Peter the Great, Reformer or Revolutionary?

By Marc Raeff | Go to book overview

The Artisan Tsar

V. O. KLIUCHEVSKY

Vasilii O. Kliuchevsky ( 1841-1911) is Russia's most eminent modern his-
torian. His reputation rests on his ability to present a perceptive synthesis
(based on a prodigious amount of documentation) in the form of vivid pictures
drawn with great stylistic brilliance. Interested in basic social trends, at times
Kliuchevsky sacrificed detail for the sake of panorama, but he had no peer
in painting lively portraits of Russia's major rulers. The portrait he drew of
Peter the Great is justly considered one of his masterpieces.

INTELLECTUALLY, Peter the Great was one of those simple-minded people who can be read at a glance and are easily understood.

Physically, Peter was a giant of just under seven feet, and at any gathering he towered a full head above everybody else. During the Easter service he had so much bending to do that he invariably suffered from backache. Not only was Peter a natural athlete, but habitual use of axe and hammer had developed his strength and manual dexterity to such an extent that he was able to twist a silver platter into a scroll; indeed, so dexterous was he that if a piece of cloth was thrown into the air he could cut it in half with his knife before it landed. All the male descendants of the Patriarch Philaret,1 father of the first Romanov,2 had been feeble in body or mind. The first marriage of the Tsar Alexis had done nothing to remove this hereditary weakness from the line, but in his son by Natalia Naryshkin it vanished entirely. Peter took after his mother, and was also said to have resembled Theodore, one of Natalia's brothers. Nervous activity and mental agility were characteristics of the Naryshkin family. In later years it produced a number of wits, and under Catherine II a Naryshkin became a very successful court entertainer.

According to a foreign envoy3 who was presented to Peter and Ivan in 1683, Peter at eleven was a lively, handsome boy. Whereas Tsar Ivan looked at the floor, with the Crown of Monomachus4 well down over his eyes, and sat like a lifeless statue on his silver throne beneath the ikons, Peter, who sat next to him on a twin throne wearing a duplicate crown made on the occasion of the joint Tsarship, looked eagerly and confidently about him, and found it difficult to keep still. But traces of a serious nervous disorder due either to the memories of the bloody scenes of 1682, or to his all too frequent debaucheries, or

From Vasilii Kliuchevsky, Peter the Great ( New York: St. Martin's Press, 1958), pp. 33-56. Reprinted by permission of Macmillan & Company Ltd. and St. Martin's Press Inc. Translated by Liliana Archibald.

____________________
1
Philaret had been elevated to the metropolitanate of Rostov by the First Pretender and was Patriarch of Moscow from 1619 to 1633.
2
Michael, 1613-45.
3
Engelbert Kampfer, a German traveller, who was acting secretary for the Swedish Envoy, Fabricius.
4
The Crown, with the Sceptre and Orb, were originally presents from the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine Monomachus, to the Grand Duke Vladimir of Kiev. They were not used after 1682 because Peter's successors were not merely Tsars, but Emperors. The Crown and pectoral cross of Monomachus were the visible symbols of the relations of the Muscovite Tsars to the Emperors of Constantinople.

-11-

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