If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. — Thomas Jefferson

Peter the Great - Jacob Abbott




The Trial

As soon as Alexis arrived in the country, his father issued a manifesto, in which he gave a long and full account of his son's misdemeanors and crimes, and of the patient and persevering, but fruitless efforts which he himself had made to reclaim him, and announced his determination to cut him off from the succession to the crown as wholly and hopelessly irreclaimable. This manifesto was one of the most remarkable documents that history records. It concluded with deposing Alexis from all his rights as son and heir to his father, and appointing his younger brother Peter, the little son of Catharine, as inheritor in his stead; and finally laying the paternal curse upon Alexis if he ever thereafter pretended to, or in any way claimed the succession of which he had been deprived.

This manifesto was issued as soon as Peter learned that Alexis had arrived in the country under the charge of the officers who had been appointed to bring him, and before the Czar had seen him. Alexis continued his journey to Moscow, where the Czar then was. When he arrived he went that same night to the palace, and there had a long conference with his father. He was greatly alarmed and overawed by the anger which his father expressed, and he endeavored very earnestly, by expressions of penitence and promises of amendment to appease him. But it was now too late. The ire of the Czar was thoroughly aroused, and he could not be appeased. He declared that he was fully resolved on deposing his son, as he had announced in his manifesto, and that the necessary steps for making the act of deposition in a formal and solemn manner, so as to give it full legal validity as a measure of state, would be taken on the following day.

It must be confessed that the agitation and anger which Peter now manifested were not wholly without excuse, for the course which Alexis had pursued had been the means of exposing his father to a great and terrible danger—to that, namely, of a rebellion among his subjects. Peter did not even know but that such a rebellion was already planned and was ripe for execution, and that it might not break out at any time, notwithstanding his having succeeded in recovering possession of the person of Alexis, and in bringing him home. Of such a rebellion, if one had been planned, the name of Alexis would have been, of course, the watchword and rallying-point, and Peter had a great deal of ground for apprehension that such a one had been extensively organized and was ready to be carried into effect. He immediately set himself at work to ferret out the whole affair, resolving, however, in the first place, to disable Alexis himself from doing any farther mischief by destroying finally and forever all claims on his part to the inheritance of the crown.

Accordingly, on the following morning, before daybreak, the garrison of the city were put under arms, and a regiment of the Guards was posted around the palace, so as to secure all the gates and avenues; and orders were sent, at the same time, to the principal ministers, nobles, and counselors of state, to repair to the great hall in the castle, and to the bishops and clergy to assemble in the Cathedral. Every body knew that the occasion on which they were convened was that they might witness the disinheriting of the prince imperial by his father, in consequence of his vices and crimes; and in coming together in obedience to the summons, the minds of all men were filled with solemn awe, like those of men assembling to witness an execution.

When the appointed hour arrived the great bell was tolled, and Alexis was brought into the hall of the castle, where the nobles were assembled, bound as a prisoner, and deprived of his sword. The Czar himself stood at the upper end of the hail, surrounded by the chief officers of state. Alexis was brought before him. As he approached he presented a writing to his father, and then fell down on his knees before him, apparently overwhelmed with grief and shame.

The Czar handed the paper to one of his officers who stood near, and then asked Alexis what it was that he desired. Alexis, in reply, begged that his father would have mercy upon him and spare his life. The Czar said that he would spare his life, and forgive him for all his treasonable and rebellious acts, on condition that he would make a full and complete confession, without any restriction or reserve, of every thing connected with his late escape from the country, explaining fully all the details of the plan which he had formed, and reveal the names of all his advisers and accomplices. But if his confession was not full and complete—if he suppressed or concealed any thing, or the name of any person concerned in the affair or privy to it, then this promise of pardon should be null and void.

The Czar also said that Alexis must renounce the succession to the crown, and must confirm the renunciation by a solemn oath, and acknowledge it by signing a declaration, in writing, to that effect with his own hand. To all this, Alexis, who seemed overwhelmed with contrition and anguish, solemnly agreed, and declared that he was ready to make a full and complete confession.

