Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to
the tempestuous sea of liberty. — Thomas Jefferson

Peter the Great - Jacob Abbott




The Prince Alexis

The reader will perhaps recollect that Peter had a son by his first wife, an account of whose birth was given in the first part of this volume. The name of this son was Alexis, and he was destined to become the hero of a most dreadful tragedy. The narrative of it forms a very dark and melancholy chapter in the history of his father's reign.

Alexis was born in the year 1690. In the early part of his life his father took great interest in him, and made him the centre of a great many ambitious hopes and projects. Of course, he expected that Alexis would be his successor on the imperial throne, and he took great interest in qualifying him for the duties that would devolve upon him in that exalted station. While he was a child his father was proud of him as his son and heir, and as he grew up he hoped that he would inherit his own ambition and energy, and he took great pains to inspire him with the lofty sentiments appropriate to his position, and to train him to a knowledge of the art of war.

But Alexis had no taste for these things, and his father could not, in any possible way, induce him to take any interest in them whatever. He was idle and spiritless, and nothing could arouse him to make any exertion. He spent his time in indolence and in vicious indulgences. These habits had the effect of undermining his health, and increasing more and more his distaste for the duties which his father wished him to perform.

The Czar tried every possible means to produce a change in the character of his son, and to awaken in him something like an honorable ambition. To this end he took Alexis with him in his journeys to foreign countries, and introduced him to the reigning princes of eastern Europe, showed him their capitals, explained to him the various military systems which were adopted by the different powers, and made him acquainted with the principal personages in their courts. But all was of no avail. Alexis could not be aroused to take an interest in any thing but idle indulgences and vice.

At length, when Alexis was about twenty years of age, that is, in the year 1710, his father conceived the idea of trying the effect of marriage upon him. So he directed his son to make choice of a wife. It is not improbable that he himself really selected the lady. At any rate, he controlled the selection, for Alexis was quite indifferent in respect to the affair, and only acceded to the plan in obedience to his father's commands.

The lady chosen for the bride was a Polish princess, named Charlotta Christina Sophia, Princess of Wolfenbuttel, and a marriage contract, binding the parties to each other, was executed with all due formality.

Two years after this marriage contract was formed the marriage was celebrated. Alexis was then about twenty-two years of age, and the princess eighteen. The wedding, however, was by no means a joyful one. Alexis had not improved in character since he had been betrothed, and his father continued to be very much displeased with him. Peter was at one time so angry as to threaten that, if his son did not reform his evil habits, and begin to show some interest in the performance of his duties, he would have his head shaved and send him to a convent, and so make a monk of him.

How far the princess herself was acquainted with the facts in respect to the character of her husband it is impossible to say, but every body else knew them very well. The emperor was in very bad humor. The princess's father wished to arrange for a magnificent wedding, but the Czar would not permit it. The ceremony was accordingly performed in a very quiet and unostentatious way, in one of the provincial towns of Poland, and after it was over Alexis went home with his bride to her paternal domains.

The marriage of Alexis to the Polish princess took place the year before his father's public marriage with his second wife, the Empress Catharine.

As Peter had anticipated, the promises of reform which Alexis had made on the occasion of his marriage failed totally of accomplishment. After remaining a short time in Poland with his wife, conducting himself there tolerably well, he set out on his return to Russia, taking his wife with him. But no sooner had he got back among his old associates than he returned to his evil ways, and soon began to treat his wife with the greatest neglect and even cruelty. He provided a separate suite of apartments for her in one end of the palace, while he himself occupied the other end, where he could be at liberty to do what he pleased without restraint. Sometimes a week would elapse without his seeing his wife at all. He purchased a small slave, named Afrosinia, and brought her into his part of the palace, and lived with her there in the most shameless manner, while his neglected wife, far from all her friends, alone, and almost broken-hearted, spent her time in bitterly lamenting her hard fate, and gradually wearing away her life in sorrow and tears.

