Peter III

Peter III, grandson of Peter the Great, son of Duke Carl Friedrich of Holstein-Gottorp and Anna Petrovna, husband of Catherine the Great, father of Paul I, emperor of Russia, murdered at Ropsha
Born: 1728, Kiel
Died: 1762, Ropsha

Peter III was born in Kiel on 10 February 1728. He was the son of Duke Carl Friedrich of Holstein-Gottorp and Anna Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great. When the child was born, he was given the name of Carl Peter Ulrich.

Carl Peter Ulrich never saw his mother, who died less than two weeks after his birth. Neither did he see much of his father, who handed him over to the care of ignorant and brutal officers. At the age of ten, he was once discovered in a state of inebriation.

In 1739, Carl Friedrich died and his eleven-year-old son succeeded him as the duke of Holstein-Gottorp. He was brought up by his father’s cousin, Adolf Friedrich, who was the prince-bishop of Lübeck and, later, the king of Sweden.

Carl Peter Ulrich was both the grandson of Peter the Great and the great-nephew of King Charles XII of Sweden (through his grandmother, Princess Hedvig Sofia of Sweden, who married Duke Friedrich IV of Holstein-Gottorp). The boy was raised as a Protestant, in a pro-Swedish vein – at a time when Sweden had just lost the Great Northern War and vast territories to Russia.

The future Russian emperor was educated by the marshal of the Holstein court, a brutal and dim-witted Swedish count called Otton von Brümmer. Bullied and harshly punished for the slightest misdemeanour, the sickly child developed a lifelong hatred of learning. He was particularly bored by Latin – the language of science – and removed every book in Latin from his library.

Besides a love of military drilling, parades and drinking, the young duke’s only other passion in life was music. He became an accomplished violinist and later mounted Amor prigioniero, an opera written by the court composer Francesco Domenico Araia.

After Elizabeth Petrovna seized power in 1741, she invited her nephew to St Petersburg to ensure that the throne passed to her father’s descendants. Carl Peter Ulrich converted to Russian Orthodoxy and was proclaimed the heir presumptive on 7 November 1742. His official title was “Grand Duke Peter Fyodorovich, Grandson of Peter the Great.” When the Swedes complained that he was also heir to their throne, Elizabeth sent them Peter’s official act of renunciation in August 1743.

In reality, Peter was horrified at the idea of one day becoming emperor of Russia. Plucked from his homeland, he only wanted to return to Holstein. He was pro-German in every way and idolised Frederick the Great. When Russia entered the Seven Years War against Prussia in 1756, the heir to the throne secretly supported the enemy. He cheered the victories of the Prussian army and lamented any Russian successes.

Peter’s antipathy towards all things Russian irritated the empress. Elizabeth gave him Russian tutors, but his dislike of learning meant that he preferred to spend his time in the company of the servants who had followed him from Holstein to St Petersburg. He felt out of place at the Russian court, where he fell into a life of lies and pretence, knowing that his every move was closely watched by his aunt’s spies.

Elizabeth Petrovna hoped that marriage might bring her nephew to his senses. Her choice of bride was Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste from the minor German principality of Anhalt-Zerbst. The girl’s father was a Prussian general, while her mother was a cousin of Peter’s own father, Duke Carl Friedrich of Holstein-Gottorp. This meant that Peter and Sophie were second cousins.

Princess Sophie came to Russia and converted to Russian Orthodoxy on 28 June 1744 as Catherine Alexeyevna. The couple were married in St Petersburg on 21 August 1745. The celebrations began early in the morning with a cannon salute from the walls of the Peter and Paul Fortress and the ramparts of the Admiralty. The wedding procession emerged from the Winter Palace and proceeded to the Church of Our Lady of Kazan, headed by a detachment of horse guards and accompanied by a cortege of pages, attendants and liveried courtiers.

After the marriage ceremony in the Kazan Cathedral, the couple returned to the Winter Palace, where the halls were specially decorated for the occasion by Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli. The Italian architect designed “figured tables decorated with fountains and cascades, arranged in the four corners of the hall and surrounded by vases and allegorical statuettes; everything was richly decorated with gilded sculptures … clementine and myrtle trees stood on each side of the cascades, forming a wonderful garden.” After a state ball, Elizabeth Petrovna led the newly-weds to their chambers in the Winter Palace. The following morning, musicians arrived from the guards regiments to perform marches and drum rolls beneath their windows.

