Alexei the Ruined Tzarevich

Peter said  many things that indicate his humanity.

“If the emperor does not consider himself above the law, than no one can break it.”

“You are deluded if you think I am fighting for other countries. I have enough territory. I need access to the sea.”

“A great hero does not fight for himself but to defend his country. If you want to own the world why not desire the universe?”

“If a man is cruel, he is not a hero.”

“Reason is the greatest virtue. Without reason, all other virtues are empty.”

“Hunt. Kill wild animals as much as you want: this game is not for me. I have to chase the brave enemy, and tame wild and resistant subjects.”

So why did he imprison his son and sentence him to die? One of the most misunderstood and damning legacies of Peter, as his second wife said it would be,  was his fatal relationship to his son.  In fact she pleaded for Alexei to be sent to a monastery for the sake of saving the Tzr’s reputation. Peter could not do that. When Peter died he knew there would be a movement to make Alexei Tzar and there would either be a civil war or the destruction of his life’s work. He chose to sacrifice his own legacy.

Alexei was Peter’s child with his first wife Eudoxia and was his heir. Peter who was good to his second family, ignored Alexei when he was little and left him to his tutor Nikifor Vyazemsky and his aunt Natalya. Peter’s sister Natalya having no children of her own grew to love Alexei. He had a good childhood though quite neglected by his father, and having a  mother in the convent against her will. Day to day he would see more of the servants than his aunt, but that was quite normal.

Alexei at 13

When Alexei met Catherine his father’s  second wife, he was 12, tall, gawky, and very shy. He liked her immediately. She was good to him and he said she was very clever; he was Godfather to her when she and her first son Peter were baptized in the Orthodox faith that year. Later he would ask her to intercede for him in his constant problems with his father.

When he reached 13 Alexander  Menshikov, best friend of his father, was put in charge of arranging his education, despite the fact that he himself could not read well or write. Peter thought that Menshikov could impart the qualities of a leader.  But Alexei did not like Alexander Menshikov at all who was dictatorial  with every one. He was harsh to the boy, dragging him around by the hair and teaching him to drink. At that point he had the support of the Tzar.  Later Menshikov would lose everything because he was over bearing to Peter II at 13, only that boy was the Tzar.

Peter took him to the battlefields starting at 13 and gave him tasks to do. The intention was that these should increase with time.  It was thought as he grew older he would shoulder the burdens of his father, and then in time take over from him. At first Alexei tried to please his father and he seemed to understand and sympathize with his goals.

Alexei had been told to get recruits, but the only volunteers he could get were pathetic. The aristocrats had no estates, the regular soldiers were street bums. No one else wanted to enter the miserable volunteer army. His father had no patience or empathy for his situation, and he accused his son of doing bad or inadequate work on purpose.

Alexei could not understand this anger and and asked Catherine to help him.  Catherine explained the situation to Peter and his father apologized. But Alexei now thought there was no way he could win the good will of his father and lacked enthusiasm to try.  It was clear he lacked mechanical intelligence and interest.  The natural tendencies of Alexei were to study language and religion.

Alexei was found to have tuberculosis and used this  to shirk his duties on the battlefield by pretending to be ill. He would even take medicines to make him sick in order to avoid doing military duty. When  he did show up Generals would send him away to avoid telling his father that he was not doing an adequate job.

The Grown Alexei Petrovich

Kind writers have described Alexei as well educated, bright at his studies but passive and of low energy unlike his father. They say he was one of the old fashion Tzars. All reported conversations of his suggest something different. In fact he was not bright, nor clever and was easily fooled by flattery. Unlike his father he spent 12,000 rubles a year on himself, a great sum in those days. The largest sum ever awarded by Peter was 3000 rubles, and this was expected to last a lifetime.

Peter was furious at his son now. He had not made his job any easier, but on the contrary made his work harder.  Alexei found it easier to get along with sycophants who gave him support as the heir but wanted to manipulate him.  He gathered enemies of Peter around him. Alexei said he was going to undo all the work of his father when he was Tzar. There were spies everywhere and he knew this would get back to Peter.

He was sent to Germany to study armaments and asked to choose a bride.  By that time he resented anything Peter wanted. He came back having learned nothing and tried to shoot off his hand when told he would have to write down plans for a fortification for his father.  Alexei also was a notoriously terrible husband to his well connected aristocratic German wife. She was very class conscious and conventional. He humiliated her in front of the servants, and was an abusive drunk. He fainted at a church service and his wife said this was due to his fasting and consuming great amounts of alcohol. She could not even gets funds to repair a leak in the ceiling of her bedroom. Alexei moved his Finnish mistress into the house with him in front of his wife.  Peter was frustrated.

German wife of Alexei Petrovich

Alexei showed no interest in the military, mechanics, trades or agriculture. But he imitated Peter in all his worst habits. He organized his friends in his own, “Exotic Company” as his answer to his Peter’s “Drunken Synod”. There Alexei would get very drunk and blurt out heresies and treason reported by Peter’s spies to his father. Others were listening too.

After a while Alexei’s reputation as future ruler of Russia was in shambles. Many including his tutor Martin Neugebauer, had no fear or respect for him. The kings of both Sweden and Austria made plans to send their military against his father and put Alexei on the throne. The King of Sweden said as he was focused on God,  he was no threat.

Charlotte the German princess and Alexei slept together once a week though they hated one another now; hey had to produce an heir. His wife died giving birth to their second child. Peter was furious.

Peter wrote Alexei after the funeral that he felt Alexei was not worthy to be his heir. He had no interest in governing a country.

“Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution, if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either. I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger, than to my own unworthy son.”

When Peter went on his second trip to Europe, he told his son he had six months to decide if he would shoulder his burdens as a future Tzar or enter a monastery. It is well known that Alexei spent the six months feasting with his friends and then instead of joining Peter in Copenhagen, ran off to Austria with his mistress. He asked the King who had just visited with Peter, if he would give him sanctuary. He was moved to Naples when his father found him.

Alexei returned because he was promised that he could retire to a private estate and marry his much beloved mistress in return for giving up the succession. Once on Russian soil Peter who had no intention of letting him plot and plan on a private estate with those who opposed his rule, started a purge. He killed those who had helped his son and a few personal enemies who everyone knew opposed him on the flimsy excuse that had supported his son  with a word, or written to him. He tortured all the nuns who had supported his wife, sent them to an Arctic nunnery  and brutally killed her lover. His intention was to kill some which would serve to discourage more.

Then he killed his son for saying that had he been called upon he would have marched against his father. To turn the knife further he made his mistress give testimony against him to save herself. That was not necessary as he doomed himself, but perhaps it was satisfying.  After his death he had all portraits of Alexei destroyed (altough there are still many about) and forbid all mourning. His death was the excuse Peter needed to demoralize his enemies and  save Russia from what he saw would be a disaster.




