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Eighteenth-Century Studies 37.2 (2004) 329-331
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Peter the Great and Europe
William B. Whisenhunt
College of DuPage
Peter Bushkovitch. Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671-1725 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Pp. 485. $24.95 cloth. $17.95 paper.
Lindsey Hughes, ed. Peter the Great and the West: New Perspectives (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001). Pp. 280. £37.50.
Russian historians have eagerly awaited the tercentennial celebration of the founding of St. Petersburg. This event will be commemorated with speeches, conferences and fanfare. For historians, it is another opportunity to celebrate and to analyze the city and the reign of Peter the Great. Russia, at the end of the seventeenth century as Peter took the throne, was fairly isolated from most of the development that had engulfed the majority of Western Europe. Peter's reign marks a dramatic shift in orientation and focus for the Russian state. His predecessors had primarily emphasized internal developments leaving Russia on the periphery of European affairs. Peter's reign took Russia into the European world, whether or not the Russian people themselves wanted it, by adopting European customs, technology, administrative systems, architecture, and many other ideas from Europe. Paul Bushkovitch's Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power 1671-1725 and Lindsey Hughes' edited collection, Peter the Great and the West: New Perspectives are just two of a number of works appearing on this anniversary that not only address Peter's reign, but also his relationship with Europe.
Bushkovitch's work is a long and extensive discussion of Peter's reign. The author asserts in the introduction that his work on Peter would be more of a narrative, rather than a new interpretation of the reign. It seems that Bushkovitch thinks that the story of Peter has been overshadowed by more interpretive and thematic works while the story of Peter's rise to power and use of power has been overlooked for too long. It is clear that the subtitle of the book is the focus of the study. The struggle for power that begins well before Peter's birth in 1672, and Peter's struggle to maintain his power, are the subject of this narrative. The first [End Page 329] third of the book concentrates in great detail on court intrigue that was so dominant after the death of Peter's father, Aleksei, in 1676. Bushkovitch examines the intricacies of political infighting between major and minor Russian noble families while some among the rival families began to debate whether or not Peter should be placed on the throne at three years old. This is an excellent section, but it seems to overwhelm the rest of the work. The remaining two-thirds of the book is on Peter's reign, but it is almost entirely focused on politics, law, diplomacy, and war. Bushkovitch explores in extraordinary detail all of the court advisors, favorites, and rivals who rose and fell from power throughout Peter's reign. The discussion of court power struggles illuminates how much power Peter actually had and how at certain times he was reliant upon his court and favorites for support. Again, while an interesting approach to this subject, this work is dominated by the details of court life. There is virtually no discussion of Peter's cultural changes, and the founding of St. Petersburg is only given a passing mention. While it is true that this is a study of power, the author only looks at traditional sources of power without really considering the impact cultural changes have on power.
Without a doubt, Bushkovitch has taken great care to assemble primary material from numerous European archives to serve as the basis for this work. This source base, though, has revealed little that was not already known about Peter. The author repeatedly uses lengthy quotations and footnotes in Dutch, Swedish, and other languages that reveal little to either general or expert readers. Lastly, there is a general concern about the structure of the book. As noted earlier, the first third of the book addresses court intrigue before Peter's reign. However, the last...