She was not even properly provided with the necessary comforts of life. Her rooms were neglected, and suffered to go out of repair. The roof let in the rain, and the cold wind in the winter penetrated through the ill-fitted windows and doors. Alexis paid no heed to these things; but, leaving his wife to suffer, spent his time in drinking and carousing with Afrosinia and his other companions in vice.

During all this time the attention of the Czar was so much engaged with the affairs of the empire that he could not interfere efficiently. Sometimes he would upbraid Alexis for his undutiful and wicked behavior, and threaten him severely; but the only effect of his remonstrances would be to cause Alexis to go into the apartment of his wife as soon as his father had left him, and assail her in the most abusive manner, overwhelming her with rude and violent reproaches for having, as he said, made complaints to his father, or "told tales," as he called it, and so having occasioned his father to find fault with him. This the princess would deny. She would solemnly declare that she had not made any complaints whatever. Alexis, however, would not believe her, but would repeat his denunciations, and then go away in a rage.

This state of things continued for three or four years. During that time the princess had one child, a daughter; and at length the time arrived when she was to give birth to a son; but even the approach of such a time of trial did not awaken any feeling of kind regard or compassion on the part of her husband. His neglect still continued. No suitable arrangements were made for the princess, and she received no proper attention during her confinement. The consequence was, that, in a few days after the birth of the child, fever set in, and the princess sank so rapidly under it that her life was soon despaired of.

When she found that she was about to die, she asked that the Czar might be sent for to come and see her. Peter was sick at this time, and almost confined to his bed; but still—let it be remembered to his honor—he would not refuse this request. A bed, or litter, was placed for him on a sort of truck, and in this manner he was conveyed to the palace where the princess was lying. She thanked him very earnestly for coming to see her, and then begged to commit her children, and the servants who had come with her from her native land, and who had remained faithful to her through all her trials, to his protection and care. She kissed her children, and took leave of them in the most affecting manner, and then placed them in the arms of the Czar. The Czar received them very kindly. He then bade the mother farewell, and went away, taking the children with him.

All this time, the room in which the princess was lying, the antechamber, and all the approaches to the apartment, were filled with the servants and friends of the princess, who mourned her unhappy fate so deeply that they were unable to control their grief. They kneeled or lay prostrate on the ground, and offered unceasing petitions to heaven to save the life of their mistress, mingling their prayers with tears, and sobs, and bitter lamentations.

The physicians endeavored to persuade the princess to take some medicines which they had brought, but she threw the phials away behind the bed, begging the physicians not to torment her any more, but to let her die in peace, as she had no wish to live.

She lingered after this a few days, spending most of her time in prayer, and then died.

At the time of her death the princess was not much over twenty years of age. Her sad and sorrowful fate shows us once more what unfortunately we too often see exemplified, that something besides high worldly position in a husband is necessary to enable the bride to look forward with any degree of confidence to her prospects of happiness when receiving the congratulations of her friends on her wedding-day.

The death of his wife produced no good effect upon the mind of Alexis. At the funeral, the Czar his father addressed him in a very stern and severe manner in respect to his evil ways, and declared to him positively that, if he did not at once reform and thenceforth lead a life more in conformity with his position and his obligations, he would cut him off from the inheritance to the crown; even if it should be necessary, on that account, to call in some stranger to be his heir.

The communication which the Czar made to his son on this occasion was in writing, and the terms in which it was expressed were very severe. It commenced by reciting at length the long and fruitless efforts which the Czar had made to awaken something like an honorable ambition in the mind of his son, and to lead him to reform his habits, and concluded, substantially, as follows:

"How often have I reproached you with the obstinacy of your temper and the perverseness of your disposition! How often, even, have I corrected you for them! And now, for how many years have I desisted from speaking any longer of them! But all has been to no purpose. My reproofs have been fruitless. I have only lost my time and beaten the air. You do not so much as strive to grow better, and all your satisfaction seems to consist in laziness and inactivity.

"Having, therefore, considered all these things, and fully reflected upon them, as I see I have not been able to engage you by any motives to do as you ought, I have come to the conclusion to lay before you, in writing, this my last determination, resolving, however, to wait still a little longer before I come to a final execution of my purpose, in order to give you one more trial to see whether you will amend or no. If you do not, I am fully resolved to cut you off from the succession.

