Customer Reviews: Peter the Great: His Life and World
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on July 16, 2004
This volume is simply one of the very best, most exciting, interesting, and highly charged biographies I have read. Fortunately for me, a pending visit to Saint Petersburg provided me with the motivation to pull this twenty four-year-old 1st Edition copy from my bookshelf. Its 850 pages had seemed a daunting task no matter how many people had recommended this as a "must read". Robert Massie has created a masterpiece of story telling. Each chapter is the equivalent of a short story and compelling in it's own right. And each is presented with an introduction that places you, the reader, in context. Massie also places you both in Peter the Great's time but populates his world with many other sovereigns and characters of interesting historical note. Most notably a large part of the book is devoted to King Charles XII of Sweden. Upon completion of this wonderful book I had a much better understanding of Russia, the Baltic States history and the origins of may Russian cultural traits. Peter the Great was a massive personality who's impact was both awful for those he ruled and passed judgement on, and visionary for pushing Russia into a modern and westernized nation. Overall, the book reads like an epic Russian Novel, deep in character study, action, adventure, and compelling social observation. Massie is just an excellent writer. I highly recommend this book as others have recommended it to me.
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on June 6, 2003
This without a doubt the finest book I have ever read. Massie brings to life one of the greatest figures in history. From Peter's early life+fascination with all things Western to the building of a huge Empire second only to that of England. The most fascinating part of the book are the chapters dealing w/The Great Embassy to Western Europe. Not only does trying to imagine a 6'7 inch Absolute Monarch trying to remain incognito bring a smile to you face,the Embassy gives Massie a chance to broaden the scope of Peter's story by giving snippets regarding the other great monarchs of the time. Louis XIV,William I,George I+most importantly Charles XII of Sweden whose Empire paid the price for Peter's ambition's. All are brought vividly to life. Most importantly he deals with the conflicted Man that was Peter the Great in a way I have seen no other author do with a subject. Peter was great man+ruler,but he also had a fierce temper+could he almost sadistically brutal. In giving us a portrait of a man--warts+all--Massie succeds in humanizing a Great Man. I cannot recommend this book high enough
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on May 26, 2000
Peter the Great was a complex, even contradictory character. An all-powerful despot who preferred carpentry to war; a violent spouse-abuser who ensured his wife would rule as Autocrat after his death; a loving father who caused the death of his only son; Peter was all of these. Yet he was also a glittering figure on the international stage, a daredevil, a father to his people, and the most hated, respected, and loved man in Europe.
Who better to explain the psychology and the life of such a man than Robert Massie? Massie is a superb storyteller, capable of making even the most complex and abstruse points understandable to the average reader. He makes Peter come to life, not as a dry, dusty historical character but as a wonderfully alive, supremely dangerous man -- a man you'd love to meet but one you'd hate to have to live under.
I strongly recommend this book.
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on June 6, 2001
Peter the Great... was just that, GREAT! To say that I enjoyed this book is a bit of an understatement. Robert K. Massie wrote a historical account of one of the most fascinating characters in the modern age and wrote it to read like a novel. When I first bought this book, I had just gotten back from a trip to St. Petersburg and was blown away by this incredible place and I was interested to `read-up' on the man behind the creation. I found that this book was all that and more. History, will always be subjective but Mr. Massie did `Peter the Great' justice by not only telling us of his positives characteristics (he tried and succeeded in bringing Russia to the modern age) but also allowing us to see his negative characteristics (volatile temper and estranged family connections). I recommend this book to anyone (in fact, I have given it as a gift on two occasions) and now I'm reading some of his other books
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on September 8, 2004
I majored in Russian History in college, so I've always had an interest in the subject and always intended to find a good book on Peter the Great. This book far exceeded my expectations. Not only is it a fascinating, in-depth portrait of one of the greatest leaders in Russian history - it succeeds on every level as a compelling read, whether you're interested in Russian history or not. Massie is a masterful writer - providing all the context information you need to fully understand the specifics of Peter's life and reign. Every stage of Peter's life is gripping, from the story of how he wrested power from his half-sister Sophia to his military battles against Sweden. (I'm not even interested in military history, but during the war chapters, my heart was pounding as I read his recounting of each battle!) Not only is this the best book on Russian history I've ever read, it's the best book I've ever read! It's a real page-turner, and that's saying something as this book is over 800 pages long!
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I was ridiculed by my friends when I exited a bookstore with a copy of Peter the Great in my hands. Ridicule all they want but after reading this gargantuan book I was certain this was the best book I had ever read. Massie's description of Peter's life and of Russian society in the early 1700 bring to life ghosts long since gone. Massie brings history to life, the friendships, the deceits, love affairs, diplomacy etc. Massie's Peter the Great is much more than the biography of one man, it tells the story of a country's transformation from one of the most backward states of Europe to one of it's forerunners. It also explains in great length the going ons all over Europe in the time of Peter. Peter the Great, always interesting, always fun to read, reads more like a novel than a biography. That's one reason why I always recommend it to people regardless of wether the person likes or loathes history.
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VINE VOICEon October 10, 2011
"Peter the Great" is a massive achievement which will not only create for the reader a full-bodied, balanced portrait of the tzar but also an intimate portrait of seventeenth century Russia, where rank on any level was paramount, where women were subservient to their husbands, ill-educated and treated like chattels; where jealousy, spite, murder and mayhem were alive and well. This splendid biography describes so eloquently the colorful wooden buildings clustered cheek by jowl in what is now Red Square; the magnificent onion-topped cathedrals; Russia in the snow where whiteness met the sky; the strident sounds of Russia from hawkers in the markets to magnificent voices raised in harmony in cathedrals. Huge Russia and the Europe of the seventeenth century are delivered to you as a many- coursed feast and you're transported from the palaces of the tzars to the humblest peasant hearth, to the battlefield, to the shipyards, to London, to Amsterdam, to Paris and above all, to Saint Petersburg the city Peter built.

