Book Review of Peter the Great and the West: New Perspectives

Lindsey Hughes, editor. Peter the Great and the West: New Perspectives. Studies in Russia and East Europe series. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. ISBN 978-0-333-92009-1. Tables. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Index. Pp. xxiv, 280. $115.00 (hardcover).

Lindsey HughesPeter I (the Great) of Russia is the subject of numerous biographies and academic studies.  Historians have focused on his life, reforms, and wars that resulted in Russia’s emergence as a Great Power in the Baltic Region.  The late Dr Lindsey Hughes, Professor of Russian History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, collected and edited a number of essays by leading historians of Russia focusing on recent research on the reign of Peter the Great.  Hughes is known for her studies including Russia and the West: The Life of a Seventeenth-Century Westernizer, Prince Vasily Vasil’evich Golitsyn (1643-1714) (1984), Sophia: Regent of Russia, 1657-1704 (1990), Russia in the Age of Peter the Great (1998), Peter the Great: A Biography (2002), and The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613-1918 (2008).

The study consists of fifteen essays, including several that will interest individuals interested in international and military history.  In his essay, Dr Graeme P. Herd, Professor of Civil-Military Relations at the College of International Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center for European Security Studies at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, describes Peter the Great’s two military campaigns against the Ottoman fortress and seaport of Azov in 1695-1696.  Herd believes that the Tsar was motivated to go to war against the Ottomans for four reasons.  First, Peter I wanted to fulfill treaty obligations to the Holy League in the Great Turkish War (1683-1699).  Secondly, the Tsar sought to expand Russian control over the Steppe.  Third, he desired to gain control of a seaport and build a Russian navy.  And, finally, Peter I sought to support Orthodox Christians in the region.  The first campaign ended in failure, but Peter I learned from his mistakes and rectified the problems.  In the second campaign, the Tsar used a naval presence in the Sea of Azov that allowed amphibious operations against Azov, and blocked Ottoman attempts to resupply the fortress.  In addition, Peter I strengthened the Russian military logistical network.  The Tsar also improved communications within the chain of command.  The capture of Azov, Peter I’s first military success, had consequences for Russian foreign policy.  Herd stresses that the victory projected Russian political and military power across the southern Steppe and into the Sea of Azov.  By 1699 Russia had fourteen ships-of-the-line sailing the Sea of Azov (p.172).  The Ottoman Empire accepted Russia as a Great Power in the region, inviting the Tsar to establish the position of a resident ambassador at Istanbul.  The victory also raised Russia’s diplomatic status throughout Europe.  In fact, the victory led to Peter I’s so-called Grand Embassy in 1697-1698.

Dr Dmitry Fedosov, a Research Fellow at the Institute of General History at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, addresses the Scottish connection with Peter the Great’s Russia.  He notes that Colonel Paul Menzies of Pifodels (1637-1694) was Peter I’s first foreign tutor.  He points out that fifteen men of Scottish birth or origin held a general’s rank in the Russian forces from 1650 to 1709 (p.90).  The most prominent figure was Patrick Gordon (1635-1699) who distinguished himself in the Chigirin (1676-1678) and Crimean (1687-1689) military campaigns.  Field Marshal George Benedict Ogilvie (1644-1710) played an important role in the Russian army.  Robert Bruce was the High Commandant of St Petersburg from 1704 to 1720.  James Daniel Bruce became Master of the Ordnance and commanded both Russian and allied artillery in the Great Northern War (1700-1721).  Many Scots served as junior officers in the Russian army.  Fedosov counts thirty Scots in the Russian navy (p.98).  The author believes that the Scots had the most important foreign impact on Russia during the reign of Peter the Great.

