The Top Of My Head, Part VI - The Sorrows Of Peter The Great
One of the most widely repeated anecdotes about the life of Peter the Great concerns the day he decided to learn bootmaking.
Off he went to the cobblers' workshop, did a day's work and by its end had made a pair of boots. The cobbler wanted to lavish gifts upon him, but Peter refused, insisting that as he had merely done a day's work, he should merely receive a day's pay.
It was impossible not to think of this story when one read of 'Miron', one of the patients whose histories Oliver Sacks recounted in 'Awakenings'. Miron's Parkinsonism improved dramatically when he was given the chance to resume his old trade, under hospital conditions. He was a cobbler.
P. A. Romanov, known to history, for some reason presumably best known to itself, as 'Peter the Great', was, I suspect, born three centuries too early. Reading accounts of his life, it is easy to imagine Peter living in happy obscurity as a cobbler or junior clerk, entirely content with his position in life. He could do a day's work for a day's pay every day, before getting drunk every evening while watching documentaries such as 'How It's Made', 'American Chopper' or 'Deadliest Catch' (and he would watch nothing else; he would be able to program Pick TV or the Discovery Channel on the remote with his eyes shut). He would then spend all of Saturday and most of Sunday either shopping at B & Q or playing with what he had bought at B & Q before going to the pub with his mates on both Saturday and Sunday evenings, demanding the return of borrowed power tools and boring them rigid with his talk of the new decking he was building, or the new conservatory he was putting up, or the dormer windows he was thinking of putting in, before getting drunk and embarrassing himself at the karaoke; he would have been the first act to stand up, and the last to fall down. Had the two-week package holiday been invented before Peter decided to found St. Petersburg it might have saved tens of thousands of Russian lives, for Peter was the sort of guy who would have lived every moment of his life anticipating his sun holiday on Tenerife. He would have felt no need to build an imperial capital in a swamp if he could have gone to Los Cristianos instead. The Streltsy, the soldier-merchants who made their fatal and final mistake by rebelling against him for the second time in 1698, thus disrupting his Grand Embassy, could have saved themselves a great deal of trouble, and spared all their own lives, if they'd opened an ironmongers' shop instead. Peter would never have been out of it. But they elected to disrupt his holiday instead. It was that act, even more than their insolence in rebelling, that sealed their fate; and after Peter crushed them in the manner in which he crushed them, nobody, but nobody, ever challenged him again.
But such a simple life was not to be for poor Peter; and poor Peter made very sure that poor Russia, and the poor Russians, paid the price for him not being able to live it.
Peter was born in 1672. His father, Tsar Alexis I, died when he was three. Even taking into account medical advances over time, the issue of early bereavement occurs with astonishing frequency in histories of diencephalic disease; Tiberius lost his father at nine, Claudius at three, Caligula at eight and Nero at two. A significant proportion of the 'Awakenings' patients lost parents, particularly fathers, before contracting encephalitis lethargica. Although possibly not always the sole factor causing the development of dopamine illness, I have not seen it being explored as a factor which might suggest susceptibility to that type of condition. It should be.
Imperial Russia of the late seventeenth century having been imperial Russia of the late seventeenth century, Peter was subjected to a horrible trauma at the age of ten, when his maternal uncle was murdered in front of him by the Streltsy during their first rebellion, one which it has been suggested was fomented by his half-sister Sophia in order to pursue her claim to the regency. Perhaps understandably, Peter developed a burning hatred of the Streltsy, and the clock was set ticking for the bloodbath that Peter inflicted upon them sixteen years later. What happened in 1698 was inevitable. If it had not happened then it would have happened at another time, but it would have happened.
After the first rebellion of the Streltsy, Peter and his mother went into what was for all practical purposes a period of internal exile, It was during that period, from 1682 to 1689, that he developed a love for what was then a most un-Russian pastime - sailing. To the end of his days, Peter was never happier than when he was out on the water, perhaps another example of that phenomenon, suggested by Oliver Sacks, that the Parkinsonian's distorted relationship with the space around them is improved by being in the middle of emptiness, such as being on a boat in the middle of the ocean. On the other hand, the water just might have provided Peter with a means of escape from a place that he had come to hate very early in life. The place that he hated was Russia. As enormous as Russia was even then, there was no part of its soil, no matter how isolated, upon which he could achieve the peace he might have felt even ten yards from its shores.
