That which does not kill us makes us stronger. — Nietzsche

Peter the Great - Jacob Abbott




The Princess Sophia

The circumstances under which Peter the Great came to the throne form a very remarkable—indeed, in some respects, quite a romantic story.

The name of his father, who reigned as Emperor of Russia from 1645 to 1676, was Alexis Michaelowitz. In the course of his life, this Emperor Alexis was twice married. By his first wife he had two sons, whose names were Theodore and John, and four daughters. The names of the daughters were Sophia, Catharine, Mary, and Sediassa. By his second wife he had two children—a son and a daughter. The name of the son was Peter, and that of the daughter was Natalia Alexowna. Of all these children, those with whom we have most to do are the two oldest sons, Theodore and John, and the oldest daughter, Sophia, by the first wife; and Peter, the oldest son by the second wife, the hero of this history. The name of the second wife, Peter's mother, was Natalia.

Of course, Theodore, at his father's death, was heir to the throne. Next to him in the line of succession came John; and next after John came Peter, the son of the second wife; for, by the ancient laws and usages of the Muscovite monarchy, the daughters were excluded from the succession altogether. Indeed, not only were the daughters excluded themselves from the throne, but special precautions were taken to prevent their ever having sons to lay claim to it. They were forbidden to marry, and, in order to make it impossible that they should ever violate this rule, they were all placed in convents before they arrived at a marriageable age, and were compelled to pass their lives there in seclusion. Of course, the convents where these princesses were lodged were very richly and splendidly endowed, and the royal inmates enjoyed within the walls every comfort and luxury which could possibly be procured for them in such retreats, and which could tend in any measure to reconcile them to being forever debarred from all the pleasures of love and the sweets of domestic life.

Now it so happened that both Theodore and John were feeble and sickly children, while Peter was robust and strong. The law of descent was, however, inexorable, and, on the death of Alexis, Theodore ascended to the throne. Besides, even if it had been possible to choose among the sons of Alexis, Peter was at this time altogether too young to reign, for at his father's death he was only about four years old. He was born in 1672, and his father died in 1676.

Theodore was at this time about sixteen. Of course, however, being so young, and his health being so infirm, he could not take any active part in the administration of government, but was obliged to leave every thing in the hands of his counselors and ministers of state, who managed affairs as they thought proper, though they acted always in Theodore's name.

There were a great many persons who were ambitious of having a share of the power which the young Czar thus left in the hands of his subordinates; and, among these, perhaps the most ambitious of all was the Princess Sophia, Theodore's sister, who was all this time shut up in the convent to which the rules and regulations of imperial etiquette consigned her. She was very uneasy in this confinement, and wished very much to get released, thinking that if she could do so she should be able to make herself of considerable consequence in the management of public affairs. So she made application to the authorities to be allowed to go to the palace to see and take care of her brother in his sickness. This application was at length complied with, and Sophia went to the palace. Here she devoted herself with so much assiduity to the care of her brother, watching constantly at his bedside, and suffering no one to attend upon him or to give him medicines but herself, that she won not only his heart, but the hearts of all the nobles of the court, by her seemingly disinterested sisterly affection.

Indeed, it is not by any means impossible that Sophia might have been at first disinterested and sincere in her desire to minister to the wants of her brother, and to solace and comfort him in his sickness. But, however this may have been at the outset, the result was that, after a time, she acquired so much popularity and influence that she became quite an important personage at court. She was a very talented and accomplished young woman, and was possessed, moreover, of a strong and masculine character. Yet she was very agreeable and insinuating in her manners; and she conversed so affably, and at the same time so intelligently, with all the grandees of the empire, as they came by turns to visit her brother in his sick chamber, that they all formed a very high estimate of her character.

She also obtained a great ascendency over the mind of Theodore himself, and this, of itself, very much increased her importance in the eyes of the courtiers. They all began to think that, if they wished to obtain any favor of the emperor, it was essential that they should stand well with the princess. Thus every one, finding how fast she was rising in influence, wished to have the credit of being her earliest and most devoted friend; so they all vied with each other in efforts to aid in aggrandizing her.

