Peter the Great - His Life and World

Robert K. Massie

The biography Peter the Great, by Robert K. Massie, is undoubtedly the definitive biography in the English language of Russia’s greatest tsar.  Peter was born in 1672 and died at age 53 in 1725.  He is the tsar who brought Russia into the modern world.  When he became tsar Russia was a backwards, isolated people.  Peter dragged his country, at times against their will, into the modern world and into the European orbit.

He imported all kinds of scholars and ideas from Europe.  He brought reforms to the Russian Orthodox Church.  He built a powerful navy when Russia had no navy and no port at the beginning of his reign.  He built a very strong army that did battle with and eventually defeated the mighty Swedish army, which was the most powerful army in Europe when Peter took office.

Peter was an unusual man.  He was not educated in the classical sense, but he was smart and he was endlessly curious.  He loved to build things with his hands.  He could be generous and kind, but he could also be severe and autocratic.  There is no doubt that he came to rule Russia with an iron hand, and that included a severe taxation and burden to support his strong army and navy.

He built St. Petersburg from scratch after capturing that land from Sweden, and he moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg.  He lived with so much drama, becoming a co-tsar at the age of 10 during a bloody and dangerous revolution.  He fought off his half-sister in a battle for power.  He would later imprison his own son, who would die young.  There were continuous intrigues within and wars without.  In so many ways, Peter the Great was a titanic figure who would become the most influential tsar in Russia’s history.

This is a fascinating story, well told by the master biographer, Robert K. Massie.

The Great Game

Peter Hopkirk

The Great Game is an epic work on Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk.  In this book Hopkirk talks about the struggle for Empire in Central Asia between Russia coming from the north and Britain coming from the south, and India.  The book is filled with all sorts of adventure and intrigue.  It reads like a spy novel except it is true.

There are so many riveting stories filling these pages as the adventure ranges all over Persia (modern day Iran), the Caucasus, Afghanistan, the mountains of western China, and the region of what is now called Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

You would have to have some interest in Central Asia to enjoy the book, but if you are interested, this may be the definitive work.  This is my second reading.

Here is one blurb from the book to give you an idea:

“At first this big book looks like a fairly standard military/diplomatic history:  an account of the nineteenth-century struggle between England and Russia for dominance in Central Asia … But the author, a former London Times reporter with extensive experience in the Mideast and Asia, has not just written an updated glorification of the British Empire.  He has looked into the Russian historical record extensively, and he tells his story with a chivalrous respect for the Russian point of view.  We learn how the great push southward was the Russian version of Manifest Destiny, and we can sense that Leonid Brezhnev’s arrogant and criminal invasion of an unstable Afghanistan in 1979 was nothing new … Hopkirk has a gift for vivid writing that is exciting without being overblown.  His account of the Afghan uprising in 1841 is especially gripping and horrifying … As Hopkirk points out, after the breakup of the Soviet Union the Central Asian peoples are once again independent.  Today’s Great Powers have a second chance to behave in a civilized way – there and elsewhere.”

                                                                        --James North, New York Newsday

Clouds of Glory The life and Legend of Robert E. Lee

By Michael Korda

Robert E. Lee is known in history as the leading Confederate general in the Civil War.  He was so much more and his sterling reputation and legacy pay tribute to his remarkable life.  Michael Korda has written a major biography of Robert E. Lee.  This man is a paradox in many ways.  How could the losing general of the Civil War be so loved and lionized after that war, not only by the South but also by much of the North?

Lee was a lifelong soldier, a brilliant military engineer who led the mission of the Army Corps of Engineers to make sure that the Mississippi River did not bypass St. Louis.  In the Mexican War of the 1840s, he fought brilliantly and fearlessly as a soldier.  General Winfield Scott considered him the finest soldier in the U.S. Army.  Later, he would become the superintendent of West Point.  When the Civil War broke out, President Abraham Lincoln offered him the command of the Union Army in 1861.  But he turned Lincoln down because he could not “draw his sword” against his own children, his neighbors, and his beloved Virginia.  Shortly after that Jefferson Davis offered the post of General of the Army of Northern Virginia.   He would become the leading general for the Confederacy.

With far fewer resources and far fewer troops than the Northern generals, he gave them fits.  He was a daring, bold, aggressive, fiercely determined general.  He had no qualms about attacking a much larger opposing army.  He was considered a brilliant military strategist.

Personally, he was fearless in battle.  He had no concern for his own life.  He felt that his life was in God’s hands and he had complete peace.  He would expose himself to dangerous situations just as his close friend and fellow general Stonewall Jackson would do.  Both were men of deep Christian faith and conviction.

