Friday, March 25, 2011


Tsar Peter was an extraordinary character, and Robert Massie does an excellent job of examining the complex chemistry of Peter’s character.

Peter was a tyrant while at the same time possessing qualities of openness, curiosity, and readiness to learn from others not common in such figures.

His humanistic qualities and considerable intelligence might have made him a candidate as a 17th century version of the enlightened despots – Frederick the Great of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria, and Catherine the Great of Russia - who featured in Europe’s 18th century.

But Peter’s tyrant temperament rules him out as a candidate. His treatment of the Streltsy – a large corps of traditional elite guards for the tsar – following an attempted revolt was extremely brutal, including an orgy of torture and horrible executions, closely attended by Peter himself.

So too Peter’s demands for his many wars, demands on his people for harsh taxation and much manpower, repeated again for his building from scratch, out of lands captured from Sweden’s empire, the city of St Petersburg.

The author does a good job of capturing Peter’s many eccentricities, his uncontrollable and grotesque movements at times, likely owing to a form of epilepsy, his alcoholism, his fondness for parodying the church in his private gatherings with friends, his deliberate choice of close companions who were not members of the old aristocracy and were themselves sometimes rather odd characters, his bizarre treatment of his first wife, and his explosive temper which many times ended with serious blows on the heads of good friends.

Peter is famous to students of European history for his “great embassy,” a long and unusual journey through parts of advanced Europe he undertook in disguise, investigating how things were done in institutions and industries everywhere he went and spending great periods of his time in studying the skill of ship-building, cheerfully taking up carpenter’s tools himself to work as an apprentice. His penchant for disguise, while having some justification on security grounds, clearly, in view of some of the details of how he proceeded, was another of Peter’s eccentricities.

Peter is rightly regarded as the father of the Russian navy. He studied the skills, established an industry, hired many experts from Europe, and conquered outlets in the south and in the north as outlets to the sea.

Peter’s embrace of foreigners created a good deal of suspicion and animosity amongst Russia’s traditionalists, suspicion of foreign ways and belief that Russia was close to God in its native customs being a prominent part of the culture at the time, and Peter worked regularly to end it, but it hardly made him popular. For example, he insisted on aristocrats not wearing traditional long robes and shaving and sometimes acted in highly abrupt and disturbing ways, as the time he decided to go around the table at a dinner and cut off the long sleeves of some of the nobles’ robes.

Peter was a military leader of considerable talent, spending a huge portion of his reign on wars – the Great Northern War with Sweden lasted twenty years – and he defeated the redoubtable general-monarch, Charles XII of Sweden.

The author has a tremendous subject in Peter, and I think he does justice to him in a book which reads like a good novel.

I have just two small reservations about the author’s approach. There are places, especially in the early part of the book, where the author puts quotations into people’s mouths that we know perfectly well cannot be actual quotations, although of course they reflect genuine historical content. He does not do this extensively, and it is a stylistic tool used by other biographers, but I am not a fan of it.

Another approach some readers may not like involves the author’s way of introducing a significant new subject. Massie leaves the main street behind, as it were, and wanders down interesting side streets, offering background and historical discussions which might be described by some with the slightly pejorative teaching expression “chicken walk.” This does not bother me, and indeed I enjoyed his little side trips.

I recommend this book as a fine introduction to the beginnings of modern Russia. It is enjoyable reading, and its subject lived a life about equal to that of half a dozen lesser historical characters.