Peter the Great is perhaps the most unusual historical character I’ve ever read about. Civil conflict prevailed during his youth, preventing him from obtaining a much of a formal education, yet for the rest of his life he was a committed student. An aggressive curiosity drove him, like a perpetual motion machine, to learn as much about everything that related to the well-being of his country as he possibly could. He was a bottom-up, tactile learner, preferring to understand the inner workings of the things he was requiring of his subjects by doing them himself rather than by reading about them, be it building ships with his own hands (he became an experienced carpenter in his quest to learn more about maritime activities) to loading cannons and digging ditches with his soldiers on the front lines during military campaigns.
Throughout his life, Peter was plagued by a fear that his country was falling behind Western Europe – educationally, technologically, culturally and militarily – which would leave Russia vulnerable and unable to defend itself (a fear that was nearly realized when Charles XII of Sweden invaded Russia). This motivated Peter to travel to Western Europe clandestinely, wearing normal clothes, his coming unannounced to any royal court, and attended by only a handful of assistants. He sought to learn about how, for example, the Dutch managed the commerce that generated such wealth despite the small size of their nation, or to sign on as a shipbuilder’s apprentice where he took orders from a master who, beam by beam, instructed Peter in the cutting-edge methods of the day. This ruse didn’t last forever, though, and when people learned who he was it became a lot more difficult for Peter to move around unimpeded. Still, when he returned to Russia, Peter had a much stronger sense of the skills lacking in his own country and brought hosts of foreigners back with him to train his countrymen in those skills.
Spurning luxury, Peter would usually insist on staying in small, cramped quarters that at times forced him to stoop to fit (at 6 feet, 8 inches, he was exceptionally tall), even when being hosted by foreign monarchs. He had a strong distaste for diplomatic protocol and, much to the chagrin of one French ambassador, personally boarded a visiting frigate before formal introductions had been made, walked right up to the ambassador, and gave him a hug. Though he actively fought on his campaigns, he refused to accept senior roles in the military himself until he felt he had earned them, instead serving as a lower-ranking officer, such as a naval captain, rather than as, say, an admiral (at least until much later in his life). As czar, he was still supreme commander in charge of strategy, but he would regularly leave the details of implementation to his senior officers and serve alongside people with similar, lower-level officer ranks. When the Russian army marched triumphantly through the streets of Moscow, after defeating the Ottomans during the Sea of Azov campaign in 1696, Peter was not to be found in the front of the line, atop a well-adorned horse as military leaders throughout history have done. Instead, he walked on foot, alongside other galley captains behind the carriage of one of his admirals. He wore no distinguishing uniform, and was only noticeable by his unusual height, and a white feather he had placed in his hat.
While it’s impossible to know what goes on in the minds of historical figures, Peter did seem to prioritize the well-being of his country and countrymen above all else – even his own family. After years of trying to encourage his son, the Czarevich Alexei Petrovich, to take his position as heir more seriously, and after the czarevich fled Russia to seek a life of ease unburdened by responsibilities of leadership, Peter still took him back and tried to find a way to forgive him for generally failing to live up to his duties. As far as the primary source documents go, Peter seemed to truly love his son, and to wish only that he would take his role more seriously. But when the czarevich admitted in a public hearing that he would have taken up arms against the czar if asked, Peter knew he could no longer defend his son without encouraging skepticism about the legitimacy and stability of his reign. To avoid a civil conflict that threatened to undo Russian society after nearly 20 years of war with Sweden, the czar accepted the jurors’ decision to issue the czarevich with the punishment of death. As fate would have it, the czarevich died before the punishment could be carried out, and first-hand accounts claim that when he heard the news of his son’s death Peter fell into a deep depression and neglected the affairs of state for long enough to meaningfully trouble his advisors.
