Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

II. PORTRAITS OF PETER THE GREAT

His Personality and Habits

DUC DE SAINT-SIMON

The high-ranking French court noble, Louis de Rouvroi, duc de Saint- Simon ( 1675-1755) had occasion to observe Peter the Great at close range during the latter's state visit to France in 1717. The following illustrates how an intelligent and perceptive Western observer saw the Russian ruler at the height of his success and fame following his victories over the Swedes.

THE Czar excited admiration by his extreme curiosity, always bearing upon his views of government, trade, instruction, police, and this curiosity embraced everything, disdained nothing in the smallest degree useful; it was marked and enlightened, esteeming only what merited to be esteemed, and exhibited in a clear light the intelligence, justness, ready appreciation of his mind. Everything showed in the Czar the vast extent of his knowledge, and a sort of logical harmony of ideas. He allied in the most surprising manner the highest, the proudest, the most delicate, the most sustained, and at the same time the least embarrassing majesty, when he had established it in all its safety with a marked politeness. Yet he was always and with everybody the master everywhere, but with gradations, according to the persons he was with.1 He had a kind of familiarity which sprang from liberty, but he was not without a strong dash of that ancient barbarism of his country, which rendered all his actions rapid, nay, precipitous, his will uncertain, and not to be constrained or contradicted in anything. Often his table was but little decent, much less so were the attendants who served, often too with an openness of kingly audacity everywhere. What he proposed to see or do was entirely independent of means; they were to be bent to his pleasure and command. His desire for liberty, his dislike to be made a show of, his free and easy habits, often made him prefer hired coaches, common cabs even; nay, the first which he could lay his hands on, though belonging to people below him, of whom he knew nothing. He jumped in, and had himself driven all over the city, and outside it. On one occasion he seized hold of the coach of Madame de Mattignon, who had come to gape at him, drove off with it to Boulogne and other country places near Paris. The owner was much astonished to find she must journey back on foot. On such occasions the Maréchal de Tessé2 and his

From the Duke of Saint-Simon, Memoirs of Louis XIV and the Regency, vol. III ( Washington & London: M. Walter Dunne, 1901), pp. 101-104. Translated by St. Bayle John.

____________________
1
This just appreciation of rank is always vaunted by Saint-Simon as one of the highest qualities a man can possess. No one was so contemptible to him as the person who took off his hat to the same extent to a marquis as to a duke.
2
Mans-Jean-Baptiste-René de Froulay, comte de Tessé ( 1651-1725), Marshal of France, assistant to Louvois, the Minister of War of Louis XIV, distinguished himself in several military campaigns and also in enforcing the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In the last years of Louis XIV and during the Regency he was entrusted with diplomatic missions.

-9-

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