Since my college days, I’ve always been fascinated with the “great people” of history. Though they promise entertaining stories in their own right, I’ve always wondered in my reading if there are common trends between them all. Is there some specific quirk or two of personality that drives one to do incredible things in their life? Is it simply being born in the right place at the right time? Or is it a combination of factors that I will never be able to fully uncover or categorize cleanly?
I don’t know and I may never know. But I have no shame in admitting that, even without that goal, I am driven to be a better, stronger person by reading about the colorful and impressive personalities that have walked the world. From the cleverness of a Cleopatra to the steadfastness of a Churchill, I get an enormous kick out of learning about these figures and trying to aspire to their higher qualities. Inspiring others to do the same is one of those ongoing and infinite goals in my life that will never truly be finished. But boy will it be fun to try. So please don’t mind me when I wax eloquent about some fantastic biography I’ve found and rush to share with you, just like I will with this one.
The Great Modernizer
Peter the Great, by Robert K. Massie, is, quite simply, one of the best history books I’ve ever read. That is not a statement I bandy about lightly. At 928 pages, this is a doorstopper. But it is one that achieves what I previously thought was impossible for a book of such length: it is an incredible page turner. Peter the Great is the man most famed for hiding his face as Tsar of Russia, choosing to adopt the disguise of a commoner so he could travel across the Europe of 1697, seeking to learn as much as he could from an Enlightenment age far more advanced than his own. He spent months practicing as a surgeon. He trained under blacksmiths, architects, and shipbuilders. He worked side-by-side with peasants in a time where the absolute power of kings & tsars was at its height. Peter was, quite simply, one of the strangest monarchs of his time, and the people of the era reflected that, marveling endlessly at him and everything he did.
Peter’s insatiable desire to understand the world helps more than anything to make this biography engrossing. His personality demanded constant discovery, and every new experience for Peter brings the reader right along with him. Yet his was a lonely journey. Not many Russians truly shared Peter’s desire to recreate Russia in Europe’s image. They were loyal because they had to be and, as a result, Peter’s vision was largely embraced only by those European men and women who served in his army, and those he met in his childhood wanderings of the German quarter in Moscow. Despite opposition from entrenched and orthodox interests at home, Peter pushed defiantly to transform a medieval land into a more advanced and respected Russia that he and his people could be proud of in a rapidly modernizing world.
A Dream Distracted
But Peter’s reign was not a quiet one. Maybe if it were, he would have had more time to overcome the resistance of his people and allow Russia to surpass the greatest nations of his time. Instead, Peter was swept into multiple wars against the most powerful armies of the 17th and 18th century. It is one of the greatest strengths of the author that, after reading of these various conflicts, I was just as inspired to read about Peter’s enemies as I was to read about Peter himself.
Charles XII of Sweden comes to mind first and foremost. This was a child who, when he became king at the age of 15, was almost immediately attacked by a triple alliance of Denmark, Poland, and Peter’s Russia. All three nations sought to take advantage of Sweden under a young and inexperienced ruler. All were surprised as Charles eagerly suited up and proceeded to defeat every army thrown against him. Announcing that it was his mission from God to win this unjust war, he marched forward and overwhelmed Denmark and Poland. He then wheeled towards Russia, slapped the Tsar around the Ukraine region, pushed toward Moscow in the winter (always a questionable decision), retreated to the Ottoman Empire, and then spent years instigating multiple Turkish wars against Russia. This “Great Northern War” had Peter quickly grabbing access to the Baltic Sea and constructing his famed St. Petersburg, a city that he and Charles then spent almost their entire adult lives fighting to retain or regain control over. Charles XII’s incredible leadership, military genius, and long personal feud with Peter’s Russia ends up being one of the more incredible stories to come out of this biography.
Not all of the book is wars and modernization efforts though. There is an intense drama surrounding Peter’s heir, Alexis, a troubled young man who ends up being the opposite of everything Peter wanted out of his son. Alexis ends up getting executed. Then there is the dissent of the Cossacks, famous horsemen from the steppe who end up coming off like lawless cowboys along the frontier of Peter’s Russia. There’s King Louis XIV, the Sun King, of France, whose push for hegemony and massive war against most of the other western & central European powers ends up impacting Peter’s reign in a number of unforeseen ways.
Long story short, Peter the Great is a remarkable biography that touches on countless fascinating aspects of Peter’s life and the era in which he lived. To anyone with the barest hint of an interest in these topics, I recommend it highly.
If I get time, I plan to continue writing some more about Peter. In particular, his childhood and what drove him to clash with his people in favor of the European life is so strange to me. What compels a ruler to, in a way, turn away from his culture in favor of another? Are there any modern examples of this? I’ll have to think on this and report back.