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Was Peter All That Great?

Peter the Great: His Life and World

by Robert K. Massie
Knopf, 909 pp., $17.95

Few rulers are believed to have done so much to reshape and redirect their nation’s destiny as did Peter I, tsar of Muscovy and emperor of All the Russias (born 1672, ruler de jure 1682, died 1725). Whatever their differences, both his contemporaries and subsequent writers—poets, novelists, historians, publicists—agree that the extraordinarily energetic, dynamic, impetuous, and ruthless personality of Peter was essential to the successes, as well as the failures, of his enterprises.

Massie’s book is no exception, although Peter himself remains as enigmatic as ever in its retelling of the familiar stories about the six-foot-seven giant who survived being made co-tsar at ten, who traveled through Europe in his early twenties, and who had so many interests—e.g., navigation, fireworks, architecture, military tactics, and church reform—that he has always resisted convincing characterization.

The reader can nevertheless gather from Massie’s book an outline of Peter’s accomplishments and of the many ways in which he changed the destinies of Russia and Europe. His long war against Sweden (1700-1721) secured for Russia a Baltic seafront with the important ports of Riga and Tallinn, making Russia into a major European power directly involved in the affairs of Poland and Central Europe. Not only did he found, at immense human cost, the new capital of St. Petersburg as Russia’s first European city, he opened the gates through which Western ideas and goods penetrated into heretofore isolated Muscovy, transforming Russian traditional culture.

Peter modernized the army and created a navy, both of which contributed to the westernization of the country and enabled the empire to extend its influence and territory and to become a world power. Finally it was Peter who endowed the imperial establishment and Russian society with the institutional patterns on which the administrative, political, and social life of the empire was based to its very end in 1917. No mean achievement, especially when we remember that Peter inherited a country and polity that were anything but “modern” or “civilized” (policé) by seventeenth-century standards, for they had developed outside the mainstream of European history since the Middle Ages. Indeed, by the second half of the seventeenth century the Muscovite state and culture were in a grim condition of disarray—partly because of growing pressure from Central Europe.

During the quarter of a century before Peter’s accession, some of the Muscovite leaders had already taken steps to save the Russian polity by insisting on a more European perspective and allowing a limited importation of Western European methods and things. Peter’s unorthodox upbringing, his curiosity and zest for experimentation gave to his efforts at transformation a whirlwind quality that had much to do with the changes he brought about. He found available in Europe an intellectually coherent set of political attitudes and administrative practices that provided the basis for his attempts to transform Russia’s institutions—what today would be called “modernization.”

From his experiences of Holland and other countries and his acquaintance with many Europeans, Peter absorbed the idea that by will and reason man can expand his creative and productive possibilities almost indefinitely and can make progress in this world without abandoning either his religious or his moral values or transforming the social system at one blow. To do this, however, the monarch and the educated elites had to be free to organize and discipline society—i.e., the people. The mass of Russians had to accept their duty to work and suffer so that individual and social prosperity and enlightenment would one day result. In Western Europe such a change of intellectual, institutional, and political norms had taken several generations to bring about; and it was accompanied by the gradual absorption of the more educated and ambitious elements of the population into the ruling elites. Driven on by the ruthless will and dynamic energy of Peter, however, Russia was supposed to make the change within one generation. Little wonder that the process proved painful, costly, and that its results were often questionable.

Fired by Peter’s own example and often cruelly driven by his whip, Russia’s “Establishment” emerged radically changed at the end of his exhausting reign. True, some innovations, such as the law on single inheritance or the strict rules for compulsory education and the stress on technological training for the young noblemen, proved superficial. Those, however, which had some connection with tradition or which could be anchored in the elite’s new institutional and cultural existence not only survived, but gave solid foundation for the great expansion of modern Russian culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To the contemporaries of the first emperor, it seemed that the accustomed forms and ways had been swept away overnight. Not only had they been forced to wear foreign clothes and shave their beards and behave superficially like their European counterparts; they also had to replace their values and ways of thinking by new and imported values at great cost and effort.

The “service nobility”—the body of nobles who owed service to the state and were directly exposed to the tsar’s commands—were transformed almost beyond recognition. The parochial, submissive, uncouth, and uneducated titled figures of seventeenth-century Muscovy were turned into the lively, ambitious, and education-hungry nobility we know from the pages of nineteenth-century Russian literature. From their ranks, too, arose the radical and progressive intelligentsia which eventually brought about the downfall of the imperial system fashioned by Peter the Great. What is clear is that the more enterprising nobles (like Peter himself) looked upon the common people merely as the objects of their endeavors, the necessary “tools” and fiscal resource needed to make Russia modern and productive under the guidance of the state.