Things went on in this way very prosperously for a time; but at length, as might have been anticipated, suspicions and jealousies began to arise, and, after a time, the elements of a party opposed to the princess began to be developed. These consisted chiefly of the old nobles of the empire, the heads of the great families who had been accustomed, under the emperors, to wield the chief power of the state. These persons were naturally jealous of the ascendency which they saw that the princess was acquiring, and they began to plot together in order to devise means for restricting or controlling it.

But, besides these nobles, there was another very important power at the imperial court at this time, namely, the army. In all despotic governments, it is necessary for the sovereign to have a powerful military force under his command, to maintain him in his place; and it is necessary for him to keep this force as separate and independent as possible from the people. There was in Russia at this time a very powerful body of troops, which had been organized by the emperors, and was maintained by them as an imperial guard. The name of this body of troops was the Strelitz; but, in order not to encumber the narrative unnecessarily with foreign words, I shall call them simply the Guards.

Of course, a body of troops like these, organized and maintained by a despotic dynasty for the express purpose, in a great measure, of defending the sovereign against his subjects, becomes in time a very important element of power in the state. The officers form a class by themselves, separate from, and jealous of the nobles of the country; and this state of things has often led to very serious collisions and outbreaks. The guards have sometimes proved too strong for the dynasty that created them, and have made their own generals the real monarchs of the country. When such a state of things as this exists, the government which results is called a military despotism. This happened in the days of the Roman empire. The army, which was originally formed by the regular authorities of the country, and kept for a time in strict subjection to them, finally became too powerful to be held any longer under control, and they made their own leading general emperor for many successive reigns, thus wholly subverting the republic which originally organized and maintained them.

It was such a military body as this which now possessed great influence and power at Moscow. The Princess Sophia, knowing how important it would be to her to secure the influence of such a power upon her side, paid great attention to the officers, and omitted nothing in her power which was calculated to increase her popularity with the whole corps. The result was that the Guards became her friends, while a great many of the old nobles were suspicious and jealous of her, and were beginning to devise means to curtail her increasing influence.

But, notwithstanding all that they could do, the influence of Sophia increased continually, until the course of public affairs came to be, in fact, almost entirely under her direction. The chief minister of state was a certain Prince Galitzin, who was almost wholly devoted to her interests. Indeed, it was through her influence that he was appointed to his office. Things continued in this state for about six years, and then, at length, Theodore was taken suddenly sick. It soon became evident that he could not live. On his dying bed he designated Peter as his successor, passing over his brother John. The reason for this was that John was so extremely feeble and infirm that he seemed to be wholly unfit to reign over such an empire. Besides various other maladies under which he suffered, he was afflicted with epilepsy, a disease which rendered it wholly unsuitable that he should assume any burdens whatever of responsibility and care.

It is probable that it was through the influence of some of the nobles who were opposed to Sophia that Theodore was induced thus to designate Peter as his successor. However this may be, Peter, though then only ten years old, was proclaimed emperor by the nobles immediately after Theodore's death. Sophia was much disappointed, and became greatly indignant at these proceedings. John was her own brother, while Peter, being a son of the second wife, was only her half-brother. John, too, on account of his feeble health, would probably never be able to take any charge of the government, and she thought that, if he had been allowed to succeed Theodore, she herself might have retained the real power in her hands, as regent, as long as she lived; whereas Peter promised to have strength and vigor to govern the empire himself in a few years, and, in the mean time, while he remained in his minority, it was natural to expect that he would be under the influence of persons connected with his own branch of the family, who would be hostile to her, and that thus her empire would come to an end.

So she determined to resist the transfer of the supreme power to Peter. She secretly engaged the Guards on her side. The commander-in-chief of the Guards was an officer named Couvansky. He readily acceded to her proposals, and, in conjunction with him, she planned and organized a revolution.