"Do not think that because I have no other son I will not really do this, but only say it to frighten you. You may rely upon it that I will certainly do what I say; for, as I spare not my own life for the good of my country and the safety of my people, why should I spare you, who will not take the pains to make yourself worthy of them? I shall much prefer to transmit this trust to some worthy stranger than to an unworthy son.

"(Signed with his majesty's own hand),

"PETER."

The reader will observe, from the phraseology of these concluding paragraphs, what is made still more evident by the perusal of the whole letter, that the great ground of Peter's complaint against his son was not his immorality and wickedness, but his idleness and inefficiency. If he had shown himself an active and spirited young man, full of military ardor, and of ambition to rule, he might probably, in his private life, have been as vicious and depraved as he pleased without exciting his father's displeasure. But Peter was himself so full of ambition and energy, and he had formed, moreover, such vast plans for the aggrandizement of the empire, many of which could only be commenced during his lifetime, and must depend for their full accomplishment on the vigor and talent of his successor, that he had set his heart very strongly on making his son one of the first military men of the age; and he now lost all patience with him when he saw him stupidly neglecting the glorious opportunity before him, and throwing away all his advantages, in order to spend his time in ease and indulgence, thus thwarting and threatening to render abortive some of his father's favorite and most far-reaching plans.

The excuse which Alexis made for his conduct was the same which bad boys often offer for idleness and delinquency, namely, his ill health. His answer to his father's letter was as follows. It was not written until two or three weeks after his father's letter was received, and in that interim a son was born to the Empress Catharine, as related in the last chapter. It is to this infant son that Alexis alludes in his letter:

"MY CLEMENT LORD AND FATHER,—

"I have read the writing your majesty gave me on the 27th of October, 1715, after the interment of my late spouse.

"I have nothing to reply to it but that if it is your majesty's pleasure to deprive me of the crown of Russia by reason of my inability—your will be done. I even earnestly request it at your majesty's hands, as I do not think myself fit for the government. My memory is much weakened, and without it there is no possibility of managing affairs. My mind and body are much decayed by the distempers to which I have been subject, which renders me incapable of governing so many people, who must necessarily require a more vigorous man at their head than I am.

"For which reason I should not aspire to the succession of the crown of Russia after you—whom God long preserve—even though I had no brother, as I have at present, whom I pray God also to preserve. Nor will I ever hereafter lay claim to the succession, as I call God to witness by a solemn oath, in confirmation whereof I write and sign this letter with my own hand.

"I give my children into your hands, and, for my part, desire no more than a bare maintenance so long as I live, leaving all the rest to your consideration and good pleasure.

"Your most humble servant and son,

"ALEXIS."

The Czar did not immediately make any rejoinder to the foregoing communication from his son. During the fall and winter months of that year he was much occupied with public affairs, and his health, moreover, was quite infirm. At length, however, about the middle of June, he wrote to his son as follows:

"MY SON,—As my illness hath hitherto prevented me from letting you know the resolutions I have taken with reference to the answer you returned to my former letter, I now send you my reply. I observe that you there speak of the succession as though I had need of your consent to do in that respect what absolutely depends on my own will. But whence comes it that you make no mention of your voluntary indolence and inefficiency, and the aversion you constantly express to public affairs, which I spoke of in a more particular manner than of your ill health, though the latter is the only thing you take notice of? I also expressed my dissatisfaction with your whole conduct and mode of life for some years past. But of this you are wholly silent, though I strongly insisted upon it.

"From these things I judge that my fatherly exhortations make no impression upon you. For this reason I have determined to write this letter to you, and it shall be the last.

"I don't find that you make any acknowledgment of the obligation you owe to your father who gave you life. Have you assisted him, since you came to maturity of years, in his labors and pains? No, certainly. The world knows that you have not. On the other hand, you blame and abhor whatever of good I have been able to do at the expense of my health, for the love I have borne to my people, and for their advantage, and I have all imaginable reason to believe that you will destroy it all in case you should survive me.

