Book Review: Peter the Great / Robert K Massie

By Cheryl Rychkova

Imagine standing atop a mountain looking out over hill and dale dotted with towns, and lakes and farms. Look further, beyond the hills is a sea with boats and ships. Linger a while and watch more and more details come to light. The landscape continues to expand almost beyond imagination. This is the type of scope, range, and depth that is found within the pages of Robert K. Massie's Pulitzer Prize winning Peter the Great: His Life and World.

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The author guides the reader not only through Peter I's vivid, complex life and personality, but -- as the subtitle appropriately states -- also through the world he was born into and lived in. The reader is introduced to a number of other historical figures such as Louis XIV of France, and Charles XII of Sweden, Peter's great nemesis. The book is also something of a travelogue, as the reader is swept into Peter's Great Embassy to Europe, onto the high seas, up and into the Great Northern War, and into the swampy site upon which Peter built the jewel in his crown, the City of St. Petersburg. Finally, Massie addresses Peter's legacy and the impact his life had on Russia and Western Europe. The author's emphasis throughout is the significance and force of Peter's personality, and how his indomitable will changed Russia forever.

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The writing of such an expansive, historically significant biography must be a daunting task. Massie chose to approach his broad subject in a readable, narrative form. Upon the mighty framework that makes up the basic facts of Peter's life and reign, the author has woven endless threads and colors, creating tapestry-like images that are understandable -- and vivid -- to readers who possess a background in Russian history and also to those who have none at all. The use of anecdotes and humor are designed to draw in both the expert and the novice.

One amusing story deals with Peter's determination to travel abroad incognito and live as an ordinary workman. On one occasion while traveling in Holland, the Tsar was annoyed to be offered a grand hotel room. He noticed that in the corridor outside his room, some of his retainers were sleeping on the floor, wrapped in bearskins. Peter approached one of them, who was sound asleep, and kicked him till he awoke. "Quickly, quickly, I want to sleep there (206), the Tsar insisted, and "...threw himself on the warm bearskin and went to sleep" (206).

This image-drenched narrative approach makes for a pleasant, even novel-like read. As Marc Raeff (who reviewed the book for the New York Times when it was released in 1981) wrote, "Enthralling...As fascinating as any novel and more so than most" (Raeff 14).

Peter's life and world are presented in chronological order, which enhances the narrative flow. This emphasizes Massie's ability to deal with a broad subject in a way that the reader is not only swept into the maelstrom of 17th and 18th century Russia but is also allowed to pause and examine the minutia of Peter's life and world.

One device Massie uses within a chronological context is to break the colossal story into manageable sections of time. The glittering, Byzantine court of his early childhood is dealt with in detail, but separate from the blood, horror, and treachery that made up the regency that followed Peter's father's (TsarAlexei) death.

The section on the Great Embassy is possibly the liveliest and most fascinating in the book. The reader is taken along on a rollicking tour of Western Europe, where Peter learns to build ships, to dance, make cheese, extract teeth, and -- along with his entourage -- leave an elegant London home (that was loaned to him) in a manner that would make a modern day rock band proud (218).

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Very nearly every aspect from each period in Peter's life is examined and discussed in ways that are not just informative, but culturally enlightening. From English King William's cultural shock when he experienced Peter's Russian-style climate control (windows sealed shut to the point of stifling) (215) and the English sovereign's resulting asthma attack to Peter's cleverly crafted methods of dealing with his half-sister, the intelligent and ever-scheming Regent Sophia (36).

Throughout this book, the reader may sense Massie's controlled admiration for his subject. He is by turns amused, touched and awed by aspects of Peter's personality and life experience, yet he is also perfectly comfortable discussing the Tsar's negative qualities. Indeed, the author spends much time demonstrating to the reader that Peter had two distinct -- and disparate -- sides to his personality.

The most obvious comparative example of this can be found in Massie's descriptions of events that occurred during the Great Embassy. Peter is described as constantly seeking to be treated as just a regular man, insisting he be addressed as "Carpenter Peter," "Master Peter," or "Captain Peter," (193) depending upon which occupation he was engaged in at the time. Anyone who addressed him as "Your Majesty," or "Sire" was ignored.