Posted in History | Leave a comment

Two Members of the Inner Circle at War


Alexander Danilovich Menshikov was the very clever and very corrupt commoner friend of Peter. When Peter died he ran everything, though Peters wife was made Tzarina. He received presents from European leaders; and was so brilliant that Peter consulted him on every decision he made for 20 years,

But he was also known as the man who could not turn down a bribe, even working at cross purposes with Peter.  When Peter  had, had enough he replaced him but not before Menshikov had made himself, someone who had started with almost nothing, into the richest man in Russia. Peter was going to execute him before he died. But his wife who was very fond of him made him more rich and powerful.

He wanted to come from an old aristocratic family.  His real family consisted of  very small aristocrats around Minsk in Belarus, not worthy of the attention of the court, barely more than free farmers. Peter and he became friends as teenage bombardiers at Preobrazhensky where Peter learned his military craft.

Alexander Menshikov before he became very rich, at 24

Menshikov made up a fake genealogy saying he came from a great Lithuanian family and when he  bought a house for his four sisters, Marie, Tatyana, Praskovia and Anna in Moscow after 1695 when their father died; he trained them to fit into society, lie and marry well. From the outside it looked quite normal, but the inside was beautiful.(Menshikov is also thought to have had a brother Gabriel of whom nothing is known except they met for a street festival and got drunk together). His ambitions for his family, in particular his sisters, were endless.

Three of his sisters did as he made clear they should. Menshikov’s sister Marie, married into the very important and aristocratic Golovin family. Her husband Alexei was the brother of Fyodor Golovin, an Admiral. His sister Tatyana married Ivan Kalinovich Pushkin, who was allowed the high privilege of being steward of Praskovia Saltykova, the wife of Peter’s half brother Ivan the co-Tzar.  Menshikov’s sister Praskovia, married Alexei Ivanovich Dashkov, he was an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and a Privy Counselor. 

But his sister Anna, the youngest loved Anton Devier who was a New Man working for Peter. He was a commoner from a Jewish family and when he caught them in an intimate embrace Menshikov exploded.

Realistically Anton Devier was perfect, and Anna was not so beautiful. He was a remarkable man, but quite different than Menshikov, incorruptible, honest and pleasant.

Anna sister of Alexander Menshikov

Devier was not aristocratic. Anton Devier’s father Manuel, was a Portuguese Jew who had settled in Amsterdam as a result of the Inquisition. The family had converted 100 years before but were practicing Judaism in secret. They left for Holland when they feared being exposed.

Once in Russia, Devier the cabin boy noticed by Peter the Great in Holland in 1697  for his great competence; was made a Captain in nine years, a Major in ten,  a Lieutenant Colonel in thirteen and then an Adjunct General.

Devier spoke several languages and had elegant manners.  Peter who was moody and often depressed, liked him very much because he was even tempered and cheerful all the time. Also he liked to drink and was sociable.

But when Menshikov found him “making love” to his sister Anna, when she was eighteen and Devier thirty, rich and successful he went insane.  Menshikov could see his plans for an aristocratic genealogy were being thwarted His family more  pitiful and obscure than the real lineage of Menshikov.

Peter was informed and Menshikov tried to get permission from to have him beaten to death in prison.

Anton Devier at 30


Peter laughed and told Devier that he could marry Anna; and he even made Menshikov walk her down the isle and give her away while he fumed. Peter and Catherine were very fond of him. He was one of the only people given permission to enter the workshop of Peter unannounced.

Workshop of Peter the Great


A few months after the wedding Peter made him head of all public services in St. Petersburg.  They had four sons, Peter, Anton, Ivan, Alexander and a daughter named Anna after his wife.  His wife Anna and daughter of the same name both served as ladies in waiting for Catherine. Later Devier was a tutor for both of Peter’s daughters Elizabeth and Anna.

Menshikov became more powerful than ever running the country for Catherine. He did not ever forget a wrong and when he was defacto running Russia in what was to be his last three months of power, he had Devier tortured, exiled and beaten on the charge of being disrespectful to the Empress as she was dying. Devier was drunk but the real crime was that Devier opposed the ambition of Menshikov to marry his own daughter to Peter II. Menshikov sent him to the far reaches of Siberia and let his sister pick her place of exile.

While in Siberia for 12 years Devier built a naval school, roads, ships, port facilities and equipped the expedition of a Dane named Vitus Bering working for Russia, who found and named the Bering Strait. In the end he outlived Menshikov by 15 years.

He was brought back to the capitol by an old student, the Empress Elizabeth. She made him a General in Chief on her staff.



Posted in History | Leave a comment

Eudoxia Lopukhina

It is rare that relations with a former spouse are good. But those of Peter the Great and Eudoxia were extreme.

Peter was sixteen.  His mother Natalya Kirillovna  Naryshkin was still engaged in the power struggle struggle which seemed of paramount importance with the Miloslavsky family.  So Eudoxia his first wife, was chosen for him by his mother, sight unseen  on the advice of Tikhon Streshnev.  Her family was popular with the military. Eudoxia and he were together for ten years until he was twenty six.

Made for the wedding of Peter and Eudoxia

It was well known that this turned out to be a loveless and bad relationship.  Peter felt she did not understand him, or have his best interests in mind. Eudoxia could not accept his infidelities, and was jealous as he slept with many other women and would throughout his life.

Eudoxia was conservative and said by her very clever brother in law Boris Kurakin to be somewhat dull witted, though attractive.Boris Kurakin was married to Eudoxia’s sister Xenia. He left a description of Eudoxia. “…The princess had a handsome face, a mediocre mind and not was not like her spouse. That is why all the happiness between them was lost and her whole family (the Lopukhinas) was ruined… It is true that at first there was love between the two, Peter and his wife. There was a fair amount, but it lasted less than a year. Also his mother and his sister Natalya hated Eudoxia and wanted her husband to have a bad relationship and disagreements, rather than be in love.”

Evdoxia Lupukhina portrait as a young girl


 Her family arrived in a swarm (more than 30 people according to Kurakin) and demanded all the important court positions. This left Peter with a dislike for in-laws, who particularly disliked the Lopuhkina family which lasted his entire life. Boris Kurakin called the Lopukhinas “a family of wicked, mean, scandalmongers of little brain, knowing nothing of how to behave in court or in politics.”

The relationship ended when Peter gave Eudoxia a necklace which he always did after he had spent the night with other women. Eudoxia  threw the necklace on the floor and trampled it cursing that ‘German’ whore, meaning Anna.Peter decided he would have nothing more to do with Eudoxia after that.

 By 1698 his mother had been dead four year and Peter wanted a divorce. There were bad marriages in which kings had mistresses (some men had good marriages in which they loved their wives and did not touch their mistresses. This was more a fashion statement). Frederick IV of Denmark declared he could have more than one wife as he hated the wife he had been forced to marry. Only Frederick William the miserable sadist considered it, as his wife with great justification could not stand him. But he contented himself with a family that hated him. But no king divorced.