"I can not let you continue in this way. Either change your conduct, and labor to make yourself worthy of the succession, or else take upon you the monastic vow. I can not rest satisfied with your present behavior, especially as I find that my health is declining. As soon, therefore, as you shall have received this my letter, let me have your answer in writing, or give it to me yourself in person. If you do not, I shall at once proceed against you as a malefactor. (Signed)

"PETER."

To this communication Alexis the next day returned the following reply:

"MOST CLEMENT LORD AND FATHER,—

"I received yesterday in the morning your letter of the 19th of this month. My indisposition will not allow me to write a long answer. I shall enter upon a monastic life, and beg your gracious consent for so doing.

"Your most humble servant and son,

"ALEXIS."

There is no doubt that there was some good ground for the complaints which Alexis made with respect to his health. His original constitution was not vigorous, and he had greatly impaired both his mental and physical powers by his vicious indulgences. Still, his excusing himself so much on this ground was chiefly a pretense, his object being to gain time, and prevent his father from coming to any positive decision, in order that he might continue his life of indolence and vice a little longer undisturbed. Indeed, it was said that the incapacity to attend to the studies and perform the duties which his father required of him was mainly due to his continual drunkenness, which kept him all the time in a sort of brutal stupor.

Nor was the fault wholly on his side. His father was very harsh and severe in his treatment of him, and perhaps, in the beginning, made too little allowance for the feebleness of his constitution. Neither of the two were sincere in what they said about Alexis becoming a monk. Peter, in threatening to send him to a monastery, only meant to frighten him; and Alexis, in saying that be wished to go, intended only to circumvent his father, and save himself from being molested by him any more. He knew very well that his becoming a monk would be the last thing that his father would really desire.

Besides, Alexis was surrounded by a number of companions and advisers, most of them lewd and dissolute fellows like himself, but among them were some much more cunning and far-sighted than he, and it was under their advice that he acted in all the measures that he took, and in every thing that he said and did in the course of this quarrel with his father. Among these men were several priests, who, like the rest, though priests, were vile and dissolute men. These priests, and Alexis's other advisers, told him that he was perfectly safe in pretending to accede to his father's plan to send him to a monastery, for his father would never think of such a thing as putting the threat in execution. Besides, if he did, it would do no harm; for the vows that he would take, though so utterly irrevocable in the case of common men, would all cease to be of force in his case, in the event of his father's death, and his succeeding to the throne. And, in the mean time, he could go on, they said, taking his ease and pleasure, and living as he had always done.

Many of the persons who thus took sides with Alexis, and encouraged him in his opposition to his father, had very deep designs in so doing. They were of the party who opposed the improvements and innovations which Peter had introduced, and who had in former times made the Princess Sophia their head and rallying-point in their opposition to Peter's policy. It almost always happens thus, that when, in a monarchical country, there is a party opposed to the policy which the sovereign pursues, the disaffected persons endeavor, if possible, to find a head, or leader, in some member of the royal family itself, and if they can gain to their side the one next in succession to the crown, so much the better. To this end it is for their interest to foment a quarrel in the royal family, or, if the germ of a quarrel appears, arising from some domestic or other cause, to widen the breach as much as possible, and avail themselves of the dissension to secure the name and the influence of the prince or princess thus alienated from the king as their rallying-point and centre of action.

This was just the case in the present instance. The old Muscovite party, as it was called, that is, the party opposed to the reforms and changes which Peter had made, and to the foreign influences which he had introduced into the realm, gathered around Alexis. Some of them, it was said, began secretly to form conspiracies for deposing Peter, raising Alexis nominally to the throne, and restoring the old order of things. Peter knew all this, and the fears which these rumors excited in his mind greatly increased his anxiety in respect to the course which Alexis was pursuing and the exasperation which he felt against his son. Indeed, there was reason to believe that Alexis himself, so far as he had any political opinions, had adopted the views of the malcontents. It was natural that he should do so, for the old order of things was much better adapted to the wishes and desires of a selfish and dissolute despot, who only valued his exaltation and power for the means of unlimited indulgence in sensuality and vice which they afforded. It was this supposed bias of Alexis's mind against his father's policy of reform that Peter referred to in his letter when he spoke of Alexis's desire to thwart him in his measures and undo all that he had done.