In a biography, it's the characterizations of people that intrigue me the most. Several other reviewers have given excellent summaries of the book so I'll digress a bit to discuss Peter. What was Peter like? What did he look like? To begin with, he was an astonishing six feet eight in height which meant he towered over everybody. His shoulders were sloped, his hands and feet remarkably small. His hair was dark chestnut and he seldom wore a wig. His eyes were a deep brown, his face round and he sported a small mustache. On his right cheek was a wart. Massie calls him "almost handsome." He suffered from a tic on the left side of his face which could appear when he was stressed and was sometimes violent enough to include his left arm which thrashed around. Massie thinks the tic could have resulted from encephalitis-like damage to his brain when he suffered a severe fever as a child and that the tic was a form of epilepsy. Massie felt that Peter was quite shy because he was nervous about the tic suddenly appearing and unmanning him.

Peter loved traveling incognito, although his enormous height always gave him away. He prided himself on working with his hands, learning the carpentry necessary for building ships, his passion, and proudly showed the calluses on his rough workers- hands to prove it. Like all Russians, he enjoyed drinking and carousing as it was the hallmark, indeed the duty, of every Russian citizen from the Tzar to the peasants to be frequently drunk. When he visited Paris undisguised, however, after the death of Louis XIV, his demeanor, a combination of a man born to command and camaraderie, captivated the French. Upon meeting the King, Louis XV, a little boy of seven, he looked down from his great height then picked the child up in his arms so they could talk tete- a- tete. Peter had Paris eating out of his hand.

Peter really could not sit still and was the last person on earth likely to hole himself up with a book. In fact, he had been badly educated and was no scholar. He excelled as an army officer, a navy admiral, a fine carpenter who could build boats with his own hands from the ground up. The unscholarly tzar was a man who could drink, fight and sit a horse and control a warship. He was often jovial, and often cruel, executing traitors, especially the Streltsy, the guardsmen-merchants, frequently watching and supervising the bloody executions. He was rumored then and now as beheading some of the men himself, but Massie says there is no evidence for this and that Peter was not a sadist. By ruthlessly squashing any rebellion he earned the hatred of many conservative Muscovites. He incarcerated his own son, Alexei, who had fled Russia and hidden in Naples but was ferreted out and returned to Russia. Accused of treason, Alexei died after being tortured.

