Although I’m a big fan of more recent Russian/Soviet history, I know next to nothing about their pre-Lenin story. I picked this book up pretty randomly, mostly because I recognized Peter’s name and because it won a Pulitzer. Randomness served me well, because it was pretty fantastic.
At the end of the 1600s Russia was still a largely medieval place. The Renaissance never made it that far east, and the country was deep in thrall to an apparently limitless fear of modernization and, above all, of western Europe. Into this frozen place steps 10-year-old Peter, who was appointed co-czar with his half-brother Ivan. Peter very nearly didn’t survive childhood thanks to a palace coup led by his sister, Sophia, but survive he did, wresting power away from her in his late teens.
Peter is a hell of a character. He stood a gargantuan six feet, seven inches at a time when most European men were under six feet tall. Peter enjoyed dressing as a laborer and working alongside his subjects in shipyards and on great construction projects. Even more horrifying to his subjects was his habit of rubbing shoulders with western European expatriates. European ideas quickly took root in Peter’s mind, and he worked tirelessly to drag Russia into the modern world. He reformed everything from the church to the military to women’s rights; women in Peter’s childhood were little more than prisoners in their own homes, yet in the next century four of its sovereigns were women (culminating in Catherine the Great).
The story of Peter’s exertions – and the rebellions and conspiracies they spawned – was fascinating. I know very little of European history in this period, but Massie had me covered. He took great pains to fill in the blanks and give context, complete with chapters that are mini-biographies of Charles XII and Louis XIV. (And these intrusions were handled so organically that I never felt like I was being subjected to an exposition dump.)
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in either Russia or seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Massie’s Catherine the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra just got added to my to-read list.