Peter the Great

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 March, 2009, 12:00am

Peter the Great

by Derek Wilson

Arrow Books


He arranged for his eldest son and heir, Alexei, to be tortured. Alexei died - a high price to pay for unproven treachery.

Like Stalin, Peter I of Russia (1672-1725), also known as Peter the Great, was a paranoid, capricious sadist. Just for fun, during his boyhood, Peter would make his 'fattest lords' sledge over newly set ice on the lake where he lived outside Moscow, triggering drownings. Another hobby was watching houses burn.

At first glance, the compliment 'great' appears entirely inappropriate except in terms of stature: Peter was a 2.03-metre giant. His big, wild eyes were set in a head that continually shook.

Unable to idle, he strode about with jerky, energetic steps, his eyes darting from side to side while his lips twitched. When not badgering foreigners about events in the wider world, sailing his boat or drilling his play regiments, he threw himself into boisterous, drunken revels.

According to Derek Wilson, his unconventional lifestyle and physical separation from the trappings of Muscovite convention helped Peter learn to think laterally. Intensely inquisitive, he was always keen to know how things worked and how they were made. He outmanoeuvred his half-sister Sophia in a battle for power. When his 'co-tsar' brother, Ivan, died in 1696, Peter assumed full authority.

Blessed with formidable drive, the delinquent duly blossomed into an autocrat who would inspire Vladimir Putin and change the face of Russia, cementing it to Europe, among other feats.

Wilson, who is also responsible for a host of big-ticket books on the likes of Charlemagne, conveys Peter's greatness with aplomb. 'He was able to turn his dreams into reality,' and the scope of his achievement is breathtaking,' the biographer writes.

'He created a navy from scratch and provided it with a Baltic base from which to access the world's oceans; he built a whole new city in the prevailing European style; he introduced western dress fashions and made his nobles shave off their beards; he reformed the calendar; he freed women from their traditional domestic shackles; and he successfully weathered the storms that these and other changes inevitably whipped up among the conservative elements of church and state.'

But his accomplishments came at an incalculable cost. Hundreds of thousands of men and women died on battlefields and building sites so Peter Mikhailov could fulfil his dream. Weighing why Peter possessed so little compassion, Wilson pinpoints two reasons. First, he was a man of his time, which generally leaned towards barbarity. Second, during his childhood, Peter was desensitised by witnessing a rebellious lynch mob's vicious attack, an incident graphically described in Wilson's opening salvo.

Alas, the chronicle is generally a touch short on 'oomph', slackly divided into mountainous paragraphs that, stacked up, sometimes seem to amount more to a dissection of 17th-century internecine European politics than a biography. Peter spasmodically fades from the picture.

Still, some contextual military detail is as riveting as any delivered by the current crop of 'milbloggers' documenting war in the Middle East. Consider the account of the suffering endured by the forces of Peter's arch enemy, Sweden's king Charles XII, during the brutal winter of 1708-09.

'We experienced such cold as I shall never forget,' recalls a Lutheran pastor. 'The spittle from mouths turned to ice before it reached the ground, sparrows fell frozen from the roofs to the ground. You could see some men without hands, others without hands and feet, others deprived of fingers, face, ears and noses, others crawling like quadrupeds.'

Lest we forget, Wilson's biography underscores that war has always been vile, more degrading than glorious.