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

Nine stars

When I want to learn a great deal in a single book, I turn to a biography. When I want to be completely inundated with information, I look to Robert K. Massie and his handful of well-crafted biographies of the Romanovs. Not for the weak of arm, Massie offers up this lengthy and detailed biography of Peter the Great, whose reign in the late 17th and into the 18th centuries left a significant mark on Russia and the world as a whole.

Peter Alekseyevich Romanov was born to Tsar Alexis and his second wife, Natalya Naryshkina, in 1682. Named for the apostle, Peter was a robust blessing to a royal family that was plagued with issues when it came to potential heirs. The tsar struggled to see how his bloodline would continue as rulers of the country, as his male heirs were either weak or died at an early age. Peter’s birth ushered in new hope for Russia and the Romanovs as a dynastic entity. Massie speaks of Peter’s upbringing in some detail, offering up random facts that the reader may find highly amusing. One such fact, that the royals used dwarves as servants and playmates to the young children to acclimate them to seeing ‘small people’. Peter’s health was accompanied by a great height, topping out at 6 foot seven inches in adulthood. While he towered over others, Peter was quite slim, which made him appear less than rugged, as one might expect a ruler to be. However, he was always quite keen to learn and showed much aptitude when given tasks. This curiosity and active nature would prove useful in the coming years.

When his father died at a young age, Peter was thrust into the position of tsar at ten. Massie talks about the political struggle for the next ruler and how many favoured the young Peter, while others wanted Ivan, one of the surviving sons from the first marriage. Both boys became co-tsars, with a regency put into place for a time. Peter revelled in this, as he was able to fine tune his skills and was quite hands-on. He was said to have taken to sailing and rubbed elbows with the sailors on many occasions, wanting to be ‘one of the boys’ and not treated as royalty. Ivan was sickly and chose to stay out of the limelight, passing his days and keeping the title only because it was pushed upon him.

When Peter became the sole Tsar of Russia on Ivan’s death, he began to shape the country in his own image. He chose to leave the confines of the country to explore Europe and help connect Russia with the outside world. No tsar had ever left the country in peacetime, though Peter was happy to break that tradition. With no diplomatic footprint anywhere, Peter assembled a group of men to travel with him and called it the Embassy Tour, in which he went to see how some of the European powers were engaging in technology, politics, and diplomacy. Peter knew that there was an instability across the continent and wanted to forge some allies ahead of any outbreak of war. Massie offers some interesting mini-biographies as Peter travelled, including Louis XIV (the Sun King) of France and William of Orange of the Netherlands and England. The trip, which took eighteen months, offered Peter a view of the area and helped him better understand how backward Russia was in comparison to their neighbours. Much would have to change if the country were called upon share its insights, on and off the battlefield, in the coming years.

With this new insight into how he might make Russia a great power in the world, Peter sought to bring about a number of changes. He modernised things by pushing back against the strong hold the church had over citizens as it related to their dress, pulled the country out of an arcane calendar system (choosing to tie it to one used around the world), and took a look at having Russia make a political imprint on Europe. Massie turns his focus on King Charles XII of Sweden, another European leader who is soon to have interactions with Peter. The two leaders would clash over territory between their two countries repeatedly, fighting completely different styles. Massie goes into great detail with this interaction, as well as clashes with the Ottoman Empire, which the curious war history buff can soak up at their leisure.

Massie peppers the biography with mention of Peter’s progeny and wives. Beginning with Eudoxia Feodorovna Lopukhina, she and Peter married young and had a son, Alexei Petrovich. Alexei would become the tsarevich, a title and standing that would become important in the years to come. However, Peter and Eudoxia had a falling out and he sent her to a nunnery for the latter part of her life, which led to a great distancing between the tsar and tsarevich. Years later, while fighting the Swedes for the first time, Peter encountered the young Lithuanian Marta Samuilovna Skavronskaya, who would one day become Empress Catherine. Massie again mentions this second wife in passing, though letters between the two show the passion they had for one another. When Tsarevich Alexei grew to adulthood, he sought to reconnect with his father, if only to scold him for his long-standing estrangement. Peter and Alexei did enjoy some time together as the tsar continued to expand Russia’s power across Europe. However, there was an ongoing concern about Alexei’s fidelity towards his father, which proves to be a theme in the latter portion of the biography, to the point that Peter debated sending his progeny to a monastery, where he could do no harm. Things took a turn for the worse and Massie details what is sure to be one of the most surprising aspects of Peter’s life, showing how ruthless he could be to protect his position of tsar.

As the biography begins is climactic end, Massie illustrates the impact of Peter’s various decisions and how it helped to shape Russia throughout the rest of the Romanov Dynasty. As any ruler with a dash of narcissism, Peter began the creation of a new and vibrant city to depict the birth of a new Russia. While Moscow remained a key city, the building of St. Petersburg showed some of the grand fortifications that Peter felt would exemplify some of the strength Russia had shown in battle. There was also a new political system put in place, which included a Senate and colleges, that Massie aptly called a Council of Ministers, to assist Peter in running the massive country. While ultimate power rested with the tsar, the depth of experience in the political system helped Russia compete with its European brothers. One final decision made by Peter that shocked the country was to amend the act of succession, removing the idea of primogeniture, allowing the tsar to choose his successor. Peter turned to his long-time wife, who was crowned in an elaborate ceremony. Massie discusses this, as well as the decision’s fallout, in the final pages of the biography. Not long after Catherine’s coronation, Peter fell ill and died, leaving Russia with its first female ruler.

While I am no expert when it comes to Russian history, I feel as though I have a better understanding of the country and its modern place in the European power structure. This came from understanding Peter Alekseyevich Romanov and his choices to remove many of the impediments that kept Russia from being able to grow. Massie takes a great deal of time (over one thousand printed pages) to make his point and offers the reader many wonderful examples throughout the piece. Any reader with the patience to explore this biography is in for a treat, not least because Massie was required to write in direct opposition to many of the Soviet historians of the day. While Peter may not have been ideal from a Marxist perspective, as Massie argues throughout, his life was anything but dull. The amount of research that went into creating this book is astounding and there is no doubt that the thorough chapters used to depict much of his life add another layer to Massie’s already stellar work. I am not surprised that he won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for this piece and am sure that many other accolades were bestowed upon him in the years that followed. While the tome is massive and the amount of information is overwhelming, anyone seeking to understand how Russia entered the modern era need look no further than Peter the Great and thank Robert K. Massie for paving the way!

Kudos, Mr. Massie, for this wonderful piece. I knew nothing of the man or how Russia evolved, but can speak with a little more authority now. I cannot wait to find and read more of your amazing work.

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