Few rulers in history have had as dramatic of an affect on their nations as Peter the Great, Tsar and then Emperor of Russia, who transformed Russia from a semi-oriental backwater on the eastern fringe of Europe into a westernizing and accepted member of the European concert of nations as a great power in its own right. Peter the Great not only changed the relationship of Russia to the rest of Europe, he also dramatically reformed the interior and structure of the nation, altering its customs, its economy, the seats of power, the administration, even its religion. And beyond any of Peter’s projects, he has also gone down in history for his remarkable style of rule and his voyages to Western Europe, where he traveled incognito to learn the arts of shipbuilding, modern military technology, carpentry, and a host of other technologies to import back to Russia. Peter was both physically (at 6’7”) and in his accomplishments a giant in Russian history.
So it is no surprise that a book on Peter the Great would stretch to nearly 900 pages: Robert Massie gives a history of Peter’s life beyond just his accomplishments as a ruler to look into his soul and personality. Peter was in many respects a very complicated figure who defies easy categorization. He was personally often kind and a human man, who died after diving into freezing cold water to save the crew of a foundering ship, but he also was prone to fits of anger and could half beat people to death. He was only of modest intellectual training and education, but he was intensely intelligent and eternally curious. He was often personally involved in construction or building, himself wielding a hammer or a saw on his pet projects, but he was unremittingly ruthless to any opposition, even allegedly torturing Streltsey who rose up against him. Despite being born nearly a thousand kilometers from the sea, he was obsessed with the water. And a man who dragged Russia into the modern era also continued and strengthened the Russian institution of serfdom.
The massive length of the book permits a truly in depth look at Peter, in a volume which brims over with details and anecdotes. It manages an impressive combination of an almost nove-like story combined with extensive historical detail and analysis, an impressively complete biography of the events of Peter’s life. be it with him as a child, with the Streltsy revolt, or his education, or the development of his military fascination and ship/sea interest, or his adult life, or military campaigns: Peter leaps into being, larger than life. Events appear, like the horrific storm which brewed off the coast of Arkhangelsk, nearly sinking Peter’s ship, and the cross erected on the shore with his oath to go to Rome in thanks for salvation: floating down the river in the Netherlands and surprising a former carpenter/shipwright who had worked in Russia under him: stunned to see the Russian tsar float out of the blue in the Netherlands: his correspondence with his mother or empress Catherine, his wild parties in the German suburbs of Moscow, or his quiet life appreciating the ships on the Neva in St. Petersburg, taking joy at them floating down the river while he watched.
And of course, it takes an earnest look at the broader history of the Russian empire and its neighbors. Peter’s campaigns, and Russia’s military history, receive a star place, from the Azov Campaign where Peter cut his teeth to the horrific test of the Great Northern War against Sweden. It mixes together Peter’s personal story in this with the campaign and war history, giving a great general understanding of the contours of the war. And the intense diplomatic activity surrounding its end, with the complicated dance of British, Swedish, German, and Russian diplomacy.
Massie admires Peter the Great, it is fair to say, crediting him almost entirely with the creation of modern Russia. he minimizes what appears to us as Peter’s faults: his brutality, his harshness, his sudden fits of wild anger, his oft-uncontrollable temper and lashing out. And it mostly neglects the costs behind Peter’s modernization, behind the incredible burden placed on the peasantry and the flight of many of them into the woods. They receive some mention, but little compared to the profound unhappiness of the common people of Russia. Its relatively uncritical response to the idea of Russia's modernization reads like teleology: Peter brought Russia into modernity and it has progressed since, while we can see that many of Peter's efforts, like reforming corruption, never really took hold in Russia.
There is also the question left unasked, one hinted at in the mention of the Soviet historiographic depiction of Peter” to what extent Russia was modernizing, westernizing, opening up to the world, without the involvement of Peter. Russia saw at this time an increasing number of foreigners, the creation of the German suburb, the rise of an increasingly cosmopolitan and open elite which looked to the West for inspiration. Peter might have accelerated the trend, but he went with the spirit of the times. If one is to examine the book uncritically, this disappears and Peter’s changes in Russia are just deus ex machine. A particular note on this subject is its lurid claims of Russia being swept back to the dark ages by a Swedish victory in the Great Northern War, which seems both unlikely and hyperbolic.
But there’s no doubt that Peter dramatically transformed Russia: this is hammered on through its depiction of before and after: the medievalesque world of Muscovy in the late 17th century, its cloisters, intense conservatism, the secluded harems of women, the ancient, Byzantine architecture. It is such a marked contrast with the world after that Peter changed Russia into, the far more intellectual, open, European style one. Its look at these changes, well written and sophisticated, elegant and wide ranging, personable and incisive, makes for an incredible work of history, one which puts into the light Peter’s life and times.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.