In fact, his faith shaped his life.  He was influenced by his wife Mary Lee, and his wife’s mother, Mary Custis, and their devotion to Jesus Christ.  He was fully surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and trusted God deeply in times of peace and in times of war.

He was a man of deep and genuine humility, which is not an easy matter when you command 100,000 soldiers in battle and you are revered by millions.  But he seemed to be free of all desire for acclaim and recognition.

Paradoxically, his father was considered a scoundrel when it came to character.  He was a military hero in the Revolutionary War, a close friend of George Washington, but he mismanaged money terribly and he lacked moral integrity.  However, despite this lineage Lee had incredible integrity and character all his life.  He was a devoted husband and father.  He loved being with his family even though he had to spend long stretches away from them while with the U.S. Army.  Along this line, it is interesting that Lee continually questioned his choice of profession as a soldier.  Should he have taken a different route?  In fact, until the Civil War broke out he would have considered himself a failure in life. 

It should be noted that Lee was no fan of slavery.  He did not oppose it as the abolitionists did, but he was no fan of it either.  He thought it was a moral evil and that it would pass away in God’s good time.  But he did not want the country to split apart and he would not oppose his native Virginia when it left the Union.

Why did Lee live such a remarkable life, and make such an impact on the people of his day and on subsequent history?  The only explanation is God’s hand upon him.  He was a flawed man, a man who chose the wrong side in the war.  And yet a man deeply devoted to Christ and perhaps the most brilliant general that the United States has ever had.


Travels with Charley

By John Steinbeck  

In 1960, a 58-year-old John Steinbeck took off from Long Island, New York, to circumnavigate the U.S. He had ordered a new pick-up truck with a camper on it, a camper that he called Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. He went alone except for his large French poodle, Charley.


Steinbeck set out to understand America, to listen, to get a feel for the people. The story is fascinating. He goes slowly for most of the trip, taking his time, camping out at night, visiting with people. He talks about stops in Maine, across New York State and the Midwest. He describes going into Yellowstone and Charley going berserk at the sight of bears, and having to leave the park quickly. He describes the Badlands of South Dakota, driving across Washington State and Oregon and the Redwoods. And his town of origin, Salinas, California.


He has a superb chapter on Texas, which he says is different than any other state, and describes a quail hunt and Thanksgiving feast on the ranch of a rich Texas friend. Most memorably, he describes being in New Orleans, when the angry crowd gathered and shouted as the marshals walked a little African American girl to school. By the time he makes his way to Virginia, he is thoroughly spent and has no more to see and write about.


I’m not sure why the book is so good. Certainly Steinbeck is a fabulous and easily readable writer. His powers of observation about the land, about people, about life, is a picture of 1960 America. From time to time he will wax philosophical and write a few pages on a topic – a preacher in Maine doing a healthy job on the judgment of God, the proliferation of mobile homes, the majesty of the Redwoods, changes in Seattle, his homecoming in the Bay Area, the racism of the Deep South. He has a marvelous section at the outset of the book on not pampering yourself as you get older.


You will give yourself a great gift if you read this book. If you choose not to read the whole thing, at least read the superb chapter on Texas, beginning on page 227 of the Penguin paperback.

River Rising

By Athol Dickson  

River Rising is a superb novel by Athol Dickson, a writer in Dallas, Texas, and the brother of our own Garrett Dickson. This is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. It is a thrilling adventure and at the same time it challenges us to live out our faith in Christ.


Imagine this scene: It is 1927 in the swamps of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. One day, out of the mist, a stranger appears in the town of Pilotsville, a town built on stilts and boardwalks because of the swampy waters. This stranger, Hale Poser, is looking for work. It turns out later that he had been orphaned and thinks that his roots are in this small town. He takes a job at the local hospital, established for African-Americans, but it becomes clear that he has a strong connection with God. And miracles tend to happen when he prays.


Not long after he begins working, a little baby is stolen and Hale Poser joins the search party in the swampy waters around the town. After Hale Poser does more digging, it turns out that other babies over the years had been taken. This leads Hale Poser on a search deep into the swampy waters of the Mississippi River before it hits the Gulf. He gets lost and stumbles, exhausted and near death, onto a slave colony, even in 1927. This remote outpost land had been reclaimed from the swamps and large levies built around it. Slaves were held and worked there. River Rising is the saga of what happens when Hale Poser is made a slave and later God uses in some remarkable ways.


This is a superb novel! You will find it hard to put down. It will grab you by the throat.