The only exception for divorce in the Orthodox religion was for  a wife to forsake the world to take religious vows and her husband would be free. A nun’s life was disciplined and with enforced celibate obedience in the convent. Eudoxia did not want to do that. Eudoxia was a mystical believer but had no desire to dedicate herself to God shutting out the world. Also her family had no interest in retiring from their positions in the court.

Peter returned from the Grand Embassy after 18 months in Europe, and immediately went to see his mistress Anna Mons. Then he went to see his son, scrupulously avoided his wife. After two weeks he requested a meeting with his wife in the house of someone else. He had requested she become a nun when he was in Europe and been ignored. Peter asked why she did not do as he asked. His wife countered by asking why he did not love her. From her point of view she had done her duty by producing an heir. She said she could not leave her child and they reached no conclusion. The argument lasted a few days. Then Peter stopped trying to persuade her. In an unprecedented move he had her stuffed in a carriage, and unceremoniously, without escort taken off against her will to a convent.

Monastery where Eudoxia was sent

At the Convent of the Intercession they were shocked. They were used to women from the ordinary rich family. There were real nuns of course and this was a good place to reside. But there were also many women there who had no interest in the religious life forced in to the nunnery by others. Some entered the convent to escape being forced by their families to marry men they hated. Others like Eudoxia had unhappy or vicious husbands who wanted to be free of them. Families sometimes forced girls to take the veil so other children could inherit property; or to punish wayward daughters.

But they had never been asked to deal with a reluctant Consort of a Tzar. Eudoxia was entered into the monastery on September 23, 1698 against her will. Authorities hesitated to shear her hair making her officially a nun because they were convinced that this use of the church to dethrone the Consort of the Tzar was hereticalBesides Peter could change his mind or there could be a political upheaval. After such an event there could be hell to pay and so for nine months they did nothing. But finally they were terrified into compliance by threats from Peter.

Eudoxia  parted from  Peter on very bad terms and was treated horribly. She was even forbidden to communicate with their eight year old son. Peter did not want her to have any influence on him. They would correspond by smuggled letter through her family or the half sisters of Peter, who were sympathetic to her. She had to write her own brother Abraham for money to maintain a simple household, to purchase the basics of food and clothes and to receive guests offering them a drink. Peter never wrote, sent no money and had his own informers spy on her in the convent.

Eudoxia as a nun

At first Eudoxia was in denial. She expected Peter to change his mind. Then after some years in the convent she became very bitter. She used her position and considerable remaining influence to encourage widespread sympathy for her.

The clergy knew when she returned to power as the mother of Tzar Alexis, she would help them.

After 11 years during which she heard nothing from Peter, except that he now lived with a woman and had two living children,  she took on a very public (and married) lover, Stephan Glebov. He was her prison guard. His family had the estate next door to hers and had exchanged serfs with them. The relationship started with him making sure she had warm clothes in winter. Later she would kiss him in front of others. He cared about her as was shown later on, but some writers also think when her son achieved power Glebov thought she would resume her position as dowager mother and he would be a very powerful figure in the new government.

 Years later Peter would once again turned his attentions to her with terrible fury. He would use her as an excuse to rid himself of his many enemies within the Church. 

Peter at the age of his “divorce”


Posted in History | Leave a comment

Charles XII the Boy Warrior


Charles XI died of stomach cancer on the 15th of April 1697 at the age of forty one. Charles XII was only fourteen. His mother, Hedvig Eleonora of Holstein-Gottorp was regent and made the kingdom mourn her son for a year. He respected her a great deal and asked her advise even when he was the King.

Charles XII did not.  But then he seemed to hate all women. Charles told Theodore Piper, “My father has been dead a year now. I am thinking myself worthy to command.”

“And what of your Grandmother?” Piper asked.

“I don’t like that either they or I should any longer receive orders from a woman.”

“Some on the counsel will oppose a fifteen year old boy as King. Sweden has enemies on all sides.”

“Do this for me and you shall be my Prime Minister, Piper.”

The coronation was held three days later on Christmas Eve. The Archbishop of Uppsala was in the process of coronating Charles King, when the 15 year old grabbed the crown from him. He placed it on his own head.

“God has made me King. I answer to Him,” said Charles. The crowds went crazy cheering for him.”

And thus Charles XII became the king at fifteen. Charles XII was said to have respected his grandmother. They both liked simplicity and it was their nature to give orders. Stories are told of him not wanting to be drunk in front of her. But he did not ask her to rule while he was gone leading the army.

Charles XII at fifteen

Though he became famous as  a superlative General,  he did not like ruling and often said he wished that he had a brother to stay home and take care of business.  Voltaire said Charles walked into his study in military attire. He was fifteen and newly coronated. A well worn “History of Alexander the Great” sat on his table. The young Charles saw the map his father owned of Hungary that said, “The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away.” Charles XII grabbed a pen and scrawled under Riga, “The Lord hath giveth and the Devil shall not take it away from me.

A tutor once asked young Charles XII what he thought of Alexander the Great. He said he would like to be him. “But he only lived 32 years.”

“That is long enough after conquering the world.”

The alliance of Poland, Russia and Denmark was created then. Poland, Denmark and Russia decided they would attack Sweden from three sides when they heard a child had taken the throne. They did not know Charles XII was obsessed with the military and Sweden had the first army reserves in the world. Their whole army could be assembled in 3 days. The allies attacking him required 3 years to prepare.

Charles XII was young, and they thought he would be easily intimidated. They were quite wrong. Charles XII was a great commander and thrilled to have a chance to engage in a real conflict, and even more to have a wrong to avenge.

Thus from the Swedish point of view the Great Northern War began. When he was 18 they attacked. The Netherlands and England immediately declared that they were Sweden’s allies. It was not that they loved Sweden, but they did not want anyone else to gain power over trade from the ports of Latvia and Estonia on the Baltic Sea.

Charles XII made his famous statement to his cabinet, “I have resolved never to begin an unjust war but also never to end a just war without overcoming my enemy.”

In the first few weeks of the war Charles delivered an amazing victory which started his reputation. Denmark had to be knocked out of the fight before they could help their weaker allies, Poland and Russia. He knew they had a better navy than he did. Their army was strong too.

To eliminate the Danes Charles XII needed to take Copenhagen, and that would not be easy. The Danish army had started marching on Sweden as soon as war was declared. The navy was left to protect the coast. King Frederick was still in Copenhagen.

Charles could not march over land without meeting Danish troops, at a great loss of life. He could not enter by sea without fighting their very formidable navy. So Charles told his Generals, “Dress my Swedish sailors as British navy men, and hang their flag. Then say we are British war ships on display at the command of King Frederick IV.” Swedish soldiers were then packed under the deck.  The army of Sweden gained entrance to Denmark and were able to march on Copenhagen without shedding any blood.

Frederick IV who was 29 in 1700

King Frederick IV was shocked at the news. “Charles has landed in Denmark? Where is he now?” he asked.

“Twenty miles from Copenhagen.” Frederick was silent.

