Peter the Great through British Eyes: Perceptions and Representations of the Tsar since 1698

Article excerpt

Anthony Cross. Peter the Great Through British Eyes: Perceptions and Representations of the Tsar since 1698. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000. xii, 172 pages. Plates. Index.

Anthony Cross's latest work, inspired by the tercentenary of Peter the Great's visit to England in 1698, adds to the author's impressive list of published monographs about Russian literature and culture. The present piece, which attempts to survey three centuries of British attitudes towards Peter and his Russia, reflects his interests in Anglo-Russian relations. It focuses on documentary sources, dramatic works and the visual arts. This approach is unusual, as the author claims, but provides insights into how the British portrayed Peter the Great in various media.

A meticulously thorough, detailed survey of published sources, including books, magazines, handbills and other materials, is a fine point of Cross's study, occupying almost two-thirds of the work. Cross discusses in chronological order all printed references he can find that deal with Peter. The early years, from Peter's origins to the end of the eighteenth century, yield particularly rich sources. Here we find a wide range of opinions about the tsar, including, for example, eyewitness reports of Peter's visit, the impressions of merchants, courtiers, naval and military figures, ship builders and travellers. The nineteenth century story, covered in one short chapter, yields fewer surprises. Most of the works discussed are literary or historical appraisals of well-established opinions about Peter the Great.

Disappointingly, the survey of printed materials does not extend beyond the nineteenth century, an authorial decision that Cross does not address until the Epilogue (from a reader's view, perhaps the point belongs in the Preface). Arguing that twentieth-century works (particularly those written in the latter half) about Peter and his Russia are mainly academic in origin, the author considers them outside the mainstream of British public opinion. He is content, therefore, to provide a bibliographical sketch of the major publications of the period that address Peter the Great, but leaves it at that. He states (p. 162): "how this academic research... reaches beyond academic circles and affects long-standing stereotypes and perceptions is of course the moot point." Given this arguable view, should not similar reasoning be applied, for example, to eighteenth-century sources? Our knowledge of eighteenthcentury British printing and publishing is limited at best, and questions about how many copies of a work were printed, their distribution and readership are largely unanswerable. Much of the material that Cross considers is of specialized interest and probably had a limited audience. Can we claim, then, that the published material of that period reflects any broader public opinion than academic treatises of today?

Cross's brief survey of Peter the Great as the subject of British dramatic works reflects the paucity of plays that deal with the tsar. It is puzzling, however, that the author does not look to the history of British drama for a possible explanation. At the close of the chapter, Cross is on target when he writes: "Peter is thus relegated... once more to the role of music-hall or comic opera from which he had barely escaped during his appearances on the British stage during the preceding century and a half' (p. 14). Unfortunately, he does not pursue the thought further. First, only two British theatres-Royal Covent Garden and Drury Lane-were legally able to present dramatic works (due to The Licensing Act, 1737). Commercial interests influenced competition for these two stages. Shakespeare's plays, for instance, were popular, moneymaking attractions. Personal factors also applied. Thus, for example, David Garrick (owner and lead actor of Drury Lane) selected pieces that suited his acting talents. Second, from the seventeenth century the Lord Chamberlain censored all stage productions-a power that declined only in the early part of the nineteenth century. …