The relative peace he enjoyed during his teenage years ended in 1689, when the declining course of court politics presented Peter with what was really an all-or-nothing ultimatum. To all intents and purposes, events presented him with a hopeless choice from which he had no means of escape - he must be Tsar or die. He marched on the Kremlin and took his crown; in my view, it might have been the saddest day of his life.
He began to develop tics and tremors shortly afterwards. As I said a few days ago, by their involuntary movements shall you know them. Those suffered by Claudius greatly reduced when he assumed the purple, suggesting that he had achieved a desired outcome. That Peter's started so soon after he took the crown suggests that he wanted to throw it as far away from himself as he could. At times he would suffer fits in which his eyes were said to roll - these may have been Parkinsonian 'oculogyric crises'. Sometimes these episodes were completely disabling, lasting for days. One of the saddest things about Peter's life is his desperate search for people he could rely on, suggesting that he had been impossibly and irreversibly traumatised by the events of 1682 and 1689. The significant skills gap suffered by Russia at that time in its history notwithstanding, he never seemed to hire a Russian when he could hire a foreigner. He would ruthlessly discard those in whom he lost interest, such as his first wife Eudoxia, and those whom he perceived to present a threat to him whether they actually did or not, such as his own son the Tsarevich Alexis, whose only 'crime' may have been to have developed an interest in the culture of pre-Petrine Russia, a cultural interest which Peter could not tolerate. Alexis 'died' in custody, the manner of his death never explained, even after he had sworn loyalty to Peter; this episode, the darkest and most shocking of Peter's life, suggests to me that sorrow and fear so dominated his character that he thought there was nothing wrong with killing his own son if it would allay his fear of him. Although his sidekick Menshikov was very capable, he also systematically and unashamedly embezzled from the imperial treasury, which of course meant he was stealing what the law regarded as Peter's own money - yet Peter could not let him go, keeping him in service after more than one personally administered beating. He caroused for years with his 'Drunken Assembly', but they could not heal the suppurating gash in his emotions. In Catherine I, he seemed to have found that one special relationship I discussed in my earlier essay regarding the life of Tiberius. Catherine was the only person to whom he would respond while suffering a crisis; yet even after having elevated her from camp follower to co-ruler, he found out that he could not rely on her absolutely when she became embroiled in a financial scandal. All autocrats must understand that they are, in the end, alone; and Peter was alone again; and he hated it. He must have felt utterly isolated.
There have recently been some suggestions that Peter suffered from Tourettes - years ago, I stuck my own oar into that debate without having the faintest idea about what I was talking about - but I don't think he did. The seizure episodes, specifically the rolling eyes, when combined with serial mention of both tics and tremors suggest more of a Parkinson's type condition being at work. Yet that is puzzling, for the Parkinsonian's energy levels and tolerance for stress are both low, and Peter set about smashing the Russia of his childhood and remaking it to his liking, combining the dictatorial ruthlessness in pursuit of domestic development of Stalin (an admirer) and Mao with the administrative energy of Henry II and the passion for war of Napoleon, if not with the accompanying competence.
I can think of two possible solutions to this apparent conundrum. They might have required to work together to be effective and enable this enormous amount of activity, or they might have worked separately, or then again neither might have been relevant at all, but they should be considered. The first is alcohol.
By all accounts, Peter was a prodigous drinker even in a land full of alcoholics. Peter drank morning, noon and night. His capacity for alcohol was Churchillian - without endorsing that type of lifestyle in any way, he might have been one of those people, and they do exist, of whom it could be said, as Churchill said of himself, that they got more out of alcohol than alcohol got out of them. He wouldn't have known how to phrase this knowledge in these terms, but he might have realised early in life that alcohol's properties as both a dopaminergic and as a dopamine regulator in enabling a high quality of sleep made it, for him at least, not a crutch but a tool - a very unhealthy and dangerous tool, for sure, but a tool nonetheless. He only reduced his drinking towards the very end of his life, and at the end I don't think it was the drink that did for him.
