Was Peter All That Great?

Peter the Great: His Life and World

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

Peter the Great
Peter the Great; drawing by David Levine

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…

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