Sunday, December 4, 2022

Unloved Son – Life of Alexey Petrovich

Series “Peter’s Heritage”

Alexey Petrovich’s story is tragic. He was the first son of Peter I and the true heir to Russian throne. The relationship between Peter and Alexey can be compared to the myth of Cronus who devoured his own children. The short but eventful life of Prince Alexey has inspired writers for centuries afterwards. 


On 18th of February of 1690 is born the first heir to Peter I – Alexey Petrovich. He is born out of an unhappy union between Peter and Evdokia Lopukhina. During the first years the prince is raised by his mother and grandmother. When Alexey is 8 years old, Peter sends Evdokia to a monastery and prohibits any contact between son and mother. This was a tragedy for little Alexey as he deeply loved his mother; this feeling of profound sadness and loneliness has lingered in his heart for the rest of his life. At the same time he barely knew his father as Russian historians write:  “Father (Peter I) was more interested in military campaigns, ships and country’s governance. Due to the discord in relations with his wife, Peter was not interested in raising his son, sometimes completely forgetting about the existence of little Alexey”. 

Alexey is then sent to the house of Natalia Alekseevna- Peter’s beloved sister. Peter and Natalia were very close, perhaps it was her influence that Tsar suddenly remembered that he has a son and sent him various tutors instructed to teach the heir how to govern. A little later in her house was also moved Catherine I who was not yet married to Peter. Catherine was promptly baptised in Orthodox religion and Alexey was named as godfather to his father’s lover. In the same house lived wife and sisters of the powerful Menshikov. All the women went along magnificently, partly because of Natalia’s friendly nature. She was described by her peers as a happy woman, full of life with an intelligent sense of humour. In her palace she has built a theatre where Russian nobles would act for each other and Natalia herself has written various plays for that theatre. Valishevski wrote: “Sister of Peter the Great – Natalia Alekseevna – has created a new type (of woman) – actress, writer, the woman of the future”. It seems that life in Natalia’s palace was that of celebration.

When the heir has turned 13 years of age his education was entrusted to Henry Hussein. Henry was a distinguished lawyer and a capable diplomat employed by Peter I. He developed an impressive educational programme for the prince but had little time to implement it as he was often away on diplomatic missions. As a result, Alexey did not receive a systematic education, although he was fluent in foreign languages: German and French, he knew the basics of mathematics and fortification. He was said to be capable by nature but lazy, as he himself admitted: “I can’t bear much work.” In 1705 the education of prince was mostly passed to Menshikov who treated Alexey cruelly, often using physical force and harsh words. Later on in life Alexey reproached Menshikov for deliberately developing in him habits of drunkenness and idleness, not caring about his upbringing. In those times most influence in Alexey’s life had his confessor – Jacob Ignatiev. Jacob however was against Peter’s politics and this teaching has reflected in princes way of thinking for the rest of his life. His contemporaries wrote: “Prince spends time in accordance with the old ways of Russian life: either listening to church service and engaging in soul-saving conversations, or holding feasts, a regular participant of which is his confessor”. Alexey, still a boy in prime of adolescence, was under influence of people with little education but a lot of opinions, often drinking and fist fighting. Jacob has also began passing letters between the prince and his mother Evdokia and once organised their visit in a monastery. When Peter was informed of the meeting he was outraged and only Catherine managed to calm him down. Later on in life Alexey has frequently asked Catherine to speak to the Tsar on his behalf. The friendship between Alexey and Jacob has continued all the way to Alexey’s death. Still a boy, Alexey once swore to his confessor that he wished his father’s death; the confessor answered: “God will forgive you; we all wish him dead because there are too many burdens on the people”.

Peter then has intended to occupy the Prince with military activities, asking him to perform various important government tasks including developing a plan of fortification for Moscow. Alexey however was not doing this job well, preferring drunken feasts to work which has further disappointed his father. Once Peter told him: “If you won’t do what I want you to do then I will not recognise you as my son; I will pray to God he punishes you in this life and in the afterlife”. It’s only understandable that this attitude did not warm the Prince towards Peter. 

Marriage and flight to Europe

In 1709 Alexey travelled to Germany to continue his education and to choose a bride. In 1711 he married European princess Charlotte Christine Sophie. There is difference of opinions between historians as to the nature of their relationship during the first year. Some state that Charlotte did not want to marry Russian Prince others say that she loved him. Even if there was love in the beginning it has soon passed. The Prince began to treat his wife coldly and even rudely; she, in turn, was irritable. Most of all she hated his constant drinking in bad circles. “Once, returning from such a feast, Alexey said to his valet: “This damn wife that was imposed on me; whenever I see her she is always angry and refuses to speak to me””.

