Peter the Great and the Lessers

“Marriage of Dwarfs at the Court of Peter the Great”

I am about 200 pages into Robert K. Massie’s biography of Peter the Great, which won the Pulitzer in 1981 and was adapted for an I-do-not-remember-it, Emmy-winning miniseries that aired on NBC in 1986. The book is quite readable, and though it has a few ungainly qualities (none of which I will discuss here) I would recommend it to fans of the era or the subject. One especially bright spot is that Massie leavens Peter’s story with multipage asides on relevant historical events and figures, so just as Peter opens Russia up to the West the reader, too, is allowed to brush the Oriental off his shoulders.

Massie also tosses in a lot of dwarf references. Peter the Great, if the Internet can be believed, was obsessed with dwarfs, which is probably part-nonsense and is, for sure, neither here nor there. But Massie addresses all of this only obliquely and, anyway, displays no irony or other affectation in bringing dwarfs up. Which I suppose is as it should be, but it makes for curious reading when only Russian dwarfs make the cut.

The first mention is that Peter, as a boy, and as already mentioned here, had as playmates a staff of specially trained dwarfs. Which leads me to wonder what those office parties were like. (“So help me, Bob, another week of ‘Hide the Thimble’ and I am joining the circus!”)

It says here that a man raised thusly, and without want, might be forgiven for being obsessed with dwarfs, you know, if that is what he was.

After that, in Massie’s book, dwarfs come up regularly, like the drumbeat of chapter headings. To name a few, they man Peter’s toy carriage (p. 25), which is pulled by four dwarf ponies and, according to Massie, was “a favorite sight on state occasions.” In the bloody uprising of Kremlin guards in 1682 (p. 46), court dwarfs were forced to help the insurgents find their victims, and I think one was fatally cleaved by halberds. And during his so-called Great Embassy, Peter, who traveled with his ambassadors in a kind of incognito as they toured Europe, insisted on bringing along “his favorite dwarf” when the group was to visit the Hague. When Peter was told the carriage was already too crowded, Massie writes (p. 198) that he replied, “Very well, then I’ll put him on my knees.”

I find it all perhaps unnaturally interesting because nowadays it seems that the teenage comedy film cannot be made without some kind of crude, dwarf-based humor. Really, we are standing astride the gawping head of a beastly line of fart gags and short jokes and such that stretches past people like Jason Acuna, of Jackass fame (2001), to Verne Troyer, the Mini-Me of “Austin Powers” (1997), and definitely earlier than that, though I am loath to contemplate who, what and when.

Peter, though, is not likely to have employed his playmates and favorites in humiliating circuses of bawdy humor. (Well, maybe he did.) Here we are talking about a head of state, raised in large part by a whole team of little people, snuggling with a dwarf in a crowded carriage before meeting a foreign king. He apparently arranged lavish weddings and funerals for his dwarfs, too, but more on that later.

And never mind the sable-fringed garments and his royal appurtenances, Peter’s profile would have been striking alongside a tiny retinue: all who met Peter commented on how tall he was.

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  1. Pingback: ‘Peter the Great: His Life and World’ « Patos Papa

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