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Peter II was born in St Petersburg on 12 October 1715. He was the son of Tsarevich Alexis Petrovich and Princess Charlotte Christine Sophie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.
Peter’s mother died when he was only ten days old, leaving him in the care of his wayward father, who spent most of his time carousing with friends. He was orphaned at the age of two, when Alexis was executed for treason in June 1718.
Peter and his elder sister Natalia, who was born in 1714, were raised at the court of their grandfather, Peter the Great. But the tsar disliked the family of his disloyal son and paid little attention to the two children, preferring to treat his offspring with Catherine as his future heirs.
The emperor’s grandchildren were neglected and kept in isolation. Peter was taught to read and write by a dancing teacher called Norman, who had formerly served in the Russian navy. Norman instilled in the young tsarevich a lifelong love of dancing and a hatred of anything to do with the sea.
In 1719, after Austrian diplomats lodged complaints about the treatment of the two children (their mother had been the sister of the Austrian empress), Peter and his sister were moved into the royal palace. They were also given tutors more suited to their rank and status. Peter was taught by a page called Mavrin and a Hungarian refugee called Janos Zeikin.
After the death of Peter the Great, Prince Menshikov sacked Zeikin and replaced him with the vice chancellor, Heinrich Johann Friedrich Ostermann, who left the boy completely to himself. As a result, he never gained anything more than a superficial education. The Spanish ambassador, Duque de Liria, nevertheless observed: “He spoke German, Latin and French and had a good understanding of the sciences.”
Peter was a shy and reserved child. Austrian diplomat Count Bratislaw later wrote: “The art of pretence comprises the main feature of the emperor’s character. No one knows his real thoughts.” Peter was also inclined to be despotic and to enjoy wielding power. The Saxon envoy reported to his government: “He cannot abide dissent, does what he wants and speaks in the tone of a sovereign.”
Peter was tall for his age and when he was fourteen looked more like sixteen or eighteen. The Duque de Liria wrote: “Peter II was tall, handsome and well-built. His face betrayed a thoughtful mind. He had a sturdy, majestic gait and unusual strength ... although endearing to those around him, he never forgot his high position.”
When Peter the Great died, many members of the old aristocracy regarded his grandson as the legitimate heir to the throne. The boy was supported by opponents of the Western reforms and friends of his late father. But Catherine’s supporters did not allow Peter to be proclaimed emperor.
During the short reign of Catherine I, it became obvious that Peter could not be kept from his inheritance for much longer. Prince Alexander Menshikov realised this and moved quickly before Catherine’s death. At his insistence, the empress signed a will in favour of Peter and approved his future marriage to Menshikov’s daughter Maria. Until Peter reached adulthood, power was to be entrusted to the Supreme Privy Council. This made Menshikov the virtually unlimited ruler of Russia.
After the empress’s death on 6 May 1727, Peter was declared emperor. Menshikov moved the eleven-year-old boy into his own palace and, on 23 May 1727, announced his engagement to Maria, who was four years his senior. Maria was awarded the Order of St Catherine and the official title of “fiancée and ruling princess.” Her father was promoted to the ranks of full admiral and generalissimo, while her brother became the only man in Russia to hold the Order of St Catherine, normally only for women, besides the Order of St Andrew. Maria’s sisters were awarded the Order of St Alexander Nevsky.
Prince Menshikov ordered his servants not to let Peter out of their sight. All this stifled the young emperor, who did not like the girl he was expected to marry. He increasingly turned for support to his closest relative, his elder sister Natalia, who was as lonely as he was. He once sent her a large sum of money, which was intercepted by Menshikov, who kept the money for himself. Peter was furious when he found out, but the prince merely retorted that the emperor and his sister were too young to be trusted with such sums.
When Prince Menshikov was ill for a month with haemoptysis and fever, Peter managed to extract himself from his influence. He was helped by Ostermann, his sister Natalia, the Dolgorukov family and his aunt Elizabeth, all of whom had reasons to dislike Menshikov. Peter was particularly enamoured by his beautiful aunt, the charming and temperamental Elizabeth Petrovna. He fell in love with her and several courtiers mooted the possibility of their marriage. This idea collapsed, however, when Elizabeth had an affair with Major General Alexander Buturlin and Peter’s love turned cold.
On 7 September 1727, Peter issued a decree outlawing the Supreme Privy Council: “Henceforth, from this day forwards, we have taken the royal decision to sit on the supreme privy council ourselves and to sign all papers issuing from it with our own hand. At the risk of incurring our royal displeasure, we command no notice to be taken of any commands passed on through private individuals, including Prince Menshikov.”
On 8 September 1727, Alexander Menshikov was placed under house arrest. The following day, General Saltykov arrived at his palace with a warrant for his arrest. The prince and his family were banished to Beryozov in Siberia and stripped of their property and decorations. Menshikov, his wife and Peter’s prospective bride Maria all died in exile.
After escaping the clutches of Menshikov, Peter fell under the influence of Prince Alexei Dolgorukov and his nineteen-year-old son Ivan. At the end of 1727, the court moved to Moscow for Peter’s coronation, which was held at the Dormition Cathedral on 24 February 1728. Ivan Dolgorukov was awarded the rank of guards major, the post of lord high chamberlain and the Order of St Andrew.
Contemporaries recorded the close relationship between Peter II and Ivan Dolgorukov: “He cannot do without him for a minute. When he was contused by a horse the other day, His Majesty even slept in his room.” Dim-witted, empty-headed and vain, Ivan soon became Peter’s intimate friend. A lover of alcohol and depravity, he led the young emperor into an exciting new world of physical pleasures and inebriation.
Another of Peter’s passions was hunting. He often spent weeks on hunting trips involving the use of such exotic animals as camels. This explains his fondness for Moscow, where the fields and forests were much richer in game than the hunting grounds outside St Petersburg.
The only constraint on the twelve-year-old emperor was his sister Natalia, but he quickly tired of her constant moralising and began avoiding her company, spending more and more time with the dissolute Ivan. Peter II was completely uninterested in affairs of state. He announced that he was an opponent of the transformations of Peter the Great and set about dismantling the institutions founded by his illustrious grandfather. In 1728, the imperial court moved from St Petersburg back to Moscow, followed by the diplomatic corps and the government.
The following year, Prince Alexei Dolgorukov decided to marry Peter to his daughter Ekaterina. Ivan’s influence was enough for the young emperor to fall in love with his sister and they were officially engaged at Lefortovo Palace in Moscow on 30 November 1729. That day, the carriage driving Ekaterina into the palace got stuck in a rut. The golden crown atop the carriage fell off and smashed. Many regarded this as a bad omen.
The royal wedding was set for 19 January 1730. But on 6 January, during the traditional blessing of the waters on the River Moscow, Peter caught a cold. The following day, he contracted smallpox. The emperor died at Lefortovo Palace on 19 January, the day he should have been married.
Two days before he died, the Dolgorukov family made a desperate attempt to cling to power. They drew up two copies of a letter purporting to be Peter’s last will, appointing his bride Ekaterina as his successor. They decided that if Peter did not sign one, Ivan would forge his signature on the other. They then lost their nerves, however, and decided to burn the incriminating documents.
Lying on his death bed, the emperor called for his old teacher, Heinrich Johann Friedrich Ostermann. His last words were: “Harness my sledge! I want to go and see my sister!” He was buried in the Archangel Cathedral in Moscow, bringing to an end the direct male line of the Romanov dynasty.