Peter Mikhailov's postcards from the hedge

Russia in the age of Peter the Great by Lindsey Hughes Yale pounds 25
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
An exhibition at the Queen's House in Greenwich this year commemorates the bicentenary of an extraordinary event; the so-called "Great Embassy" of Tsar Peter I, which took the Russian ruler on a 13-month tour of Northern Europe, travelling incognito with an entourage of around 250 people (though, at six feet seven inches tall, "Peter Mikhailov" was not likely to pass altogether unnoticed). At Greenwich and Deptford, he studied shipbuilding and navigation, admired the Queen's House and, notoriously, trashed the furniture and the botanical garden of the house which John Evelyn had lent him, with drunken games involving hedges and wheelbarrows.

Then he had to hurry home to deal with unrest in the military corps known as the strel'tsy (which he eventually abolished). Why did he set out in the first place? Professor Lindsey Hughes, in this balanced and absorbing account of Peter and his times, points out that the Grand Embassy, though seen as a turning-point in Russian history, was in fact an example of old-fashioned diplomacy. When Peter came to the throne in 1682, at the age of 10, his country only had one permanent mission abroad, in Warsaw, and his predecessors had kept up relations with foreign states by dispatching these itinerant missions - insofar as they bothered with foreign countries at all, except for reasons of war. One aim of Peter's embassy was probably to sound out support for an anti-Swedish alliance.

The Great Embassy is given such prominence in accounts of Peter's reign because it fits neatly with the picture of Peter as a modernising ruler, opening a "window to the West" - a simplification that at times suited both Western and Soviet historians, associating ideas of progress with Europeanisation and secularisation. Certainly, the country that Peter inherited was hardly in the forefront of development, with no universities, few schools or scholars, and practically no literature. Only three non- religious books had been published by the Moscow printing press in the whole century up to Peter's accession. Outside the Army, there was scant medical provision: a foreigner whose servant broke a leg in Novgorod in 1711 found that there was not a single doctor in the city to care for him. Previous Russian Tsars had occasionally tried sending groups of their subjects abroad for education, but most of them did a Nureyev and failed to return.

However, this image of utter backwardness is slightly misleading: the church ran schools, including academies of higher education in Moscow and Kiev; while literature, especially translations of technical and scientific works, had been circulated in manuscript to the small number who could make use of it. Peter collaborated with the church in his educational reforms and presided over a huge expansion in publishing (of "useful" works, not belles-lettres). He also did his best to update the administration: the system of ranks and the military. Yet it is arguable that the two innovations with which he is most closely associated, the Navy and St Petersburg, were ill-conceived: the money for ships could have been better spent elsewhere, perhaps, and the Tsar's lovely northern capital, with its floods, mosquitoes, ice, snow and sub-zero winters, might have been more conveniently sited.

He was also, in many ways, as un-European as his subjects: the disregard for John Evelyn's home was in keeping with the antics of the Court's All- Mad, All-Jesting, All-Drunken Assembly, a gathering at which Peter and his friends indulged in such obscene behaviour that historians have felt unable to describe it in any detail. Unfortunately, Professor Hughes has little to add; though, she tells us, this is because the Drunken Assembly "still awaits a thorough examination".

Her book is far more than merely a life or a portrait of the Petrine court; but Peter was so much at the centre of events, as the supreme authority in his empire, that he must form the starting-point for any view of the age. One gets little sense here of the immensity of that empire, or what life was like at its outer reaches. As a general survey, however, it could hardly be bettered, and its conclusions about Peter's importance are well supported. It will surely remain the standard account in English of this crucial and fascinating period in Russian history.