Not surprisingly, both Peter’s contemporaries and succeeding generations felt that his policies had created a gulf between the westernized elites and the mass of the people who stuck to their religious values and national traditions. Figuratively, at times literally, members of the elites no longer had a common language with the Russian people. The peasant who had been bound to the land was, moreover, transformed into a serf whose person virtually belonged to his master. As the new leaders set the direction of Russia’s further evolution and progress, the sense of Peter’s reign having marked a sharp break in the country’s cultural continuity grew stronger. It was as if the worlds of the new capital in St. Petersburg and of the educated classes had lost all their ties to old Muscovy, which continued to embody the spiritual vision and historical values of the people. This impression was given additional force by the fact that popular culture was preserved and circulated by the Old Believers, the most consistently traditionalist and anti-Western religious minority who uncompromisingly opposed Peter and everything foreign.

This sense of cultural break between the members of an elite who enthusiastically accepted foreign values and methods which they saw as modern and the rest of the nation who saw only the material and psychological hardships that were the result for themselves and their families is familiar to us in the twentieth century. We are in a good position to appreciate the symbolic force of Peter’s reign. He and his policies became the symbols both of Russia’s progress and advance into modern Europe, and of a brutal as well as costly break with the historical trends of old Russian culture and the possibility of their gradual evolution. In Petrine Russia, as so often in the third world in the twentieth century, questions of national identity and self-definition became acute. Was the Russia fashioned by the rough hands of the “tsar transformer” wholly different from old Muscovy? Did Peter radically alter the nation’s natural development or did he only hasten a process that would have occurred anyway; and, if so, were not his innovations far too costly and too rapid? In short, was Russia made over into a “Western” society and culture forcibly or was the transformation inevitable, desirable, and beneficial? The contrast between the traditional arts of Kiev and Muscovy and the post-Renaissance European culture of St. Petersburg is indeed dramatic and startling. But if that is the case, what is specifically “national” in modern Russia’s artistic and literary achievements in the eighteenth and nineteenth or early twentieth centuries?

For all these reasons, the significant philosophic and historiographic debates that make up Russian intellectual history have centered on Peter’s reign. They started practically within the lifetime of the first emperor and have not ended in our day. The emergence of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union and the new wave of emigration of the Russian intelligentsia have rekindled the debate, as one can see in examining the different ideas of, say, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. The problem was first stated in the mid-eighteenth century when Prince M.M. Shcherbatov tried to calculate how long it would have taken Muscovy to transform itself into the Russia of Catherine the Great (1762-1796) without Peter’s brutal intervention. He estimated it at almost two hundred years—i.e., Russia would have reached the level of eighteenth-century European civilization only about 1890.

By putting the question of continuity and change in this fanciful manner, Shcherbatov raised another fundamental issue, that of the price paid by Russian society for the transformation. The question of cost obviously arises when one considers the huge sacrifices by the Russian population to make possible the military and diplomatic successes of Peter and to create the instruments and institutions of what F. von Hayek calls the modern “rational constructivist” state. The sacrifices were not only immense but ironically were greatest in the case of the more progressive and pacific accomplishments, such as building St. Petersburg, digging the Ladoga Canal, and westernizing the nobles—by, among other measures, creating the serf economy.

Could the same results have been accomplished with less suffering, if more slowly? Was the result even desirable? That during the late 1930s and World War II Stalin identified himself with Peter the Great, justifying his policies by pointing to Peter’s harshness and costly measures, should make us ponder before giving a categorical answer. Peter resorted to means—compulsion, state direction and command, grandiose and cruel use of men and resources—which were contrary to the very ends he claimed he wanted to achieve—national prosperity, power, creativity, the welfare and happiness of society. The question arises whether such heavy state controls are ever capable of fostering initiative, enterprise, and willingness to sacrifice for long-term benefits. Don’t the institutional means developed by the state for this very purpose act as a brake and become the greatest barrier to further progress? Russia’s history after Peter the Great offers plenty of material for reflection on this theme, especially in the light of the revolutions between 1917 and 1921.

Such reflections, however, must be based on serious and objective scholarship, and as yet historians have not adequately studied many important aspects of Peter’s long and tumultuous reign. Most recent scholarship has endeavored to deal with some of Peter’s policies by examining developments and events both in Russia and in Central and Western Europe, so as to have a comparative background against which to judge his actions. For example, there are the suggestive studies by Claes Peterson of the Petrine administrative reforms and by Simone Blanc of a prominent intellectual and administrator of the period.1 The use of sophisticated methods from the social sciences to study this period is only beginning, although some interesting work has been done on economic matters, such as the studies by Alexander Gerschenkron,2 and on such other social questions as the development of bureaucracy and the transformation of the nobility.3

