London: Printed for J. Murray, No. 32, Fleet Street; J. Sewell, No. 32, Cornhill; and W. Creech, at Edinburgh, 1788. Octavo, , viii, 3-448. pp. Full contemporary speckled calf skillfully rebacked, boards double-ruled in gilt, spine elaborately stamped in gilt, red morocco spine label lettered in gilt. Light spotting to title page with ghost of an effaced inscription, faint dampstain to lower corner of signature D.
First edition in English of this lively oral history of Peter I of Russia (1672-1725), first published in German in 1785. Peter the Great overhauled the Russian military, introduced compulsory education for children of the nobility, and replaced the ranking of officials by birth with a merit-based system. Many of his policies, which elevated Western values over traditional Russian ones, proved deeply antagonistic to the political and religious establishment of his day. The English, however, tended toward “Petrolatry,” viewing Peter the Great as a modern and enlightened philosopher king (Cross, Peter the Great Through British Eyes). Author Jakob von Staehlin came to Petersburg in 1735, where he headed the arts department at the Imperial Academy of Sciences (now the Russian Academy of Arts), eventually serving as tutor and librarian to Peter’s grandson. In this volume, he collects eyewitness accounts of Peter the Great, gathered during his decades among the Russian nobility and royal family: “But for the pains I have taken, the facts here contained would have been buried in oblivion; and I conceive I have done an action both useful and agreeable to my contemporaries and posterity, by preserving a thousand traits that mark the character of the Russian hero.” One account tells of how, eager to support Russian industry, Peter spent a month learning to work the iron forges near Moscow; another tells of his leniency to an unsuccessful assassin; and another recounts his “indefatigable ardour . . . in investigating every thing” (in this case, a pair of mummified bodies said to be miraculously preserved). These stories form a composite portrait of the man, revealing unexpected sides of his character: “What hero can history produce more worthy of our notice than Peter the First?” A near-fine copy of a diverting book.