PETER THE GREAT By Henri Troyat Translated from the French by Joan Pinkham Dutton. 392 pp. $22.95
ON A SHORE beaten by desolate waves HE stood . . ." Pushkin had no need to explain who, in the opening lines of "The Bronze Horseman," HE was. For the educated 19th-century Russian, the effects of HIS reign were everywhere. The historian, M.P. Pogodin, wrote in 1841:
"We wake up. What day is it? -- Peter the Great ordered us to count the months from January, the years from the birth of Christ.
"It is time to dress -- our clothes derive from fashions established by Peter the Great, made in factories which he devised, from wool shorn from the sheep which he introduced into Russia.
"Our newspapers are brought in -- Peter the Great established them, and the script superseding the Old Slavonic was designed by him: he cut out the letters with his own hands.
"Let us go to the University -- secular education was founded by Peter the Great.
"You have a rank and title? -- then it is according to the table of rank set out by Peter the Great, with a title formulated by him.
"You must go to law? -- its form was prescribed by Peter the Great: it will be acted upon according to his General Reglement."
The Russian State when Peter I assumed the crown was a pitiful object. Land-locked but for the Arctic port of Arkhangelsk -- ice-free only three or four months of the year -- and bordered by a cordon of hostile powers, Sweden, Livonia, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire, all of whom were determined to keep her isolated and exploitable, Russia was effectively denied commerce both material and intellectual with the rest of Europe. The Renaissance, with the scientific and technical advances which stemmed from it, had passed her by: culturally she was no more than a decayed relic of past medieval splendor. Her political institutions were still weakened by 2 1/2 centuries of Tatar satrapy: political control was effected by fire, axe and the torture chamber, and was exercised by the Boyars who grouped themselves about the person of whichever member of the Romanov dynasty -- itself a Boyar family raised by fellow Boyars to the Imperium -- best suited their ambitions. Civil war and peasant rebellion were endemic, while speculative thought was confined to monastic wrangling over the length of beard or kaftan required for entry into Paradise, or whether one should bless oneself with two fingers or three.
When Peter the Great died in 1725, the Russian Empire extended to the port of Azov on the Black Sea, Russian armies were massed along the banks of the Pruth and the Dniester, the Baltic coastline from Vyborg in Finland to Riga in Latvia was firmly and irrevocably under Russian control, while Russian fleets roamed the Baltic and Gulf of Bothnia at will. The military might of Sweden's Charles XII and his Livonian allies lay broken by Russian arms, the Kindom of Poland was in terminal decline and the Ottoman Empire was in retreat. English diplomats were already thrashing about in search of allies who would contain any further Russian advance, thus establishing a somewhat paranoid tradition of foreign policy which extends to the present day.
RUSSIAN OPINION regarding Peter I's achievements has been divided -- and not only along "European" or Slavophile lines. To the scientist-poet Lomonosov ("He was your God, he is your God, O Russia!"), as to most historians of the Stalin era, he was a genius without failings. The father of Russian historians, Pushkin's friend and mentor, N.M. Karamzin, was not so sure. In 1817, he wrote of the new "intelligentsia": "We have become citizens of the world, but in some respects we have ceased to be Russian citizens. That is the legacy of Peter I."
Pushkin, in "The Bronze Horseman," uniquely encapsulated the Russian experience of Peter I's achievements, and in so doing gave it a universal application. The protagonist of his poem, the wretched civil service clerk, Evgeniy, sees all his dreams and aspirations destroyed by Peter's new capital city and by the huge equestrian statue of its founder which presides over it; he is nevertheless held in thrall by his admiration for those very things which are the cause of his misfortunes. Pushkin provides the answer to the questions which must haunt the mind of any reader of Henri Troyat's latest venture into popular biography. Why was it that the Boyars submitted to the liquidation of their entire class? Why did the Streltsi -- the thuggish Praetorian Guard of the early Romanov period -- allow themselves to be butchered out of existence? Why did the Orthodox Church yield up its power, wealth and privileges? Why did the ordinary Russian people submitt themselves to the will of a psychotic tyrant who worked them to death in tens of thousands, taxed them into destitution, massacred entire townships as a demonstration of his authority and imposed a condition of serfdom on virtually the entire peasant class?
These are questions to which Troyat never even remotely addresses himself, any more than he examines the etiology of Peter's awesome yet appallingly maimed personality.
Troyat's is a strangely old-fashioned work. Enormously readable (and in a translation from the original French which must be a model of its kind), it has an irresistible story to tell -- that of incredible success against seemingly hopeless odds. But as a contribution to Russian studies, it is simply a non-event. Dmitry Blagoy, doyen of Soviet Pushkin studies, once remarked of Troyat's Pushkin that it read like a 19th-century French sentimental novel. Peter the Great reads like a 19-century English historical novel. As in his Pushkin, Troyat assembles a mishmash of authoritative primary source material, gossip and hearsay and presents it all as deserving of equal credence. Colorful episodes, particularly where they are erotic, sado-masochistic or excremental, are dwelt upon. Events of vitally important historical significance, such as the imposition of serfdom or the establishment of the "arriviste" Petrine nobility, are dismissed in a few sentences in the penultimate chapter, where they cannot obstruct the flow of a racy, entertaining narrative.
Peter the Great is a genuine treat for any reader who knows nothing of Russian history (it demands no background knowledge and provides very little), and who enjoys the relaxation of a good read with no puritanical compulsion to improve the mind. The English-speaking reader who is seeking a readable account that also provides insight into the emergence of the Russian state as a world power, or the institution of a social structure which contained within it the seeds of the downfall of czarist rule, or even into the psychology of effective tyranny, had best stay with Robert K. Massie's Peter the Great (1980).
Glen Petrie is the author of "The Fourth King," a novel about Pushkin.