Alexey’s relationship with his father was also getting worse. Upon prince’s return from Germany, Peter asked him what he has learned in geometry and fortification. The question frightened Alexey so much that to avoid having to draw any fortification plans he took a gun and tried to shoot at his right hand, but the gun did not work right: his hand was only scorched by gunpowder. Peter was so enraged by this deed that he beat him severely and ordered him to never appear in court again. After the incident the already scarce communication between Alexey and Peter has disappeared completely. Prince’s health has worsened after the conflict and he travelled to Karlsbad as its waters were famous for healing properties. Charlotte found out about her husband’s trip to Europe only after he left the country, it seems she did not receive from him a single letter, nor knew of his exact whereabouts. On 12th of July 1714 she gave birth to their first daughter Natalia, but Alexey returned to her only in December 1714. Upon his return to Russia Alexey did not become a better husband, on the contrary, he did not even try to hide his constant extramarital affairs.   He soon met Afrosina Fedorova – a serf girl who was a property of Alexey’s tutor. Afrosina had no education but the heir preferred her to his wife – crowned princess. 

Despite having a lover Alexey still compiled with his conyugal duties and in 1715 Charlotte gave birth to a son – Peter II. Princess Charlotte has never adapted to Russian customs, she did not learn the language, had few friends, somehow she maintained huge debts and was deeply agitated by her husband’s disinterest. In one of the letters to her mother she confesses:

“God alone knows how deeply they upset me here. … I am nothing but a poor sacrifice for my family, which has not brought you the slightest benefit, and I am dying a slow death under the burden of grief”. After birth Charlotte got sick and refused to take any medicine, saying that she prefers to die in her unhappiness. She died a few days later. 

The next day after princess’s death Catherine I gave birth to a son Peter III. In an attempt to recover relationship with his father Alexey has announced that he gives up the right of inheritance in favour of his newborn brother. Peter, however, was suspicious of the true intentions of the Prince and has repeatedly written to him saying that he either should stop being a hypocrite and accept the throne or become a monk to prove that he indeed won’t participate in the worldly duties. For a long time Alexey was avoiding giving a straightforward answer. Then Peter fell gravely ill, his situation was so bad that he even asked for a confession as if he would die any moment now. During that illness Alexey has only visited his father once and very briefly, partly it was because his closest friends suspected that Peter was only pretending to be ill in order to see the real intentions of the Prince. In Autumn of 1716 Peter asked Alexey to meet him in Kopenhagen. Alexey agreed but instead of travelling to his father the Prince went to court of Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, who was husband to Alexey’s wife’s sister, in hopes of receiving his support in taking Russian throne for himself. He took his lover with him – Afrosina – who travelled in male clothes to avoid any unnecessary attention. Before departure his advisor Kikin gave a strong advice: “Remember, if your father sends someone to persuade you to return, don’t do this. He’ll publicly chop off your head”. 

On 17th of November 1716 Alexey arrived to house of Austrian vice-chancellor Count Schönborn, asking for his help. Advisor of the count has written about this meeting: 

“He (Alexey Petrovich) appeared in the house of the Austrian vice chancellor Count Schönborn and, running around the room looking nervous and gesturing anxiously, he said to the shocked count: “I come here to ask the Emperor, my brother-in-law, for protection, to save my life: they want to destroy me; they want to take the crown from me and from my poor children … but I’m not guilty of anything, I didn’t anger my father, I didn’t harm him; if I am a weak person it’s because Menshikov raised me like that, he worsened my health through drunkness; now my father says that I’m not fit to go to war or to rule the country, but I have enough intelligence to govern… “

Obviously this wasn’t a well planned meeting, in fact it seems that the Prince was panicking and that gave a poor impression. Charles VI found himself in a difficult situation, if this matter would have been handled poorly it could lead to a diplomatic conflict between Austria and Russia. Charles agreed to hide Alexey and did not announce his arrival. For quite a while no one noticed that Alexey left Russia, but then Peter and Catherine began to worry about the Prince. Peter put his intelligence council to work in finding son’s whereabouts. All this time Alexey was living in Ehrenberg Castle together with his lover Afrosina.

In April of 1717 Peter was informed that Alexey is hiding in Austria, he immediately wrote to Charles VI:

“The Most Majestic Sovereign Tsar! I have been compelled to write to Your Tsar’s Majesty to express my heartfelt sadness about a certain situation that has happened to me, and in a friendly fraternal confession to share it with you, namely, about my son Alexey. Some time ago the Prince received a command to come to me so that I could distract him from indecent living with indecent people. But instead he hid somewhere and I can’t find him. For his sake I ask your Majesty that if he is found secretly or explicitly in your areas, he should be ordered to return to me, so that I can educate him fatherly for his well being … Your Tsar’s Majesty’s faithful brother. From Amsterdam on the 20th day of December 1716. Peter “

Alexey warned Charles VI that his father will attempt to make the matter seem different from it really is and Charles VI decided not to give him up. When Peter understood that a simple petition did not work he sent his best diplomat Tolstoy to Vienna; by that time Alexey was sent from Ehrenberg to Naples for better protection. After long negotiations Charles agreed to let Tolstoy see the Prince but made it explicitly clear that he won’t extradite Alexey. During that meeting Tolstoy managed to convince Alexey that in case of a war between Austria and Russia, Austria will loose. In addition, he added the fictitious news that Peter would soon come to Italy himself. Thus, Alexey’s hopes for Austrian help were shaken, and he agreed to return to Russia, provided that his father forgave him for the escape and allowed him to marry Afrosina who was at the time pregnant with Alexey’s child. Tolstoy then bribed the secretary of Count Down who was a mediator in the negotiations between the Prince and the envoys of Peter, and he “secretly” told Alexey that Emperor Charles VI wanted to extradite him and to separate from Afrosina. On November 17, the prince received a letter from his father with a notice that he would be given permission to marry Afrosina when he was within the borders of the Russian state. Thus on January 31, 1718, the prince arrived in Moscow.

