Biography of the tsar who aimed the Russian head, if not the heart, westward.
Following up on Russia in the Age of Peter the Great (1998), Hughes (History/University Coll., London) returns to familiar terrain with a new focus: the life of the man who dominated the vast Russian stage from the time he inherited the throne at age ten until his death in 1725. Born in 1672 into a huge family (16 children), Peter grew up in a country far more primitive than the one he would bequeath. Russia had no schools or universities; 90% of the population belonged to the peasant class. Hughes characterizes Peter as striking in many ways. He was large (over six-and-a-half feet), curious, energetic, willful, practical, and organized—qualities he would retain until his dying days. He loved food, drink, practical jokes. He escaped from a passionless arranged marriage by packing his protesting wife off to a convent, then married the redoubtable Catherine, who would reign after his death. Although Hughes recognizes and emphasizes Peter’s accomplishments, she does not conceal his flaws and cruelty. Opponents were tortured, beaten, executed. Near the end of his life, he beheaded one of Catherine’s rumored lovers and presented her the capital relic preserved in a jar. Adhering principally to documentary evidence, Hughes takes us along with Peter as he attempts to revolutionize his country’s fashions (he favored German clothing), educational system, governmental bureaucracy, inheritance laws, and religion (he made certain the church remained subservient to the state). She also shows us Peter’s abiding passion for sailing and lets us see the tsar dressed as a Dutch shipbuilder learning all he can from the masters of the sea in the Netherlands. Another passion—never realized—was to eliminate corruption in the ruling classes. Hughes notes that virtually all of Peter’s specific initiatives are long gone, but he did make Russia a great world power.
Impeccable scholarship, though it lacks Petrine panache. (16 illustrations and map, not seen)