulers are portrayed. Here, after a brief disquisition on eighteenth century methods of warfare, Sweden and its young ruler are depicted in some detail. Charles XII, the brilliant, impulsive, headstrong King who was to be the leading rival of Peter the Great, at first was able to defeat the Russians with ease. As the war continued Russian forces gained in training combat experience. Undeterred, Charles allowed himself to be lured deep into his opponent’s territory; even with the defection of his trusted hetman, Ivan Mazeppa, Peter subdued rebellious Cossacks and left a trail of scorched earth before the oncoming Swedes. Particularly sharply drawn is the climactic Battle of Poltava (1709), where Massie succeeds in evoking something of the dust and weariness, the hardships of long, forced marches, the smoke and blood, and the gallantry and suffering of...

(The entire section is 1815 words.)