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Why Peter the Great Killed his Son
Peter the Great and Son
Why Peter the Great killed his Son
Peter the Great killed his son. Why he did this is not well understood by westerners. He is thought to be cold blooded or even insane.
This was true of Ivan the Terrible who also killed a beloved son Ivan. He had a fit of anger and struck him with his iron cane plunging Russia into the Time of Troubles. Excavating his grave we now know that Ivan the Terrible had rheumatoid arthritis and the 'cure', liquid mercury, was making him insane.
But this death was very different. It involved the approval of the Senate, many of whom like Alexei, and a trial.
How did this happen? Peter was a harsh judge but very forgiving. When given time he was nothing if not rational. He became very angry and violent, some say this was the result of acute encephalitis when he was young which had left him with epilepsy. But after he was calm, he was even able to overlook assassination attempts.
Peter had a bad relationship with his son which had been going on for over ten years. In this he was not innocent. Peter had little patience. He ignored Alexei as a child, and he divorced the child's mother giving her boy, his heir to be raised by his aunt Natalya.
When he became a teenager Peter began to raise the son who he did not know, expecting him to be his carbon copy. He took Alexis to the battlefields and gave him military tasks, such as recruiting soldiers and building up the defenses of Moscow.
At first the 13 year old Alexei tried to please his father even though these were contrary to his nature. Peter thought these were to increase with time until he could shoulder the burdens of ruling. But Alexei hated the military, was interested in religion not war and had tuberculosis so he was chronically tired.
Then Alexei began to drink and became completely worthless. He was sent to Germany to learn how to build fortifications. He surrounded himself with priests, read religious books, drank way to much; and when forced to show his father what he had learned, tried to blow off his hand.
Peter's relations with his son deteriorated. He was told of the attempt and became so disgusted he told his son he would ask no more of him and for two years did not.
The enemies of Russia were watching. The King of Sweden made plans to put Alexis on the throne. Charles XII said, “I will avenge myself on Peter and replace him with Alexei. A man who is ruled by the Church is no threat to me.”
The King of Austria sent a secret message to Alexei telling him if he led a rebellion against his father he would have his support.
Peter did not know what to do. As early as 1715 Peter had told the Danish ambassador that the laws of succession were not going to be respected at the price of seeing his life work be for nothing.
“...a prince who has ...exposed his life 100 times, sacrificed his health, and brought...his affairs to such a point as to make... his state respected and feared by all his neighbors would be absolutely obliged to...pass the fruits of his labors into the hand of a fool [who] would begin the destruction of them.... The monasteries are the right place to house weak princes and to cover up their stupidity but the throne is not their business.”
Alexei was now 25 year and failing at everything, including his marriage which was infamously bad.
Peter wrote Alexei “You do nothing, nor judge of anything, but by the eye and help of others...all your pleasure seems to consist in staying idle and lazy at home. …. Change therefore your conduct, and either strive to render your self worthy of the succession , or turn Monk.”
Alexei wrote he would embrace the monastical state. Peter had a fit. Then he told him he would wait for half a year while he considered the matter.That was the last time the two were to speak in a civil way and the last time Alexei was ever to have such a choice. Peter left for Germany and then Denmark.
Alexei had a banquet in to celebrate the departure of his father.
The six months were up. Peter wrote to him: “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.”
Alexei had good reason to be afraid at this point. Jacob Dolgorukis, part of Peter's inner circle, sent him news that a bad reception awaited him if he went to see his father. Alexander Kikin, the adviser who had tried to kill Peter and been forgiven, told him he had heard rumors that Peter planned to put him on the front lines to make sure he was killed. There was also a rumor that should Alexei go to a monastery, one had been picked out in Tver that was very severe.
Eudoxia, his mother, and Alexei both believed in visions. Dozitheus the Bishop of Rostov had a revelation from St. Demetrius that Peter would not live longer than three months. It was wishful thinking as the Tzar lived another seven years. Then Eudoxia had a vision that Alexei was Tzar.
Alexei later said Peter was in bad health at 45 and an epileptic, so it was not beyond reason that his father would die suddenly.
Kikin persuaded him to leave. “If you flee to Austria you can return when we ask for you. If caught make your escape in the nighttime alone..... If his men find you, flee in the night on horseback. If he sends his men for you, don’t believe anything they say. Your father will kill you if you return.”
Alexei left St. Petersburg on September 26th 1716. He traveled under the name of Lieutenant Colonel Kokhansky disguised as a Polish aristocrat. He arrived at Vienna on November 10, 1716.
If Charles VI of Austria was thinking of helping him take Moscow, Von Schönborn his Vice-Chancellor meeting Alexei wrote Charles VI. "You should not think Alexei is intelligent enough or courageous enough to lead a rebellion against his father."
So the Emperor sent Alexei and his girlfriend to the Ehrenberg Castle, where they lived for five months. Abraham Veselovsky the Russian ambassador and Alexander Ivanovich Rumyantsov were assigned to find Alexei. They bribed a member of the Imperial Chancery, a clerk.
Charles VI found out. Alexei and Afrosina his girlfriend were moved to Naples on April 15th. Abraham Veselovsky and Alexander Rumyantsov followed the entourage and found their new location in Italy in Castle Nuova. Alexei stayed there for another 5 months before he was contacted.
By then Peter was furious and sent a message to Charles VI. “Remember the vulnerability of Bohemia and Silesia.” Peter was not bluffing. He was ready to invade with 40,000 men.Count Peter Tolstoy confronted Alexei with a letter from Peter stating “I promise to God and his Judgment, that I will not punish you, and if you submit to my Will by obeying me....”
When this was not sufficient, Tolstoy said the Viceroy would not offer protection for him if he stayed with Afrosina. This was a lie.Tolstoy and Rumyanstov were told by Peter to say what was needed to gain his cooperation. After three sessions Alexei gave in, saying he wanted assurances they could live together on a distant estate and in return he would give up the succession. Alexei arrived alone in Moscow on February 2nd. Afrosina stayed behind with her brother Jouni. Even Vasily Dolgorukis, a well known opponent of reform, said, “Have you heard that fool of a Tzarevitch is coming here because his father has allowed him to marry Afrosina? He will have a coffin instead of a wedding.”
Alexei had made himself the great hope of everyone who hated Peter the Great. Instead of honoring his promise, Peter used him to destroy the opposition. No one could escape the city, it was closed down. Peasants with goods to sell in the market were searched so no one could hide in their wagons. Poisons could not be sold so people could kill themselves in order to escape justice. Alexei betrayed everyone.
When Afrosina arrived she was shown the instruments of torture, after which she gave her accusers a box of letters Alexei had written. Peter had Afrosina confront Alexei. Though she betrayed him her testimony was not fatal. There was nothing to reveal. Alexei had never organized or actually done anything. It was no revelation that he had bad relations with his father. But after the confrontation with Afrosina whom he 'loved beyond reason' as Tolstoy said, he collapsed.
Alexei put the nail in his own coffin. “When I heard of the revolt of the army in Mecklenburg, I said in my joy, that God would not permit affairs to go according to my Father's wishes. If this news had been true, and if they had called me, I would have joined the malcontents....”Alexei by his own testimony was willing to commit treason.
On the 24th of June Alexei was condemned to be executed by the Senate. He died in prison before his execution on June 26th, 1718. Some said he was tortured to death, others that he was strangled, smothered, poisoned, bled to death or he had his head chopped off.
This much is true. On the day of his death the woman who prepared his food said he had returned his mid-day tray eaten. This suggests that he met an unnatural end since he was able to eat shortly before his death.
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2 Schuyler, Eugene Vol 2 page 263
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