Finally he said “What are his terms?” Charles was not harsh. “Give my cousin the Duke of Holstein back his land or face the destruction of Copenhagen and ravaging of the countryside.”

King Frederick IV was a very practical and an effective man, perhaps the most intelligent of his line, though not intellectual. “I have little choice. My men have all sailed off for Sweden. We have no military to defend the city.” That was the end for Denmark, August 1700, six weeks into the war having lost without a battle. The Swedish men broke out in riotous joy. General Rehnskiöld came to congratulate Charles.

Peter the Great was philosophical when told about the defeat. He said, “Two bears in a lair never agree.” He meant he would not have surrendered. But then Denmark was not Russia.

Posted in History | Leave a comment

Peter and the Destruction of the Streltsy


The streltsy were supposedly the elite of the military and Peter hated them.  This may be an understatement. When he was ten they killed two of his uncles and his regent who was torn from him clutching his robes.

When Ivan the Terrible had created the streltsy  or sharp shooters they had a function. They were loyal to him and Moscow needed a civil service to manage its’ growing population. When they were not defending the Tzar they put out fires, served as police, and kept order in the city.  In return they were the loyal elite of the military with exclusive privileges. Ivan the Terrible would have destroyed them himself if they were not. He was crazy and enjoyed seeing people flayed and roasted alive.

The Streltsy

But the position was declared  hereditary which was the cause of it’s downfall. A competent father does not guarantee the same in a son. One hundred and fifty years later they no longer policed the city and collected garbage.  They had become small shopkeepers who were not taxed.

They were still an  elite military force 150 years later, although dangerous because they were vulnerable to lies and rumors. Though they considered themselves very patriotic, the rulers felt they were undependable.

They had one rebellion after another in the lifetime of Peter  saying Tzar Peter the real ruler, had been replaced by a German, his brother Tzar Ivan V had been murdered at 16 (he lived to over 30), Tzar Fyodor poisoned (he had always been very ill) and Sophia an affront to their religion as she was a woman (then later when she was deposed they wanted her back).  In between insurrection they were leaders of the military, powerful and a key to power. So they were tolerated.

Peter quietly replaced the streltsy as his special guard with the Preobrazhensky brigade in whom he had complete trust. He had trained them himself as a teenager. Then Peter began to destroy the streltsy quietly. He sent many units to the far reaches of the empire, Belgorod, Sevsk and Kiev. They were on very thin ice but were oblivious to the danger.

The New Preobrazhensky guard

Peter left for the Grand Embassy and on his return was in Poland planning the strategy for the Great Northern War. The streltsy began their final uprising because they believed the real Tzar had been replaced, and they wanted to break Sophia out of her convent to rule once again.

General Patrick  Gordon prepared to put down  the rebellion. The two sides confronted one another to fight it out and it was not an even match.  There were 2300 poorly equipped strelsty and 4000 well armed regular military. Gordon  sent them word that if they would disband the Tzar would forgive them all. Sophia had done this because she needed them. Peter would never have made the offer.

Gordon fired shots over their heads. The priests said no one had been killed because God was protecting them.  The streltsy charged thinking a miracle would take place and three thousand people were killed at once, all in the rebel army. The rest were taken prisoner.

Gordon was severe, he hung every 10th man. The rest were taken as prisoners to Moscow to be tortured in order to uncover the ring leaders. The rebellion itself was finished.

But Peter who had cut his trip short to return at the  insurrection  was sick of the streltsy. He wanted the end to be harsh so the rest of Russia would take this as an example; don’t try to rebel against him again.

Fifteen rebel leaders were broken on the wheel and then beheaded. Then 300 streltsy were divided between the nobles, people at court serving him and official assistants of these assistants. The prisoners were buried up to their waist and the courtiers told to behead them. This served a double purpose as the couriers could see what came of plotting against him.

The Tzar looked on from his horseback saying the blood of rebels was pleasing to the Lord. Franz Lefort his Swiss friend refused saying this was not the custom in foreign lands. Boris Golitsyn another member of the inner circle could not use his sword well. He hit the back and not neck of one of the streltsy and chopped him almost in half.  Menshikov grabbed his sword and cut off the rebel’s head. Fyodor Romodanovsky, the head of the secret police, who had been in charge of 4 divisions of the streltsy himself, killed four, and another close friend Alexander Menshikov bragged that he had killed twenty.

The Streltsy Execution

There was no forgiveness for the rank and file this time.  Long lines of carts carried the streltsy to their executions. Each wagon had two men with lighted candles. Their wives and children ran along with the cart screaming and crying. The men themselves were very brave and stoic about their deaths. Afterward their heads were put on spikes and bodies piled up. There they remained until summer.

Another group of ring leasers were hung in the courtyard of the convent where Sophia could see them, including two holding a petition to ask her to rule. They were left there over the winter.

Peter freed 500 because they were 18 or under and easily influenced, but they had their noses and ears cut off or they were branded and then they were sent into exile. People who had been streltsy began to hide their uniforms. Some escaped beyond the Urals. Peter put out the order that neither work nor food be given to the families of the rebels, and they were ordered to leave Moscow.

They officially lived on 20 years more as more bodies were needed for the military but they were no longer a force of elite soldiers. Then they were disbanded.

In Saint Petersburg the military once again performed civic functions such as garbage collectors, police, and health and safety inspectors.  But the positions were not hereditary nor elite. The special guard of Peter, the Preobrazhensky brigade, were provided with special uniforms and food.  They were loyal to him this time and for the future too. They were to hold a palace coup years later that placed his wife on the throne. Fourteen year later they did the same for his daughter.

This is from The Turning Point; Peter the Great by A Gordon

Posted in History | Leave a comment

Peter and the Mob


Peter and his mother had no idea the mob was coming. When the soldiers arrived they were frozen with terror. It was too late to close the gates to the Kremlin. They didn’t know what to do. Natalya and Peter came down with the sixteen year old Ivan at the request of his regent Artemon Matveev, to show the mob Ivan was alive. Ivan himself told them he was not being mistreated.

Artemon Matveev said to them, “Here is the Lord Tzar Peter Alexeevich. And here is the Lord Tzarevich Ivan Alexeevich. Thanks be to God, they are well and have not suffered at the hands of traitors.” The streltsy were stunned at having been mislead. He was able to calm down the mob saying, “How could you stain your great reputation with a rebellion based on rumor and falsehood? There is no need to protect the royal family, they are unharmed. Disperse and go home.’” But then Matveev made a great mistake by taking the two boys and Natalya and went back inside the palace.

Prince Michael Dolgorukis gave them an excuse to explode. The streltsy hated him. He had been formally accused of allowing corruption, graft and turning his back while their wages were stolen. After Peter went inside with Matveev, Prince Dolgorukis told the troops to go back to their barracks, they had humiliated him and he would punish them.

