Peter the Great

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1815

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...

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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 this epic struggle and crowning victory of Peter’s career.

Thenceforth, with Russia’s military fortunes in the ascendant, the scope of Russia’s operations was dramatically expanded. Although an impetuous foray into the Balkans, against the Ottoman Turks, was turned back in 1711, Peter turned again to the Northern War. Here Massie, in continuing his narrative of this conflict, discusses at some length engagements often reviewed in outline elsewhere. In pursuit of the Swedes, Russian forces were deployed across the Baltic coast of Germany, and against Finland; for the first time the fleet built under Peter’s supervision successfully engaged the Swedish navy. As a result Peter and his Russia had become the more highly regarded in Europe; a second round of visits to the Western countries, to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, across Germany, and to Paris, afforded a grand view of the European capitals. For a sojourn of some time at the French court during the regency of Louis XV, Massie provides a number of glimpses of the social and cultural life of France. In the process, Peter’s conviction of the utility of Western art and learning was upheld.

On his return, Peter had to deal with the errant ways of his son Aleksei, to whom he feared to entrust the throne lest the reforms of his reign, and the military strength he had brought Russia, be abandoned. The contrast between the violent, indomitable energy and will of the great Czar, and the timid, reflective demeanor of Aleksei, sharply drawn and at some length by Massie, culminated in the most tragic—and frightful—episode of Peter’s reign. Aleksei fled across Europe, was captured by Peter’s agents, and was brought back to St. Petersburg to be interrogated by his father. When he ordered Aleksei beaten, and the young man collapsed and died, Peter felt little remorse for having sacrificed his son for reasons of state.

When on another front, Charles XII, ever in quest of new danger and conflict, was killed while on a campaign against Denmark (1718), a successful conclusion to the Northern War was in sight. During the later years of his reign, indeed until his death early in 1725, Peter often turned to questions of administration and finance, as well as matters of science and education, where his initial efforts previously had been distracted by wartime exigencies. On issues of this sort, however, Massie is inclined to consider the personal factor in Russian government, to relate some of the anecdotes associated with the great Czar and his colorful, if sometimes less public-spirited officials. Some of the figures sketched in this regard do command interest. The man closest to Peter, who from humble origins attained great wealth and influence, was Prince Aleksandr Menshikov; overbearing and self-interested, he adroitly managed somehow never to lose the Czar’s favor. Prince Iakov Dolgorukii, the firm and upright First Senator, attended to legislative consultation within the government. In a domestic context Peter’s wife, Catherine, an unlettered peasant girl possessing a certain shrewdness regarding her own concerns, but also a unique ability to instill calm in his tempestuous nature, frequently provided some comfort and solicitude for the Czar.

As for Peter himself, Massie does capture much of the essence of the man. Many episodes illustrate the inner drive which determined that he be ever active, and his zest for physical labor, as well as that practical bent by which Peter measured the utility of any new device or proposal he encountered. In a lighter vein, Peter was also fond of good company, and he could yield himself to revelry and strong drink as readily and as tirelessly as he could work on his lathe or on his ships. State business he took seriously enough, composing decrees on every concern that involved him, military or civil, and reordering the form of Russian administration as he went along. Whenever possible, he applied his personal attention to the conduct of his officials; sometimes tolerant and sometimes threatening, he insisted that they were answerable to him, and more than that to the state. From what can be gathered, he was at times moved by religious feeling, notwithstanding his distrust of the church and his pointedly irreverent mockery of the religious authorities.

On the whole, Massie is inclined to be sympathetic to his subject: the dark, violent impulses that came to the surface during times of political stress, and the more raucous and crude elements in his play seem merely the all too human features of a great man otherwise dedicated to his own monumental and constructive endeavors. The human costs of Peter’s reign, whether expressed in terms of the disruption of the social fabric, or more directly by the numbers killed by war or forced labor, are not really brought to account, as has been done by more critical historians. For that matter, Massie does not attempt to assess—or even to delineate in systematic form—the two leading themes of Peter’s period of Russian history, changes in military and civil administration, and the impact of Western culture and technology. To be sure such concerns are discussed here and again, but largely where they are revealing of the character and interests of the man.

Massie concludes that Peter’s life and work resembled nothing so much as a force of nature, and in this wise suspends judgment on the great Czar. This biography is clear, well written, and, in its treatment of the events of Peter’s life, remarkably thorough. There is little in the way of background, whether on the Russian past or from the European setting, that is lacking; some readers, however, may be daunted by the very length of the work. Illustrations have been particularly well chosen, and maps provide clarification of the geographical context. The documentation to be found here, however, is relatively thin, and for the most part consists of rather well-known works; essentially all of the primary sources are familiar to historians. More to the point, however, is the lack of focus, of a basic thread of research and writing that distinguishes the essential from the ephemeral. It is for this reason that the reader will find little exposition of the significance of Peter the Great, or of the meaning of his work. In this regard Massie’s work, while genuinely rewarding for those in quest of the vast human drama of history and great men, will be received with reservations on the part of historians or indeed those of a more critical turn of mind.

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