However, while he was willing to live and work as an average man, even lighting his own fire and cooking his food himself (194), he did not hesitate to use his authority when he was not getting his way. Once during the time he was in Holland, he heard two of his subjects criticizing his behavior abroad, and "...flew into a fury" (194). He threatened to execute the men, but was persuaded that it would not only be bad form, but against the laws of Holland.

Massie's use of suspense is another technique that holds the reader's interest and keeps the pages turning. The buildup to Peter's overthrow of Regent Sophia is particularly intense, and the author switches back and forth between the competing camps, describing with clarity the enormity of what was at stake -- not only the crown but the future of Russia, which could easily have erupted into civil war.

Massie also employs this technique in less earth-shaking events. During Peter's first crossing of the English Channel, he insisted upon climbing aloft to have a good look at the rigging. This occurred during a heavy storm. The ship pitched and yawed, Peter climbed ever higher (215), and the reader was on the edge of his or her seat.

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Peter the Great is full of such imagery and is a tribute to one of the giants of Russian history, but it is not perfect. While extensive research is evident -- and most of the book is thoroughly noted, there are a few areas of Peter's life that are glossed over.

Massie takes great pains and many pages describing minute detail of military strategy, battles, and the founding of St. Petersburg, yet he all but ignores Peter's personal relationships, the one exception being his mother, who is touchingly portrayed. His first wife and his son Alexei, are portrayed to the reader in a manner very like cardboard cutouts, existing on the periphery of Peter's life. This may be accurate, but the author does not spend much time examining how his wife and son felt about their place in his life.

His second wife, the woman who would succeed him as Catherine I (not Catherine the Great), is portrayed in a more favorable light. It was she who knew precisely how to handle Peter's temper (821), and how to envelope him with love, understanding, and patience (389).

Image Hosted by This insistence of the author to mirror the subject's opinions and attitudes is helpful in seeing the world through Peter's eyes (as Massie interprets him), but it is also thought provoking. Certainly the reader would have benefited from reading viewpoints of those who were not favored by Peter but forced to live in his world.

Another weakness of Massie's 934-page opus has to do with the common assumption that it was Peter the Great who broke open a window to Western Europe and dragged his countrymen through it, out of utter barbarism, and into civilization.

Massie buys into this assumption almost completely. Even in the first chapters, when the reign of Alexei is addressed, the Byzantine and Asiatic aspects of the court are emphasized in great detail, while Alexei's's strong interest in the west (S.Massie 83) was virtually ignored.

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The author also made no mention of western forays into Russia as early as Ivan the Great (Moss 93). True, it was nowhere near the magnitude that occurred under Peter's rule, but never once does Massie directly point out that it was the foundation laid by his predecessors that spurred him to action. Much is made of the young Peter's friendships with the residents of Moscow's German Quarter, but no reason for his interest in foreigners is given.

One other troubling aspect of the book is connected to the flowing, readable style. Part of the magic of this sort of writing is that the reader is lulled into nearly forgetting the book is a biography, and not a novel. One of the ways an author can create such an atmosphere is to bring in historically documented dialogue. People's words, in quotations, blended with a strong narrative, can indeed read like fiction. However, this might lead an author into the treacherous territory of putting thoughts into historical figure's heads. Massie does this throughout Peter the Great, and while that particular technique makes for a captivating read, it is not necessarily accurate history.

Those few weaknesses aside, Peter the Great is a tour de force. It is also a story that deals with an awakening, whereby a man of high station but little education (though possessing an exceptionally strong desire for learning) seeks out and fulfills his curiosity, and lives his life as a great adventure. He was also a despot, a fact that is discussed in equal detail. Both sides of Peter's personality played a role in all that he would accomplish.

Such achievement and the large-than-life figure of Peter the Great casts a long shadow down through the ages. Massie's sparkling imagery and riveting narrative spread across the enormous canvas that was Peter's life and make him vital to readers today.

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MassieMassie, Robert K. Peter the Great: His Life and World. New York.Ballantineantine, 1980.

Massie Suzanne. Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia. Blue Hill,HeartTree Press, 1998.

Moss, Walter G. A History of Russia: Volume I: To 1917. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Raeff, Marc. "Was Peter All That Great?" New York Times Book Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, 14.

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