Artemon Matveev

The crowd became furious and turned on him. That was the beginning. Charging up the stairs they threw Michael Dolgorukis onto their pikes and hacked him to pieces. They brought the body to his father who was an invalid. Out of fear of them he gave the mob gave drinks. But he told his grieving wife, “Let us wait for the opportunity of being avenged.”  His comment was overheard and the streltsy returned to kill him too.

Inside the Kremlin and completely unaware Artemon Matveev was talking to Peters mother Natalya who had Ivan and Peter by her side. The mob entered the internal palace in a swarm. They pulled Matveev away with his hands clinging to the robes of Peter. Prince Michael Cherkassy tried to fight them off.  His efforts were futile. Artemon Matveev was pull off and dragged away to be thrown down the stairs onto pikes and chopped to pieces with axes.

Peter, his half brother Ivan and mother were terrified. They huddled together in a corner of the banquet hall. His mother whispered, “Don’t worry they can’t hurt us or it will be treason.” That day the streltsy soldiers ran over the Kremlin and then all of Moscow. Forty people were killed. A dwarf pointed out where Peter’s uncle Athanasius was hiding behind an alter in a church and slit his throat.








Most of the dead were important officers in the military like Gregory Romodansky. Others were in the government like Ivan Maksimovich Yazikov, who was pulled from a church and murdered; or Larion Ivanovich Ivanov, official assistant to the Duma, who was killed along with his son Vasily by the awful mob when they entered his house. But some of those killed were not even remotely related to the government or politics. They killed a foreign doctor named Daniel von Gadena saying he had poisoned Tzar Fyodor. The dead had their remains piled up in Red Square.

That night Peter, his mother Natalya, four remaining uncles, Ivan, Martemyan, Lev and Theodore and his grandfather Cyrill Poluektovich Naryshkin hid together in the bedroom of Peter’s sister. Natalya was eight years old at the time. The next day they all moved to the apartments of Marfa Apraxin. She was the widow of the Tzar Fyodor and was only fourteen at the time at the time of the violence. She hid them in a cellar in the dark and kept them protected from the mob for two days.

Marfa Widow of Fyodor III at 15

The next day they were given notice that uncle Ivan had to be given up to the insane mob.  The mob leaders said if the family give him up, the rest of them would be left alone and the crowd would disperse.

In tears Natalya asked her brother what he wanted to do. Ivan agreed to give himself up for the sake of them all. He said his confession and took his last rites. Then he prepared himself to face the mob and put religious icons on covering his body. He went out to meet them holding an icon of the Blessed Virgin.4 They didn’t care. The mob tortured him horribly to get a confession which he would not give. In the end they strung him up with his bones broken and stabbed him repeatedly. His arms and legs were cut off while he was still alive. Then they chopped off his head and killed him.

The mob then had accomplished their mission and began to dissipate. The worst of the riots lasted for three days. Seventy people were killed. Altogether it took 7 days to end the riot completely.

Afterward the streltsy demanded Ivan and Peter rule together. On May 26 1682 they were declared co-Tzar. The three uncles of Peter who were still alive, Martemyan, Lev and Theodore escaped the Kremlin disguised as peasants. Andrei Matveev managed to get out by posing as a groom leading a dwarf named Komar on horseback. But Peter’s grandfather Cyril Poluektovich Naryshkin did not escape. He was captured by the strelsty who forced him to take vows as a monk at the monastery of St. Cyril-Belozersky. He died there. His wife, grandmother to Peter, Anna Leontiev was still alive when he died.

This was the way the Miloslavsky family retained their power. For the first seven years of the reign of Peter, Sophia took over as regent and Peter ruled as co-Tzar with Ivan. Sophia made a double silver throne with an open square behind the co-Tzars so she could tell them what to do and say.  She was a good ruler, better than the mother of Peter who followed her as regent. Once she even tried to get herself declared the ruler of Russia, though she was not successful. But she was not good to Peter, and wished him dead.

Peter learned in a single week of terror that a Tzar could not trust his family or the aristocrats.

Double Throne with hole

Thus his childhood ended and the core of his character, a sad understanding of what it meant to be a ruler anywhere, began.


Posted in History | Leave a comment

Serfs, Merchants and Peter the Great

Peter the Great did many things for the country and for the future economy, although at the time the the treasury was broken, decimated by war.  But he put the final nail in the coffin of the agricultural worker. Peter made it much worse saying there was no circumstance under which serfs could leave the land. As quoted by Sumner in his book Peter the Great and the Emergence of Russia on page 158, Peter said,”just as the landowner is to be tied to service, the townsman to his trade or handicraft, so the peasant is tied to the land.”

A serf  was already low in status. It was considered a punishment to be “reduced” to serfdom.

Peter the Great was somewhat shortsighted with his efforts to make only the non-serfs into  an entrepreneurial class. Then how could he have seen in 1700 that in 1835 there would be an industrial revolution leaving behind the estate system?  He had a landowning aristocracy who wanted an agricultural culture. But this resulted in no serf conversion to the  middle class, which would have benefited everyone in the long run.


Peter the Great wanted increased trade.  He advocated for the artisan and merchant. He saw this as the key to wealth in a nation. To a large extent in this he succeeded.

Merchants Before Peter

Merchants After Peter

He is remembered as the greatest Tzar because he put Russia on the map of Europe after The Great Northern War.  In five years  he  changed the dress, and introduced social customs of the west and their architecture. He wanted merchants from Europe to be be impressed.

Peter also promoted competent commoners because they could create the trade and industrial base needed to compete. He created a navy, a Capitol and ‘liberated” Russian women.  Everyone agrees he remade Russia.

Cornelius Cruys Architect of Navy

Anton Devier Chief of Police St Petersburg

Andrew Vinius Designer of Cannons

Russia which had been so isolated became accepted as a participant in every European war from the 18th century to the present. They fought with Britain in the War of the Austrian Alliance, with France and against Britain in the Seven Years War. They defeated the French to continue British trade, and were allies of both France and Britain in World War II, pivotal in turning the tide after the defeat of Germany at Stalingrad.

Russia and the US traditionally have been allies. Trade benefited them both. They twice refused the invitation of England to help them in the Revolution. Russia sent ships to guard American vessels if war broke out between France and England in the Civil War. They sold Alaska to the United States, their partner in trade, after losing the Crimean War fearing that Britain would seize the land.

Serfdom ended officially in 1861 a century and a half later, by order of Tzar Alexander. For the first time in more than 200 years serfs could marry as they chose, sue, own land, vote and enter a profession. But the Tzar let the aristocrats write the terms of the liberation ukase, which Peter would never do, and they were unjust and detrimental to the country.  By then there had been an industrial revolution yet conditions were created to keep Russian peasants on the land through debt.

The peasants became share croppers and had to pay a huge amount to the land owner for the worst land on the estate. This debt was passed along to the next generation. Consequently the liberation was a colossal failure leading to a revolution. The Russian people were not able to afford a good life despite their hard work.