The Czar then asked his son who it was that advised him and aided him in his late escape from the kingdom. Alexis seemed unwilling to reply to this question in the midst of such an assemblage, but said something to his father in a low voice, which the others could not hear. In consequence of what he thus said his father took him into an adjoining room, and there conversed with him in private for a few minutes, and then both returned together into the public hall. It is supposed that while they were thus apart Alexis gave his father the names of some of those who had aided and abetted him in his absconding, for immediately afterward three couriers were dispatched in three different directions, as if with orders to arrest the persons who were thus accused.

As soon as Alexis and his father had returned into the hall, the document was produced which the prince was to sign, renouncing the succession to the crown. The signature and seal of Alexis were affixed to this document with all due formality. Then a declaration was made on the part of the Czar, stating the reasons which had induced his majesty to depose his eldest son from the succession, and to appoint his younger son, Peter, in his place. This being done, all the officers present were required to make a solemn oath on the Gospels, and to sign a written declaration, of which several copies had previously been prepared, importing that the Czar, having excluded from the crown his son Alexis, and appointed his son Peter his successor in his stead, they owned the legality and binding force of the decree, acknowledged Peter as the true and rightful heir, and bound themselves to stand by him with their lives against any or all who should oppose him, and declared that they never would, under any pretense whatsoever, adhere to Alexis, or assist him in recovering the succession.

The whole company then repaired to the Cathedral, where the bishops and other ecclesiastics were assembled, and there the whole body of the clergy solemnly took the same oath and subscribed the same declaration. The same oath was also afterward administered to all the officers of the army, governors of the provinces, and other public functionaries throughout the empire.

When these ceremonies at the palace and at the Cathedral were concluded, the company dispersed. Alexis was placed in confinement in one of the palaces in Moscow, and none were allowed to have access to him except those whom the Czar appointed to keep him in charge.

Immediately after this the necessary proceedings for a full investigation of the whole affair were commenced in a formal and solemn manner. A series of questions were drawn up and given to Alexis, that he might make out deliberate answers to them in writing. Grand courts of investigation and inquiry were convened in Moscow, the great dignitaries both of Church and state being summoned from all parts of the empire to attend them. These persons came to the capital in great state, and, in going to and fro to attend at the halls of judgment from day to day, they moved through the streets with such a degree of pomp and parade as to attract great crowds of spectators. As fast as the names were discovered of persons who were implicated in Alexis's escape, or who were suspected of complicity in it, officers were dispatched to arrest them. Some were taken from their beds at midnight, without a moment's warning, and shut up in dungeons in a great fortress at Moscow. When questioned, if they seemed inclined to return evasive answers, or to withhold any information of which the judges thought they were possessed, they were taken into the torturing-room and put to the torture.

One of the first who was arrested was Alexander Kikin, who had been Alexis's chief confidant and adviser in all his proceedings. Kikin had taken extreme precautions to guard against having his agency in the affair found out; but Alexis, in the answers that he gave to the first series of questions that were put to him, betrayed him. Kikin was aware of the danger, and, in order to secure for himself some chance of escape in case Alexis should make disclosures implicating him, had bribed a page, who was always in close attendance upon the Czar, to let him know immediately in case of any movement to arrest him.

The name of this page was Baklanoffsky. He was in the apartment at the time that the Czar was writing the order for Kikin's arrest, standing, as was his wont, behind the chair of the Czar, so as to be ready at hand to convey messages, or to wait upon his master. He looked over, and saw the order which the Czar was writing. He immediately contrived some excuse to leave the apartment, and hurrying away, he went to the post-house and sent off an express by post to Kikin at Petersburg to warn him of the danger.

