The Saturday Essay: The giant who still casts a shadow over Russia

People who long for a strong leader like Peter should have no illusions that even he could find solutions to Russia's ills
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LONDON HAS a new statue of Tsar Peter the Great, unveiled last Wednesday near the Russian ambassador's residence in west London. Only a few Londoners will be aware that this event marks the tercentenary of 26-year-old Peter's visit to England in 1698, although the face they will see is that of an older man, whose windswept hair and steely gaze suggest dynamism, determination and far-seeing vision.

Londoners tend to be indifferent to such monuments, but in Russia statues of Peter have a peculiar resonance. Many Muscovites bitterly resent the vast statue of Peter erected recently on the Moskva river, pointing out the incongruity, even the insult, of building a monument to a man who shunned Moscow, the ancient capital of Russia, by founding a new capital, St Petersburg, on the Baltic in 1703. (Some just think that the statue is an eyesore.)

On the other hand, the citizens of St Petersburg regard the so-called Bronze Horseman, Falconet's 18th-century statue of Peter astride a rearing steed trampling a serpent, as the symbol of their city, which brings to mind not only Peter's struggle against the Swedes in the Great Northern War (1700-21), but also his battle with the elements and inhospitable terrain to create his northern Venice.

Newly-married couples still visit it to place a bouquet. To Peter's detractors in general (and there are some of those even in St Petersburg) this same Horseman recalls Peter's struggle with his own people, over whom he was willing to ride roughshod in pursuit of his goals, in the name of Modernisation and Progress.

Peter's stay in England, where he spent almost four months from January to April 1698, tells us much about the contradictions and complexities of the man and his mission. On one level, Peter's European tour, which also took in several Baltic cities, various bits of Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, was a routine diplomatic affair: Russia was seeking aid (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for the Holy League against the Turks. Peter was also looking, in the longer term, to modernise a country which in many respects, and especially in education and technology, was lagging behind the West.

His programme, still only partly formulated in 1697-8, included developing his embryonic navy and it was this which attracted him to England, where, he was assured, he could learn about the theoretical side of shipbuilding and navigation. Peter worked in the Royal Naval Dockyards at Deptford (practical hands-on activity was typical of the man later dubbed the "Carpenter Tsar") and reviewed the fleet at Portsmouth. He visited the Royal Observatory, the Arsenal, the Mint, the Tower of London and the Royal Society.

He also visited Parliament. Anecdotes recall how he enjoyed listening to "the sons of the fatherland telling the king the blunt truth"; and he said, "We ought to learn from the English in this respect." On the other hand, he stated that "English freedom is not appropriate here... You have to know your people to know how to govern them." Peter's later institutional reforms aimed at improving administrative efficiency, not at introducing representative government. His own power remained absolute.

Peter returned to Russia with scientific instruments, weapons, and a wealth of experiences. Various British specialists were hired, including shipbuilders, navigators and mathematicians. Technology and "know-how" were the key. In this sense, Peter's was Russia's new modern face: quite literally, for the portrait painted in London in 1698 by Sir Godfrey Kneller was probably the first thoroughly Westernised, lifelike image of a Russian ruler.

But Peter also behaved in manner which confirmed prejudices that Russia was a barbaric, scarcely Christian country, and that its ruler (the "Turk of the North") was distinctly eccentric. For a start, it was hardly normal practice for a Russian tsar to go abroad with an embassy, especially when he travelled under a commoner's pseudonym (unconvincing in view of his distinctive 6ft 7in frame), in the hope of avoiding fussy ceremonies, which he hated. A team of accredited ambassadors conducted all the diplomatic business, while Peter spent most of his time with a motley crew of fellow trainee shipbuilders, which included his favourite and possibly his lover, Alexander Menshikov (said to be the son of a pie seller), and several dwarfs.

With the help of these friends, and prodigious quantities of alcohol, he did several hundred pounds' worth of damage to John Evelyn's house and garden at Sayes Court, Deptford (the remains of the once famous garden still survive in a small park), where they lodged to be near the dockyards. A steward complained that the Russians were "right nasty", an opinion shared by many who encountered them, not least some German ladies earlier on the tour who were surprised when the Russians groped their corsets - garments which the men had not encountered at home, where upper class women lived in semi-seclusion. (Peter later forced Russian women to lower their necklines and socialise.)

From Peter's time to the present day, opinions about the man and his reforms have divided into two broad camps. To use terms coined in the 19th century, "Westernisers" applaud Peter's efforts to modernise his country along Western lines, but regretted that the harsh realities of his reign prevented him from extending the rule of law, private property and civic freedoms. In particular, the reforms failed to reach the mass of the population, many of whom remained serfs.

Boris Yeltsin, who regards Peter as a hero, has always broadly subscribed to the Westernist view. As he wrote in The View from the Kremlin (1994): "Not a single reform effort in Russia has ever been completed. The purpose of Peter the Great's reforms, for example, was to create `Russian Europeans'. Obviously, that was an extremely ambitious goal that could not be achieved in a single generation. In a general sense, Peter the Great's reforms have not been achieved to this day." (Yeltsin may find himself associated with Peter in less welcome ways; for example, in their shared tendency to disconcert their hosts by inappropriate manhandling of top dignitaries - Peter once picked up King Louis XV and carried him up some steps - and sudden diversions from the official programme to sleep off a drinking session.)