The rest of Europe was changing and they were not. The Russians had an autocratic system with no safety valve for protest. So after 50 years the people simply killed the rich who maintained the system and Communism was born. The social order was turned upside down. This was not well received by the rich or the powerful in other countries. The US sent 5000 soldiers to Siberia in support of the white army.

In part these were the unintended effect of the laws of Peter the Great. His changes were for the non-serf population. These opened the door for the Communist Revolution and Stalin. Russia became important after Peter but a large part of Russia was silenced and they rose like a colossus.


Posted in History by Alice | Leave a comment

An Estonian and the Rise of Russia

Johann von Patkul

Johann Reinhold von Patkul  began and ended his life in prison. In fact he was drawn and quartered when it was no longer done by Sweden. But he was special,  Before he was born his father was accused of treason. His son was born in prison. Later his father was released and the boy grew up on a wealthy estate in Estonia.

He became a Captain in the Swedish army at twenty nine, which was very young, and  had a promising career before him. But he stepped on the toes of many.  He was described as “impatient, obstinate and intractable, with a high opinion of himself, and no opinion at all of anyone else.” 

But the cause of the problem was this. Sweden had ruled Estonia for 80 years now.  Charles XI of Sweden wanted the rich Baltic German estates in Livonia, those making over 250,000 annually, to pay greater taxes. It was very Swedish. The state had to have more sources of money because they had war debts, and Sweden found serfdom odd. They had a system of lords and Kings but the people were never serfs. They were small farmers.

Von Patkul came in person and tried to convince the King that it was unfair to tax the rich. He did not convince Charles XI of his trickle down theory, but he was graciously told by the King that he was very eloquent. He was then sent home to pay his taxes. Von Patkul was enraged that his brilliant logic had not won the day.  But he did not give up. He sent the King a strongly worded petition,  which was a terrible miscalculation as upon receiving it  Charles XI was furious rather than persuaded by the numbers who signed the document and  he declared this was treason.

The King  ordered the confiscation of the estates of Patkul, and attempted to have him arrested. Patkul had to leave the country to avoid prison and in all likelihood execution. He lived unhappily as a rich man in exile in France for the next  four years.

Then Patkul saw a ray of sunshine. Charles XI died at 42 of stomach cancer. His son Charles XII had declared himself King of Sweden at a mere 15 years of age. Patkul wrote to ask if he would pardon him. His land and fortune would be restored. But Charles XII who was more dogmatic and terse than his father simply refused.

So von Patkul came up what he thought was a brilliant plan with would get back his estates and achieve revenge complete revenge. He moved to Poland and used his influence to suggest to Augustus the Strong and Frederick IV of Denmark that they attack Sweden along with the Kingdom of Brandenburg. Poland and Denmark would gain land they felt had been taken from them, and Brandenburg which was decimated in the 30 Years War simply thirsted for revenge. They all thought the 15 year old king would undoubtedly break down and concede at once.  As history was to show they had made the mistake of  declaring war on a man who was a military genius.

30 Years War

Augustus the Strong (famous for an alleged 100 illegitimate children) and Frederick IV (a bigamist-he had three wives because he hated the first) thought this was a very good idea. But the ruler of  Brandenburg, the main Kingdom of Prussia didn’t want to participate in the war. Frederick III, the psychotically cruel father of Frederick the Great, was about to be made the first King of all Prussia. The Kingdom had opened the door to all Huguenots, their fellow Protestants, and they were flooded with well qualified professionals. There was too little to be gained in a war at that time. 

Peter the Great at 25 on Grand Embassy

Peter just happened to be on his way back from the Grand Embassy where he had failed to get support for a war with the Ottoman Empire from which he hoped to gain a port. He was asked if Russia was interested in attacking Sweden. The prospect of a port from which he could trade with Europe made him drool.

The two needed a third party to attack causing Sweden to divide their forces and were willing to settle for Peter. They hoped what Peter’s army lacked in skill they would make up for for in size. But Patkul himself said, be careful of Russia “lest she snatch the roast from our spit beneath our noses.”

So Peter eagerly agreed to fight as an ally to Denmark and strangely enough their old rival, the Poles. The plan was to attack Sweden on three sides at once. The preparations which took three years were secret.  

The war began in 1700 and by 1707 Denmark and Poland were defeated. Only Russia the weakest of the three remained.

By then von Patkul was serving as Ambassador for Peter in Poland and as such even in 1707 was protected by international law.  But as part of the peace agreement at the request of the Swedes he was to be turned over to Charles XII. Augustus the Strong secretly sent word to the Governor of Konigstein  where he was being held, that he was to let him escape. Unfortunately the Governor exploiting this opportunity wanted a large bribe from von Patkul to let him go. Von Patkul refused on principal.

What he did not know was that Charles was nursing a very large grudge. He wanted Patkul killed as a traitor  in as painful a manner as possible. Patkul went into convulsions of terror when he found that he was to be broken on the wheel, drawn and quartered.

Charles made the mistake of entering Russia. Peter as is well known went on to defeat Sweden at Poltava. Augustus was placed back on the throne of Poland. Thus through the efforts of an Estonian, the rise of Russia began.


Posted in History | Leave a comment

Two Bigger than Life Enemies: Charles XII and Peter the Great


Peter the Great and Charles XII fought each other in The Great Northern War from 1700 to 1719, in an match that was considered uneven. Peter did not expect to win the war. He wanted a warm water port and anticipated the young Charles would capitulate quickly when attacked from three sides by Denmark, Poland and Russia. However Charles refused any offer of peace which included profit for the enemy no matter how insignificant. He defeated Denmark and Poland  without negotiation by 1706, but the war with Russia went on to the chagrin of all.

The war began when Charles XII  became King of Sweden at fifteen. Sweden was  the most powerful nation in Europe at the time, prosperous with a standing army which could be assembled in three days. His father Charles XI had left his paternal grandmother, Hedwig Eleonora,  to rule as regent until the boy was eighteen. But he deposed her and crowned himself after a year.

Peter the Great, his enemy  was twenty five when Charles XII became king. His country had manpower  but no money and  was considered one of the least powerful nations of Europe, without significant commerce.  The country produced raw materials.

Charles XII at 21 by Krafft Public Domain

Charles XII at 24 by Krafft Public Domain

Peter the Great at 26 Public Domain

Peter the Great at 26 Public Domain









Charles was 5’9, very Scandinavian, with blue eyes and a straight large nose. His lower mouth was described by Voltaire as unattractive, he had an overbite. As he got older his hair fell out on top.  But Voltaire described Charles XII as, “perhaps the most extraordinary man ever born a hero who summed up in his personality all the great qualities of his ancestors, and whose only fault and only misfortune was that he carried them all to excess.” He was the superhero of his generation.

As stated by Voltaire, Peter was a paradox of personal contradictions. He was described by many sources as being handsome had it not been for involuntary spastic movements of his face and arm, left over from an attack of encephalitis at twenty one.Peter was 6’7” with brown eyes, a small nose and rounded chin with a full head of hair even at his death. Future generations would consider him the Abraham Lincoln of Russian history, though at the time he was deeply hated.