Unfortunately, Mr. Massie’s long chronicle does not deal with any of the important or interesting issues of Peter’s reign, although occasionally he hints at them; nor does his account refer to the more recent scholarship on the subject. He seems to admire above all Peter’s zest, his eagerness to look into things personally, his preference for simplicity. But his is a slow-paced narrative of Peter’s life, one that is particularly old-fashioned in its detailed accounts of military operations. The description of the Poltava campaign alone—from January to July 1709—takes about seven chapters and over one hundred pages. Mr. Massie dwells lovingly on the personalities of the all-too-numerous statesmen, nobles, and courtiers he introduces into his book, although most remain one-dimensional and often shadowy figures. His causal explanations for their actions strike a modern reader as simplistic; especially, for example, in his account of Peter’s relations with Augustus II and with his son, Alexis. The slow-moving recital of military and political events is interrupted by gory descriptions of executions and torture common at the time. But Mr. Massie’s book gives the impression of an old-fashioned, leisurely narrative mainly because he does not see historical problems or raise issues that require answers or interpretations.

Secondary events are given the same importance as significant ones. As much space is devoted to the petty corruption of Menshikov and others as to the important uprising under the leadership of Bulavin. The dramatic episode of the execution of William Mons gets as much attention as the much more important and lasting reforms of the Senate and Colleges, which are not adequately discussed or analyzed. Peter’s most far-reaching legislative act, the Table of Ranks of 1722, receives only two short paragraphs. The reader is not given enough information on which to make his own judgments and the author presents no conclusions of his own that would provide a better understanding of either Russia’s or Europe’s past.

The chapters in which Mr. Massie tries to give a picture of this broader European setting by briefly relating what is going on in Holland, England, France, Turkey, etc., are particularly disappointing. They are largely superficial textbook generalizations, nowadays put much in question as a result of recent scholarship. To take only the most obvious example, his treatment of the France of Louis XIV reflects none of the insights provided by the well-known study of P. Goubert4 and the subsequent discussion of it by historians of the Annales school. For his picture of Sweden Mr. Massie seems to ignore the seminal work of Michael Roberts or the articles in the collection also edited by Mr. Roberts.5

Since there is no sign that the author has consulted little-known sources in either his bibliography or notes, one wonders why he had to travel to the Soviet Union to do research for a book which could have been easily written in a library in New York City. Of course, not everybody cares to read scholarly books. Lively and provocative biographies, memoirs, and narratives supply much of the most important information we have about Petrine Russia. But they, too, require of their author selectivity, judgment, analysis, and explanation. Mr. Massie does not fulfill these requirements either.

One wonders for whom the book is intended. The amateur or teacher of European history will find nothing substantial in it so far as new information, documentation, or ideas are concerned. The brief but solid books on Peter the Great by B.H. Sumner or M.S. Anderson6 are far more useful, not to speak of the better multi-volume general histories of Europe. For vivid portraiture, psychological insight, and a feeling for the texture of Peter’s Russia, one can turn to the classic work of V.O. Klyuchevsky7 or the suggestive and forceful novel of D. Merezhkovsky, Peter and Alexis, which should be reprinted. I cannot see why any intelligent, curious, and educated layman would want to wade through eight hundred pages filled with details on matters military and personal but lacking in the insights, provocative ideas, perceptive sketches of character, or historical reflections that might deepen his understanding. Was such a result really worth the author’s huge investment of time, talent, energy, and the publisher’s resources? I doubt it.

  1. 1

    Claes Peterson, Peter the Great’s Administrative and Judicial Reforms: Swedish Antecedents and the Process of Reception (Stockholm, 1979). Simone Blanc, Un Disciple de Pierre le Grand dans La Russie du XVIIIe siècle: V.N. Tatiscev, 1686-1750 (Lille, 1972).

  2. 2

    Alexander Gerschenkron, Europe in the Russian Mirror (Cambridge University Press, 1970). Arcadius Kahan, “Continuity in Economic Activity and Policy during the Post-Petrine Period in Russia,” Journal of Economic History XXV (1965), pp. 61-85.

  3. 3

    Analyzed by B. Meehan-Waters in several articles and most recently in “Social and Career Characteristics of the Administrative Elite 1686-1761,” in W.M. Pintner and D.K. Rowney, eds., Russian Officialdom: The Bureaucratization of Russian Society from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century (University of North Carolina Press, 1980), pp. 76-105. Also important has been the work of S.M. Troitskii, Russkii absoliutizm i dvorianstvo—XVIII v (Russian Absolutism and the Nobility—the Eighteenth Century, Moscow, 1974).

  4. 4

    P. Goubert, Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen (Random House, 1972).

  5. 5

    Michael Roberts, Essays in Swedish History (University of Minnesota Press, 1967). Michael Roberts, ed., Sweden’s Age of Greatness, 1632-1718 (St. Martin’s, 1973).

  6. 6

    M.S. Anderson, Peter the Great (Thames & Hudson, 1978). B.H. Sumner, Peter the Great and the Emergence of Russia (London, 1950).

  7. 7

    Vasili Klyuchevsky, Peter the Great, translated by Liliana Archibald (Vintage Press, 1961).

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