Peter the Great



VOLTAIRE wanted “to know what were the steps by which men passed from barbarism to civilization.” 1 No wonder he was interested in Peter, for Peter embodied, if not that process, at least that effort, in his flesh and soul and people. Or hear another “Great,” Frederick II of Prussia, writing about Peter to Voltaire, a bit confusedly:

He was the only truly educated prince. He was not only the legislator of his country, but he understood perfectly all naval science. He was an architect, an anatomist, a surgeon, . . . an expert soldier, a consummate economist. . . . To make him the model of all princes he only needed an education less barbarous and ferocious. 2

We have noted that barbarous and ferocious education, the violence and bloodshed that surrounded Peter’s childhood, shocking his nervous system and accustoming him to brutality. Even in youth he suffered from a nervous tic, which may have been aggravated later by heavy drinking and venereal disease. 3 “He is subject to convulsions all over his body,” reported Burnet after visiting him in England in 1698. 4 “It is well known,” said an eighteenth-century Russian, “that this monarch . . . was subject to short but frequent brain attacks, of a somewhat violent kind. A sort of convulsion seized him, which for a certain time, and sometimes even for hours, threw him into such a distressing condition that he could not bear the sight of anyone, not even his nearest friends. This paroxysm was always preceded by a strong contortion of the neck towards the left side, and by a violent contraction of the muscles of the face.” 5 Yet he was robust and powerful. We are told that when he and Augustus II met they rivaled each other in crumpling silver plate in their hands. Kneller in 1698 pictured him as a youth in arms and regalia, quite incredibly gentle and innocent; later we find him more realistically portrayed as a stooping giant, six feet eight and a half inches tall, with full round face, large eyes and nose, and brown hair falling in curls rarely cut. His look of stern command hardly harmonized with his careless and untidy dress, his coarse, darned socks, his rudely cobbled shoes. While he put a nation in order he left his immediate surroundings in disorder wherever he went. He was so immersed in large endeavors that he grudged all time given to little things.

His manners, like his dress, were so informal that he might have been taken for a peasant rather than a king—except that he had none of the muzhik’s stolid patience. Sometimes his manners were worse than a peasant’s, because unrestrained by fear of a master or the law. Seeing a phallus in a collection of antiquities at Berlin, he ordered his wife to kiss it; when Catherine refused he threatened to have her beheaded; she still refused, and he was calmed only by receiving the object as a present to adorn his private room. 6In his conversation and correspondence he allowed himself the crudest obscenities. Time and again he reproved his closest friends with blows of his massive fist; he gave Menshikov a bloody nose, and kicked Lefort. His fondness for practical jokes occasionally took cruel forms; so he forced one of his aides to eat tortoises, another to drink a whole flask of vinegar, and young girls to down a soldier’s ration of brandy. He took undue pleasure in practicing dentistry, and those near him had to guard against the slightest complaint of a toothache; his forceps were always at hand. When his valet complained that his wife, on the score of pretended toothache, refused him the consolations of matrimony, he sent for her, forcibly extracted a sound tooth, and told her that more would be forthcoming if she continued celibate. 7

His lawless cruelty exceeded the degree in which it might be excused as normal or necessary in his time and land. The Russians were accustomed to cruelty, and were probably less sensitive to pain than persons of a subtler nervous organization; they may have needed a harsh discipline; but Peter’s almost personal massacre of the Streltsi suggests a sadistic pleasure in cruelty, an orgasm of blood; and no need of the state required to have two conspirators sliced to death inch by inch. 8 Peter was immune to pity or sentiment, and lacked the sense of justice that checked the whims of Louis XIV or Frederick the Great. His violations of his solemn word, however, were fully in the manner of the age.

Like the muzhik, Peter thought intoxication was a reasonable vacation from reality. He had taken upon himself all the burdens of the state, and the far greater task of transforming an Oriental people into Western civilization; festive drinking with his friends seemed a merited relief from these undertakings. He heartily accepted the peasant adage that drinking is the Russian’s joy. The ability to hold liquor was one of his measures of a man. When he was in Paris he wagered that his priest-confessor could drink more and remain stable than the priest-secretary of the French ministry; the contest went on for an hour; when the abbé rolled under the table Peter hugged his priest for having “saved the honor of Russia.” 9 About 1690 Peter and his intimates formed a band called the “MostDrunken Assembly [sobor] of Fools and Jesters.” Prince Feodor Romodanovsky was elected czar of the sobor; Peter accepted a subordinate position (as he did in the army and navy), and often in real life he pretended that Romodanovsky was Czar of Russia. Thesobor of drunkards was formally dedicated to the worship of Bacchus and Venus; it had an elaborate ritual, mimicking with grossness and obscenity those of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches; and much of this mock ritual was composed by Peter himself. The sobor took part in many official state celebrations. When its mock patriarch, Nikita Zatov, aged eighty-four, married a bride of sixty, Peter designed and commanded an ornate ribald ceremonial (1715), in which the dignitaries and ladies of the court were to take part along with bears and stags and goats, and ambassadors playing flutes or the hurdy-gurdy, and Peter beating a drum. 10

His sense of humor was hilarious and unrestrained, often stooping to buffoonery. His court was crowded with jesters and dwarfs, who seemed indispensable to every ceremony. Once the Czar, nearly seven feet tall, playing Gulliver to his Lilliputians, rode in a procession at the head of twenty-four mounted dwarfs. At one time Peter had seventy-two dwarfs at his court, some of whom were served up at table in gigantic pies. There were giants too, but most of these were sent as gifts to Frederick William of Prussia to join his army of obelisks. Several Negroes were presented to Peter. He held them in high esteem, and sent some of them to Paris for an education. One of them became a Russian general, the great-grandfather of the poet Pushkin.

