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Reading Backwards

 Kyiv at night. Photo © copyright Peter Zalmayev 2023 with permission


He had not gone to the West to study "the art of government." Although in Protestant Europe he was surrounded by evidence of the new civil and political rights of individual men embodied in constitutions, bills of rights and parliaments, he did not return to Russia determined to share power with his people.


=Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great; His Life and World



As soon as I started writing about  Peter Zalmayev. a broadcaster in Ukraine, a man I have met and admire, I realized how little I knew about Russian and Ukrainian history, or even that it is necessary to separate them. I had memories of my husband's shelf of books about Russia when we lived in London. He had studied Russian at the Holborn School of Languages, and then entered an MA program in International Relations at the London School of Economics. His books were left behind when we returned to New York, but Jim's insight and knowledge traveled with us back to America. I am therefore blessed with a live-in expert on Russian, Ukrainian and Polish history, not to mention family connections; his father was born in Poland, his grandmother in Kiev, now Kyiv, the name change a history lesson in itself. I remember his grandmother well, our struggles to communicate, her home-made yogurt.


As the horrendous shooting war on the European continent continues unabated, and without a ceasefire in sight, I decided to deepen my education beginning with the Robert K. Massie history of Peter the Great, a page turner. Emperor from 1682-1725, he understood that, compared to the Europeans, Russia was "backward." His goal was to bring it forward into what we now call "the enlightenment."  He spoke several languages, traveled incessantly, but he was also a warrior who defeated the Swedes and the Turks with his well-trained army, and many mercenaries in that army. (There were mercenaries in every army in those days and they shifted sides often.)


Are the seeds of the current war between Russia and Ukraine in these pages? And how, if at all, could it have been prevented? And how will it end? I have no definitive answers other than, yes, every past has a future, the fault lines are there as they are in every nation's history, including ours, but there are also rogues, despots and renegades who turn the rivers of change to their selfish advantage. Given the advances Russia made since the fall of the Soviet Union, we'd have to say that Putin is a rogue and a despot, a throwback to an era even before Peter the Great came to the throne, and that the Russian Federation is experiencing a steep and rapid devolution. I hope we cannot say the same for these United States.


Ever hopeful as I read, both backwards and forwards into the text, I search for interesting quotidian details to relieve the stress of endless battles, domestic mischief, and cruel punishments. Peter's peasant wife Catherine had twelve children, and traveled to meet him on the battlefield while pregnant. Their love letters are quoted in the book, and they are fascinating and beautifully written, albeit in translation. Peter loved ships and became a master shipbuilder. His sojourns in Holland, England, and Versailles, after the death of Louis XIV, were remarkable. Imagine what travel was like in those days: arduous. And one can feel the efflorescing culture of diplomacy in Peter's efforts, his fascination with the world beyond Russia's borders, his insatiable willingness to learn. Indeed, he was brilliant and forward thinking, though often misguided and ruthless. He also drank a lot, as did so many others in his entourage. And though weapons were cruder in those days, he understood that once they were launched, the damage was done and the battle begun.


Every act of war, then and now, has both deliberate and unintended consequences, consequences that reverberate and threaten to break us all beyond repair.


This post is dedicated to Daniel Ellsberg and his family. 

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