Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Czar's yearn to learn ...

If we like political leaders who’ve had similar jobs to our own, working day to day to pay for necessities while hoping to save a little for entertainment and our later years, we might find Peter the Great, Czar of Russia from to 1682 to 1725, to be a welcome, refreshing, and even inspirational leader. To be sure, he was born into royalty, assuming the crown at 10, upon the death of his father.  But like no other supreme, autocratic ruler before or since, Peter yearned to learn, and would stop at little to do so.

In the late 17th century, Europe was highly enlightened and modern compared to Russia. Peter recognized the gap and hoped to close it as quickly as possible – and going to Europe to learn its ways seemed the best way to do that. Traveling incognito, probably to avoid time-consuming ceremonies that would have been required as a head of state, Peter traveled with about 250 Russian officials and their minions to Germany, Holland, England, and Austria as part of Russia’s so-called Great Embassy in 1697.

Peter entered the shipyards of Holland as a common laborer to get hands-on experience in shipbuilding, vital for the seafaring future he wanted for Russia. Although his cover was soon blown, arrangements were made for him to work in a private shipyard surrounded by high walls, wrote Robert K. Massie in his 1981 biography Peter the Great: His Life and World.

“Every day,” wrote Massie, “Peter arrived at the shipyard at dawn, carrying his axe and tools on his shoulders as the other workmen did. He allowed no distinction between himself and them, and strictly refused to be addressed or identified by any title. When two English noblemen came to catch a glimpse of [him] … the foreman, in order to point out which one was Peter, called to him, ‘Carpenter Peter, why don’t you help your comrades?’ Without a word, Peter walked over and put his shoulder beneath a timber which several men were struggling to raise and helped lift it into place.”

But despite the inspiration we might find in this part of Peter the Great’s life, we shouldn’t develop too much of a soft spot for him. Among other terrifying excesses, he had his young-adult son Alexis – so overwhelmed by his father’s personality that he fled the country – put on trial on mere suspicions that he sought the Czar’s overthrow. Alexis was sentenced to death, but died rather mysteriously, probably a result of the torture he received in an effort to gain a confession, before the sentence could be carried out officially.

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