300 Years of East Vs. West

Three hundred years ago, Sergeant Pyotr Mikhailov set off from Russia for the West. He was a huge man, almost two meters tall. He was also barely literate -- his handwriting was indecipherable and his spelling wretched. He was plagued by epilepsy and nervous tics. But when he arrived in Western Europe, he immediately applied for work. He became a ship's carpenter at the East India Company's yard at Saardan in Holland. And when he traveled on to England, he found employment -- again as a carpenter -- at the Royal Navy's dockyard in Deptford, Kent.


Three hundred years later -- last week, in fact -- Russia's ambassador in Britain held a New Year's party in London, at which he announced that a statue was to be erected in Deptford in honor of the sergeant's visit. For the truth is that Sergeant Mikhailov traveled to the West under an alias -- along with an entourage of 250 people. He put up in London at the house of the diarist John Evelyn, and left behind him damage -- according to the architect Sir Christopher Wren -- amounting to a massive ?350 ($584). He was a libertine, a carouser, and one of the most remarkable men who ever lived. His name, of course, was Pyotr Romanov, Peter I, the Great.


I've always been fascinated by Peter. So has Russia. In his lifetime, he was hated and vilified as the Antichrist. By sheer force of personality, he frog-marched Russia into the modern age -- or into an almost 300-year bondage, depending on which side you're on. And yet what an astonishingly energetic and contradictory character he was. In some ways deeply religious, he nevertheless held blasphemous orgies and made the church subservient to the state. He celebrated the weddings of his court dwarves in debauches that could go on for weeks, collected freaks and human organs, and organized masked balls for 20,000 people, where noblemen and peasants were forced to rub shoulders together. He regularly beat his officials with a stick as well as his chief crony, an ex-pie seller, so the story went, called Alexander Menshikov.


Peter seems never, ever to have been at rest. While personally conducting the longest war there has been in the last 300 years -- against the Swedes -- he worked as a craftsman, mastering the arts of engineering and fortification, papermaking and stone masonry. He made his own boots and books and furniture -- not to mention the first ship in the Russian navy.


Meanwhile, in the time that was left, he completely transformed Russian society. He cut off his boyars' beards and kaftans and forced them into European clothes and wigs; he made them learn the minuet and smoke tobacco. He created the country's first standing army; he started the first newspaper. He founded the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as a particularly virulent secret police under Prince Romodanovsky. By the time he died -- at the age of 54, after plunging into icy water to save soldiers from drowning -- his country had become a great power, what that old toady Voltaire called a brand-new model-state, on the cold lip of Europe.


He also, of course, founded St. Petersburg -- and he didn't seem to care how many people died in its building. (A historian claimed that the population of Russia dropped by a quarter in his lifetime.) Killing, in fact, seems to have bothered him little. He had the palace guard, whose revolt cut short his European trip, flogged, racked and roasted to death. Some he executed personally, and he later seems to have killed his own son for being less than enchanted with what he was doing to the country. And yet he enjoyed nothing more, it was said, than shooting the breeze over a beer with sailors and shipwrights. He hated expensive clothes; he walked about in an old hat and worn-out shoes or in an ordinary uniform. And if you've visited his Summer Palace in St. Petersburg, you'll know that he lived modestly indeed by the standards of his successors. He liked porridge and cabbage soup and disliked, he said, being waited on at the table.


Peter's story is worth going back to -- it seems to me -- again and again. For in a way it continues, like a hangover, to be the story of modern Russia: violent and sentimental, the victim of different force fields (old and new, Asiatic and European), and still the importer of foreign ideas that seem to get bent out of shape as soon as they arrive here.


Russophile or Westernizer? It's a question that divides the country and its politicians just as surely as it did in Peter's time. So I for one will visit the statue in Deptford just as soon as it goes up. Peter could hold the contradictions together, but on his deathbed he said, "Give it all away." He just didn't say to whom.