But the Czar, noticing his absence, sent some one off after him, and thus his errand at the post-house was discovered, but not until after the express had gone. Another express was immediately sent off with the order for Kikin's arrest, and both the couriers arrived in Petersburg very nearly at the same time. The one, however, who brought the warning was a little too late. When he arrived the house of the commissioner was surrounded by a guard of fifty grenadiers, and officers were then in Kikin's apartment taking him out of his bed. They put him at once in irons and took him away, scarcely allowing him time to bid his wife farewell.

The page was, of course, arrested and sent to prison too. A number of other persons, many of whom were of very high rank, were arrested in a similar manner.

The arrival of Alexis at Moscow took place early in February, and nearly all of February and March were occupied with these arrests and the proceedings of the court in trying the prisoners. At length, toward the end of March, a considerable number, Kikin himself being among them, were condemned to death, and executed in the most dreadful manner in a great public square in the centre of Moscow. One was impaled alive; that is, a great stake was driven through his body into the ground, and he was left in that situation to die. Others were broken on the wheel. One, a bishop, was burnt. The heads of the principal offenders were afterward cut off and set up on poles at the four corners of a square inclosure made for the purpose, the impaled body lying in the middle.

The page who had been bribed by Kikin was not put to death. His life was spared, perhaps on account of his youth, but he was very severely punished by scourging.

During all this time Alexis continued to be confined to his prison, and he was subjected to repeated examinations and cross-examinations, in order to draw from him not only the whole truth in respect to his own motives and designs in his flight, but also such information as might lead to the full development of the plans and designs of the party in Russia who were opposed to the government of Peter, and who had designed to make use of the name and position of Alexis for the accomplishment of their schemes. Alexis had promised to make a full and complete confession, but he did not do so. In the answers to the series of questions which were first addressed to him, he confessed as much as he thought was already known, and endeavored to conceal the rest. In a short time, however, many things that he had at first denied or evaded were fully proved by other testimony taken in the trial of the prisoners who have already been referred to. Then Alexis was charged with the omissions or evasions in his confession which had thus been made to appear, and asked for an explanation, and thereupon he made new confessions, acknowledging the newly-discovered facts, and excusing himself for not having mentioned them before by saying that he had forgotten them, or else that he was afraid to divulge them for fear of injuring the persons that would be implicated by them. Thus he went on contradicting and involving himself more and more by every fresh confession, until, at last, his father, and all the judges who had convened to investigate the case, ceased to place any confidence in any thing that he said, and lost almost all sympathy for him in his distress.

The examination was protracted through many months. The result of it, on the whole, was, that it was fully proved that there was a powerful party in Russia opposed to the reforms and improvements of the Czar, and particularly to the introduction of the European civilization into the country, who were desirous of effecting a revolution, and who wished to avail themselves of the quarrel between Alexis and his father to promote their schemes. Alexis was too much stupefied by his continual drunkenness to take any very active or intelligent part in these schemes, but he was more or less distinctly aware of them; and in the offers which he had made to enter a monastery and renounce all claims to the crown he had been utterly insincere, his only object having been to blind his father by means of them and gain time. He acknowledged that he had hated his father, and had wished for his death, and when he fled to Vienna it was his intention to remain until he could return and take possession of the empire in his father's place. He, however, solemnly declared that it was never his intention to take any steps himself toward that end during his father's lifetime, though he admitted, at last, when the fact had been pretty well proved against him by other evidence, that, in case an insurrection in his behalf had broken out in Russia, and he had been called upon, he should have joined the rebels.

A great deal of information, throwing light upon the plans of Alexis and of the conspirators in Russia connected with him, was obtained from the disclosures made by Afrosinia. As has already been stated, she had been taken by Alexis as a slave, and forced, against her will, to join herself to him and to follow his fortunes. He had never admitted her into his confidence, but had induced her, from time to time, to act as he desired by telling her any falsehood which would serve the purpose. She consequently was not bound to him by any ties of honor or affection, and felt herself at liberty to answer freely all questions which were put to her by the judges. Her testimony was of great value in many points, and contributed very essentially toward elucidating the whole affair.