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.
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.
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.
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.