The peasant czar

I SET foot on Russian soil in Leningrad at the best time of day, late afternoon, when the soft summer light does dazzling things to a river city of islands, canals, golden domes, and colored stone. Walking down the Nevsky Prospect, the city's well-known avenue, to the Neva River, I came upon the bronze statue of Peter the Great. Not surprisingly, Soviet leaders hold no affection for the czars of Russia. Peter is the single exception. I saw this most vividly at Leningrad's Fortress of Peter and Paul, burial place of the czars. Catherine the Great, over whom Westerners make such a fuss, is ignored. Alexander II receives only grudging praise for the emancipation of the serfs. The custodian on duty must consult a colleague as to the whereabouts of Napoleon's conqueror, Alexander I. Only Peter's tomb attracts crowds and is adorned with flowers and medals.

Peter's honored status is due in part to the extraordinary interest in him as a human being. His size was awesome. (I am more than 6 feet 3 inches tall. Peter's riding boots reach nearly to my waist.) In his diversity of skills and interests, he is the Franklin of Russia. Dentist to the court, he kept in a little bag the teeth he extracted from unwilling courtiers. He was the founder of Russian industry and the editor of his country's first public newspaper. The crest he chose for his mission to Europe, when he traveled incognito to learn Western skills, typifies his hunger for knowledge: ``I am among the pupils and seek those who can teach me.''

Peter lived frugally, ``Not Czarist (from furs swaddling from steam bath's musical coddling)/ But coarse and pleasant, like a peasant!'' writes the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky.

But admiration for Peter has deeper roots than his uniqueness as a human being. He is the symbol of qualities admired and promoted by the Soviet leadership. His energy and determination are used as an example to Soviet citizens today. And what determination he had! Only two weeks after seizing a key Swedish fortress at the mouth of the Neva, he established his new capital - St. Petersburg - on what was then foreign soil, and marshland to boot.

During Peter's reign, Russia achieved its first military success over its more advanced Western neighbors. Russia's medieval militia had been cut to pieces in 1700 by the disciplined Swedish troops of Charles XII. Nine years of unstinting effort by Peter led to victory at Poltava over Charles, considered at the time the greatest military leader in Europe. (Two hundred fifty years after the event, my Russian-born mother still spoke proudly of the outcome at Poltava!)

Most of all, Peter is admired for his efforts to modernize Russia. He attacked with fervor beards and old Russian costumes, symbols to him of reaction. He vigorously promoted science, learning, and industry. Peter grabbed his supine, inward-looking country by the nape of the neck and, in Pushkin's words, ``pulled Russia onto its haunches.''

The establishment of his capital in the north, away from the reactionary atmosphere of Moscow, and the introduction to his country of Western ways cause the Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky to write of Peter that ``his most beloved directions were north and west.''

A visit to the Hermitage Museum solved something that has always puzzled me about Peter. Many of his portraits and busts reveal the face of a large, friendly-looking, inconsequential man. Absent are the enormous energy he needed to drag slumbering Russia toward reform, or the cruelty of a man who, for reasons of state, could order the execution of his own son. His death mask and wax effigy on exhibit at the Hermitage reveal Peter as he was. Here one sees the bulging, rolling eyes and merciless mouth; even in wax, every muscle tensed. The artists of his day either failed to see the truth, or feared to portray it.

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