Peter's personal traits ranged from bestial cruelty and vice to the most selfless devotion to Russia; his order to his troops at Poltava read, "Remember that you are fighting not for Peter but for the state." Despite the convulsive fits that plagued him, he had a bearlike constitution, was of gigantic stature, and possessed herculean physical prowess. He drank himself into stupors and indulged in all conceivable vices but could rouse himself at a moment's notice, and he was willing to undergo all the physical exertions and privations that he exacted from his subjects.
Peter subordinated the lives and liberties of his subjects to his own conception of the welfare of the state. Like many of his successors, he concluded that ruthless reform was necessary to overcome Russia's backwardness. Peter remains one of the most controversial figures in Russian history. Those who regard Russia as essentially European praise him for his policy of Westernization, and others who consider Russia a unique civilization attack him for turning Russia from its special path of development. Those impressed by imperial expansion and state and social reforms tend to regard Peter's arbitrary and brutal methods as necessary, while others appalled by his disregard of human life conclude that the cost outweighed any gains.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.