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)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/the-romanov-dynasty/aleksey-mikhailovich-romanov/
(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 http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=ru&u=http://www.bibliotekar.ru/polk-5/2.htm&prev=search
(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://geokavkaz.blogspot.com/2010/04/blog-post.html
(10) Troyat, Henri. Peter the Great, page 7, New York; E.P. Dutton, 1987