Well sure, Peter the Great tortured traitors in ways that make GOT look tame, and true, he forced countless unpaid serfs to build a new capital in the middle of a hazardous swamp, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have his good qualities.
I found out all about these good qualities when recently reading Peter K. Massie’s “Peter the Great: His Life and World.” Believe it or not, I learned that history doesn’t just tack “the Great” onto any old Tsar; Peter the Great (PTG) accomplished some seriously incredible stuff during his reign and I realized I could learn a lot from him. For example: while I’m impressed with myself for making the bed AND showering all in one day (hold your applause), PTG was building ships by hand, defeating the greatest military minds in Europe, and creating a navy for Russia. While I feel like things are changing too fast when there’s a new IOS update, PTG revolutionized gender dynamics, celebrated foreign influence, and increased religious tolerance in Russia. And while I’m so cripplingly insecure about my own opinions that I need to conduct a Gallup poll when deciding what shirt goes with what pants, PTG was so steadfastly self-assured that he was able to stick to his convictions in the face of treason and rebellion (not to mention whining) to such an extent that he was able to marry a peasant, convince all of his nobility to move to his new capital, decrease the role of the church in society, personally shave the beards off his countrymen (don’t ask), and forcibly lug his unwilling nation up the foothills of relative modernity.
But most importantly: he did it all while drinking enough to cripple the liver of your average frat guy.
Peter could really, really drink.
When searching through Massie’s book, the word “drunk” came up 48 times. Drinking showed up 54, wine 70, beer 39, brandy 22, and vodka 15. And this isn’t even a book about PTG’s drinking (Although TBH, any book about PTG sort of is). While the amount he drank was clearly significant, it’s not just the quantity of his drinking that’s impressive; it was his devotion to the art that’s so inspiring. And while many of us don’t have much of a chance of getting “the Great” added to our names based on naval strategy or territorial conquests, drinking our way to greatness sounds doable.
HE WORSHIPPED DRUNKENNESS
While many of us behave like we worship ~the holy spirits,~ PTG and his cohorts took this to a whole other level. They formed a group called “the Jolly Company” to legit worship the act of getting trashed.The Jolly Company was characterized as the, “all joking, all drunk synod of fools and jesters,” (Massie pg. 199) and it took fun very seriously. The group included cardinals, bishops, priests, and deacons, all of whom participated in crazy rituals and mock services while wearing outlandish outfits and following a list of commandments. Including:
• “Bacchus be worshipped with strong and honorable drinking and receive his just dues,” (pg. 199).
• “All goblets were to be emptied promptly and that members were to get drunk every day and never go to bed sober,” (Massie pg. 199).
When the Jolly Company got together they worshipped hard. In fact, they honored one wedding so enthusiastically that the bridegroom actually died several days later (Massie pg. 200). If that doesn’t count as martyrdom, I’m not sure what does.
Curiously, Peter’s drinking didn’t seem to wreck him the way it would most mortals. Apparently, “these wild bacchanalia did not leave Peter exhausted and debauched, but actually seemed to refresh him for the next day’s work. He could drink all night with his comrades and then, while they snored in a drunken slumber, rise at dawn and leave them to begin work as a carpenter or shipbuilder. Few could match his pace,” (Massie pg. 197). Truly one of Bacchus’ chosen ones.
HE WAS THE TSAR OF PEER PRESSURE
Apparently, pressuring your guests to drink was something that would’ve been considered appropriate to an 18th century Russian equivalent of Emily Post:
“To be drunk was an essential feature of Russian hospitality. Proposing toasts that no one else would dare refuse, host and guests gulped down cup after cup, turning their beakers upside down on their heads to prove that they were empty. Unless the guests were sent home drunk, the evening was considered a failure.” (Massie, pg. 196)
In this regard, PTG took his duties as a host very seriously, and any guest of Peter’s didn’t have the option of saying no to booze at a social gathering. One of his contemporaries recalled a night when PTG had six menacing looking guardsmen approach his guests at a garden party with giant buckets of corn brandy for some “serious toasting.” When the guests tried to escape, they realized guards had also been posted around the exits to the party, so they instead fled to several boats moored next to the river. Those who stayed drank until they ended up passed out in the garden all night (Massie, pg. 1248).
SOCIAL DRINKING DARWINISM: SURVIVAL OF THE LIT-EST
Foreigners were especially struck by Peter’s “take no prisoners” approach to drinking, and his parties could feel a bit gauntlet-esque. Weber, the ambassador from Hanover, described a particularly grueling lost weekend that commenced after PTG and his party of friends had just endured two days of horrible storms at sea. When they arrived on dry land, PTG invited them all over for dinner where they drank so much wine that they could “scarcely keep [their] legs.” After the meal, they were forced to, “empty a bowl holding a quart apiece from the hands of the Tsaritsa,” and were consequently so overcome that they had to be, “carried … to different places, some to the garden, some to the woods, while the rest lay on the ground here and there.” (Massie, pg. 972). The next day, their situation deteriorated further when Peter woke up his miserably hungover guests and gave them axes. Peter then told them to chop down a hundred paces (about 400 ft) of woods that were in the way of one of his projects; not surprisingly, they were rewarded for their work with “a second drink, which was so strong that [they] were taken to [their] beds unconscious,” (Massie, pg. 972). An hour and a half later, they were dragged out of bed and, “plied with so much wine and vodka that on the following day none of [them] could remember how [they] got home. At eight o’clock in the morning [they] were invited to the palace for breakfast, which instead of coffee or tea as [they] expected, consisted of a good glass of vodka.” (Massie, pg. 973).
It’s impossible to believe that everyone survived.
HE BELIEVED BOOZING = BONDING
While some of PTG’s drinking examples might be a bit ambitious to follow (I’m pretty sure if I asked my friends to chop down some trees while they were drunk they’d push me off a cliff), Peter’s belief in drinking as a meaningful bonding agent makes a bit more sense. Peter’s drinking companions were his most trusted friends and the bonds made in the Jolly Company lasted his lifetime. He once made the link between drinking and intimacy clear at a feast when he declared that, “any guest who did not get drunk that day would not merit his friendship,” (Massie, pg. 1293); a quote that is definitely going on any formal dinner invitation I send out from now on.
THE JOLLY COMPANY COCKTAIL:
To honor PTG’s drunken legacy, here’s a cocktail I created in his honor.
First, because he famously loved Hungarian wine, I chose that as the base (although he preferred a sweeter Tokaji than the dryer bubbly I used here). Second, I included one of the primary Russian food groups: vodka (a spirit he was VERY familiar with). Third, I added a bit of his favorite concoction, “a cup of brandy laced with peppers,” (Massie, pg. 334). To make it, I added a tsp of cayenne to half a cup of cognac and let it infuse for several hours (don’t allow this infusion to go too long or it will become overwhelmingly spicy). Fourth, I threw in some lemon because PTG was a devoted seaman, and every sailor back-in-the-day needed to watch their vitamin C intake (because scurvy). Lastly, I included some homemade beet syrup; PTG was a big fan of peasant foods like beet, and since the drink needed some serious sweetening this seemed like the right addition.
If you’d really like to channel PTG, multiply the recipe by at LEAST ten. It’s what Peter would’ve wanted.
- 1 oz Russian vodka
- .5 oz red pepper infused brandy
- .5 oz beet syrup
- .5 oz lemon juice
- Fill to the brim with Hungarian bubbly