Peter the Great by Robert K. Massie

Peter the Great Robert K Massie

Rating: 3 Stars ★★★☆☆

Around Moscow the country rolls gently up from the rivers winding in silvery loops across the pleasant landscape.

About

Against the monumental canvas of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and Russia, unfolds the magnificent story of Peter the Great, crowned at the age of 10. A barbarous, volatile feudal tsar with a taste for torture; a progressive and enlightened reformer of government and science; a statesman of vision and colossal significance: Peter the Great embodied the greatest strengths and weaknesses of Russia while being at the very forefront of her development.

Robert K. Massie delves deep into the life of this captivating historical figure, chronicling the pivotal events that shaped a boy into a legend – including his ‘incognito’ travels in Europe, his unquenchable curiosity about Western ways, his obsession with the sea and establishment of the stupendous Russian navy, his creation of an unbeatable army, and his relationships with those he loved most: Catherine, his loving mistress, wife, and successor; and Menshikov, the charming, unscrupulous prince who rose to power through Peter’s friendship. Impetuous and stubborn, generous and cruel, a man of enormous energy and complexity, Peter the Great is brought fully to life.

Review

Peter the Great was an impressive and interesting man. He inherited a kingdom that was, compared with its neighbours, technologically and mentally stuck in the middle ages and transformed it into a colossus that played an impressive role on the world stage.

It wasn’t clear from the beginning that Peter would ever succeed to the throne. He was the child of his father’s second wife and only the third male heir. But soon he found himself tsar, first with his brother Ivan as a co-ruler, later alone.

Strange though it may seem, when this royal prince who was to become an emperor reached manhood, he was, in lager part, a self-taught man. From his earliest years, he himself had chosen what he wished to learn. The mold which created Peter the Great was not made by any parent, tutor or counselor; it was cast by Peter himself.

And soon, he began to shock traditional Russians. From an early age, his thoughts went towards the West. He coveted their technology, the organization of their bureaucracy, the efficiency of their military and, of course, their navies. Russia was a nation without a harbour that was ice-free throughout the year yet Peter loved ships and wanted to create his own navy.

The biography paints a very vivid portrait of life before and during Peter’s reign as well as of Peter himself. He was definitely an interesting character and I can understand why he’s so controversial. On the one hand, he is a monarch who put merit before heritage. He wasn’t afraid to get his own hands dirty, he had boundless energy and pushed through necessary reforms. He brought Russia to the same level as its neighbours.

Later, when he marched with his new Russian army or sailed with his new fleet, it was always as a subordinate commander. He was willing to be promoted from drummer boy to bombardier, from bombardier to sergeant and eventually up to general, or, in the fleet, up to rear admiral and eventually vice admiral, but only when he felt that his competence and service merited promotion. In part, at the beginning, he did this because in peacetime exercises drummer boys and artillerymen had more fun and made more nose than majors and colonels. But there was also his continuing belief that he should learn the business of soldiering from the bottom up. And if he, the Tsar, did this, no nobleman would be able to claim command on the basis of title. From the beginning, Peter set this example, degrading the importance of birth, elevating the necessity for competence, instilling in the Russian nobility the concept that rank and prestige had to be earned anew by each generation.

On the other hand, he was also quite a despot. When in rage, he hit everyone around him. He tortured people suspected of treason against him and executed them in horrible ways. He neglected his wife and had her exiled to a convent. He neglected his own son and then had him killed for treason.

To make the connection between the Streltsy and Sophia crystal clear, 196 were hanged from a huge square gallows erected near Novodevichy Convent, where the Tsarevna was imprisoned. Three, the supposed ringleaders, were strung up directly outside the window of Sophia’s room, with one of the corpses hilding a piece of paper representing the Streltsy petition asking her to rule. They remained dangling, near enough for her to touch, for the rest of the winter.

It was impressive what he accomplished and how he reformed Russia’s military, economy and bureaucracy but on a personal level, he wasn’t all that likeable.

I particulary enjoyed the parts of the book that dealt with Peter’s personal life, his family and his personal connections. However, a major part of the book concerns the Great Northern War, Peter’s war with Sweden.

Slowly, steadily, silently except for the beating of their drums, the Swedish infrantry advanced, holding its own fire until the last minute. At close range, the columns deployed out into a long wall of blue and yellow four ranks deep, halted, poured in a single volley and then erupted with a bayonet charge into the reeling enemiy lines. It was many years before Peter’s Russian levies could stand before this kind of fierce attack.

It was a very important series of events and the book does this war justice. It’s more of a personal thing: I’m not really all that interested in military history, troop movements and battle plans. If you are, this book definitely has you covered.

Conclusion

A fascinating, in-depth biography of one of Russia’s most important and controversial rulers.

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