I purchased this book in 1981 and finally got around to reading it. Marie read it first and that motivated me. It is a great story of an amazing man and ruler.
Peter the Great was born in Moscow in 1672 and died in St. Petersburg in 1725. He was almost 7 feet tall and had the life long curiosity of a young boy about all things, particularly boats and the sea. He reigned for 42 years, first as Tsar and then as Emperor of All Russia. Brutal in repressing dissent and with a temper, he was respected by his enemies and much-loved by his subjects. He is seen today as being an enlightened despot – a precursor of rulers who came later such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederick the Great of Prussia and his own descendant, Catherine the Great.
Known as the Great Reformer, he modernized Russian society where all the land had been owned by the nobility and worked by serfs (unfree peasants) for centuries. He did this by studying first hand (often incognito) in Holland, Germany and France, the technologies and techniques used to advance these nations e.g., boat design and building. Then he would personally introduce these new ideas into Russia. For example he:
- adopted western dress in court society and required long beards to be shaven
- modernized the army into a well-trained, lead and equipped fighting machine initially with imported foreign commanders
- initiated Russian boat building, established the Russian Navy and opened up the Baltic and Black seas to maritime trade
- defeating the mighty Sweden at Poltava in the Ukraine and delicately held the Ottoman empire at bay
- built the magnificent city of Saint Petersburg – the Venice of the North on what had been vacant swamp land
- modernized banking, currency, the justice system, foreign affairs, education and church administration
This book reads like a novel and is a real page burner. I particularly like how Robert Massie writes with complete command of the subject matter – his research is amazing. He often branches down interesting side paths into the character and life of other key figures such as Charles XII of Sweden and George I of England. There are a lot of details about the Great Northern War against Sweden but also much interesting information about Peter’s relationship with his wife Catherine, his personality and the type of food and drink he liked (he was a prodigious drinker and eater). The book is long at 850 pages and well illustrated with images and maps.
Prior to Peter’s time Russia was seen as a landlocked backwater and military laughing-stock of no import. Thanks to Peter, Russia became a great power indeed as it is today. However then as now, not many in the West fully understand Russia perhaps partially because of its geographic immenseness and location. Whenever Russia makes a move to protect her own interests, it is seen by many in the West as sinister and threatening to world peace. I have more sympathy and respect for Russia and their history as a result of reading this fantastic biography. I give it a 5 out of 5 rating. It was a great way to prepare for an upcoming Baltic cruise! Your comments are always welcome.