Regent Sophia

Born: 1657, Moscow
Died: 1704, Moscow

Tsarevna Sophia Alexeyevna was the sixth child and fourth daughter of Alexis Mikhailovich and Maria Miloslavskaya. She was born in Moscow on 17 September 1657. She received an excellent education from Simeon Politsky, learning both Latin and Polish. She studied history and wrote poems and plays. Although physically unattractive, she more than made up for this with her quick mind, energy and ambition.

After the death of Feodor III in 1682, the Streltsy guards supported Sophia’s demand to be made co-ruler alongside the two young tsars – ten-year-old Peter I and sixteen-year-old Tsar Ivan V. On 29 May 1682, she was formally proclaimed the regent.

Sophia ruled with the help of her lover, the cunning and handsome Prince Vasily Golitsyn. She sent Peter and his mother to live in the village of Preobrazhenskoe, while the sickly Ioann was no match for his elder sister and Prince Golitsyn, who quickly concentrated power in their own hands. Sophia’s image was struck on Russian coins from 1684 onwards and she assumed the title of autocrat in 1686. Fearing only the schismatics and the Streltsy guards, she persecuted the Old Believers and arrested several Streltsy leaders.

On 5 July 1682, a public debate was held between the church authorities and the Old Believers in the Palace of Facets. The event was attended by Patriarch Joachim, archbishops and several members of the royal family, including Sophia’s sisters, Alexis’s sister Tatyana and his second wife Natalia Naryshkina. Archbishop Athanasius of Kholmogory spoke on behalf of the authorities, while Nikita Pustosvyat represented the schismatics. During the debate, Nikita Pustosvyat fell on the archbishop, knocking him off his feet – to the delight of the Streltsy guards, who were mostly Old Believers. Sophia later executed Nikita Pustosvyat and burnt many schismatics at the stake.

Sophia’s dream of ruling Russia on her own was thwarted by Peter the Great, who pursued his own independent line after marrying in January 1689. His half-sister attempted to dethrone him with the help of the Streltsy guards in August 1689, but Peter was supported by his own forces. Many boyars and public officials refused to side with the ambitious regent against the lawful tsar. She was accused of treason and banished to the Novodevichy Convent.

In 1698, when Peter was abroad, Sophia attempted to seize power again with the help of the Streltsy guards. The rebellion was quickly defeated and she was forced to become a nun. Peter executed a total of 1,182 Streltsy guards, several of whom were left hanging outside Sophia’s prison cell at the convent.

Sophia spent the rest of her life as a nun, guarded by one hundred men. Before she died, she took the schema – the highest and strictest monastic discipline. She died on 3 July 1704 and was buried in the Smolensk Cathedral of the Novodevichy Convent.

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