Fire and Water

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The metaphorical evocation of Peter the Great as implied in the title refers to the great Czar’s martial inclinations, for the fire of infantry combat and the blue water on which he established his fleet; “firewater,” strong drink in the company of laborers and military men, provided further inspiration for Peter’s efforts. Alex de Jonge’s history of Peter’s reign, while also an effort at interpretation, is a sprightly, rather pointed, and closely knit work. Rather impressionistic in places, it is withal a well-constructed narrative that moves in turn from the stormy, boisterous adolescence of the young ruler through the wars and crises that marked the formative periods of Peter’s reign.

A point to be emphasized at the outset is the distance, in terms of scientific and cultural development, between Russia and the West at the close of the seventeenth century. Russia was without a literary language, without cognizance of the science of Isaac Newton, without that sense of legal and historical legitimacy that buttressed the political structure of the leading Western states. Old Muscovy, in many ways still rude and barbarous, could not but arouse the impatient antipathy of young Peter; moreover, one czar had been overthrown by the old style musketeers (strel’tsy) and Peter’s own political position was the more insecure. Peter had little formal education and much of what he knew of the world was learned at first hand from rough-and-ready observation. Indeed, after his early encounters with the strel’tsy, he spent much of his time away from the capital and in the company of foreign artisans and soldiers. He occupied himself in part with active labor and partly with carousing; he experimented with Western military techniques, and with some alacrity, he accompanied the army to the Turkish fortress of Azov, where he came under enemy fire for the first time. Here after protracted siege operations, Peter in 1696 won the first victory of his reign.

Major breaks with the past were signaled by Peter’s great embassy to Western Europe and by the destruction of the strel’tsy, in 1697 and 1698. The themes of Peter’s readiness to grasp those Western methods of particular utility to him and that violent impulse that lay beneath his efforts at work or play are developed in a series of anecdotes on those events that initially shaped the form of rule he adopted. In the process, de Jonge points to the leitmotifs of water and fire that ran through Peter’s life. In Europe, Peter concerned himself not only with the alliance proposals he brought with him, but also took it upon himself to investigate European naval science at first hand. The harbors and dockyards of Amsterdam and London fascinated him. Sometimes incognito, he particularly liked to mingle with Dutch sailors and craftsmen, or to apply his hand to navigation and shipbuilding. Violent antics, such as the willful ravage of Peter’s great house in London, are duly recorded.

This curious venture in foreign policy did not sway the Western nations in Russia’s favor, and it was cut short by a more urgent concern, the threatened conflagration to which Peter reacted on his return to Moscow. He responded to a revolt of the strel’tsy with the gunfire of his own loyal troops. In the suppression of the strel’tsy, Peter displayed that determination to root out opposition and crush it by physical force so often seen in Russian and indeed Soviet leaders. In addition to supervising the torture and execution of the musketeers, Peter also made use of the Preobrazhenskii office, which was charged with the investigation of acts by word or deed against the sovereign. It was a fateful precedent for the forms of political surveillance and control also employed by subsequent regimes. Rather less ominous, but indicative as well of the direct means by which Peter sought to enforce his notions of Westernism, were the episodes in which the Czar, in person, took scissors to the beards of leading Muscovites, to promote forcibly the European practice of shaving.

De Jonge’s account of the Great Northern War of 1700-1721, against Sweden, is somewhat brief, in places almost cursory; he does point to the stages by which the Russian army, badly defeated at the outset, came to grasp the art of war under fire, by hard experience against a trained and disciplined foe. The Swedes did, in any event, attempt to press too far: by invading Russia, and by diverting his march far to the South, Charles XII had left himself the more vulnerable to his opponent and to the difficult conditions of warfare in the barren steppeland of the Ukraine. Nevertheless, de Jonge assigns due credit for Russia’s victory at the decisive Battle of Poltava (1709) to Peter’s tactics and to his untiring efforts to bring his troops up to Western standards. Also impressive, if they could be called that, were the harshness with which Peter had suppressed rebellions of the Cossacks and frontier peoples, and the ruthless severity with which he had devastated his own country, to deprive the invader of provisions.

Victory over Sweden allowed Peter to maintain his hold upon the...

(The entire section is 2115 words.)