Peter the Great
A Biography
Lindsey Hughes
285 pp, € 35.75
isbn/issn: 0-300-09426-4

Peter the Great

(recensie: Henk Looijesteijn)

Russian history seems to revolve around Peter the Great. Few rulers have made such an indelible impression on Russia as Peter, and even modern day Russian Communist leaders looked to him as an admirable example. Stalin thought Peter the best of the tsars; not only did he admire Peter immensely, but he emulated and surpassed Peters ruling techniques in brutality and shared Peters belief that only the knout would induce the Russians to move forward, in stead of wallowing in their ancient and deep-rooted conservatism.

Stalin may have been an avid student of Peters government, but in this, as in many other things, he followed in the footsteps of Peters monarchical successors, who nearly all used Peters government as a model and used themes and slogans first coined by the restless tsar in shaping their own policies. Peter the Great was regarded as the turning-point in Russian history, when Russia emerged from centuries of retarded 'Asian' isolation as a new European power, transformed by the sheer will and vision of one man.

Dutch technical skill

There is no doubt that Peters reign was a turning-point, though it was less abrupt than many historians have thought for a time. Westernising reforms were introduced for the first time by Ivan the Terrible, but Peters grandfather and father also looked to the west, especially for reforming the backward Russian army. But it was Peter who came to believe that Russia needed more than partial reforms to become a great power in its own right. To become an equal of other European powers, Russia should reform as soon as possible, and after his accession Peter started to force Russia to westernise and reform in a breath-taking pace. During his entire personal rule -from about 1694 to his death in 1725- Peter would not stop issuing proclamations, edicts and laws. Not content with listening to the advice and stories of his friends in the western community of Moscow, Peter travelled twice to the west, visiting among others King William III, whom he greatly admired. He also spent a long time in the Netherlands and Amsterdam, where he established excellent contacts with such men as Amsterdam burgomaster Witsen, and where he hoped to learn in person of Dutch technical skill. His admiration for anything Dutch even caused him to sign with 'Piter', the Dutch version of his name.

Claustrophobic Russian life

Much of this can be read in Lindsey Hughes' eminently readable biography of Peter, the first academic biography in the English language for a long time. Until now the most comprehensive and easiest accessible biography was 'Peter the Great' of Robert K. Massie, which however appeared in 1981, when the Russian archives were still inaccessible. In the twenty years since Russian archives have opened up, and Russian and western historians are now busy studying Russian history at the roots again. Unsurprisingly, Peter the Great has drawn a lot of attention, as many historians sought to look for the roots of the Russian tradition of autocratic government.

Lindsey Hughes is professor of Russian history at the School for Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London, and wrote a classic history of Peters age, 'Russia in the Age of Peter the Great'. That is a voluminous book of about 600 pages, and her most recent book is in some ways an excerpt of the earlier work. Hughes wanted to write a comprehensive biographical account of Peter for the student and average reader in which she could also treat with Peters personality, as she had not been able to do in her previous book. In ten chronologically arranged chapters she deals with the various stages of Peters life, followed by two chapters on the Petrine legacy and the commemoration of Peter since his death until the present day. For the last two chapters she did a lot of new research, as the 'popularity' of Peter has reached a new height now that Saint-Petersburg celebrates her tricentennial. For the average reader who is already acquainted with Peters life - as many undoubtedly are - these two last chapters provide much new insight in the effects of Peters reign and the way he has been seen by subsequent generations. It is interesting to note that Peter has always attracted both unrestrained admiration and equally lavish vilification.

There is a good reason for such a mixed view of Peter and his reign, as Hughes shows in the ten preceding chapters chronicling Peters life. Peter believed that the Russians couldn't accept anything new unless they were forced to, and that barbarism could only be defeated with its own weapons. Hence Peters ruthless repression of any conservative criticism. Peter didn't spare the knout in his attempt to modernize Russia as quickly as possible in a welter of lawgiving and war. Russian life in the vicinity of the tsar became regulated to a claustrophobic extent. Such was the law giving activity of Peter that a coherent code of Russian laws wasn't completed until the 1830's.