So far we picture Peter as still very much a barbarian, an Ivan the Terrible but humorous; anxious to be civilized, but envying the West not for its graces and arts but for its armies and navies, its commerce and industry and wealth. His virtues were directed to these ends as the prerequisites of civilization. Hence his insatiable curiosity. Of everything he wanted to know how it worked, and then how it could be made to work better. On his travels he exhausted his aides by running about to see this and that, even through the night. He was swamped with ideas, thereby amazing Leibniz, who had a swamp of his own; but Peter’s ideas were frankly utilitarian. He had an open mind for anything that could make his country catch up to the West. In a nation gloomily religious and fanatically hostile to foreign creeds and ways, he was as unprejudiced as a child or a sage, sampling Catholicism, Protestantism, even free thought. He was rather imitative than original; he transplanted ideas rather than conceived them; but in attempting to raise his nation to a competitive level with the West it was wiser to absorb first the best that the West could teach, and then try to surpass it. Never had imitation been so original.

His indefatigable devotion to his purpose raised him out of barbarism to greatness. If he conscripted and consumed millions of Russians to his ends, he used himself up, too, in the effort to give Russia a modern army, a more efficient government, more varied and productive industries, wider commerce, and ports that could reach the world. He was economical of everything except human life, which was Russia’s one abundant commodity. Almost his first measures on reaching power were to dismiss the horde of servants and palace officials that had cluttered the royal household; to sell three thousand horses from the royal stables; to sweep away three hundred cooks and kitchen boys; to reduce the royal table, even on feast days, to sixteen places at most; to dispense with formal receptions and balls; and to make over to the state the sums that had heretofore been allotted to these luxuries. His father, Alexis, had left him a personal property of 10,734 dessiatines (28,982 acres) of cultivated land and fifty thousand houses, bringing in a revenue of 200,000 rubles yearly; Peter turned nearly all this over to the state treasury, reserving as his own only the ancient patrimony of the Romanov family—eight hundred “souls” in the province of Novgorod. In effect, and in sharp contrast to Louis XIV, the greatest of the czars reduced his court to a few friends, with an occasional festival, informal and sometimes hilarious, to brighten Moscow’s monotony. Often his economy became parsimony. He underpaid his palace staff, meted out mathematically its daily allowance of food, invited his friends not to dinner but to picnics where each would pay his share; and when the prostitutes who served him bemoaned their modest honorariums he replied that he paid them as much as he paid a grenadier, whose services were far more valuable.

Women, with one exception, were minor incidents in his life. He was not keenly sensitive to beauty. He had sexual needs, but he dispatched them without ritual. He did not like to sleep alone, but this had nothing to do with sex; usually he had a servant share his bed, probably he wanted someone near him in case he should have a convulsion during the night. At seventeen, to quiet his mother, he married Eudoxia Lopukhina, who was described as “beautiful but stupid”; finding one quality more lasting than the other, he neglected her, and went back to his friends and his ships. He took a succession of transient mistresses, nearly always of lowly origin and condition. When Frederick II of Denmark jested with him about having a mistress, Peter answered, “Brother, my harlots do not cost me much, but yours cost you thousands of crowns, which you could spend in a better way.” 11 Both Lefort and Menshikov served the Czar as procurers, and Menshikov surrendered his own mistress to be Peter’s second wife. There must have been remarkable ability in her to raise her, like Justinian’s Theodora, from strumpet to empress.

The future Catherine I was born about 1685 in Livonia of humble stock. Left an orphan, she was brought up as a servant by the Lutheran Pastor Glück in Marienburg. He taught her the catechism but not the alphabet; she never learned to read. In 1702 a Russian army under Sheremetiev besieged Marienburg. Despairing of defense, the commander of the garrison decided to blow up his fortress and himself. Pastor Glück, informed of his intention, took his family and his servant and fled to the Russian camp. He was sent on to Moscow, but Catherine was kept as a solace for the soldiers. She graduated through them to Sheremetiev to Menshikov to Peter. In those wars and regions a simple woman had to be complaisant in order to eat. For a time Catherine seems to have served both Menshikov and the Czar. They liked her because she was neat, cheerful, kind, and understanding; for example, she did not insist on being sole mistress. Peter found her a gay relief after the alarums of politics or war and the tantrums of jealous concubines. She accompanied him on campaigns, lived like a soldier, cut her hair, slept on the ground, and did not flinch when she saw men shot down at her side. When a convulsion seized Peter, and all others were afraid to touch him, she would speak to him soothingly, caress him, calm him, and let him sleep with his head on her breast. When they were apart he wrote to his “Katierinoushka” letters of playful and yet sincere tenderness. She became indispensable to him. By 1710 she was his wife in everything but law. She bore him several children. In 1711 she helped to save him at the Prut. In 1712 he publicly acknowledged her as his wife. In 1722 he crowned her empress.

Her influence over him was good in many ways. She, the peasant girl, improved the manners of the royal boor. She moderated his drinking; on several occasions she entered the room where he was carousing with friends, and quietly commanded him, “Pora domoï, batioushka” (Come home, little father), and he obeyed. She winked at his postmarital flirtations. She made no attempt to influence politics, but she saw to it that the Czar provided for her future, her relatives, and her friends. She overcame widespread resentment of her elevation by acting as an angel of mercy; in several instances she saved persons from the penalties to which Peter wished to condemn them; and when he insisted on severity he had to conceal it from her. She abused her power over him by selling her intercession; in this way she amassed a secret fortune, part of which she judiciously invested under assumed names at Hamburg or Amsterdam. Shall we blame her for seeking some security at a time when everything depended upon one man’s whim, and all Russia was in flux?

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