In order to exasperate the people and the Guards, and excite them to the proper pitch of violence, Sophia and Couvansky spread a report that the late emperor had not died a natural death, but had been poisoned. This murder had been committed, they said, by a party who hoped, by setting Theodore and his brother John aside, to get the power into their hands in the name of Peter, whom they intended to make emperor, in violation of the rights of John, Theodore's true heir. There was a plan also formed, they said, to poison all the principal officers of the Guards, who, the conspirators knew, would oppose their wicked proceedings, and perhaps prevent the fulfillment of them if they were not put out of the way. The poison by which Theodore had been put to death was administered, they said, by two physicians who attended upon him in his sickness, and who had been bribed to give him poison with his medicine. The Guards were to have been destroyed by means of poison, which was to have been mixed with the brandy and the beer that was distributed to them on the occasion of the funeral.

These stories produced a great excitement among the Guards, and also among a considerable portion of the people of Moscow. The Guards came out into the streets and around the palaces in great force. They first seized the two physicians who were accused of having poisoned the emperor, and killed them on the spot. Then they took a number of nobles of high rank, and officers of state, who were supposed to be the leaders of the party in favor of Peter, and the instigators of the murder of Theodore, and, dragging them out into the public squares, slew them without mercy. Some they cut to pieces. Others they threw down from the wall of the imperial palace upon the soldiers' pikes below, which the men held up for the purpose of receiving them.

Peter was at this time with his mother in the palace. Natalia was exceedingly alarmed, not for herself, but for her son. As soon as the revolution broke out she made her escape from the palace, and set out with Peter in her arms to fly to a celebrated family retreat of the emperor's, called the Monastery of the Trinity. This monastery was a sort of country palace of the Czar's, which, besides being a pleasant rural retreat, was also, from its religious character, a sanctuary where fugitives seeking refuge in it might, under all ordinary circumstances, feel themselves beyond the reach of violence and of every species of hostile molestation.

Natalia fled with Peter and a few attendants to this refuge, hotly pursued, however, all the way by a body of the Guards. If the fugitives had been overtaken on the way, both mother and son would doubtless have been cut to pieces without mercy. As it was, they very narrowly escaped, for when Natalia arrived at the convent the soldiers were close upon her. Two of them followed her in before the doors could be closed. Natalia rushed into the church, which formed the centre of the convent inclosure, and took refuge with her child at the foot of the altar. The soldiers pursued her there, brandishing their swords, and were apparently on the point of striking the fatal blow; but the sacredness of the place seemed to arrest them at the last moment, and, after pausing an instant with their uplifted swords in their hands, and uttering imprecations against their victims for having thus escaped them, they sullenly retired.

In the mean time the commotion in the city went on, and for several days no one could foresee how it would end. At length a sort of compromise was effected, and it was agreed by the two parties that John should be proclaimed Czar, not alone, but in conjunction with his brother Peter, the regency to remain for the present, as it had been, in the hands of Sophia.

Thus Sophia really gained all her ends; for the retaining of Peter's name, as nominally Czar in conjunction with his brother, was of no consequence, since her party had proved itself the strongest in the struggle, and all the real power remained in her hands. She had obtained this triumph mainly through Couvansky and the Guards; and now, having accomplished her purposes by means of their military violence, she wished, of course, that they should retire to their quarters, and resume their habits of subordination, and of submission to the civil authority. But this they would not do. Couvansky, having found how important a personage he might become through the agency of the terrible organization which was under his direction and control, was not disposed at once to lay aside his power; and the soldiers, intoxicated with the delights of riot and pillage, could not now be easily restrained. Sophia found, as a great many other despotic rulers have done in similar cases, that she had evoked a power which she could not now control. Couvansky and the troops under his command continued their ravages in the city, plundering the rich houses of every thing that could gratify their appetites and passions, and murdering all whom they imagined to belong to the party opposed to them.

Sophia first tried to appease them and reduce them to order by conciliatory measures. From the Monastery of the Trinity, to which she had herself now retreated for safety, she sent a message to Couvansky and to the other chiefs of the army, thanking them for the zeal which they had shown in revenging the death of her brother, the late emperor, and in vindicating the rights of the true successor, John, and promising to remember, and in due time to reward, the great services which they had rendered to the state. She added that, now, since the end which they all had in view in the movement which they had made had been entirely and happily accomplished, the soldiers should be restrained from any farther violence, and recalled to their quarters.

