RUSSIAN HISTORY presents a striking picture of alternating periods of stagnation and cataclysmic change. Success or failure in foreign affairs has often determined the course of events. Military victories in 1812 and 1945 led to periods of autocratic conservatism at home. Conversely, setbacks on the international front triggered such dramatic upheavals as the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and the fall of tsardom in 1917. Only through the actions of a mighty personality has radical transformation been induced from within.

Strangely, the impact of powerful personalities on Russian history has been grossly neglected by the experts. The scholars have told us of bureaucratic politics in the Kremlin and the machinations of reformist administrators. But there is still no fully satisfactory political biography of any tsar or party chief in any western language. The few ventures into psychobiography are tentative at best, with the exception of studies of such writers as Gogol and Herzen.

Against this background, Robert Massie's turn to the titanic figure of Peter the Great reveals a sure historical instinct. Without the stimulus of a debacle abroad, this Russian "emperor" (he himself rejected the title "tsar" as too Muscovite) shook the very foundations of Russia's cultural moorings and created the legal and institutional basis for the absolutist state that endured to February 1917.

In modern terms, Peter was a hegemonist. By pushing Russia's borders to the west and south, he made her a factor in all future European diplomacy. He accomplished this by mobilizing the largest army in Europe and by reorganizing the country to satisfy that army's gargantuan appetite for men, money and equipment. The secondary effects of this reorganization included both the establishment of the Academy of Sciences and the strengthening of serfdom. No wonder that Stalin found in Peter a kindred spirt!

Massie's account of Peter's frenetic activity runs to a third of a million words. The narrative is festooned with lively anecdotes, many drawn from the memoirs of foreign diplomats at the Russian court. In 855 pages of text one can learn much of Peter's activities in war and peace, as well as his tastes in wine (vodka), women (foreign), and song (he was a drummer). At times engrossing, the detail is more often exhausting. Missing is a principle of selection. Massie, an intellectual democrat, seems to believe that all facts are created equal. Perhaps in reaction against the academic penchant for interpreting the life out of history, he comes close to abandoning interpretation entirely. Yet everything about Peter's career is controversial. Did he use barbarous means to promote civilizing ends? Or, rather, did he exploit western ideas and technology to shore up Muscovite autocracy? Massie provides no clear answer.

Peter's pesonality is no less problematic than his political acts. A chronic nervous disorder, fits of violent rage, a pathetic dependency upon his intimates, and, at times, a surly contempt for the very authority he embodied, are the hallmarks of this enigmatic giant. Ever suspicious, Peter accused his own son of plotting patricide and proceeded to hound the pitiable Tsarevich Alexei to death. No respecter of authority himself, Peter dedicated his life to dismantling many of the institutions and values inherited from his forefathers. Yet in this, as in everything else, Peter was ambivalent. He mocked the Orthodox Church but built its last great monastery; he ridiculed the old nobility but enriched many of its members; he tortured his son but pounded his head against the wall in guilt over his own deeds.

Maybe we should be grateful that Massie abjured the pompous jargon of psychohistory and relied instead on the biographer's traditional literary tools. Massie, after all, is a writer of great skill, and in Nicholas and Alexandra presented biographical sketches of stunning poignance and immediacy. These qualities are much less evident in Peter. Instead of a sustained literary focus on the tsar's personality we are given a kind of anthropological trait list. All the elements are there, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Yet the parts themselves are fascinating, and until another competent writer wrestles with the evidence in some dozen languages and confronts the debates over Peter in hundreds of scholarly monographs, Massie's biography will remain good reading.