In “Why St Petersburg,” Dr Robert E. Jones, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, argues that Peter the Great engaged in the Great Northern War with the aim of establishing St Petersburg as a seaport (p.194).  The Tsar took control of the Neva River delta from Sweden in May 1703.  Jones stresses that Peter I decided to build St Petersburg as a seaport, naval base, and capital in this inhospitable wasteland for several reasons.  His essay focuses mainly on commercial reasons.  He stresses that the Tsar sought a Baltic port with access to Western Europe for improved commerce.  Peter I wanted to export Russian goods, such as timber, tar, hemp, hides, lard, iron, and grain, to the world market.  The location of St Petersburg was better than the seaports of Narva, Reval, and Riga.  St Petersburg had accessibility by water to the Russian heartland.  “That advantage,” according to Jones, “was decisive because water transport offered the most profitable and in many cases the only profitable means of moving heavy, bulky goods over long distances” (p.195).  The Tsar officially moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to St Petersburg in 1713.

The late Dr Richard Warner, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, examines the buildup of the Russian Baltic fleet during the Great Northern War.  In 1712, Peter the Great had a meager fleet of small vessels built on Lake Ladoga.  It took another two years before his shipyard at St Petersburg could launch a warship.  In the meantime, the Tsar found another way to build up the Russian fleet.  In 1713 he began purchasing merchant vessels in England (six ships), Rotterdam (one), Dunkirk (one), and Hamburg (one).  The Tsar had these ships fitted out as men-of-war for delivery to the Baltic fleet.  They sailed to Copenhagen where they were then escorted by a Russian squadron to the Gulf of Finland.  Peter I purchased five more British ships in 1714 and three more in 1715.  The ships were escorted into the Baltic by British naval convoys in 1715.  British convoys escorted more ships destined for Russia in 1716.  Between 1714 and 1716 the Tsar took possession of eighteen foreign warships.  These ships, combined with the ships from the Ladoga and St Petersburg shipyards gave him twenty-eight men-of-war (p.114).  Warner shows that the Russian Baltic fleet was superior to the Swedish fleet.  The purchase of foreign ships allowed Peter the Great to change the naval balance of power in the Baltic in his favor.

In “Peter the Great and the Baltic,” Dr David G. Kirby, Emeritus Professor of Modern History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, briefly examines the Baltic policy of Peter the Great.  He addresses the strategic, commercial, and dynastic reasons for Russia’s conquest and rule over Livonia, Estonia, Ingria, and Finland.  Moreover, the author discusses the Tsar’s struggle against Charles XII of Sweden and George I of Britain-Hanover during the Great Northern War.

Dr Janet M. Hartley, Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London), discusses the changing British perception of Russia during the Age of Peter the Great.  In 1698 the English viewed Russia as a potential market for exports.  Hartley, however, stresses that this view changed over the next two decades.  Peter I defeated the Swedes at the battle of Poltava (1709), developed a fleet on the Baltic, and placed troops in northern Germany.  By 1720, Britain viewed Russia not as a potential market but as a threat to British commerce in the Baltic Region and a menace to the balance of power in Europe.

All in all, Peter the Great and the West: New Perspectives is an interesting collection of essays.  They provide further insights to Peter I of Russia and his reign.  The essays are a great addition to the most recent literature that includes the works of Lindsey Hughes (cited above), M.S. Anderson, Peter the Great (second edition, 1995), Peter Bushkovich, Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671-1725 (2001), Christopher Duffy, Russia’s Military Way to the West: Origins and Nature of Russian Military Power, 1700-1800 (1981), Angus Konstam, Peter the Great’s Army (1993), Edward Phillips, The Founding of Russia’s Navy: Peter the Great and the Azov Fleet, 1688-1714 (1981), Andrew Rothstein, Peter the Great and Marlborough: Politics and Diplomacy in Converging Wars (1986), Angus Konstam, Poltava 1709: Russia Comes of Age (1994), Serhii Plokhy (editor), Poltava 1709: The Battle and the Myth (2012), as well as James R. Moulton, Peter the Great and the Russian Military Campaigns during the Final Years of the Great Northern War, 1719-1721 (2005).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
This entry was posted in Great Northern War (1700-1721), Russian Foreign Policy, Russian Military History, War of the Holy League (1683-1699) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Book Review of Peter the Great and the West: New Perspectives

  1. William Young says:

    Reblogged this on Military History.

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