Thursday, September 18, 2008
Was Peter The Great a Psychopath?
Peter the Great is one of the most fascinating rulers of all time.
The Russian Tsar was a visionary genius, a man who changed Russia from a backward country into a European powerhouse. He was also a master sailor, a shrewd politician, a delightful dentist, a stern educator, a monstruos manipulator, an ingenious inventor, and an avid amateur surgeon who practiced his art on his soldiers who routinely would bleed to death after being operated by His Highborn Sovereign.
But most important (for my novel, anyway), Peter Alexeyevich was a leading dwarf connoisseur. He collected dwarfs like others collect stamps. No wonder that this charismatic, enigmatic and brutal giant has fascinated historians for centuries.
But even though Peter the Great was one of the most ruthless rulers in world history, is it fair to call him a psychopath?
Probably yes, but actually we'll never know for sure. We can't go back and analyze him; we can't question him and observe him under a blue lamp. No matter what, Peter the Great was definitely a man who had "issues". He was unbelievably blood thirsty, he had his own son, Alexei killed because he didn't follow his orders. Only on rare occasions did Peter show compassion for others, and he suffered from seizures and convulsions that turned him into a raging monster - we know that from several sources written by the English and Danish ambassadors to St. Petersburg.
We also know that Peter Alexeyevich wasn't typical for his time - that's exactly why he is so fascinating. He was feared and respected in Russia, but he was also deeply hated because of his ruthlessness and his paranoia.
But Peter was a complex man. Every time you try to label him, he slips through your fingers. He defies description; he was everything rolled into one. That's what I experienced when I wrote about him in The Tsar's Dwarf.
But hey, in my own twisted way, I'm quite fond of the man. He is as fascinating as Russia - a country I've visited twice and hope to visit again.
When I did my research for The Tsar's Dwarf, I read three huge biographies about Peter Alexeyevich plus a few books and sources about life in Russia in the early 18th century.
All of these sources had a different take on Peter. The three biographies were well written and well researched, but that doesn't mean the writers "got" the man. I don't know if I do, either, but I think it's often through art, not science that you get closer to the truth of a human being.
However, as a novelist you have an obligation to be "loyal" to the historical persons you write about. You shouldn't make them do things they wouldn't have done in real life. You shouldn't have Ronald Reagan recite Soviet poetry or let Adolf Hitler cuddle a Jew; it just wouldn't be right.
There's another important historical figure in The Tsar's Dwarf, the Danish-Norwegian king Frederik IV (1671-1730). He's another monarch I love and respect, even though he didn't have a hint of psychopath in him. Frederik IV had less charisma than our Tsar. He was a romantic bureaucrat who was an ally of Peter's in The Great Nordic War against Sweden - a very complex man who fell in love with an Italian nun, but that's another story we won't get into here ...
(However, if you read the Scandinavian languages, you should get hold of my novel Lystrejsen (The Pleasure Trip) about Frederik's trip to Italy where he commits the gravest of sins - he falls in love with a Catholic!)
The French version of my novel, La Naine du Tsar (Gaia Editions). It's out in four languages now and will be out in Ukrainian in the fall of 2017.
At the center of The Tsar's Dwarf is a character who is a total fabrication of mine, the Danish dwarf Sørine Bentsdatter who is given as a gift to Peter the Great during the Tsar's stay in Copenhagen in 1716. She has been hired to jump out of a cake by the Danish court - and she sure as hell doesn't want to. I invented Sørine because I wanted to write a novel about human dignity.
Actually, that's not true at all. I invented her because she wanted to be in my novel. You see, I used to carry this angry dwarf with me where ever I went. She was mad, raunchy, vulgar, and pretty funny as well.
I still love this inner dwarf dearly. Sometimes she does show her face for a few minutes when some one insults me. She grows out of me at the speed of sound, but I prefer that my dwarf stays in my book and doesn't interfere with my personal life. Why? Because I'm a happy man today. I don't need to hate any one the way Sørine does - at least not for more than two days.
In The Tsar's Dwarf, I want to show that no matter how much you've been beaten up in life, no matter how many you've killed, no matter how horny and blaspemous you've been, there's still an amazing amount of hope for you.
If that wasn't the case, God and religion wouldn't make sense at all.