Category Archives: Peter the Great: His Life and World

Peter the Great: His Life and World: Read from January 01 to February 02, 2014

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.

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For as much power as Peter had, I was really surprised at how much everyone took advantage behind his back, how corrupt even his closest friends were, and how brazen even the lowliest people were in their desire to not conform to their emperor – even under very real fear of death.

This is where the real cultural difference lies, too. Russia is not the west when it comes to government and corruption.

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Nobody knows how to party like Peter knows how to party.

Peter did earn the title of ‘great’. I can’t imagine the sheer strength of will it took for him to accomplish as much as he did. Even considering he was an absolute ruler with total power in every respect, he still had to struggle against his entire culture to drag Russia out of the ‘dark ages’.

I don’t know if I like him, but it’s hard to argue with him

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At first I thought the death of Charles sounded like something out of a movie, but then I realized the movies have probably been inspired by his death.

Görtz is an interesting, almost modern figure. Conniving and politically clever, he reminds me of a Dick Cheney figure – a necessary evil (scapegoat) for the political powers. His end, however, was quite gruesome and I can’t say I blame Queen Ulrika, herself shrewd

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While not unique to Russia, state paranoia during Peter’s reign seems to have laid deep roots that exist to this very day.

Peter was, in the strictest sense protecting his realm and all his hard work but he had to be cruel to do so. Alexei was never going to win and he endangered so many others I wonder if it had somehow been Peter’s plan all along: through his son eliminate everyone who was a threat?

Very sad

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Peter’s son was a dumb-ass. I mean I get he wasn’t into fighting wars and didn’t like government and politics – that’s all well and good – but to first chose to become a monk rather than commit to being a worthy heir, and then just outright fleeing the country to avoid responsibility is idiotic. I don’t understand why he couldn’t just suck it up for awhile, wait for Peter to die, then do what he pleased.


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Nice touch were we learn about Anne of Kiev who, nearly 1000 years previously, had been married to a Frenchman, Henry I, in a ceremony where she was able to sign her name to the marriage document but he, illiterate, could only scrawl an ‘X’. Kiev was far more civilized than France at the time, but now, even though the French countryside was filled with terrible poverty, Russia was the ‘backwards’ nation.

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I have to wonder what exactly Peter must have thought about the people around him. He was always making everyone do whatever he wanted that obviously most people would be upset and he had to have known that, yet many of the things he made them do were for the better that I winder if he ever cared what they thought? He mocked ceremony with dwarfs, made everyone live in his city yet only kept a small house himself.

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For a book about Peter the Great we get quite a lot of it about King Charles instead. However, to tell the story of one man requires the telling of the other. You could not tell the story of Athens without also Sparta or Churchill without Hitler.

All things being equal, were I to go back in time and be forced to pick a side to fight for, I would have a hard time passing up the Swedish army. Charles was bad-ass.

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It’s a little pathetic to imagine Charles being carried south out of Russia leaving countless troops behind so he can escape the debacle of his invasion. Peter didn’t just win, he humiliated the great Swedish army.

It’s interesting to try and imagine what became of the 35,000 Swede soldiers who had to stay in Russia. Many found a trade to work, but they seemed to have just been swallowed up by the vast country.

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Fortune favors the bold, but Charles’ boldness had to also have been his undoing. All his choices were based on seizing the initiative, fighting from the offensive, and dogged persistence. He never could see when he really should have taken the time to retreat for awhile, regroup, and then try again.

Charles was impressive nevertheless. 3 hours he rode with a shot up foot and even did his own surgery.


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The farther Charles penetrated into Russia the worse his fortunes ran. The farther Napoleon penetrated into Russia the worse his fortunes ran. The farther Hitler penetrated into Russia the worse his fortunes ran.

Charles, Napoleon, and Hitler all watched as the Russians burnt their own towns and land to ashes rather than give it up to their enemy.

I’m sensing a pattern here.

But how cruel, too.

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It’s so easy to take for granted how easy it is to travel pretty much any distance on earth. Back in Peter’s time just going 20-30 miles could take over a week! And then there were wolves that traveled in packs and tore people to pieces. No wonder rivers were the preferred method in Russia at the time.

And when people rebelled, stacking the dead bodies on rafts and floating them down the rivers seems effective.

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If someone had made a movie where the heroes have to fight off the evil invaders by melting down all the beloved church bells to recast them as cannons I don’t think anyone would believe it. The fact that this is exactly what happened in real life makes me wonder if there is more information about this event since it seems dramatic enough to be a novel in its own right.

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Fun facts in history:

At the Battle of Narva, as the Russian cavalry tried to flee across a bridge, the bridge collapsed under their weight and everyone fell in the water.

2 years after the battle, Charles Eugène de Croÿ, the Russian commander, died a Swedish POW but because of an old law he could not be buried because he was in debt. His mummified remains lay on display for 190 years in Estonia.

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When Tolstoy wrote his famous battle scenes (Borodino), there were probably many details he took for granted since he could count on his readers being somewhat familiar with how a battle at the time was fought (though by Crimea was was mechanizing).

Here, Massie explains in all the terrible, bloody detail how these battles were really trained, fought, won, and lost. Calvary, bayonet (pike), siege.


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Though the chapter on the Streltsy uprising does an excellent job on putting the torture of the Streltsy in relation to the times, the sheer number of men tortured and killed cannot be denied. While Peter was dancing and reforming the beards of the Boyars at night, by day over a thousand men were burnt, whipped, branded, racked, and executed in public.

With his fleet completed, his power was unquestionable.

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What I love about this book is that it is much more than just being about Peter, it’s about the whole world at the beginning of the 18th century.

Each new country he visits with his Grand Embassy is introduced by Massie in terms of the culture, economics, traditions, problems, and through Peter we too get to experience a European tour with fresh eyes and can see how Russia fit into the ‘modern’ world.

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So little did the Russians feel was the importance of interacting with foreigners that they made their own ambassadors pay their own way when on a diplomatic mission – furs being the one trade good they could pay with. They were arrogant even in another’s court to the point of having all their furniture and food taken away.

The building of the Navy is remarkable – 5 months! In the winter!! 300 miles from sea!!!

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Peter must be one of the most spoiled children in all of human history, even among royal children he’s out-of-control in his pursuit of getting his way.

Yet so far, according to Massie, Peter does not seem cruel as you might suspect from such a spoiled child. He is more interested in adventure and war than being sadistic.

He’s so not Russian, too. It’s as if he tried to get away from Moscow completely.

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Such a great story about how Peter fell in love with sailing and the sea.

I can see the lasting appeal of Russians for not living extravagantly. Peter’s digging trenches, sleeping in barracks, and living off the land (so to speak) is echoed by Tolstoy with his romantic notions of leaving society and living as the peasants.

Sophia is just as interesting … she was his sister, after all.