The two were a study of contrasts, but many of these features were not important. By temperament the Swede was cold, and serious. Charles did not speak much, and when he did it was usually in German which he preferred to Swedish. He barely drank except to accompany meals. 

The Swedes Victorious in a 1700 Battle with the Russians Public Domain

The Swedes Victorious in a 1700 Battle with the Russians Public Domain

When he first became king he banned torture. He thought correctly that the information obtained from a desperate man was poor; although he had no qualms about killing. In the course of his career he oversaw the deaths of soldiers, and peasants who opposed him. On one occasion he  brought back the brutal custom of breaking on the wheel for Johann Reinhold von Patkul who had started the long war.

He did not hold parties nor engage with the opposite sex, either having mistresses, visiting whores or a having a wife. Some have theorized he had Asperger’s Syndrome.

The King had very few interests outside of the military,  though he carried a Lutheran bible everywhere.

Peter the Great was very different. As a man he was gentle but as King he tortured people  in order to obtain information about the many conspiracies to depose him. He was not sadistic but had seen the power of his enemies at the age of ten and did not forget. Yet he wrote that justice was better served by letting many of the guilty go free than convicting the innocent. He hated hunting and despised the suffering of animals.

The All-Joking Drunken Synod Public Domain

The All-Joking Drunken Synod Public Domain Author’s Conception

Peter was infamous for his capacity to drink, but he was careful not to talk or do anything he would later regret. His decadent parties had forced drinking (with servants who were spies).

Finally he was passionate,  an ardent  womanizer who admired Charles for not being one.  His conversation  was passionate and enthusiastic; he was constantly on the move, and interested in everything. The economy of Russia was his major concern and he regarded the military, which he valued very highly, as subordinate to this.

However they had important things in common. As children they both  chose to command actual soldiers in order to learn the nuts and bolts of military essentials.Charles replaced his regent grandmother at fifteen, Peter deposed his half sister who ruled for him at sixteen. The two were were simple in their tastes, sparse and plain in their choice of food, dressed only for practicality and donned luxurious robes  when forced to for  ceremonial occasions. 

Both were born rulers and great military strategists. They were not corrupt in the slightest, this was a lifelong struggle for Peter surrounded by those who would steal. Neither was interested in gossip.   They believed that the Church was important, Swedish Lutheran or Russian Orthodox,  but subservient to the interests of the state.

Their fathers were both effective rulers who increased the territories of their countries.  They were well regarded and willing to fight. But though they were successful at  war, they preferred peace. Both of their fathers died unexpectedly in their forties.

To achieve their goals, and further what they felt were the ambitions of their country, Peter and Charles extracted terrible taxes from the people. Peter melted down the church bells to make cannons. Charles taxed the churches and took the personal possessions of his subject to hire mercenaries. Both were indifferent to the sufferings of those who stood in their way.

But there were important differences in their situations which caused enormous contrasts in outlook. Sweden was a prosperous country with a strong standing army. Charles XII fought for his principles, which were God, glory, and love of warfare. He often said he wished that he had a brother to stay home and take care of the business of ruling.1 Peter came from a weak country that was behind the western world and the Ottoman Empire in manufacturing, mining, trade and all aspects of written culture. He fought for practical objectives, a warm water port and trade routes.

In the end  they respected each other, though they never met. Peter won the war because Charles decided to enter Russia.  Voltaire claimed there was talk of the two of them commanding an army together, though others doubt this. When Charles died on he battlefield fighting the Norwegians, Peter declared his court would mourn him for a week.

Death Mask Of Charles XII at 39

Death Mask Of Charles XII at 39

Death Mask of Peter the Great at 52

Death Mask of Peter the Great at 52

1Browning, Oscar Charles XII page 6

Posted in History | Leave a comment

Peter the Great: Paternity Question

Tzar Alexis in latter years

Tzar Alexis in latter years

Peter and his father did not look alike. Dr. Samuel Collins, a physician at court, described the father of Peter the Great in 1668. “He is….about six feet high, well set [stout], inclined to fat, of a clear complexion, lightish hair, somewhat a low forehead…” (1) He is universally described as having blue eyes.  Some have attributed his death to being fat. “Alexis Mikhailovich died at age 47. One of the reasons for his early senility is thought to be excessive (even by Moscow standards) obesity.” (2)

Peter the Great was 6’5″ and described by the French St Simon assigned to him as “…a very tall man, well made though rather thin, his face somewhat round, with a broad forehead, beautiful eyebrows, a short nose, thick at the end; his lips were rather thick, his skin was brown and ruddy. He had splendid eyes, large, black, piercing, and well-opened…”. (3)

A picture said to be very accurate of Peter done when he was 26

A picture said to be very accurate of Peter done when he was 26

Peter was also not like Alexis in temperament. His father was known as ‘The Quiet”, although Lindsey Hughes reports that he could be explosively angry and once dragged his father in law around the room by his hair. But in general he was described as having a soft and good nature, and being very quiet. He was an intelligent man and well educated, passive and very organized. By nature he preferred peace to war and he liked the people around him to be happy.  He had few hidden dark sides.

Alexis was very religious and extremely observant. Unlike Peter he loved to hunt and wrote a book on falconry. He would leave strict orders that no one was to ask him for anything while he went on his excursions. Samuel Collins said he rarely visited his subjects.

Peter hated hunting. “Hunt gentlemen, hunt as much as you please, and make war on wild beasts. For my part I cannot amuse myself that way while I have enemies to encounter abroad and obstinate and refractory subjects to reduce at home.” (4) Peter liked drinking huge amounts, and took requests from ordinary people as he drove around town in his very simple carriage. He said this saved them the trouble and expense of having to bribe others.

Simple carriage of Peter the Great from: State History

Simple carriage of Peter the Great from: State History

Peter was not extreme in his religiosity. He exempted the military from fasting and attended Protestant services from time to time. He was known to be passionate, and active. He was interested in all practical affairs from agriculture to dentistry, and to have filled every place he spent any time at with things that he built. (5)

His energy was legendary, although he was somewhat indifferent to the feelings of those around him. He was also very enthusiastic about women.

Tzar Alexis did some things well. He reorganized the military and invented a gun. In order to read the foreign press he began a postal delivery from Riga.  Secret codes were introduced for diplomats by him. Alexis liked astronomy and gadgets.  He ordered a telescope. But Peter succeeded in doing many things that his father failed at, from introducing crop reform and domestic manufacturing, to reforming the currency. Peter loved everything about the military and in addition to furthering reforms, it is well known that he created the navy.

The other sons of Alexis by his first wife were were sick. Only two lived to adulthood and one, Fyodor was twisted by disease in body and out of necessity stayed in bed most of the time. But he was a good ruler who took his work seriously. He is remembered for burning the Book of Precedent, so that promotions would be based on competence. He died at twenty one. Ivan had weak vision, hearing, stammered, could not stand without help and his mind was slow. He was paralyzed at 27, and he died at 30.

