Reviewed by Lee Farrow (Department of History, Auburn University Montgomery)
Published on H-Russia (March, 2000)
Peter the Great and the Transformation of Russia
Much has been written about Peter the Great over the last three centuries and so one might wonder whether anything new can be added to the collective knowledge. Lindsey Hughes's new book, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great, proves that there can. Hughes's latest contribution is a thorough, comprehensive and balanced discussion of the man and his reign, covering well-trodden territory and introducing some information that, if not previously unknown, was not readily available to Western audiences. Early on, Hughes states her purpose as exploring Peter's creation -- Peter's "New Russia" --but since the man and his creation are virtually inseparable, this weighty tome is every bit a biography of Peter.
Hughes's study is arranged by subject, rather than chronology, and she covers all the familiar and essential topics, making sure to touch on all the major debates about Peter. Much of this will be familiar to the Russian historian, but this does not lessen its usefulness. Hughes's discussions of the big questions about Peter are clear and thorough, a welcome review for scholars and an excellent resource for students. Thus, on the question of the novelty of European influence in Peter's reign, Hughes repeats familiar arguments that there was a significant amount of contact with foreigners and foreign things in the seventeenth century. Regarding Peter's reform of the military, she points out that although Peter's efforts at recruiting and reorganization may have been more persistent and intense, he inherited much from his predecessors.
On the issue of Peter's piety, Hughes rejects the Soviet portrayal of Peter's reign as being one of complete rejection and suppression of all things religious; to the contrary, Peter's goal was not to eradicate religion or destroy the church, but to subordinate it. Hughes sees Peter's reign, in all its various dimensions, as being a conscious blending of old and new, of Russian and European. Although this conclusion may not in itself be earth-shattering, Hughes's path to it is exceptional, and this is one of the book's many strengths. Hughes has amassed and smoothly incorporated hundreds of primary documents not familiar to the average reader or even, I suspect, to many historians. In this way, well-worn debates about Peter are rejuvenated and brought to life by new and fascinating evidence, most notably from Peter's personal letters.
These personal documents of Peter are particularly useful and effective in Hughes's chapter on Peter's family life and relationships. Hughes disagrees with Anisimov's declaration that Peter was " too dreadful' for anyone to love" (p. 398). On the contrary, Hughes shows through Peter's own personal letters that there was much about Peter that was "lovable," and that he could express love and concern for his family and friends as well. Thus, she cites letters to his friends and associates in which he expresses regret for the loss of a loved one or concern over someone's health. More compelling are Peter's letters to his children by Catherine, which express genuine paternal affection. For example, in 1717 he wrote to his little son Peter, "Petrushenka, how are you? Greetings on our joint name-day tomorrow. God grant that I see you happy. I was unable to read your letter, but I'll put it away until I get home and then you can tell me what it says. Give regards and a kiss to your sisters from me"(p. 400). There is no hint of the sometimes cruel and autocratic monarch in these letters.
Relevant to this discussion is the question of Peter's cruelty. Hughes disagrees with portrayals of Peter as being extraordinarily cruel. She argues that although he could be insensitive and vindictive, and showed little mercy in cases involving treason and revolt, he was no more cruel than the other rulers of his day. In fact, Hughes points out, draft copies of the Military Statute show that Peter often mitigated punishments. Although the number of crimes to which the death penalty could be applied increased during Peter's reign, this punishment was not exercised indiscriminately, and in many cases, Peter commuted death sentences to some lesser penalty. In regards to Peter's supposed penchant for cruelty, Hughes emphasizes his affection for animals, a trait that distinguishes him from Ivan IV, to whom he has sometimes been compared.
None of this, of course, excuses Peter's excesses, particularly in the case of his own son, Alexis, and Hughes does not spare him criticism in this area. Peter showed little affection or sympathy for this unfortunate young man, and for this history has judged him harshly. As a suspected traitor, Alexis was subjected to the harshest side of Peter's personality, the side that could not tolerate defiance or resistance. Peter's desire to motivate everyone and to have everyone work in the best interests of the state and the "common good"--new concepts introduced by Peter--meant that he often encountered resistance. This, in turn, persuaded him to apply force and intimidation. Hughes emphasizes that Peter's personal and often coercive style of governing meant that there was little room for individual initiative. Peter defended his style, claiming that coercion was necessary to overcome the stubbornness and backwardness of the Russian people. The bottom line is that in Peter's reign, there was always more stick than carrot.
In the final portion of Hughes's book, she discusses the balance sheet on Peter, and poses the familiar questions about Peter's achievements and the correlation between change and progress, and progress and improvement. Hughes concedes that when Peter died in 1725, Russia was certainly a different place than it had been in 1682, and although Peter's role in this transformation has often been exaggerated, there is no denying that he was the main initiator behind most of this change. Certainly Peter's contemporaries recognized that there was something significant about Peter's reign, confidently stating that the opinions of European nations had changed about Russia thanks to Peter's efforts. The cost of reform, both literally and figuratively, is often also debated, as is the question of Peter's foreign borrowing. On all these debates, Hughes provides lucid discussions, but refrains from making her own views clear. Instead, she concludes with the observation that Peter and his reign will remain disputed topics as long as Russia continues to search for its own identity and struggles to define its place in the world.
There is little that can be criticized about this book. Some sources that might have been useful were omitted, and specialists in the area may find some minor details missing. Moreover, it is unclear why the author chose to only compile a selected bibliography, in addition to notes and a list of abbreviations; surely, for a book of this length, a few more pages of bibliography would not have broken the bank, and it would be easier for the reader to have all such information in one place. But these are minor criticisms. Overall, Hughes's book is a wonderful and detailed account of Peter and his reign, essential for scholars, useful for students and even accessible for the general reading public. Her extensive and creative use of primary sources allows her to give detailed and readable discussions of Peter's personal life, a la Massie, but this is also a serious scholarly work which covers virtually every aspect of Peter's reign in a way that many shorter works have been unable to do. We can be grateful that Yale University Press did not limit the length of this book, because both scholars and students alike will benefit from its breadth.
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Lee Farrow. Review of Hughes, Lindsey, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great.
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