Tsarevich Alexis Petrovich

Tsarevich Alexis Petrovich, son of Peter the Great and Eudoxia Lopukhina, husband of Princess Charlotte Christine Sophie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, father of Emperor Peter II of Russia, sentenced to death and executed at the Peter and Paul Fortress
Born: 1690, Moscow
Died: 1718, St Petersburg

Tsarevich Alexis Petrovich was the first child and first son of Peter the Great and Eudoxia Lopukhina. He was born in Moscow on 18 February 1690 and baptised on 23 February 1690. His godparents were Patriarch Joachim and his great-aunt Tsarevna Tatyana Mikhailovna.

In 1698, Peter divorced Eudoxia, who was forced to become a nun and banished to the Convent of the Intercession of the Virgin in Suzdal. The eight-year-old boy bitterly resented being separated from his mother. He secretly visited Eudoxia and grew up hating his father for his ill-treatment of his mother.

Peter equally disliked his eldest son, who was not included in the tsar’s new family with his second wife, Catherine. Alexis lived separately from them, starved of love and attention. Peter’s letters to his son are cold and curt, without a single word of approval, encouragement or affection.

Alexis grew up at Preobrazhenskoe under the watchful eye of Peter’s younger sister, Tsarevna Natalia Alexeyevna. He was taught by Prince Nikifor Vyazemsky, whom he used to beat with a stick and drag around the room by the hair. To escape lessons, Alexis often sent his teacher on various errands to Moscow.

When the boy reached the age of thirteen, Peter entrusted his education to his illiterate friend, Prince Alexander Menshikov. Baron Heinrich von Huyssen, a professor of law, taught him the sciences. As the baron was often sent abroad on diplomatic missions or his father interrupted the lessons to teach him affairs of state or war, the tsarevich’s education was at best patchy.

Alexis learnt French, German and basic arithmetic, but had a poor knowledge of geometry and military tactics. In 1709, he was sent to study in Dresden, where he acquired a taste for reading, assembling a large library of books on church and civil law, genealogy, fortifications and works of literature. His favourite titles were religion, mysticism and world history.

In 1710, Peter decided that Alexis should marry Princess Charlotte Christine Sophie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Charlotte was a member of the Welf dynasty, which was descended from the House of Este (the dukes of Ferrara and Modena). This move was designed to raise the Romanov dynasty to the ranks of the other leading royal families of Europe.

Princess Charlotte’s elder sister Elisabeth married Emperor Charles VI of Austria in 1708 and gave birth to the future Empress Maria Theresa, mother of Queen Marie Antoinette of France. King George I of England came from the Hanoverian branch of the dynasty, whose descendants still reign today in Britain. Charlotte’s nephew, Prince Anton Ulrich of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, later married Anna Leopoldovna and became the father of Ivan VI.

Alexis and Charlotte met near Carlsbad in 1710 and the marriage contract was signed on 19 April 1711. They were married in the presence of Peter the Great in Torgau on 25 October 1711. Neither the bride nor the groom changed their respective religions – Protestantism and Russian Orthodoxy.

Right from the start, the marriage was a disaster. Charlotte was a spendthrift, did not speak Russian and her husband was constantly forced to mediate in the petty quarrels arising between the members of her suite. Despite their dislike for one another, they managed to have two children – Natalia in 1714 and the future Peter II in 1715.

After giving birth to Peter, Charlotte contracted post-natal fever and died. She was so unhappy with her husband that she refused all medicines and deliberately ate things that could only cause her harm. Princess Charlotte was buried in the unfinished St Peter and St Paul Cathedral. Rumours persisted, however, that she had fled from her violent husband to North America, where she married a Frenchman.

The tsarevich was a complex figure. Many histories, novels and films have portrayed him as a scoundrel and a traitor, but this was not the case. Peter and Alexis shared the same prickly, strong-minded personalities and their conflict was, in many ways, a typical clash of fathers and sons.

No matter what Alexis did, he always annoyed his father. At the start of the Great Northern War in 1700, faced with more pressing business, Peter had left the boy in the company of reactionary boyars and priests. Ten years later, he found that his son was now his political enemy, implacably opposed to all that he had done and fought for.

Angry at Alexis’s lack of enthusiasm for his reforms, Peter tried to first re-educate and then to break the tsar?vich. Although the latter formally submitted to his father, he clearly disagreed with the tsar’s policies and his court did not conceal its hostility towards Peter’s transformations. So while Alexis did not openly lay claim to the throne, his status as the heir apparent evoked his father’s fears for the future of Russia.

These fears grew in 1715, when Peter’s second wife Catherine gave birth to a son called Peter, one month after the birth of Alexis’s own son Peter. Catherine and Prince Menshikov did not like Alexis and began a deliberate campaign of defamation, leading to a more or less open conflict between father and son.

In 1716, fearing for his life, the tsar?vich fled to Austria. He took refuge with his former brother-in-law, Emperor Charles VI, who hid him at the Tirolean fortress of Ehrenberg and then at the castle of Sant’Elmo in Naples. His travelling companions included Aphrosinia, a Finnish serf girl who was already carrying his child.

When Peter the Great learnt of his son’s flight, he sent Count Pyotr Tolstoy – a relative of the famous writer – to track him down. Tolstoy eventually found the tsarevich and lured him back to Russia, after showing him a letter from the tsar, promising that he would not be punished. He returned to Moscow with Aphrosinia on 31 January 1718.

At a special ceremony in the Moscow Kremlin in February 1718, Alexis was forced to renounce his rights to the throne in favour of his half-brother Peter and to inform on those who had helped him to flee to Austria. After doing so, he was arrested and, in the presence of the tsar, interrogated and tortured.

The investigation continued after the court moved to St Petersburg in March 1718. A plot against Peter the Great was uncovered and the ringleaders were executed. The tsar appointed a supreme court of generals, senators, senior clergymen and guards officers, who sentenced Alexis to death for treason on 24 June 1718.

Two days later, on Peter’s orders, Alexis was secretly killed in the Troubetzkoy Bastion of the Peter and Paul Fortress. The tsarevich was either strangled or poisoned on 26 June and his body was buried in the nearby St Peter and St Paul Cathedral on 30 June 1718.

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