Russia's greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, described Peter the Great as an "eternal toiler upon the throne of Russia." A man with a single, firm purpose -- to build a modern Russia -- is the picture of the Russian czar that emerges in Robert K. Massie's "Peter the Great: His Life and World." Massie, whose "Nicholas and Alexandra" received wide critical acclaim in 1967, has written a comprehensive and thoroughly engaging study of the great Russian leader.
Born in Moscow in 1672, Peter the Great acceded to the throne in 1682, at the age of 10. In a political power struggle that included an uprising of the streltsym (musketeers who guarded the Kremlin), which led to a brutal massacre of key governmental figures, Peter was effectually pushed aside by his half sister Sophia, who assumed both the regency and the control of Russia for the next seven years. Peter fled to the nearby village of Preobrazhenskoe with his mother, where he amused himself with "toy" soldiers and boats until Sophia's downfall in 1689.
Throughout his life "perpetually curious, perpetually restless, perpetually in movement," Peter broke tradition in many ways. Governmental affairs were accompanied by bacchanalian revelries, often with a group of more than 200 friends known as the "Jolly Company." Peter preferred simplicity in his personal life; his greatest pleasure was to be on the water.
His attraction to boats and desire to learn more of foreign ways led to the first peacetime journey out of Russia by a czar. The expedition, known as the Great Embassy, lasted for 18 months. In 1697 and '98 Peter, traveling incognito , exposed himself to European culture, returning to Russia with a burning desire to teach his subjects what he had learned and to modernize Russia. The czar's efforts in all areas were bolstered by his belief that the best way to serve God was to work for the strength and prosperity of Russia.
Peter's internal reforms were myriad, and they are discussed in depth by Massie. The czar's military exploits, including the Great Northern War with Sweden that ultimately shifted the political axis of Europe, are recounted in absorbing and detailed battle descriptions. Major political figures of the time -- Louis XIV of France (the Sun King), King Charles XII of Sweden -- are carefully examined and brought to life by Massie.
Interwoven with the history are several fascinating and highly detailed disquisitions on such topics as torture in the 17th century, the Muscovite idea of women, and the arduous construction of St. Petersburg, a city "built on bones." Sprinkled throughout the book are entertaining anecdotes and factual information that add to the liveliness of the work.
"Peter the Great" is Russian history brought to life. Through Massie's skillful renderings of personages and events, the times in which Peter lived and the problems of his world seem less remote. The figure of Peter himself, controversial in his own day (he was viewed as both a god and as anti- christ), emerges as human -- a man with many admirable qualities, yet one with his share of human failings. Nonetheless, Peter's accomplishments and their effects upon Russia were immense in scope.
In the estimation of the great 19th-century Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, Peter the Great was "the most extraordinary phenomenon not only in our history but in the history of mankind . . . a deity who has called us into being and who has breathed the breath of life into the body of ancient Russia, colossal, but prostrate in deadly slumber."