When he received Alexis's letter informing him that he was ready to enter upon the monastic life whenever his father pleased, Peter was for a time at a loss what to do. He had no intention of taking Alexis at his word, for in threatening to make a monk of him he had only meant to frighten him. For a time, therefore, after receiving this reply, he did nothing, but only vented his anger in useless imprecations and mutterings.

Peter was engaged at this time in very important public affairs arising out of the wars in which he was engaged with some foreign nations, and important negotiations which were going on with others. Not long after receiving the short letter from Alexis last cited, he was called upon to leave Russia for a time, to make a journey into central Europe. Before he went away he called to see Alexis, in order to bid him adieu, and to state to him once more what he called his final determination.

Alexis, when he heard that his father was coming, got into his bed, and received him in that way, as if he were really quite sick.

Peter asked him what conclusion he had come to. Alexis replied, as before, that he wished to enter a monastery, and that he was ready to do so at any time. His father remonstrated with him long and earnestly against this resolution. He represented in strong terms the folly of a young man like himself, in the prime of his years, and with such prospects before him, abandoning every thing, and shutting himself up all his days to the gloomy austerities of a monastic life; and he endeavored to convince him how much better it would be for him to change his course of conduct, to enter vigorously upon the fulfillment of his duties as a son and as a prince, and prepare himself for the glorious destiny which awaited him on the Russian throne.

Finally, the Czar said that he would give him six months longer to consider of it, and then, bidding him farewell, went away.

As soon as he was gone Alexis rose from his bed, and went away to an entertainment with some of his companions. He doubtless amused them during the carousal by relating to them what had taken place during the interview with his father, and how earnestly the Czar had argued against his doing what he had begun originally with threatening to make him do.

The Czar's business called him to Copenhagen. While there he received one or two letters from Alexis, but there was nothing in them to denote any change in his intentions, and, finally, toward the end of the summer, the Czar wrote him again in the following very severe and decided manner:

"Copenhagen, Aug. 26th, 1716.

"MY SON,—Your first letter of the 29th of June, and your next of the 30th of July, were brought to me. As in them you speak only of the condition of your health, I send you the present letter to tell you that I demanded of you your resolution upon the affair of the succession when I bade you farewell. You then answered me, in your usual manner, that you judged yourself incapable of it by reason of your infirmities, and that you should choose rather to retire into a convent. I bade you seriously consider of it again, and then send me the resolution you should take. I have expected it for these seven months, and yet have heard nothing of you concerning it. You have had time enough for consideration, and, therefore, as soon as you shall receive my letter, resolve on one side or on the other.

"If you determine to apply yourself to your duties, and qualify yourself for the succession, I wish you to leave Petersburg and to come to me here within a week, so as to be here in time to be present at the opening of the campaign; but if, on the other hand, you resolve upon the monastic life, let me know when, where, and on what day  you will execute your resolution, so that my mind may be at rest, and that I may know what to expect of you. Send me back your final answer by the same courier that shall bring you my letter.

"Be particular to let me know the day when you will set out from Petersburg, if you conclude to come to me, and, if not, precisely when you will perform your vow. I again tell you that I absolutely insist that you shall determine upon something, otherwise I shall conclude that you are only seeking to gain time in order that you may spend it in your customary laziness.

"PETER."

When we consider that Alexis was at this time a man nearly thirty years of age, and himself the father of a family, we can easily imagine that language like this was more adapted to exasperate him and make him worse than to win him to his duty. He was, in fact, driven to a species of desperation by it, and he so far aroused himself from his usual indolence and stupidity as to form a plan, in connection with some of his evil advisers, to make his escape from his father's control entirely by secretly absconding from the country, and seeking a retreat under the protection of some foreign power. The manner in which he executed this scheme, and the consequences which finally resulted from it, will be related in the next chapter.