IF YOU WERE PETER THE GREAT
If You were Peter the Great
You would kill your son
Because he had no interest in Tsardom
Because you’d planted an autocrat seed
And it grew into a common man tree
And you couldn’t coerce it out of its nature
So you’d pull out the ax
Sap/blood flowing free
Robert K. Massie is not a fluent writer, and this 855 page tome of his was a bit of a haul. He does not have that easy flow you find in a McCulloch or Goodwin, or even of Henri Troyat, who did a great job on both Catherine the Great and Tolstoy (See WW archives) . I understand he has a new work on Catherine the Great. I think I’ll leave that one be. Nevertheless, complaints aside, Peter The Great is a monumental achievement of history and biography. Won a Pulitzer, too.
Peter was a giant. No, not a metaphorical giant, as in a giant force of history (though he was that), but a six-foot-seven guy in a world where six feet put you head and shoulders over most people in a crowd. He had the mind of a scientist and a craftsman. In that sense he was in and of the enlightenment, in which period he lived (or at least on the beginning of it. Late 17th, early 18th C.), even though Russia itself was waaaay back there.
He was curious about all aspects of the physical world. Invented things. Spent hours and hours at his lathe fashioning everything from shipworks to ivory telescopes. He was the first Russian ruler to travel extensively in the west, eschew xenophobia and explore and adopt ideas and machinery from England, Holland, Germany–wherever he found it.
He was also a warrior. He dreamed of a Russia that could trade with the world, which meant a Russia that could sail the seas, which mean a Russia with a navy and a merchant marine, which meant conquering all the people who preferred Russia to remain a land-and-ice-locked. These included Sweden, Germany, Turkey, Finland, and Poland, among others. So he built ships and started wars. That meant raising money from every corner of the realm, which meant taxes, men, equipment garnered from every village and township in every corner of the realm. He won many battles, lost many, invented the scorched earth policy used by Russian rulers ever hence, accomplished much of what he dreamed of, but the drain on the country and its able-bodied was immense.
He had bad memories of Moscow, so decided to build St. Petersburg. No place for a city, except it did command an upriver entrance to the country. Never mind that it was on a swamp without building materials. Just commandeer those things. Hey, village, send me ten men and make sure they come with rocks. No rocks? Tear down the church and bring that. Etc. Of course, he’d come out and help build whatever side by side with you. Made him a common man, even though your family was 500 miles away because of him.
He had some kind of epilepsy. Was a gargantuan drinker. I mean all night all the time. Less when he got older, which he didn’t, really, dying at 54. Though you’d think that wasn’t too bad for the day, once you got past childhood then, you could expect more years than that. But he was always sickly. He was a brute with a temper. Always hitting people with sticks and fists, etc. Of course, they couldn’t hit back.
In short (which Massie never is. Dragging out things in unnecessary detail. Entering whole documents that could have been easily summarized. But I said I’d quit complaining.) He was a thoroughly bad man, even measured by the standards of the day, who accomplished wonderful things and transformed his country in good ways that lived long after him. Churchgoing people might call him an example of how God uses weak people to his purpose. Maybe so, but why couldn’t He/She use good ones? Too mysterious for me.