The entire programme of banquets, suppers, balls, masquerades and theatrical performances lasted ten days. Roast bulls and other refreshments were served to the common people in front of the Winter Palace. Ships decorated with flags and multi-coloured lanterns stood at anchor on the River Neva. Music, cannon fire and bells rang out everywhere. The celebrations ended with a visit to the St Alexander Nevsky Monastery on 30 August – the official holiday of the Order of St Alexander Nevsky. In the evening, a firework show was held in front of the Winter Palace.

Peter did not attempt any spiritual or physical intimacy with his wife. He was more interested in playing at soldiers, drilling his servants and practising shooting. Catherine later recalled being forced to join in these war games in 1747: “[My husband] taught me military exercises and, thanks to him, I am still able, to this day, to handle a rifle with the precision of the most experienced grenadier. He would even make me stand guard for hours on end, with a musket on my shoulder, at the door connecting our two rooms.”

All this time, Elizabeth was growing increasingly worried about Peter’s apathy and Catherine’s guile. Although outwardly deferential to the empress, her niece was secretly making her own ambitious plans, which she discussed with the chancellor, Count Alexei Bestuzhev-Ryumin. In 1758, Elizabeth learnt of their alliance and launched an investigation, but Catherine managed to escape suspicion.

Catherine gave birth to two children – the future Paul I in 1754 and a daughter called Anna, who was born in 1757 and died in 1759. Immediately after Paul was born, he was removed from his mother by Elizabeth Petrovna. The empress decided to bring the boy up herself and toyed with the idea of making him her heir and banishing his parents to Germany. But Elizabeth died on 25 December 1761 and her nephew ascended the throne as Peter III. This signalled the start of the Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov dynasty, which ruled Russia until 1917.

Peter made a disastrous start to his reign by withdrawing Russia from the Seven Years War and concluding peace with his idol, Frederick the Great, when the Prussians were on the point of capitulation. All the Russian victories and sacrifices were in vain. Eastern Prussia was returned to Frederick and Russia received no indemnities or compensations.

Peter III then joined Prussia in a defensive alliance against Denmark, which had wrenched Schleswig away from Holstein during the Great Northern War. This caused widespread discontent in the Russian army. Peter was overjoyed when King Frederick made him an honorary Prussian general. He began reorganising the Russian army along Prussian lines, preparing to declare war on Denmark.

Peter also made himself unpopular by freeing Count Burkhard Christoph von Münnich, Ernst Johann von Biron and the other Germans previously sent into exile by Elizabeth Petrovna. He called the Russian officers “janissaries” – the bodyguards of the Ottoman sultan – and threatened to replace their regiments with his own guard from Holstein and other foreign countries.

Although Catherine II later attempted to portray everything done by Peter III in a bad light, several important projects were nevertheless begun by the emperor. He attempted to revive the Russian fleet, persuading many British officers to enter Russian naval service. He freed all male members of the nobility from compulsory service in the military or government. He also granted the nobility the freedom to travel abroad. These decrees marked the beginning of important class reforms in Russia, liberating entire sections of the population from the invasive power of the autocracy and state.

The emperor ended the persecution of the Old Believers, broke up a series of monopolies and founded the State Bank. He banned the “word and deed” system, which encouraged people to verbally inform on those not loyal to the throne. The Secret Chancellery of Investigations, which had struck fear into the population, was abolished.

But the rest of the country failed to appreciate the reforms of Peter III. Denunciations still continued – they were now made in written form – and the functions of the Secret Chancellery simply passed to the Secret Department of the Russian Senate. The nation seethed at Peter’s unconcealed disdain for Russian customs and traditions and his stubborn refusal to adopt the spirit, culture and aims of his new homeland. The army hated the new Prussian uniforms and opposed the planned war against Denmark.

Other Russians had reasons for disliking their new ruler. Peter passed the law secularising church property which his predecessor had refused to sign. Soon, a plot was hatched in St Petersburg to replace Peter with his wife Catherine, who cleverly exploited these moods. By summer 1762, almost all the imperial guard regiments had joined the conspiracy.

Peter III was not inherently evil, but unlike his young and ambitious wife, he did not possess the wily mind or sophisticated skills of a politician. As emperor, he badly misjudged the situation. He remained as conceited and ill-mannered as before and, most importantly, continued to flaunt his disregard for public opinion and lived openly with his mistress.

Peter and Catherine did not like one another and both took lovers. While Catherine was prudent about her extramarital affairs, not drawing outward attention to herself, Peter publicly proclaimed his love for Countess Elizaveta Vorontsova. There were rumours that he was going to divorce his wife and banish her to a nunnery, so that he could marry Vorontsova.