This message had no effect. Indeed, Couvansky, finding how great the power was of the corps which he commanded, began to conceive the idea that he might raise himself to the supreme command. He thought that the Guards were all devoted to him, and would do whatever he required of them. He held secret conferences with the principal officers under his command, and endeavored to prepare their minds for the revolution which he contemplated by representing to them that neither of the princes who had been proclaimed were fit to reign. John, he said, was almost an imbecile, on account of the numerous and hopeless bodily infirmities to which he was subject. Peter was yet a mere boy; and then, besides, even when he should become a man, he would very likely be subject to the same diseases with his brother. These men would never have either the intelligence to appreciate or the power to reward such services as the Guards were capable of tendering to the state; whereas he, their commander, and one of their own body, would be both able and disposed to do them ample justice.

Couvansky also conceived the design of securing and perpetuating the power which he hoped thus to acquire through the army by a marriage of his son with one of the princesses of the imperial family. He selected Catharine, who was Sophia's sister—the one next in age to her—for the intended bride. He cautiously proposed this plan to Sophia, hoping that she might be induced to approve and favor it, in which case he thought that every obstacle would be removed from his way, and the ends of his ambition would be easily and permanently attained.

But Sophia was perfectly indignant at such a proposal. It seemed to her the height of presumption and audacity for a mere general in the army to aspire to a connection by marriage with the imperial family, and to a transfer, in consequence, of the supreme power to himself and to his descendants forever. She resolved immediately to adopt vigorous measures to defeat these schemes in the most effectual manner. She determined to kill Couvansky. But, as the force which he commanded was so great that she could not hope to accomplish any thing by an open contest, she concluded to resort to stratagem. She accordingly pretended to favor Couvansky's plans, and seemed to be revolving in her mind the means of carrying them into effect. Among other things, she soon announced a grand celebration of the Princess Catharine's fête-day, to be held at the Monastery of the Trinity, and invited Couvansky to attend it. Couvansky joyfully accepted this invitation, supposing that the occasion would afford him an admirable opportunity to advance his views in respect to his son.

So Couvansky, accompanied by his son, set out on the appointed day from Moscow to proceed to the monastery. Not suspecting any treachery, he was accompanied by only a small escort. On the road he was waylaid by a body of two hundred horsemen, whom Galitzin, Sophia's minister of state, had sent to the spot. Couvansky's guard was at once overpowered, and both he and his son were taken prisoners. They were hurried at once to a house, where preparations for receiving them had already been made, and there, without any delay, sentence of death against them both, on a charge of treason, was read to them, and their heads were cut off on the spot.

The news of this execution spread with great rapidity, and it produced, of course, an intense excitement and commotion among all the Guards as fast as it became known to them. They threatened vengeance against the government for having thus assassinated, as they expressed it, their chief and father. They soon put themselves in motion, and began murdering, plundering, and destroying more furiously than ever. The violence which they displayed led to a reaction. A party was formed, even among the Guards, of persons that were disposed to discountenance these excesses, and even to submit to the government. The minister Galitzin took advantage of these dissensions to open a communication with those who were disposed to return to their duty. He managed the affair so well that, in the end, the great body of the soldiers were brought over, and, finally, they themselves, of their own accord, slew the officers who had been most active in the revolt, and offered their heads to the minister in token of their submission. They also implored pardon of the government for the violence and excess into which they had been led. Of course, this pardon was readily granted. The places of Couvansky and of the other officers who had been slain were filled by new appointments, who were in the interest of the Princess Sophia, and the whole corps returned to their duty. Order was now soon fully restored in Moscow, rendering it safe for Sophia and her court to leave the monastery and return to the royal palace in the town. Galitzin was promoted to a higher office, and invested with more extended powers than he had yet held, and Sophia found herself finally established as the real sovereign of the country, though, of course, she reigned in the name of her brothers.