Peter the Great through British Eyes: Perceptions and Representations of the Tsar since 1698.
The acknowledged stimulus to writing this book was the tercentenary of Peter the Great's visit to England in 1696. Its theme is an appraisal of British perceptions of the tsar over the course of the subsequent three centuries. Because these perceptions were connected with shifting British attitudes to Russia as a whole, the story moves beyond the biographical to take on a synecdochical meaning.
Officially Peter travelled to England incognito, but so vivid were his energy, appetites, and enthusiasms (especially for shipbuilding and navigation) that his presence quickly secured him "a particular place in British folklore, fable, and favour" (p. 39). Author Anthony Cross doubts, though, whether his visit in itself served to dispel unflattering assumptions about Russian barbarism and ignorance that had taken hold since Muscovy's "discovery" in the previous century. Indeed, in the eyes of some, Peter's savage repression of the rebellious strel'tsy and his apparent ill-treatment of his son lent credence to such negative stereotypes. Yet by the end of his reign in 1725, British views of Peter and Russia had begun to shift, thanks mainly to the Peter's stunning military victory over Charles XII of Sweden in 1709. Peter's anti-Gallic views won approval from Whig polemicists such as Richard Steele and in 1716 Captain John Perry launched the tradition of Petrine hagiography in The State of Russia under the Present Czar. Poets and playwrights followed suit: in 1718 Aaron Hill published his highly successful panygeric, the Northern Star; later James Thompson would amend his celebrated poem The Seasons to add thirty-eight lines in praise of the "matchless Prince."
The posthumous myth of Peter found its most prestigious support from Voltaire, whose Histoire de Charles XII forcefully expressed the opinion that Peter was the greater of the two northern monarchs. Voltaire's work went though a number of English translations, as did his subsequent Histoire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand. For Voltaire and his English admirers, Peter was the ultimate Enlightenment monarch, courageously and successfully battling the forces of ignorance and superstition. Some were sceptical--including the otherwise ill-matched Samuel Johnson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau--but there was no effective challenge to the perception that Peter had created modern Russia ex nihilo until William Tooke (the first Englishman to use and read Russian sources) published his History of Russia in the early nineteenth century.
It was not, however, changes in scholarship that encouraged a revised view of Peter, but rather a growing tide of Russophobia in Britain. Any goodwill generated by Tsar Alexander's visit to Britain in 1814 quickly dissipated in the wake of the Russian suppression of the Polish revolt in 1830 and growing concerns about Russian designs in the Near East. Peter became retrospectively implicated in Russia's territorial ambitions by the "discovery" of the "Testament of Peter the Great," the first English translations of which appeared at the beginning of the Crimean War. In it, Peter appears to lay down a blueprint for Russian expansionism. (The provenance of this curious document is furiously debated, though frustratingly Cross refrains from decisive comment about its authenticity.) Given the intensity of nineteenth-century Russophobia, it is perhaps remarkable that Peter's reputation survived as well as it did. In the late nineteenth century, he continued to attract some approving biographies; latterly, Cross optimistically suggests, the rise of modern scholarship has to some extent insulated Peter's reputation from interpretive shifts derived from changing attitudes to Russia itself.
This is an engaging book, rich in anecdote and nicely illustrated with examples of Petrine iconography. Its entertainment value, however, should not detract from its serious message about the state of Anglo-Russian relations over three centuries.
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2003|
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