Peter loomed on the world stage, a figure almost bigger than life who cast many shadows. The tzar brought Russia out of the Dark Ages. He orchestrated reforms that catapulted Russia into a major world power. He not only sent hundreds of Russians to Europe to sop up the details of various arts and crafts, he invited experts in many fields to come to Russia, using their expertise to modernize the country. By sheer determination he grabbed Russia's coattails and dragged her into the light.

To the far north of Russia lay Sweden, whose navies controlled the Baltic sea and trade, and vast areas of Baltic coast were under the Swedish flag. Having no seaport, Russia salivated over the Baltic waterways and in 1700 Peter started the Northern War with Sweden, an extremely complex set of skirmishes (what nations sided with what nations and why) The war lasted over twenty years and Sweden's young king, Charles XII, died in battle.

Massie describes the personality of Charles XII at length and his observations about the doomed King are fascinating. Charles eschewed alcohol and women and as Sweden fell to its enemies he showed almost no emotion, registered no disappointment, but fatalistically plunged on and died in battle at the head of his troops.

In the meantime Peter conscripted both unskilled and skilled workers to immigrate to Petersburg and there was little enthusiasm for a move to the cold God-forsaken place. The nobility was forced to move too. Petersburg rose little by little from log houses to beautiful stone buildings, each stone having to be brought in from elsewhere by boat. Thousands of laborers toiled to build the city which rose from the flat muddy ground like a phoenix. Peter moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to Petersburg.

Peter died at 52, packing an incredible amount of activity into his short life. Massie's monumental "Peter the Great" stands as the definitive biography of the great Tzar, and he closes his book with this beautiful passage:

"He was a force of nature, and perhaps for this reason no final judgment will ever be delivered. How does one judge the endless roll of the ocean or the mighty power of the whirlwind?
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on March 22, 2003
Peter the Great:His Life and World is an magnificient biography, I wish they all were like this. Impeccably researched and written, Massie reveals life in the Russian Royal Court in the time of Peter the Great. Massie's writing style is generally easy reading, but it will still take many evenings to complete this book.
Personalities abound throughout the telling of one of the greatest of all Tsars. What really stands out about this particular book, is that while the book is really about Peter, Massie allows the flow of the book to follow personalties of the time as they enter and exit Peter's world. So as well as learning about Peter, I learnt of Charles' rivalry with the Russian leader, and the battles they fought; Tolstoy, the ambassador to the Ottoman empire, and his constant diplomatic battles with the leaders of Turkey. The Sun King of France. These are just a few examples that litter the book.
Furthermore, social and political issues of the time are discussed, some in great depth. I never realised the stuggles involved with the construction of St. Petersburg, the workers dealing with both the [danger] of the Swedish Army and Navy, as well as the marshes on which the city was built. That the establishment of the Russian Navy was initiated by Peter, was another surprise. I would have thought that a major empire such as the Russian would have already had a navy. The political intrigues between the Royal houses of Europe was another eyeopener for me.
There are always faults with any book; Peter the Great is no exception. Some details would be repeated, some to the point of numbness. How many times do we have to hear about Peter's fondness for the sea? Or the sciences? Still, many people like myself will overlook these and instead, look at the book for what it is; a stunning and comprehensive look into not only the life of Peter the Great, but the world of Eastern and Middle Europe. I began reading the book to learn the story of Peter the Great. That I got a history lesson about Europe in the 18th century is a real bonus.
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on March 25, 2011
Tsar Peter was an extraordinary character, and Robert Massie does an excellent job of examining the complex chemistry of Peter's character.

Peter was a tyrant while at the same time possessing qualities of openness, curiosity, and readiness to learn from others not common in such figures.