The second was Peter's apparent need to undertake new acivities, perhaps some desire to achieve what A. R. Luria termed 'kinetic melody'. Peter was always, always trying new activities. When he ordered fleets of ships to be built, he would go and pitch in with the work, having qualified as a shipwright while away on the Grand Embassy. Being a true man of his times, he conducted autopsies. His court knew very well never to admit around Peter that they were suffering from toothache, for Peter would then get his dental instruments and insist in extracting the tooth himself. The most widely known forms of kinetic melody are those that operate through the composition and performance of music - see, for example, the Tourettic composer James McConnel's 'Life, Interrupted', in which the author describes how his tics disappear when he is playing. Kinetic melody can also manifest in the production of literature - see, for example, this blog.
To the end of his days he lamented the gaps in his formal education, but he revelled in things he could do with his hands. He could not produce forty volume histories of Rome, as Claudius did with his kinetic melody, and unlike Nero, who may have achieved his kinetic melody through music (an insight which also suggests that Nero might have been a very good musician, thus perhaps giving the lie to Peter Ustinov's ham acting), he never mastered any musical instrument other than, sadly for his court, the drum, which he tended to beat enthusiastically and predictably volubly. Yet neither Claudius nor Nero could build a ship like Peter, nor make a pair of boots like Peter. This may be of great importance to the understanding of all diencephalic disease, not just Tourettes. Kinetic melody is not found only in the creation of music and literature, and making an effort to find the activity thtough which it is not expressed but expresses itself, whatever that might be, might greatly imrpove the quality of life of all sufferers of dopaime illness.
For all his activity, for all his flaws, he could be a throughly wretched person. The balance of probabilities suggests that he had his own son killed not because of anything that he had really done but because of what he might represent if his interests were permitted to develop further - the act of a mind wholly dominated by suspicion and fear. His fairytale city on the Neva swallowed blood and treasure, and Peter couldn't have cared less. He put aside his first wife for no reason more significant than that he was tired of her. And Peter spilled blood, oceans of blood.
One of the most personally interesting aspects of Peter's history is that he seems to possess the widest and deepest range of behavioural symptoms of all the subjects of these essays. To that extent, the nature of Peter's illness, whatever it was, can be said to turn 360 degrees and advance in all directions. It was, to use Sack's term, truly 'infinite'. He was a raging obsessive-compulsive; the single-mindedness he showed in building St. Petersburg was matched by his attachment to his green coat, and even penetrated so far down as his use of the whalebone cutlery he insisted on taking with him everywhere he went; if presented with any other utensils he simply wouldn't eat. In later life he became addicted to spa cures and to taking the waters at Carlsbad, giving him an opportunity to leave the land he loathed behind him. He suffered extreme rage attacks, with Menshikov not the only courtier to have felt the Autocrat's fists. As I wrote earlier I don't think he died of the drink; given the incredible speed at which he lived his life, it is possible that he might, as has been suggested by Sacks in the context of other patients, have just decided to go, desperate to achieve a 'quietus'.
Yet that was not the worst of his symptoms - that was his 'algolagnia', the desire to do harm or see harm being done to other people.
In his monumental book 'Peter the Great', Robert K. Massie spends at least two pages preparing readers for his description of the violence with which Peter suppressed the Streltsy in 1698. A month long bloodbath culminated with Orthodox priests who had encouraged the rebellion being hanged from the Kremlin walls. As they hanged, Peter's court jesters, dressed as priests, taunted them until they died.
Algolagnia was exhibited by other subjects in this series. Claudius was suspected of having refused clemency to gladiators so that he could see the expressions on their faces as they died. But nothing matches the barbaric joy in killing that Peter displayed. His was a sad life. It began sadly and traumatically; but the events of 1698 show that despite everything he did, no matter how grandiose (one Russian historian, quoted by the late Professor Lindsey Hughes in her books on Peter, compared his pursuit of naval schemes to the Politburo's wastefulness in running a space program, a brilliant analogy), it was a life that was lived sadly.
The life of Peter the Great therefore produced two tragedies. The first was that Peter had no choice but to be Tsar of Russia, a land he hated.
The second was that poor Russia had no choice but to have Peter as its Tsar.