Russia in the Age of Peter the Great by Lindsey Hughes - review by Nikolai Tolstoy

Nikolai Tolstoy

Monster of Superhuman Energy and Moral Vigour

Russia in the Age of Peter the Great


Yale University Press 640pp £25 order from our bookshop

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

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