PETER THE GREAT: His Life and World by Robert Massie
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PETER THE GREAT: His Life and World

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Through knot and purge Peter the Great (1672-1725) transformed a medieval, backward Russia into a semi-Westernized world power. Accordingly, he has been eulogized or vilified by poets, philosophers, historians, biographers. To Robert Massie (Nicholas and Alexandra), he is a prodigious personality with vices and virtues to scale: suspicious, cruel, foul-tempered; generous, intelligent, energetic. But Massie sees Peter above all as a man of destiny, an assessment with which few will quibble. In an engrossingly detailed panorama, Massie contrasts pre-Petrine Russia--static and rude and illiterate--with post-Renaissance Western Europe, erupting with fresh ideas, scientific discoveries, and new wealth. These, Peter encountered when he journeyed forth to study shipbuilding (and, dissatisfied with pragmatic Dutch methods, moved on to England to learn ""basic principles""). On his return, he was determined to shake Russia from its lethargy; but he would do it his way--and if necessary, by force: his respect for Western technology and enterprise did not incline him, Massie points out, to emulate Western political institutions. In the first and most visible of Peter's reforms, beards, heavy boots, and long robes were proscribed--thereby jettisoning, Massie astutely notes, ""Russian habits whose existence was based on common sense."" Altogether, Peter's Westernization of Russia--long disputed by historians--gets a mixed report here. On the other question which has divided commentators--whether Peter was unduly cruel, especially towards the rebellious Streltsy--Massie makes a point of the prevalence of torture throughout Europe, and leaves it at that. He is less concerned with passing judgment on Peter, in any case, than with portraying the myriad activities of his reign--most fatefully, his relentless effort to secure access to the sea. This brought Russia into conflict with Sweden--and brought a dramatic clash between Peter, who was methodical and undaunted by defeats, and the youthful Charles XII of Sweden: impulsive, adventurous, a military genius. Massie's narrative peaks in his recreation of the Battle of Poltava, which broke Sweden and established Russian predominance in Northern and Eastern Europe. The influence on Massie of Russian epic narrative is unmistakable; his book flows like a natural force. There is nothing here that is not generally known to historians--but readers of any degree of expertise will find it all enthralling.

Pub Date: Oct. 14th, 1980
ISBN: 0345298063
Publisher: Knopf