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Monday, February 13, 2012

"Peter the Great: His Life and World", by Robert K. Massie

909 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0394500324

I thoroughly enjoyed this book that Robert K. Massie wrote about the life and personality of Peter the Great and the challenges he faced in trying to make Russia a major power on the European stage of the 18th century. Although Peter is accurately described as being a driven, uncompromising, and oftentimes ruthless man, this book also presents his softer, warmer side that usually opened up only to his second wife Catherine and to his inner group of trusted friends.

In reading the biography of Peter, a great deal of insight is also gained into the society and politics of 17th-18th century Russia and Europe, which in the hands of any other historian might be written in a dry and abstract manner. With Massie, however, he has such an engaging narrative style that the book reads like an action novel at times (such as in describing the Battle of Poltava).

The book starts with the context that Peter was born into. A Russia still very much steeped in the deep middle ages of superstition and religious fundamentalism. His father Tsar Alexis and the his mother Tsaritsa Natalya doted on him as well as his sickly half brother Ivan (his later co Tsar until he died at age 29) and from the very beginning the young prince showed that he was made of special stuff. The untimely death of his father, his days at Preobrazhenskoe playing soldier as a boy (the Preobrazhenskoe regiment was the automatic regiment that all Tsars belonged to until 1917 following in the tradition started by Peter) as well as the Strelsky revolt that nearly saw him and his mother slaughtered by the palace guards gets illuminated as the main formative events in the young princes life. Peter's contact with Dutch ship builders in Russia ( he initially thought they were German - all foreigners were Germans to Russians in those days) set the course for possibly his greatest achievement - The setting up of the Russian navy from literally nothing at all to a force rivalling Sweden and Denmark in the Baltic Sea. This chance meeting on the Russian steppes that had such enormous repercussion for Russia finally gets the historical attention it deserves in this book.

Each personality of monarchs that Peter dealt with in Europe and the Middle East is given an ample introduction in "Peter the Great", which is entertaining reading in its own right. For example, we learn that Augustus II, King of Poland and useless ally of Peter in the Great Northern War, was a sexual philanderer of extreme proportions and that Frederick Wilhelm I, King of Prussia, had his famous collection of giants and suffered from pains that almost drove him to insanity. Of course, a major portion of the book is devoted to the conflict between Peter and his archnemesis Charles XII in the Great Northern War. Massie recounts how Charles' fanaticism and his legendary aura of invincibility eventually brought the Swedish empire to its knees.

Very important is that this book represents Peter as he was. A violent man at times and when circumstance demanded even brutal but always purposeful, never the wasteful madness of Ivan IV. He achieved remarkable things in a short space of time but he was also guilty of actions that were effective in its results but with methods most decent people in our time can only condemn. (torture was an effective political instrument in Peters eyes) Luckily he is not judged by the author according to 20th century Anglo Saxon morals as often happens in these type of books . Can we really honestly look at the splendor of St Petersburg and blame him for the thousands of Swedish prisoners of war he worked to death to build a Jewel on a swamp. Again the troubling recognition that history cares more for results than the moral modes of a given time confronts us in these pages.

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