Peter the Great Summary

Robert K. Massie

Peter the Great

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Peter the Great Summary

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Peter the Great: His Life and World, published in 1981, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Robert K. Massie about the fascinating and tumultuous life of Peter the Great, the Russian Tsar responsible for bringing medieval Russia into modernity during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In five parts, “Old Muscovy,” “The Great Embassy,” “The Great Northern War,” “On the European Stage,” and “The New Russia,” the book outlines the important historical events that changed Russia’s destiny. Although long in length, this epic work’s use of vigorous detail echoes the same attention and ruthless passion that Peter the Great devoted to his country.

The biography begins with a description of the early days of Moscow under the inefficient reign of Tsar Alexis during the 1670s, and the birth of his son Peter in 1672. When Tsar Alexis passes away in 1675, his son from his first marriage, Fyodor, inherits the throne. However, Fyodor is an invalid and dies when Peter is 10, leaving Peter to reluctantly inherit the throne and become co-tsar with his elder half-brother Ivan V. Ivan is next in line to the throne, as the oldest remaining son from Alexis’ first marriage, but like his brother, he is not in good health. The fact that Ivan must share the title of Tsar with Peter causes an uproar in the family and Ivan’s sister, Sophia Alekseyevna, leads a rebellion to fight the choice of Peter as Tsar. During this rebellion, the young Peter witnesses the bloodshed and death of many friends and family members, and this has a great impact on him. This bloody beginning to his political life sets the stage for his future and foreshadows much of the violence and cruelty that will define his reign in years to come.

Peter grows to be an astonishing six-foot-seven man of adventure, with all kinds of interests in the world around him, but with a specific passion for ship-building. During “The Great Embassy,” Peter and his military cohorts attempt to secure Russian access to the North coastline of the Black Sea and realize the need for securing an alliance with European countries in order to do so. They travel through Europe to learn how to accomplish this and, during these travels, Peter sees how medieval Russia is in comparison with its European counterparts, especially in terms of the arts and sciences. Peter begins to accumulate the knowledge that will be needed to bring Russia up to speed. “The Embassy” ends abruptly when Peter hears of a rebellion occurring back home.

On his trip back to Russia, however, he is convinced by August II, the King of Poland, to join a dramatic war against Sweden known as “The Great Northern War.” This section of the book delves into European history and their wars of the seventeenth century. The early years of war also introduce Peter’s second wife, a lowly peasant who would later be to be known as Catherine I. She secretly begins bearing Peter’s children before their marriage and devotes herself to him for the rest of his life. The rise of his close friend Menshikov is described, along with Peter’s clash with the young Charles XII of Sweden.

The Northern War lasts for many years. During this time, Peter travels west as an influential monarch. He creates rules and regulations for Russia based on what he is learning in the West and finally founds the city of St. Petersberg, an emblem of the West.

One of the main themes permeating Peter the Great is that of duty, which Peter was slow to honor because of his penchant for carousing during his younger days. As he gains experience and learns practicalities, he takes on great responsibilities. His reign covers twenty years of war and requires ruthless sacrifice.

Historians have often expressed mixed thoughts about Peter’s handling of the westernization of Russia, as well as his cruelty and taste for torture and manipulation. Massie keeps a neutral viewpoint on Peter’s barbaric nature, in the context of European culture at that time. The emphasis of this expansive biography is not in judging Peter’s actions but in seeing the massive extent of his accomplishments, his determination to secure access to the Black Sea, and the monumental changes he instated that changed Russian history.

Massie, a Rhodes scholar, is known as an expert on the Russian royal family. He has written extensively on the last Emperor and Empress of Russia, Nicholas II and Alexandra of Hesse, and his most recent work is Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, published in 2011. By far, however, Peter the Great: His Life and World has won the most acclaim and was adapted into a NBC mini-series in 1986. It won three Emmy awards, including one for Outstanding Miniseries starring, Maximilian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, and Laurence Olivier.