Touching the Future with Peter the Great and the All Drunken Sobar of Fools and Jesters

As I pulled into the campus parking lot last Wednesday morning it struck me that ambushes in Baghdad resemble those that plagued our troops in the jungles of Vietnam a generation ago. While I walked from the car to my office I thought, “I’ll fire off an email to the vice chief of the Army. Points to make: don’t be predictable, maintain situational awareness, own the night, set your ambushes, stay off the trails … Baghdad’s streets are trails in a concrete jungle. The Viet Cong also made mines out of unexploded artillery shells. Learn from history!”

I’m in my third year teaching history at a small liberal arts college in northwestern Pennsylvania. Thirty-nine years ago, after my first week in Western Civ 101 at the University of Alabama I knew I wanted to be a history professor, but when I graduated in 1968 Uncle Sam had other plans. I spent the next three decades in the Air Force and Army. Along the way I picked up a Ph.D. in history and taught at the Air Force Academy. Ten years ago I capped my career by serving as the director of research at an Army research institute charged with looking twenty-five years into the future. My phone rang constantly; my electronic inbox was always full.

Grove City College is a long way from the Beltway and the Pentagon. Last Wednesday morning my email inbox contained just five messages: three involved growing hair or enlarging body parts; two were from students. “Dr. Tilford: I won’t be in your Russian History class today, my grandmother…” “Dr. Tilford: On our term paper, would it be okay if I …”

The lesson for last Wednesday was “Peter the Great: The Early Years.” After reading over my lecture notes I opened the bottom drawer of my desk to retrieve an old notebook labeled, “Russian History: Notes Recopied.” I thumbed through the yellowing pages to October 18, 1967, the autumn of my senior year at Alabama.

Thirty-five years ago Professor Hugh Ragsdale’s passion for Russian history touched my soul and helped define my life. I read through the notes. “When Russia accomplishes something great it is during a period of force, absolutism and tremendous suffering.” Then I got to the “All Drunken Sobar (Assembly) of Fools and Jesters.”

Peter the Great orchestrated elaborate parodies of institutions he believed kept Russia tied to the past. Each “Drunken Sobar” had a theme: the Russian Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Russian nobility. Tsar Peter, usually dressed in a sailor suit, led the revelers who masqueraded as popes, patriarchs or prominent Russian boyars. The goal was for everyone to get totally soused. After several days of carefully crafted drunken debauchery, Peter set off fireworks while “fools and jesters” rode naked atop pigs or oxen through the snows of Moscow. Peter’s way of both fostering change and putting institutions in their place provides wonderful material for inspiring students … touching their souls with my passion for Russia’s colorful past.

Then we got into Peter’s wars. From 1689 until his death in 1725 Russia knew only thirteen months of peace. But, when Peter died in the winter of 1725 in Saint Petersburg, the new northern capital he built in the swamps of the Neva River, Russia had leapt from a backward principality at the eastern fringes of Europe to become a major power. Two hundred years later, Josef Stalin drove Russia even more rapidly—if a lot more traumatically—into the twentieth century and onto the world stage.

My lecture began at noon and before long we were rollicking with Peter and the “All Drunken Sobar.” Next we rocked with Peter on his “1697-98 European tour,” this seventeenth century version of a fraternity house road trip cut short by an attempted coup in Moscow. Peter rushed home to squelch the revolt. He then constructed fourteen gallows outside the cell to which he had consigned his half-sister Sophia, an instigator of the uprising. From her window Sophia watched Peter torture and then dispatch—through quartering, impaling, hanging or beheading—1,800 of the rebels.

I owe my passion for Russian history to Hugh Ragsdale and the course I took in the autumn of 1967. At the end of my life, as the history teacher I always wanted to be, I am compelled to pass along my passion to the next generation.

Monday, October 13, 2003. The Pentagon isn’t going to call because nobody in Washington cares what I think about ambushes in Baghdad. Good. Nothing will keep me from preparing for today’s lecture on “Peter’s Reforms.” Maybe thirty-five years from now, one of my students will begin a lecture, “When Russia accomplishes something great it is during a period of force, absolutism and great suffering.” And Hugh Ragsdale and I will have touched the future.