In War and Peace, Tolstoy spends a lot of time explaining how one man, no matter how “great”, can not actually change the course of events to any large degree. A humble man, by himself, can live a moral life and do as good as he can for the people around him, but he’s not going to change the course of world history. Tolstoy argues events in human history are the outcomes of millions of interconnected threads made up of uncountable influences ranging from basic geography and weather to the less tangible such as the mood and passions of a nation. He argues that the “greater” the man, the more bound he is to these threads and the less able he is to actually alter and lead the flow of history.
Yet the life of Peter the Great, as written by Massie, proves otherwise to Tolstoy’s philosophy. Here is a man who, if we are to believe Massie (and I do), almost single handed dragged all of Russia out of the shadowy, mystical, musty dark-ages into an enlightened Western world. Through his sheer force of personality, temper, God-given right to rule absolutely, and his never ending supply of energy did more in a lifetime than perhaps any man who has ever lived.
In just over 5 decades he drastically reformed his nation’s religion, built a Navy where there had not even been a single ocean going vessel before him, founded universities, created an environment in which women – previously unable to function in society – could express their will legally and socially – and, most famously, built St. Petersburg on the sea where before there had only been a swamp owned by Sweden.
And in every detail of Peter’s life Massie goes to extraordinary lengths to explain and enlighten us how and what Peter did – except one: Peter as a man.
What stuck me about the book is how even after everything Peter did and left behind, I don’t know if I can really say I got a clear picture of him as an individual. We have all the idiosyncrasies here: his temper and his nervous twitch, his desire to put aside pomp and ceremony in exchange for simplicity, his singular love of the sea (which it seems nobody else in all of Russia shared with him), but he comes across almost as a machine through all this.
Peter, it seems, was so great, that he barely seemed human. Yes, he had his share of faults and he could also be a warm, friendly, prankster, but he was always the Czar and I felt like one of his subjects halfway into the book.
And perhaps that’s the point Massie wanted to make. No matter who was being spoken of in the book (and a lot of time is given to King Charles of Sweden; Peter’s respected enemy), I always felt like Peter was driving the chariot, whip in hand, and I was his beast of burden. No matter how close we get to him he still always seems that much further away. And I suspect that is how many who knew him felt, too.
Strange, too, that Peter is Russia’s greatest leader because he’s the least Russian of them all. He so badly wanted his country to be European and to be taken seriously whereas generations later (after Napoleon’s invasion) Russians wanted to pull back from the west. All those western cultural values Peter loved were seen as decadent by men like Leo Tolstoy (whose grandparent, Peter, plays a very important role here).
And so, once Peter died and his almost super-human influence was put into the ground, Russia did her best to become Russian once again, though Russia would never be the same, either. For all this “great” man did in opposition to Tolstoy’s philosophy, he never really was able to really make Russia a part of Europe. Russia would always be, in a way, 400 years behind the rest of the world and proud of it too. The Russians didn’t want someone to change them; change seems to go against what being Russian is at heart.
But like the final dramatic scene in the book where Peter leaps into the freezing ocean to save a floundering ship, Peter did his best for a nation that did need him otherwise she would have been conquered again – probably by Charles – or would have faded into obscurity.
He was a remarkable man and though what I could learn about him I don’t know if I like (he intimidates me), I respect him as a man as best you can respect an absolute autocrat.
Wonderful book and should be required reading for learning about Russian history. No wonder this book won so many awards.