Peter the Great was my muse during a trip to the Baltic in 2013. We met in Amsterdam where the tsar's biography and accomplishments came to light in an exhibition at the Dutch Hermitage museum. I admired his saddle, clothing, weaponry and clocks, and discovered that Peter at age 25 had spent five months in Amsterdam working in the shipyard of the Dutch East India Company. He was intent on absorbing the knowledge of master shipwrights by acting as an apprentice carpenter, building a frigate step-by-step from scratch. He was by nature curious and hard-working - was that the mark of greatness?
Amsterdam in 1697 was a well-organized, prosperous, liberal-minded city that profoundly impressed the young man from Moscow. The international trade and commerce that made the city rich and thriving relied on a strong fleet at sea. Peter resolved to develop a naval force in Russia, extend territory to gain control of Baltic ports and reform his backward country by opening up trade routes and encouraging direct contact with foreigners. He had vision and plenty of drive - was that the source of greatness?
We traveled by ship to St. Petersburg, the beautiful city Peter the Great created as a modern capital for his updated homeland. The canals and city layout were enough to draw comparisons with Amsterdam and indeed it was Amsterdam that provided a template for the design of Peter's new settlement on the Neva. He was a good copyist - was that the basis for being great?
The book "Peter the Great; his life and world" by Robert K Massie is a massive (928 page) biography that covers everything you ever wanted to know about the energetic, ambitious, ruthless, enigmatic and truly great character who changed the course of Russian history. The strength of the book is not only the author's vivid depiction of Peter, but his introduction of leaders surrounding the Tsar, the power brokers of Europe in the early eighteenth century. Massie brings King Charles XII of Sweden, Prince William of Orange Stadhouder of Holland (simultaneously William III of England), Frederick William I King of Prussia, Leopold I, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Archduke of Austria and other notables into focus as Peter is faced with the opportunities, constraints and struggles of political and military projects. To round out the picture, Massie presents firsthand accounts of individuals who met the Tsar formally at court, along with excerpts from Peter's most personal, intimate letters.
Sophia, Electress of Hanover wrote this description of Peter after a dinner party:
"The Tsar is very tall, his features are fine, and his figure very noble. He has great vivacity of mind and a ready and just repartee. But, with all the advantages with which nature has endowed him, it could be wished that his manners were a little less rustic.....We regretted that we could not stay much longer, so that we could see him again, for his society gave us much pleasure. He is a very extraordinary man. It is impossible to describe him, or even to give an idea of him, unless you have seen him. He has a very good heart, and remarkably noble sentiments. "
The letter Peter wrote to his wife Catherine from Spa where he was taking the cure, reveals his tender, affectionate side.
"When you write for me to come quickly and that you are very lonesome, I believe you. The bringer of this will tell you how lonely I am without you and I can say that except those days when I was in Versailles and Marly twelve days ago, I have had no great pleasure. But here I must stay some days and when I finish drinking the water I will start that very day, for there are only seven hours by land and five days by water. God grant to see you in joy which I wish from all my heart."
Peter's positive personality traits were equally matched with negative ones: impetuousness, resentment, uncontrollable anger and extreme cruelty. The Tsar ordered that his son and heir Prince Alexis (child of his first wife Eudoxia) be tried by a council of ministers and then tortured to death for disloyalty. He made examples of traitors, using public suffering and execution as the standard treatment for anyone who dared betray him.
I became fascinated with Massie's description of Peter's spare time pursuits. When not involved in politics and plotting war, he liked to work with tools, fashioning objects from wood, metal and ivory. He made an elaborate chandelier from walrus tusks which hangs in the Peter Gallery of the Hermitage today. On a diplomatic mission to China he sent four ivory telescopes made with his own hands as gifts for the Emperor. His interest and enthusiasm was always in the process, figuring out mechanics and learning how to work with materials to create practical, functional things, not objets d'art. He explored paper-making and blacksmith work, carpentry and stone masonry.
Craftsmanship is the subject of Richard Sennett's book, which I read in tandem with the lengthy Massie biography. Sennett takes the reader on a path from Pandora's box to Stradivari's workshop to the handmade bricks of Aalto Baker and Frank Gehry's Guggenheim, with references to Hegel and Darwin, Frankenstein and Christopher Wren along the way. It's an intellectual stretch to keep up with this author, but he is adept at summarizing chapters with lists of pertinent points. Here's how he explains the elements of craftsmanship.
"Three basic abilities are the foundation of craftsmanship. These are the ability to localize, to question and to open up. The first involves making a matter concrete, the second reflecting on its qualities, the third expanding its sense." - Sennett
The definition of craftsmanship brought me back to Peter and his Greatness. His project for the Russian Reformation began with locating a suitable model in the Netherlands. He wanted his own country to emulate progressive Dutch culture, build a stable economic base through industry and trade, and bolster national security with naval power.
After an instructive apprenticeship in the Amsterdam shipyard, he began to question accepted methodology and decided to probe further. He felt he needed more knowledge to meet his goal of building an effective navy. Massie explains the reasons for Peter's dissatisfaction.
"What he had learned had been little more than ship's carpentry - it was better than the ship's carpentry he had learned in Russia, but it was not what he was seeking. Peter wanted to grasp the basic secrets of ship design; in effect, naval architecture. He wanted blueprints, made scientifically, controlled by mathematics, not simply a greater handiness with axe and hammer. ... In order to build a fleet a thousand miles away on the Don with a force of largely unskilled laborers, he needed something which could be easily explained, understood and copied by men who had never seen a ship before." - Massie
As Peter opened up the scope of his research to study elements of English warship and yacht design and the finer points of Venetian galleys, he moved closer to achieving the goal he had set. In the extended naval conflict with Sweden (1700-1721) fighting for control of the upper Baltic, Peter was successful because he used a combination of both large cannon bearing ships-of-the-line and smaller more maneuverable galleys that carried troops through shallow coastal waters.
"It was a strange and extraordinary contest between warships of two different kinds, one ancient and one modern.The Swedes had superiority in heavy cannon and skilled seamen, but the Russians had an overwhelming advantage in numbers of ships and men. Their smaller more maneuverable galleys, decks loaded with infantry, simply charged the Swedish ships en masse, taking what losses they had to from Swedish cannon fire, closing in and boarding the immobile Swedish vessels." - Massie
Tsar Peter earned his title of greatness through craftsmanship, which in Sennett's words is "an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake." Skill, judgment and commitment are hallmarks of the true craftsman, and Peter the Great applied all three in his remodeling of Russia.
2015 is the Year of Craft - time to localize, question and open up.