Saturday, August 15, 2015

Robert Massie's Peter the Great

    Unfortunately I haven't all that much time for Russian literature and history in recent months.  I continue to read haphazardly, but almost all of of my writing time and energy is devoted to another project.  For the time being, my goal is merely to keep this blog on life support by posting something once in a while.  Today, I'll just say that I've fallen in love with Robert Massie's popular histories of two Russian monarchs, Peter the Great and Nicholas.  The Peter the Great biography was a refreshing break from academic writing and a brilliant introduction to not just Peter but his whole epoch.  The book may perhaps be more narrative than analytical, but it certainly helps readers get a sense of the drama of Peter's epoch.

    Interestingly, Massie allows his portrait of Peter to expand into a depiction of the Europe as a whole, at least in terms of its military and diplomatic and dynastic components.  This has its advantages and disadvantages.  While we sometimes lose sight of Peter's perspective on unfolding events, we are able to analyze his statecraft in the context of wider global events.  This is helpful in that we can best understand Peter's brutality and penchant for war against a backdrop of a brutal age of ever-shifting frontiers and alliances.  Peter's drive toward modernity makes sense only if Russia's vulnerability within the European state system is highlighted.

    Massie's treatment of Peter reminds readers that Russia's status as a Great Power, or even a Superpower, is only a recent phenomenon.  At least at the beginning of Peter's reign, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire both overshadowed the developing fragile power, to say nothing of Louis XIV's awesome strength and military sophistication.  As a ruler, Massie's Peter is clever, extremely energetic, curious, restless, and single-minded.  According to Massie, Peter's cruelty isn't particularly noteworthy for the age, and it should be noted that Peter used brutality and political violence as political tools rather than expressions of personal sadism.

    Massie's description of Peter's reign isn't particularly novel, though it is literary, and descriptions of Moscow, the Kremlin, St. Petersburg, Archangelisk, and other Russian locales are vivid and arresting.  For the most part, Massie avoids psychological investigations into Peter's motivations, but Massie doesn't neglect Peter's friendships with Menshikov and others, his dependence upon his second wife, or his early trauma at the hands of angry streltsy.

    Massie doesn't entirely resolve the question of whether Russia's move toward the Baltic (and abortive move toward the Black Sea) was a result of Peter's personal obsession with maritime issues, or the natural result of an expanding empire.  However, he does seem to nicely explain a certain repeating dynamic of Russian history, and that is the Russian state's propensity to use overwhelming force to quash all open resistance to massive change.

    While we should be careful to accept any cliches about eternal Russian styles of government, Massie's Peter does seem to foreshadow Alexander II and Lenin and Stalin and even Gorbachev, by overawing all opposition to the often violent introduction of widespread economic and even cultural change.  For Peter's terrifying and spectacular use of state power, ensured that Old Believers remained at the fringes of society, and that few Russians dared to openly express opposition to new clothes, styles, technologies, capital cities, and military reforms.  Massie's Peter uses the state to engage in almost perpetual warfare.  He uses it to found a new capital and enact countless reforms.   However, everyday Russian resistance to centralized power and even Western cultural norms seems to have been silenced but not destroyed altogether.  Russians can be removed from politics but they cannot be coerced into embracing foreign and unfamiliar approaches to modernity.