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.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie

Nine stars

My ongoing exploration of biographies has pushed into yet another realm; women of power. What better way to begin than with a woman who held much power in her time and about whom I know very little? Bring on Catherine the Great of Russia! Robert K. Massie does a sensational job of pulling out a strong and well-rounded story of this most interesting Empress of Russia. She faced hurdles and impediments throughout her life, but always found a way to succeed. While Massie offers the reader numerous parts to the biography, for the purposes of review, the reader can see her upbringing, marriage, and eventual reign as three key areas worthy of discussion below, all of which interconnect to make her the woman remembered by many in history. Massie’s effective arguments and thorough research are a treat for the curious reader, even if little is known about this woman before beginning the journey.

Born into a somewhat noble (though by no means powerful) family, Sophia Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst was the first-born and yet shunned by her parents. In an era when male heirs were prized, Sophia was forced to live in the shadow of her younger brother, whose health was precarious at the best of times. Sophia was deemed plain and on the verge of ugly by her mother, something that Massie does not refute strongly in his narrative. As was the norm in the era, she would have to be married off in order to bring some wealth and prominence to her family, as Anhalt-Zerbst was by no means significant. Answering a call from Empress Elizabeth in Russia, Sophia and her mother traveled to court. There, negotiations began to join Sophia to the Grand Duke Peter, himself a teenager. While at court, Sophia tried her best to fit in and studied Russian, as well as commencing a conversion from the Lutheran Church to Orthodoxy, the state religion of Russia and long practiced by the Romanovs. While this would surely dilute her ancestral roots, Sophia was willing to do all she could to earn favour with the Empress and Grand Duke. After her conversion, Sophia became Catherine and her future as Empress Consort began.

Marrying Peter, a man whom she did not love or even particularly care about, was the least of her worries. Catherine’s husband had little interest in bringing forth is own heir, as Massie explores, choosing instead to have little Prussian toy soldiers brought to the bed after he and Catherine retired (I cannot refrain from saying that it brings a whole new meaning to ‘toys in the bedroom’). Catherine suffered both physical and emotional pains at this flagrant insult to her person, a matrimonial virginity that lasted upwards of nine years. Such rejection took its toll, as well as a number of miscarriages after Peter did consummate the marriage. Both the Grand Duke and Duchess turned elsewhere for their physical needs, with Catherine having at least three men in her life who proved to be significant lovers. Massie goes so far as to stress the depth of these affairs by presenting the reader with the fact that Catherine eventually had children with all three. When Catherine finally bore Peter an heir, they named him Paul and the little one received all the protection due someone in the line of succession. An interesting fact in Russia, the Throne was not passed along by a firm family tree (the tradition of primogeniture). The reigning sovereign was able to choose their successor, as Peter the Great had established when he negated past rules of succession. Elizabeth had chosen her nephew, though she did deeply admire Catherine as well. When Elizabeth died, Peter ascended to the Throne, though he was little known and even less liked by the people. Massie describes Peter III as being belligerent and highly pompous, poor traits for an emperor. He would not engage in conversations and sought to overturn all the major decisions within the state that had been established by Elizabeth. Catherine saw this and knew that she could not remain subservient to a man who treated her so poorly. Massie lays the groundwork for the proverbial last straw when Peter tried to shame his wife at a public banquet. Thereafter, Catherine took matters into her own hands.

Catherine’s formal ascension to the Russian Throne proved interesting and is in line with her hold on power for the length of her reign. Catherine, still stinging from the rebuke in front of so many, organized a coup that overthrew Peter III and saw her take his place. Massie offers a strong narrative for the reader to understand the nuances of this and how Catherine was able to sway the support of the military to her favour before assuming power. Peter III was banished and lost his fight to regain his position, leaving Catherine to begin her lengthy reign. Peter III had only reigned a few months, which made the coup all the more surprising to the outside world. Catherine wasted no time in solidifying her strength both within Russia and on an international scale. Moves to secularise the Church and make priests bureaucrats of the state proved to be a means of lessening the control (and deflating competition) over the population, without banishing religion entirely. Some speculate this was Catherine seeking to give Protestantism a new strength in the country, though this is not entirely supported. She revisited the idea of serfs and the nobility, in an era when slavery remained rampant around the world (especially in the soon to be created United States), though these were not subjugated people of a different culture or ethnicity. On a grander scale, Massie speaks of Catherine’s desire to continue ruling as an autocrat, but still have the input of the people who so loved her. Catherine formed a loose advisory board, where representatives could meet and debate various issues of importance to Russia. However, when representatives got caught up in the minutiae, nothing was forthcoming and the collective dissolved with little to show for itself. (It was at this gathering that Catherine was given the title ‘The Great’, which might indicate that they did something that pleased the Empress!) Surely concerned with her subjects, Massie explores how Catherine handled many health crises within Russia, from smallpox to the plague and many other situations in between. She was by no means wanting to ignore those under her, but did remain isolated so as not to catch what was in the air. On the international front, Catherine returned to her roots and solidified an alliance with Prussia and its monarchy, as Massie seems to insinuate that Anhalt-Zerbst falls under or close to the Prussian lands. Europe was still teetering between a number of alliances, which could turn a single fallen domino into a full-blown war. Russia kept things peaceable and forged ahead with Prussia, turning to small Poland and carving out chunks to strengthen their respective empires. Catherine remained ruler in all but name of Poland, choosing its kings and keeping a close eye on the situation there. While she kept Russian land interests in mind and the military strong, Catherine made sure her people did not forget other Romanov rulers who had helped make Mother Russia strong, erecting monuments and statues of those who came before her. The waning years of Catherine’s reign seemed to be a time to remember others and prepare for the end of her own life. It had surely been a full and remarkable reign, which Massie asserts was by no means bland. 

As I entered this biography, I could not have told you much about Catherine or what she did for Russia. Massie helps with his attention to detail and significant research on both the region and its ruler. While I remain flummoxed by the number of names, geographic regions, military campaigns, and even historical alliances, Massie uses a detailed narrative to navigate through all this and help me see Catherine’s place. That this Empress was a significant figure in Russian history is not lost on me, nor is that she was the last female ruler of the country (after her son, Paul, reinstated primogeniture). Much like some of the other strong females I hope to discover in my biography journey, Catherine leaves an indelible mark on history. Massie is also a biographer to which I will surely return, as his interest in Russia is one that will prove very telling in these trying political times.

Kudos, Mr. Massie for bringing Sophia Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst to life for me. You have a wonderful way with words and prove that European history is full of intricate details that can be compared effectively to the modern political scene. This book solidifies that Catherine surely earned her moniker, while the current autocratic ruler of the country is anything but formidable.