Peter the Great: A Biography by Lindsey Hughes - review by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Colossus who Married His Best Friend’s Moll

Peter the Great: A Biography


Yale University Press 275pp £19.95 order from our bookshop

Here at last is a fascinating and compellingly readable but also scholarly and crisply written biography of the brutal, debauched and brilliant tsar who formed modern Russia. Lindsey Hughes, Professor of Russian History at the School of Slavonic Studies, is our greatest living expert on the life of Peter the Great. In many ways she is the conscious heir of Isabel de Madariaga, our greatest living expert on Catherine the Great. De Madariaga wrote her classic Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (just republished by Phoenix Press) and followed it up with a short biography of Catherine; Hughes published her magisterial Russia in the Age of Peter the Great in 1998 – and now she follows it up with her superb short biography of Peter. Hughes tells the story coolly, but with a real eye for the human detail, a sympathy for character and a certain relish for the savagery of this bloody tale. She also has the academic authority to analyse the court politics and culture. This is one of those subjects about which there is no need to exaggerate, or to propagate the many lies, misunderstandings and rumours that tend to pollute less scholarly accounts: the reality is as sensational and outrageous as any novelist could wish.

In 1682, there is the formative experience of the ten-year- old Peter watching terrified as the court musketeers, the streltsy, savagely murder the chief minister, Matveev, by impaling him on their pikes. Later, Peter becomes engaged in a struggle with his own tough and intelligent half-sister Sophia (of whom Hughes wrote the first full biography). Finally, he manages to depose her and take control. It is now that he sets up the famous Guards Regiments that start as toy armies and become the heart of the modern Russian army, remaining so until 1917. He gathers round himself a court of dwarves, noblemen, foreigners and parvenus united by their loyalty to him, by metabolisms strong enough to withstand colossal amounts of vodka , and in most cases by an ability to organise and serve. Already intent on modernisation, he sets off on his Grand Embassy, travelling incognito under the alias of ‘Peter Mikhailov’ – studying shipbuilding in Holland and wrecking houses in London like an early species of rock star. But he is called back by another streltsy revolt, which he crushes with what can only be called Stalinist thoroughness, personally wielding the axe and assisting in the torture chambers, demonstrating something that Westerners always find baffling: in Russia, modernising reformers can also be bloodthirsty killers.

He then embarks on the modernisation of Russian society and the military with an indefatigable energy. Hughes shows that the Great Northern War against Sweden was what provided the real imp etus for this reform. Peter moves his capital away from dreary Moscow and creates a modern city, St Petersburg, on the Baltic, to symbolise Russian commitment to reform in the eyes of the Baltic, of Europe , and of Peter himself. Like g re at Soviet enterprises of the future, the city is built on the bones of peasant-slaves. Meanwhile, the young and talented King Charles XII of Sweden invades Russia, an experience that prefigures the efforts of Napoleon and Hitler – and ends with a similar disaster. Although no peace is signed until the Treaty of Nystadt in 1721 , Peter’s victory at Poltava is one of the decisive battles of history: he is now free to build his Baltic Fleet and beautify his Petersburg.

Hughes is especially good on Peter’s two great collaborators in his astonishing achievements. First there is his illiterate but gifted best friend, trusted comrade, competent general, relentless carouser and Governor of Petersburg, Alexandr Menshikov, supposedly a piemaker’s son, whom Peter raises to Prince. Their relationship is intimate and turbulent: Hughes thinks they may well have been lovers, but they certainly shared both mistresses and dreams. He was a boon companion, who, like Peter, loved theatre and playacting. Menshikov is one of those titanic eighteenth-century figures who lack a definitive biography.

The woman they shared became Peter’s empress, Catherine I. Born Martha Skavronskaya, a peasant girl on the make, she was Menshikov’s moll before Peter fell in love with her. It was a wonderful love affair and partnership. She was clearly a formidable and shrewd woman, and one Peter needed. He married her, raised her to the purple, and she ultimately succeeded him as ruler in her own right. This troika is at the heart of Peter’s world – and of Hughes’s portrait of him.

His son and heir Tsarevich Alexis is hardly the first scion of such a dynamic colossus to have been crushed by his heritage. But his story serves to remind us how brutal Peter could be, and how dangerous a game Russian court politics was. Even for the Tsarevich, any threat to the Tsar’s absolute power risked a terrible death. After fleeing to Austria and being hunted down, Alexis is tortured by his own father and dies as a result.

The last years are a time of great achievement and darkening cruelty. The Table of Ranks that defined Russian service and society until 1917, the Treaty of Nystadt and Peter’s assumption of the title of Emperor were triumphs. But there is sadness in the lack of a direct heir, which led to the coronation before his death of the peasant-empress Catherine. Then there is the mysterious scandal at Catherine’s own court that led to the beheading of William Mons, the young man with whom she may have been having an affair; his head was preserved in a bottle stored in Peter’s museum of freaks and deformities. Peter the Great died in 1725 at the age of just fifty-two, exhausted by his incessant travels, wars, parties and reforms, to be succeeded by a peasant girl with no relation whatsoever to the Romanov dynasty. Hers, too, is a remarkable story.

Peter requires no revisionism but he benefits from Hughes’s light touch and authoritative analysis. His reputation was towering in his lifetime and has remained so ever since: it is no coincidence that the succeeding Romanovs and Stalin alike worshipped this Herculean giant, whose excesses and achievements seem to symbolise Russia itself.

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