Peter the Great by Robert K. Massie MAG

June 12, 2011
By golovashkina GOLD, Berkeley, California
golovashkina GOLD, Berkeley, California
11 articles 0 photos 6 comments

It took just the copyright page to discover that Robert K. Massie's Peter the Great: His Life and World is an oddity. Penned by an American historian during the 1981 tensions of the misguided Cold War, it turns out to be an eloquent and erudite narrative of a dedicated leader who transformed a primitive realm.

Though Massie sidesteps the Russophobic tendencies that will soon send R.R. Palmer's A History of the Modern World into textbook retirement, Massie cannot escape the influences of his environment. Put simply, the author is an American historian writing for an American audience. And with Peter the Great, he delivers a beautiful American tribute to a man with “American Dream” activism – a man who isn't an American.

I began the novel with a set of preconceived notions, or rather, worries. What could an American historian possibly understand about a Russian king? Would it be yet another piece of Reagan-era Russophobia? Anti-communist propaganda? A diatribe on Russia's backwardness? A compelling case for capitalism? Most importantly: 800 pages? Really?

Let me set aside those ­worries by first giving you a glimpse into the historical context. Before Peter, foreign relations were seen as necessary evils; unorthodox obsessions with the Orthodox Church fed a self-defeating xenophobia; and monarchs, fearing for their lives, were powerless to the demands of their own soldiers. Peter took control of his church, his people, and his armed forces. He transformed Russia into the Russian Empire – and himself into Peter “the Great.”

So, what did I – with my Russian heritage, Russian patriotism, Russian spirit, and “Russia! Russia! Russia!” attitude – think of the book? It's absolutely fantastic. The narrative format makes it both readable and relatable to audiences spanning a historical, educational, and yes, even ethnic spectrum. Students, teachers, and even casual readers will relish Massie's approachable, well-researched, and respectful prose.

Massie does not sacrifice the dignity of his writing for either border of the Cold War barricade. Rather, he writes genuine history. Profound history. Honest, factual, and fascinating history. The book demands little but for the reader to simply pick it up. Despite its Harry Potter-esque length, it is a tome that is almost impossible to put down.

Whether you're looking for a book to fill the Potter void, historical nonfiction that isn't a textbook, or simply something to do on a lazy afternoon, give Peter the Great a chapter or two. You'll be hooked before you know it.

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