Russia in the Age of Peter the Great

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9780300075397: Russia in the Age of Peter the Great

Peter the Great, often known as the Tsar Reformer, initiated a programme of modernization and Westernization that affected the lives of all his subjects. He founded a new capital, St Petersburg, which became a symbol of cultural change, and a navy, which signalled Russia's emergence as a maritime power. He also reinforced the old institutions of serfdom and autocracy. This book - a history of Peter and the Russia he goverend - examines the impact of a man was both acclaimed as the architect of the New Russia and condemned as a crude despot who sacrificed cherished traditions for the sake of international success. Drawing on previously unavailable sources, Lindsey Hughes provides an account of one of the most significant periods in Russian history. She proceeds thematically, discussing Russia's foreign policy, the army and navy, economy, governing institutions, society, arts, education and religion. She explores the experience of women, and investigates the life of the court (including Peter's "All-Drunken Assembly"), feasts, entertainments and popular culture. Although not a biography, Peter is a presence throughout the book, a six-foot seven-inch giant who enjoyed the company of dwarfs and ordinary people, adopted disguises and pseudonyms, married a peasant, and had a passion for cultural reform. Hughes recounts the events that shaped Peter's youth, provides character sketch, and explores his complex family relations (including the tragic conflict with his eldest son Alexis, whom he condemned to death). Her account closes with a reconsideration of the Petrine legacy from Peter's time to our own, as his name and image became harnessed to sell beer and cigarettes and the erection of his statue provokes renewed controversy.

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Review:

Like the luckless hero of Pushkin's "The Bronze Horseman," driven mad by St. Petersburg floods, all of Russia is in some sense pursued by the ghost of Peter the Great. Literally larger than life at six foot seven inches, the country's alternately revered and reviled monarch was a man of intense contradictions: famous for introducing Western modes of speech, custom, and thought, he also strengthened the dubious Russian traditions of autocracy and serfdom. Present-day Russians are similarly divided over the Petrine legacy. Admirers point to his striking imperial achievements as well as his success in promoting learning, science, and clerical and legal reform. Critics see in his harsh totalitarian rule the antecedent for despots like Stalin. Either way, it's clear that he was the single person most responsible for dragging Russia from the Middle Ages into the Enlightenment. In Lindsey Hughes's massive, meticulously detailed history, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great, the tsar is depicted warts and all. It's a balanced view, presented in lucid, jargon-free prose and supported by impeccable research. Hughes delves into not only the familiar territory of Peter's military and naval innovations, but also previously underexplored topics such as the changing role of women under his rule. Most intriguingly, she cites the tsar's fondness for masks, role-playing, and disguise. The chapters detailing the peculiarities of Peter's psychology make for perhaps the most absorbing reading in a book full of insights and surprises. Sufficiently rigorous for scholars yet eminently accessible to the general reader, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great is an invaluable addition to the literature surrounding this complicated and fascinating man. --Mary Park

About the Author:

Lindsey Hughes is professor of Russian history at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.

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