Nikolai Tolstoy

Monster of Superhuman Energy and Moral Vigour

Russia in the Age of Peter the Great


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Before settling on the idea of writing War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy nurtured a project of writing an historical novel set in the time of Peter the Great. For several years he conducted extensive research in archives and published works, and eventually became proficient in understanding both the political events and the men and manners of the time. Eventually, however, he discarded the idea. This was in large part because, as he frankly confessed, he found the Weltanschauung of the era so remote from his own that he doubted his capacity to penetrate the minds of the protagonists of his proposed story.

Tolstoy was particularly repelled by what he repeatedly castigated as ‘those two most repulsive sides of Peter’s character: his cruelty and buffoonery’. When on a notorious occasion Peter acted as executioner himself, beheading his victims with a sword instead of an axe, he explained to a foreign eyewitness that his police had ‘caught certain robbers’. To which Tolstoy caustically responded: ‘But they did not catch Peter! In addition to the Tsar’s savage delight in ordering executions and tortures on a scale too horrible to contemplate, Tolstoy excoriated the debauched and blasphemous excesses of his ‘All-joking, All-Drunken Assembly’, which the Tsar convened regularly in order to indulge in spectacular excesses of inebriety and buffoonery.

Although Tolstoy was fascinated by the dramatic spectacle of Peter’s turbulent reign, his condemnation if anything hardened with time. In 1905, he declared: ‘So far as I am concerned, he was not so much cruel as simply a drunken blockhead (durak)’.

Peter’s colossal achievement and melodramatic private life have long polarised Russian opinion. To his successors he was the giant who had created a vast empire out of a remote Asiatic satrapy, brought Russia into the modern European world, and forced a backward and recalcitrant people into at least outward acceptance of civilised standards. Only the gentle and inadequate Nicholas II preferred to seek inspiration from Peter’s father, the ‘Gentle Tsar’, Alexei Mikhailovich.

Others regard Peter as a demon incarnate, who degraded the Church, flouted Muscovite traditions, and forced Russia into the materialistic, superficial and ultimately doomed straitjacket of Western European culture. Russia had her own traditions, argued the Slavophiles, epitomised by that unique quality of sobornost (spiritual community), which reflects at once eternal values and the peculiar nature of the Russian people.

On one issue everyone agrees: Peter’s dynamic and inexhaustible energy transformed the country beyond recognition. When Russia belatedly appeared on the European scene, it was as a country which had not experienced feudalism, or the Renaissance, or the Reformation. Philosophy, history, fiction, drama and fine art effectively remained unknown, and the beautiful but static imagery of the icon provided an apt symbol of the Muscovite intellectual outlook. At all levels of society, matters were ideally conducted po starine (as of old).

The Church’s use of Old Slavonic denied Russia access to classical and contemporary learning. No Russian is recorded as visiting Europe before the fifteenth century, and at Peter’s accession the only permanent foreign embassy was in Warsaw. Foreigners resident in Moscow were quarantined from the indigenous inhabitants in a special quarter. Russia’s armies comprised largely undisciplined hordes, and as a land-locked country she possessed no navy.

The first recorded diary written by a Russian is that kept by Peter Andreevich Tolstoy, direct ancestor of Leo, during his travels in the Mediterranean at Tsar Peter’s behest between 1697 and 1699. Regarded by his master as possessing ‘the sharpest mind in Russia’, Peter Tolstoy nevertheless found himself regularly at a loss to find adequate words to describe the cultural splendours of Italy.

In 1870 Leo Tolstoy opined that the innovating Tsar ‘was the instrument of his time, which for himself was agonising, but he was appointed by fate to introduce Russia into relations with the European world’. This view reflects Tolstoy’s indignant rejection of the idea that ‘great men’ alter the course of history. But if ever there was a figure to disprove this theory it is surely Peter himself. As Lindsey Hughes shows so clearly in her epoch-making study, it was above all Peter’s single-minded, indomitable energy and will that succeeded in transforming Russia to an extent which not even the most obdurate believer in historical determinism can convincingly deny.

The question no one can help but ask is: was it all worth it? Reading again of the Emperor’s abominable cruelties, I find myself sharing Tolstoy’s and Pushkin’s view that it was not. The scale of the suffering is exceeded in horror only by the evident pleasure Peter derived from witnessing it. The account of his attendance at the prolonged torture of his own son reveals an extent of barbarity from which any civilised mind must recoil.

And yet… Peter the Great cannot be dismissed as just another Lenin, Stalin, or Hitler. The ordered Rechtsstaat he sought to create in his country represented a sincere and not unworthy aim. The creation of St Petersburg and of the Russian navy were far from negligible attainments. Above all, his superhuman energy and daunting moral vigour place him in a unique category, even among those few historical figures who have been accorded the sobriquet of ‘the Great’.

Thanks to Hughes’s beautifully written and profoundly scholarly book, for the first time the English-speaking reader is provided with a sufficiently full and just account of the events and institutions of Peter’s reign to allow such judgements to be attempted. It is a measure of the skill with which she handles a vast range of evidence that few of her readers will be likely to arrive at any glib assessment of one of the most astounding men who ever lived. Her work will without doubt long remain the standard text and is supremely worthy to stand, as she aspires, alongside Isabel de Madariaga’s equally magnificent Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great.

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