"Slavophiles", on the other hand, believe that Peter diverted Russia from its natural path of development, destroying national culture, turning the upper classes into foreigners and the Russian Orthodox church (which they believe embodied the essence of Russian national identity) into a department of state.

A thorough reading of Peter's letters and papers (mostly available only in Russian, and in some cases still unpublished) show that he himself was well aware of the difficulty of his task. They overflow with impatience, and an excess of energy amounting to hyper-activity. Peter was continually frustrated by lack of support for his reforms, not just from the peasants, who fled in their thousands from excessive demands for taxes and state service, and from the devout, who regarded him as the Antichrist (his ban on beards was a special bone of contention), but also from members of the nobility, who hated being uprooted from Moscow and resented life- long service demands.

Even his own son, Alexis, defied him and was condemned to death. In 1711, Peter wrote to members of his newly-formed Senate (one of his many institutions with a borrowed foreign name): "In the future you need to work hard and to have everything prepared ahead of time, because wasted time, like death, cannot be reversed." A contemporary Russian admirer of Peter's observed that the tsar pulled uphill with the strength of 10 men, but thousands pulled downhill.

Not surprisingly, this heroic vision of a great man struggling against the odds has made Peter a popular role model for his punier successors. If we add to this his "democratic" credentials (he also enjoyed doing wood turning, preferred rooms with low ceilings, ate plain Russian food, and so on), it is easy to see why he was not condemned to oblivion during the Soviet era along with most of his fellow emperors and empresses. The other exception was Ivan the Terrible, whom Peter himself admired. In turn, Stalin, who appreciated firm rule from above and sought territorial expansion, admired both Ivan and Peter.

Yet, for all his success at empire building, an associated aspect of Peter's reforms has always proved problematical. One of the most enduring of Petrine images is the one of Peter opening up a "window" on Europe to end centuries of isolation. Not only did he personally enjoy the company of foreigners without any barriers, he also borrowed from abroad, even from his enemies, the Swedes, whose system he copied, more or less wholesale, for his central and provincial government institutions.

Peter's ultimate hope was that Russia would be self-sufficient, but in the meantime he borrowed anything he could get his hands on. For example, all the major architects, and the majority of court painters in St Petersburg, were foreigners. The Russian language absorbed hundreds of foreign words. Russian nobles and townspeople were forced to abandon their traditional robes for Western dress.

Peter's window remained open throughout the Tsarist era, although it was only towards the end, when serfdom was finally abolished (1861) and Russia seemed to be developing its own brand of capitalism, with some associated freedoms, that it looked as though Peter's job might be completed. The window subsequently was slammed shut during the Stalin era, was tentatively unlatched by detente and glasnost, and forced wide open again by the collapse of Communism.

It is worth speculating how Peter might react were he to return to Russia today. He would be dismayed by the loss of the Baltic states, which he conquered, and by the break-away of Ukraine, part of which which was annexed to Russia during the reign of his father. He would be appalled by the lamentable condition of the Russian army, and particularly by the navy, his personal pride and joy. The returned Peter might not be entirely gloomy, though; he would be encouraged to see the end of isolationism, associated problems notwithstanding, and delighted to see the name of St Petersburg, which he referred to as his "Paradise", restored. He would almost certainly applaud the launch yesterday morning from Kazakhstan of the Russian-built first module of the new international space station.

And if he were to have a "one-to-one" with the present incumbents of the Kremlin, he would surely attempt to console them (no doubt with more than a hint of schadenfreude) with the thought that even a great man like himself was beaten by many of the problems that they still wrestle with.

Peter was familiar with the problem of collecting taxes (then, as now, defaulters were rife, and huge sums were creamed off by the mafia-like activities of corrupt officials, although at least Peter had a properly devised system). He knew how difficult it is in a backward country to stimulate a free market and encourage the accumulation of capital, objectives that in today's Russia are undermined by currency crises and corruption, as well as by low incomes; self-sufficiency is the norm even in many urban households.

Extending "civilisation" and control to the provinces has always been a headache for Russia's rulers (Peter's new provincial government institutions nearly all collapsed after his death), which today is compounded by more successful regions attempting to break away from the centre. The rule of law remains weak everywhere, as do notions of private property. It is particularly striking that the old Soviet ban on the private ownership of agricultural land remains more or less intact.

Peter himself never attempted to develop representative institutions, but I doubt whether he would be surprised to see Russia's post-Communist parliamentary experiment continually undermined by power struggles and corruption from above and indifference from below. People in Russia today who long for the return of a strong leader like Peter should have no illusions that even a man of his stature could find any short-term solutions to Russia's current and intractable ills. Whatever the solution, it would appear that rule from above is not it.

Professor Lindsey Hughes is the author of `Russia in the Age of Peter the Great' (Yale University Press, 1998)