‘Peter the Great: His Life and World’

Peter the Great: His Life and WorldPeter the Great: His Life and World by Robert K. Massie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Consistently interesting, and well-supplied with context.


That I was reading this book prompted a slightly absurd discussion via e-mail with my mother, who apparently considers herself something of an expert on the subject, having once traveled to Russia. “Did you know,” she wrote, “he started a museum to educate the people and no one came and so he gave away free shots of vodka after they went thru museum.” The museum is not there anymore, she said, but there is a gift shop there that still hands out the booze.

I wrote her that I thought he was interesting. And I do. Peter the Great was very curious, and made it a project to learn new things, which made him unusual among his peers. He taught himself carpentry, shipbuilding and, even, minor surgery.

Peter in Holland

“Peter in Holland,” artist unknown, 18th century (Wikipedia).

Yes, surgery. My favorite tidbit was that when he was in Holland, when he wasn’t rubbing elbows with the louts at the shipyard, he started palling around with a doctor. And then started watching dissections. And then (eek!) started performing operations. The author said that members of his court were loath to mention they weren’t feeling well for fear that Peter would want to cut them open. He apparently carried a case of surgical tools everywhere he went for the rest of his life.

My mother replied, “He could be a very mean man.”

I wrote back, “I think all the tsars were mean.”

She said, “Peter was meaner than most.”

“Peter was mean,” I said, “I have no doubt. But there were lots of tsars, you know. One of them was nicknamed ‘the Terrible.’”

She said, “The idea of getting free vodka even hundreds of years later is his best redeeming feature.”

Over all, I think his only redeeming or “great” quality was his energy, and that was only good in the sense of comparing him to his peers. He certainly didn’t do anything to help ordinary Russians; of course, no kings at the time were. Unfortunately, a lot of this energy was directed at provoking his neighbors; for instance, he fights long war against the Swedes, who were meatball-sucking troublemakers enough as it was.

So, Peter the Great was not a “great” guy, and probably not even remarkable if you consider that any tsar would have been free to do some of those things.

But he was interesting.

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