Fyodor III

Fyodor III

Ivan V

Ivan V


Peter the Great

Peter the Great

Peter was very large and healthy. His own daughters were like him, tall, 5’10” and he had a son who was six feet tall.

Tzar Alexis died when he was 47 of a heart attack. Peter was almost four. At the age of ten his brother Fyodor III who had followed Alexis died and Peter became the Tzar along with his developmentally disabled older brother Ivan.

According to Waliszewski, Peter bore no resemblance  to his older brothers and sisters. Tzar Alexis  had mistresses, and it was well known that Ivan Musin-Pushkin was his son.

“Once upon a time, Peter, heated with wine, sought (so at least the story goes) to peer into this shadow. ‘ That fellow,’ he cried, pointing to one of the company, Ivan Mussin-Pushkin, ‘ knows, at all events, that he is my father’s son! Whose son am I? Yours, Tikhon Streshnev? Obey me, speak, and fear nothing! Speak or I ’11 have you strangled! ‘

‘ Batiushka^ mercy I ‘ comes the answer. ‘ I know not what to say. … I was not the only one !”(6)

Tikhon Streshnev

Tikhon Streshnev

Tikhon Streshnev was very good to him throughout his childhood. In all his letters Peter addresses him as father. Peter allowed him to keep his beard out of respect, when he required other aristocrats to shave theirs. Later he made him a senator and then Mayor of Moscow.

But the Tzar Alexis had appointed him to be the Royal Uncle, though he was not related to Peter.

Many others thought his father was really the Patriarch Nikon.  This is unlikely as he was banished in 1667 and though he was deeply loved by Fyodor III and invited back, he was not in Moscow in 1671.  But there were good reasons to suspect him as the father nevertheless.  In fact he was most often named as the ‘real father.’

Nikon was the head of the Orthodox Church, and he made what at the time were radical reforms, to change the liturgy back to the Greek tradition. He was a counselor and best friend to the Tzar Alexis from the age of 23.  He was often left to rule by Tzar Alexis when he was away and he was given the state seal. For six years Alexis and he were best friends.

He was the same height as Peter and was very fond of his mother.

Patriarch Nikon

Patriarch Nikon

In character Nikon was as hard a man as Peter himself, who was once described as having not an ounce of softness in him. He was as bright and full of energy.

His family members were from the Ukraine. Peter himself lacks a Slavic face.  Nikon was originally from a peasant family of Mordovians, a group in Russia related to Fins. He was raised by monks after running away from an abusive home where his step mother and father beat him.

The monks at the monastery taught him to read and write. He became a married priest with a family. But then their three children died.  After that he and his wife separated. He became a monk and his wife a nun. They entered into separate monasteries.

Nikon did extraordinarily well in the Church from that point on. He built churches, monasteries and convents and advanced in a meteoric fashion in the clergy. He eventually was so well regarded that he was made head of the Orthodox Church by the Tzar. He put a condition on his appointment though, that everyone obey him in all matters without challenge or democratic discussion.

New Jerusalem Monastery built by Nikon

New Jerusalem Monastery built by Nikon

When he had total control Nikon reorganized the Orthodox Church. He brought back sermons; changed the way people crossed themselves; and returned the church liturgy to Greek doctrine. These changes were very serious at the time and ended with a schism in the church.

Nikon built more new monasteries and convents; he changed the way icons were painted; and then he went from house to house to make sure his changes were being implemented.

The Old Believers who would not accept his reforms were persecuted. Their leaders were burned or imprisoned in awful conditions. They considered Nikon to be the anti-Christ.

Nikon took for granted the State was created to serve the Church.  This belief in the supremacy of the Church over the State was his downfall. The Tsar began to disagree with him more and more.  They fought in public.

“Alexis angrily called the Patriarch a “stupid clown,” whereupon Nikon retorted, “I am your spiritual father. Why then do you revile me?” Alexis shot back, “It is not you who are my father but the holy Patriarch of Antioch, and I will send to bring him back.” (8)

For six years Nikon was banished to the north. He was eventually forgiven but died returning to take his former place as head of the Church under Fyodor III, when Peter was seven.

Another possible father was “Nicholas Davidson” also known as Erekle I. He was at the wedding of Natalya and Tzar Alexis.

Erekle I or Nicholas Davidson

Erekle I or Nicholas Davidson

It was said that Tzar Alexis was unable to father a son the year before Peter was born. He was very ill. Nicholas was a prince from an area of Georgia. Nicholas was raised in the court with Tzar Alexis, and was his close friend. He would have been 30 when Peter was born, and he left when Peter was two.

He went back to his own country in order to deal with the Persians and Ottomans who were fighting in Georgia. He took over and ruled as Erekle I or Herzclius of Kakheti. That was when he was a Christian.

Later he found it prudent to become a Muslim and changed his name to Nazar Ali Khan.  For this reason it is possible that Peter could have had an Islamic father.  As unlikely as this seems, Peter apparently thought this was a possibility too. He refused to marry a Georgian Princess fearing they were cousins. Sofia his half sister also thought there was some truth to this rumor as she would call Peter “that foreigner.” (9) Some Georgians believe this to be true and that Stalin hid proof of Peter’s paternity.

His looks, height and temperament were not like those of Tzar Alexis. Peter did not look like his half brothers, nor his full sister Natalya who he loved her very much. While his own son Alexei did not share his personality, he clearly looked like his father. His daughter Elizabeth who eventually ruled was said to be very much like him.

Natalya Alexeevna sister of Peter the Great

Natalya Alexeevna sister of Peter the Great

Troyat concluded that it is possible that Peter was the son of Alexei, although others are possible contenders. He said that many a mediocre father has given birth to an extraordinary man.(10)


(1) Vernadsky, George A Source Book for Russian History  Vol I page 232, Yale University 1972

(2) Yudina, Anna

(3) Rouvroy Louis de. Duc de St Simon. Memoirs page 93, Translated in London 1873

(4) Von Staehlin, Jakob. Peter the Great, Collected from the Conversation of Several Persons of Distinction at Petersburgh and Moscow  page 115, London J. Murray 1788

(5)  Klyuchevsky, Vasili translated by Liliana Archibald. Peter the Great pages 35-37 . New York, Vintage Books Random House 1958 (reprinted the author died in 1911)

(6)  Waliszewski, Kazimierz, Peter the Great, page 7,  London; Heinemann

(7) Von Staehlin, Jakob. Peter the Great, Collected from the Conversation of Several Persons of Distinction at Petersburgh and Moscow  page 115, London J. Murray 1788

(8) Massie, Robert, K. Peter the Great, His Life and World, page 58-59 New York: Ballantine, 1981

(9) Georgia, Caucasus, Georgian Roots of Peter the Great, htto://

(10) Troyat, Henri.  Peter the Great, page 7, New York; E.P. Dutton, 1987





Posted in History | Leave a comment