The Antichrist

Peters efforts to modernize were accompanied by increasing repression, a network of spies informing the tsar of every movement and utterance of those who enjoyed the mixed blessing of living near the tsar. If any discontent was reported to the tsar, the discontented were prone to swift repression. It was dangerous to differ in opinion with the tsar - a pattern which would afterwards repeat itself time and time again in Russian history. One of Peters victims once said to him: 'The mind needs space, but you restrict it'. A timeless Russian complaint as twentieth-century Russian history has proven.

While many historians have focused on Peters intentions rather than the consequences of his reforms, Hughes points at the apparent superficiality of many of Peters reforms. Not infrequently Peter changed his mind on a policy, and his subjects were expected to follow new directives without demurring, and without being allowed to ask for what reason Peter demanded them to act in such and such a way. Peters coupled modernizing reforming zeal with the autocratic notion that the tsar knows best, and didn't bother to explain his policies to his subjects. They were to obey him, not understand him. As a result, whenever the tsar turned his back many Russians reverted to their old Russian ways again, and the further from his courts in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, the less ordinary Russians would heed his constant flow of laws and commands. In faraway Siberia, Peter hardly could influence matters, and his officials often complained of the massive disobedience to Peters orders. Peter usually responded by harsher punishments, which failed to suppress the widespread conservative resistance, who in their turn didn't hesitate to brand the tsar as the Antichrist.

President Putin

When reading Hughes' account of Peters reforms, one gets the distinct impression it was almost unbearable to live in close proximity with the tsar, who laid excessive claims on his subjects in both time and resources. At the end of his reign many Russians fled from the tsar's dominion, exhausted by his disruptive policies. By the time Peter died, parts of Russia had been plunged into chaos, bands of displaced peasants marauding into the proximity of Saint-Petersburg itself. His ministers spent the following years softening and abolishing many of Peters harshest laws, even though publicly he continued to be worshipped as the great reformer of Russia. His industrializing efforts were abandoned, as was his prestigious but costly navy. Saint-Petersburg however remained the capital, and the Russian nobility continued to westernise. Freedom and competition however were notably absent in Petrine and post-Petrine Russia, and the absolute monarchical model Peter and his successors adhered too forestalled any development to an open society. As a result, many of the problems plaguing Peter are still bothering today's president Putin.

Rude games

Hughes not only chronicles Peters reign in detail, but also charts the changes, or lack of changes, his policies thrust upon Russia. Sometimes the detail becomes too much, and the narrative becomes a bit repetitive as Hughes closely follows the court calendar, and the reader may tire somewhat from what seems a monotonous sequence of regatta's, official feasts and law-giving activities. The activities of Peter and his direct circle are chronicled in detail. In the end however Hughes rewards the persistent reader with clear analysis of Peters purposes which lay behind all his actions, even seemingly irrational ones, such as his drinking bouts with his courtiers. In reality, Peter himself seldom got incapacitating drunk in order to observe his courtiers and hear what they would blurt out when intoxicated. His rude games often served the same purpose, and when they on occasion caused his subjects physical suffering, it was to remind them that the Autocrat of all the Russia's brooked no disobedience. Hughes' achievement lies amongst others in reinterpreting these seemingly irrational, 'personal' actions of Peter as part of his uncompromising desire to whip Russia from the Middle Ages into the eighteenth century.

In a meritorious scholarly work such as this, minor flaws should not weigh to heavily. Nevertheless I feel compelled to point at some mistakes Hughes makes in writing Dutch geographical and personal names, and on page 117 she has Louis XIV succeeded by his son Louis XV: Louis XV was however great-grandson to the Sun King, and had become successor after the premature deaths of his grandfather and father. These minor faults however are in no way detrimental to the achievement of the author in interpreting even the seemingly irrational aspects of Peter the Great. Any student of Russian history should take note of Hughes' book.