A figure like Peter challenges certain aspects of the impersonal analysis that we tend to employ at GPF. For example, while it’s conceivable that Russia would have inevitably developed a powerful navy to respond to external pressures, it strains credulity to imagine it occurring as quickly as it did under Peter’s rule. Russia essentially went from having no navy to have a pre-eminent navy full of ships that could be used to conduct combat closer to shore in the course of about 20 years. Without that navy, the balance that emerged in Northern Europe after the Great Northern War would have taken a different shape.
Momentum for this radical change came almost exclusively from Peter who, since his youth, was drawn to the sea and sailing in a way that perturbed many other Russians (Russian society was almost entirely devoid of a maritime culture at that point and was even opposed to it). Geopolitically, it’s entirely possible to imagine Charles XII’s invasion of Russia failing – after all, two other massive invasions of Russia in the following centuries failed for similar reasons: overextension and the Russian winter. But the naval campaign that Peter launched at the end of the Great Northern War, decimating the Swedish coast and eliminating much of its navy in the final act that ended the Swedish empire, would not have been possible without Peter. Without Russia’s navy, it’s not immediately clear that Russia would have been able to take the steps to fully eliminate the threat that Sweden had posed to Russia for most of Peter’s reign, and that navy would not have existed at that moment in time without Peter’s hand.
By the end of his reign, Peter would expand Russia’s territorial control to include a major port on the Baltic Sea (at St. Petersburg), permanently defeat one of Russia’s major enemies (Sweden), and establish for Russia uninterrupted access to the Black Sea for the first time. Assuming the throne of Russia as czar, he would die on the throne of the much-expanded Russian Empire as emperor.
Robert Massie’s book is not for the faint of heart – at nearly 1,000 pages, it is a dense read full of historical detail that may not be familiar to many (indeed, I’ve been making my way gradually through this book since last August, using my Kindle to tweet passages along the way). But his language is accessible and engaging, and never gets in the way of telling Peter’s larger-than-life story which, at so many times throughout the biography, is truly stranger than fiction.
Xander Snyder, analyst
One of the first things you notice in Belfast is the murals. In the nationalist part of town, they say things like, “Resistance is not terrorism”; on the loyalist side, “We seek nothing but the elementary right implanted in every man: The right if you are attacked, to defend yourself.” Then maybe you notice the peace walls – 25 feet tall in spots, stretching for over 20 miles in total – separating one community from the other. Of course, there are openings in the walls that you can walk or drive through; those are shut every night. Earlier this month, the Irish Times reported that one of those 50-year-old steel gates was in the process of being replaced with a “modern see-through gate.” In Belfast, this is progress.
Outsiders can be forgiven for thinking the conflict in Northern Ireland is over. Younger people can be forgiven for not knowing it ever happened. But it’s impossible to spend a day in Belfast and hold on to that misbelief, especially now that the area is perpetually on the eve of Brexit. In some places, the peace is preserved by walls; in others, like at the border with the Republic of Ireland, it is preserved by the absence of any barriers whatsoever. The Troubles would probably – hopefully – never come back in full, even in a disorderly Brexit. But in many ways, they haven’t gone away.
The central mystery of “Say Nothing” is the 1972 abduction and disappearance of a widowed mother of 10, Jean McConville, in Belfast. Her body wasn’t found for 30 years, but even now there are as many questions as answers about the crime. The timelines presented by the family and the perpetrators do not fit together. The family insists it was a senseless murder; the perpetrators insist it was a justified act of war. In the end, the killers – like almost everyone complicit in the violence of the Troubles – has had to face the horrifying possibility that it could be both.
“Say Nothing” tells the story of how ordinary people become radicalized, and then how radicalization spreads; how people who committed horrific acts spent decades trying to justify them, or forget them; and how, for some Irish nationalists, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that “ended” the Troubles was not a relief but a betrayal.
This is an important conflict that we should not forget about, and with the U.K.’s exit from the European Union threatening to bring back old barriers on the island of Ireland, it’s a conflict we might soon be forced to remember.
Ryan Bridges, analyst