Peter the Great

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Peter the Great by Robert Massie, book reviewBorn in 1672, Peter the Great is credited as being the Russian Tsar who pulled Russia out of the medieval world it was living in, and transformed it into a Westernized empire, becoming a great European power in the process. Peter was the son of Alexis I, by his second wife, and came to the throne after the death of his sickly half-brother Feodor III. Ruling initially as joint tsar with another half brother, Ivan, Peter became sole ruler in 1696. Having spent much time in the company of Europeans in his youth, Peter was determined to turn the Muscovite people into a European nation, and brought in many reforms, including forbidding beards. He expanded Russia’s territories, with wars against the Ottoman Empire and Sweden. He had a huge love for the sea, and turned Russia into a naval power. On land won from Sweden in the Baltic, he built his new capital, St Petersburg, and insisted that the court move there. Peter the Great died in 1725, still issuing decrees to improve Russia.

Peter the Great by Robert Massie is the the third work by the author that I have read. The first was Nicholas and Alexandra, and the second was Catherine the Great, both subjects I became interested in after visiting exhibitions on them. I chose to read Peter the Great however, not based on any existing interest in the tsar, aside from what I learnt in reading Catherine the Great, but rather because I enjoyed Massie’s writing so much that I wanted to read more by him.

Peter the Great is a truly fascinating historical figure. His route to the throne was full of excitement and rebellions, and once on the throne he never stopped. What really captured my imagination though, was his immense interest in absolutely everything he came across. Boats were his big passion, and he began by building his own, and then progressing to building a fleet, but it didn’t stop there. Quite literally everything he came across had to examined. He had a thirst for knowledge and understanding which I don’t think it woud be exagerrating to say has rarely been matched through history. If he passed through a village, he would stop and tell the people to show him how they did things there. He went on a Great Embassy around Europe, and no doubt drove his various hosts mad asking questions and always stopping to look at things. In fact, he worried the garrison of Riga by kneeling down and measuring their bridges and ramparts, so as to better understand how they were built and how he could use the technique at home in Russia.

Another aspect of Peter’s character that I found thoroughly interesting was that, unlike most rulers of the day and for centuries beforehand, he refused to take military ranks that he had not earned. He would promote himself once he had served for a certain time and gained the necessary experience, but he did not see why he should automatically take military command just because he was the tsar, when there were more experienced men available. I admire this, as it shows that Peter valued knowledge and experience over titles whereas so many rulers would immediately promote themselves to the top rank simply for who they were.

Yet there is another side to Peter the Great’s character, that of torture and bloodshed. He did not suffer traitors, and torture was commonplace in Russia at the time. Massie doesn’t spend too much time pointing out that such things were not shocking at the time as they are to us, yet that is the general tone of his reporting of these episodes. To his credit Massie does not brush over torture, yet somehow he does manage to make it seem normal and a small part of Peter’s rule. I expect other biographers would paint a far bloodier picture of Peter’s time as tsar, yet it cannot be denied that even if he undertook torture himself, his lasting legacy is that of change, progress and knowledge. Massie is right not to ignore the bloodier side of the story, but he is equally right not to focus in on it too much, although I suspect I have come away from his book with a rosier picture of Peter than is truly deserved.

Peter the Great was quite literally a larger-than-life figure during his life, thanks to his exceptional height for the times of around 6’8″, and of course due to his personality. Massie does a wonderful job of bringing this man back to life. His writing is excellent, and he is a master of historical biographies. His book is a really exciting read, very well paced and Peter the Great was no dry figure from history in Massie’s hands. His personality shone through, there is a wonderful sense of place, and Massie included plenty of detail to help his readers immerse themselves in Peter’s life. The detailed battlefield descriptions are particularly interesting and helpful.

The book opens with some scene setting which is a bit of a trademark of Massie’s writing, and his vivid descriptions really whet your appetite for the book. He writes about Russia and Moscow at the time of Peter’s birth, and it is liking watching a film of it, so complete is the picture that he paints. Within just a few pages I really felt that I knew and understood what Moscow was like in the seventeenth century.

Massie is an absolutely excellent biographer, and Peter the Great is yet another example of his mastery. I knew very little about Peter before I began reading, but I now consider myself to have had an excellent education in his life and work.

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Peter the Great
by Robert Massie

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Written by eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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