The tragedy 

Upon arrival to Moscow, Alexey was obligated to sign a number of documents declaring that he won’t ever be considered an heir to Russian throne “even if not a single person of Romanov dynasty is alive”. Then he was asked as to whom knew of his flight to Austria. During those interrogations Alexey blamed everyone from his circle except himself and Afrosina, pretending to be only a victim of gossips. Every person close to him was first tortured and then killed; only his tutor was excused as he said that Alexey actually hated him and for that reason mentioned his name. The palace of Alexey was searched and letters that he wrote to his mother were found. Evdokia was then brought from the monastery to Moscow. The advisor sent to bring her has found the ex wife of Peter in a delicate situation: she was wearing a normal civil dress instead of a nun’s dress and was kissing Stepan Glebov who turned out to be a married man with grown up children, also were found her many letter to the clergy where she was wishing for Peter’s death and for her son Alexey to become a Tsar. Stepan has confessed that he indeed had sexual relationships with Evdokia over the last two years. This led to a death sentence for many nuns that knew of the affair. Evdokia was spared being sent to another monastery. 

On 20th of April Afrosina arrived to Moscow. Pregnant woman was immediately arrested. Peter personally visited her, and being either threatened or bribed she testified against Alexey. Despite being barely literate Afrosina was an able manipulator, she skilfully combined truth and lies making everything she said seem more believable:

“Tsarevich frequently wrote to the emperor (Charles VI) complaints about his father, he also sent letters to Russian bishops so that these letters could be distributed among the population, he constantly complained about his parent and very diligently awaited inheritance, he expressed joy when he read in the newspapers that his brother, Peter Petrovich , was sick, and said these words: “Although my father does what he wants, I believe that the senate won’t be ordered by him”. When he heard about testimonies in the newspapers that St. Petersburg is calm and tranquil he said : “This silence is not without reason, maybe my father will die soon or there will be a rebellion. My father hopes that upon his death, instead of the infant Peter, the stepmother will rule; then it will be the governance of women and confusion will prevail: some will support my brother, and some will support me. When I become Tsar, I will get rid of all the old officials and I’ll recruit new ones to serve my own will. During winter I will live in Moscow, and during summer in Yaroslavl. St. Petersburg will become nothing else but a simple town; I will not build more warships and I will not wage war with anyone; I will be content with the old ways”.

When Alexey was presented with the testimony of his beloved, he at first denied most of it but then under cruelest torture he confessed to her words and more.

On 13th of June Peter ordered the convocation of clergy and nobility to hold a judging over his unfortunate son Alexey. While it was discussed what is to be done with the prince he was subjected to agonising torture where Peter was present personally. Alexey has admitted to everything that was demanded of him although as history shows he was in fact innocent of those accusations. For example one of his “confessions” was that he was preparing a military invasion of Russia. On 24th of June he was condemned. The sentence issued by clergy was quite clever, it cited 9 examples of father punishing a son from the Old Testament, and 7 examples from the New Testament calling for tolerance. And in the end was added: “This case is not in our competence because we were made judges by the one who rules over us. How can hands and legs give advice to the head?” The court of nobility was not so kind though, 127 members have signed the death sentence for Prince Alexey. The head of this court was Menshikov who always disliked the prince and who had great hopes for Catherine becoming the sole empress after Peter’s death. Catherine was once Menshikov’s servant and always listened to his every advice. If Alexey would have ever become Tsar it would mean the end of Menshikov, and if Catherine could become a sole empress then Menshikov could rule the country through her. Peter could choose: the forgiving sentence issued by the clergy or the death sentence issued by nobility. Before he could announce his will, however, Alexey died. On 26th of June 1718 it was announced that Alexey died out of sadness, the fact that his sadness killed him in a torture chamber was hidden. 

After Alexey’s death Peter showed his favour to Tolstoy who managed to convince prince to return to Russia and to Afrosina who gave the fatal testimony against her lover. A year later Peter’s son from Catherine whom he wanted to see as heir to Russian throne, died. Thus the only male heir alive was Alexey’s son from Charlotte – Peter III. Understanding the delicate nature of this situation, everyone involved in the death of Prince Alexey have intended to hide the chilling facts from young Peter III. Although in 1722 Peter the Great has changed the laws of succession to the throne, stating that he himself can name anyone he wants as an heir, he did not have time to do so. Dying an agonising death Peter I never named a successor. The lack of a clear heir has resulted in decades of political intrigues and constantly changing monarchs with very different visions of governance. 

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