His humanistic qualities and considerable intelligence might have made him a candidate as a 17th century version of the enlightened despots - Frederick the Great of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria, and Catherine the Great of Russia - who featured in Europe's 18th century.

But Peter's tyrant temperament rules him out as a candidate. His treatment of the Streltsy - a large corps of traditional elite guards for the tsar - following an attempted revolt was extremely brutal, including an orgy of torture and horrible executions, closely attended by Peter himself.

So too Peter's demands for his many wars, demands on his people for harsh taxation and much manpower, repeated again for his building from scratch, out of lands captured from Sweden's empire, the city of St Petersburg.

The author does a good job of capturing Peter's many eccentricities, his uncontrollable and grotesque movements at times, likely owing to a form of epilepsy, his alcoholism, his fondness for parodying the church in his private gatherings with friends, his deliberate choice of close companions who were not members of the old aristocracy and were themselves sometimes rather odd characters, his bizarre treatment of his first wife, and his explosive temper which many times ended with serious blows on the heads of good friends.

Peter is famous to students of European history for his "great embassy," a long and unusual journey through parts of advanced Europe he undertook in disguise, investigating how things were done in institutions and industries everywhere he went and spending great periods of his time in studying the skill of ship-building, cheerfully taking up carpenter's tools himself to work as an apprentice. His penchant for disguise, while having some justification on security grounds, clearly, in view of some of the details of how he proceeded, was another of Peter's eccentricities.

Peter is rightly regarded as the father of the Russian navy. He studied the skills, established an industry, hired many experts from Europe, and conquered outlets in the south and in the north as outlets to the sea.

Peter's embrace of foreigners created a good deal of suspicion and animosity amongst Russia's traditionalists, suspicion of foreign ways and belief that Russia was close to God in its native customs being a prominent part of the culture at the time, and Peter worked regularly to end it, but it hardly made him popular. For example, he insisted on aristocrats not wearing traditional long robes and shaving and sometimes acted in highly abrupt and disturbing ways, as the time he decided to go around the table at a dinner and cut off the long sleeves of some of the nobles' robes.

Peter was a military leader of considerable talent, spending a huge portion of his reign on wars - the Great Northern War with Sweden lasted twenty years - and he defeated the redoubtable general-monarch, Charles XII of Sweden.

The author has a tremendous subject in Peter, and I think he does justice to him in a book which reads like a good novel.

I have just two small reservations about the author's approach. There are places, especially in the early part of the book, where the author puts quotations into people's mouths that we know perfectly well cannot be actual quotations, although of course they reflect genuine historical content. He does not do this extensively, and it is a stylistic tool used by other biographers, but I am not a fan of it.

Another approach some readers may not like involves the author's way of introducing a significant new subject. Massie leaves the main street behind, as it were, and wanders down interesting side streets, offering background and historical discussions which might be described by some with the slightly pejorative teaching expression "chicken walk." This does not bother me, and indeed I enjoyed his little side trips.

I recommend this book as a fine introduction to the beginnings of modern Russia. It is enjoyable reading, and its subject lived a life about equal to that of half a dozen lesser historical characters.
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on November 29, 2000
My introduction to Robert Massie came when I first picked up a copy of Nicholas and Alexandra last Spring. Frankly I was expecting a serious history book-- In other words I expected it to be dry, dry, dry! What a great surprise to find I could not put it down. Having that great experience made it a no-brainer to read Peter the Great as well-- it was even better.
Massie's gift is in his ability to write history in a narrative style, identifying the nuances of each setting and character as well as the heros and antagonists, all while maintaining historical accuracy. No wonder we find that Massie's works have been converted into both film and mini-series.
His account of the succession of Peter to Regent Sophia's intrigues is heart stopping. You see directly into the private and public life of this unique Tsar who attempted to drag Russia into the modern era- The good the bad and the ugly. It is simply great stuff!
If you are interested in Russia, start out with Peter the Great and go on to Nicholas and Alexandra. These are both excellent books!
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