Catherine was not one to meekly await her fate and hatched a plot to overthrow the emperor. By this time, she had fallen in love with an artillery officer called Grigory Orlov. With the help of Orlov and his brothers, Catherine established close ties with the imperial guards vehemently opposed to the new emperor. When one of the group, Captain Pyotr Passek, was suddenly arrested on 27 June 1762, the plotters feared that their conspiracy was in danger of being discovered and decided to make their move.

Early in the morning of 28 June, Alexei Orlov drove to Peterhof, where Catherine was living in the wooden wing next to Monplaisir. Aware of the final preparations, she had endeavoured to avoid spending the night at Oranienbaum, where the emperor had, as usual, performed for guests on his violin. Although Catherine was obliged to be present, she had later taken leave of her husband – for the last time ever – and returned to Peterhof.

The empress herself describes what happened next: “I was sleeping peacefully in Peterhof at six in the morning of 28 June. The [previous] day had passed extremely anxiously for me, as I was aware of all that was being prepared. Alexei Orlov entered my room and told me with great composure: ‘It is time for you to get up; everything is ready for you to be proclaimed.’ I asked him for details and he told me that Passek had been arrested. I lost no time in getting dressed as quickly as I could, without bothering about my toilette, and got in the carriage that he had brought.”

This scene is described in Claude-Carloman de Rulhière’s Anecdotes sur la révolution de Russie en 1762: “Having no time for second thoughts ... Catherine ran to the park gates.” Some hitch occurred, however, with the hired carriage. In her memoirs, which Catherine writes in the third person, she claims that “she lost over half an hour, going through the gardens, and, as a result, could not find the carriage and was recognised on the street by several passers-by. She only had a chambermaid with her, who would not leave her for the world, and her valet [Vasily Shkurin], who hunted high and low for the carriage.”

This was probably the most dramatic and comic moment of the coup, when the fate of her whole life hung in the balance. But the carriage eventually appeared with Orlov in the coachman’s seat. Catherine got in and drove off to St Petersburg, where she was declared empress.

At two o’clock, Peter III and his company arrived at Peterhof for the planned banquet in honour of the feast day of St Peter and St Paul. Catherine’s apartments were empty and they could not find her anywhere in the park. She later wrote that when Peter “learnt that the empress had left Peterhof... he looked for her everywhere, even under the bed.”

An officer arrived from St Petersburg with the news that the Izmailovsky Regiment had revolted. Peter wandered round the garden, “asking everyone who remained there [what to do], but could not resolve to do anything. The old fieldmarshal, Count Burkhard Christoph von Münnich, suggested that the emperor go straight to the barracks of the mutinous regiment and personally put down the rebellion.

But Peter, as Catherine writes, “chose the weakest option, continuing to walk up and down the garden, and, finally, sat down to dine.” He dispatched a series of couriers, followed by his dignitaries, to find out what was happening in St Petersburg. Upon arriving in the capital, they all deserted the emperor and swore a new oath of loyalty to Catherine.

Time was of the essence and Catherine acted quicker than her husband. She sent loyal officers to Kronstadt, so that when Peter sailed there from Peterhof in the evening, he was not allowed to dock. Patrol boats loomed on the horizon, cutting off any escape route to Estonia or the West.

Peter returned to Oranienbaum, arriving in the middle of the night. He locked himself up in his palace, surrounded by his Holsteiner troops. Soon, realising the futility of resistance, he surrendered and threw himself at the mercy of the victors. As Frederick the Great later scathingly wrote: “The emperor allowed himself to be overthrown like a child being sent to bed.”

In the evening of 28 June 1762, Catherine gathered her troops and set off down the coastal road to Oranienbaum for her ultimate showdown with her husband. Approaching Strelna, she decided to stop for the night at the St Sergius Hermitage of the Trinity. The following day, the empress received a constant stream of dispatches from her husband, either begging for reconciliation or asking to be exiled to Holstein. Peter offered to renounce his rights to the throne in exchange for his violin, dog, Negro servant and Elizaveta Vorontsova. Catherine agreed to everything – except Vorontsova.

The emperor was arrested at Oranienbaum on 29 June 1762, along with Countess Elizaveta Vorontsova. After he had signed his act of abdication, he was separated from his mistress and taken to the hunting palace at Ropsha, where he was closely guarded by an armed convoy headed by Alexei Orlov.

Peter III did not live long at Ropsha. A week later, reports spread that the former emperor had unexpectedly taken ill and died. Although Catherine did not issue any explicit instructions to kill her husband, the letters of Alexei Orlov suggest that she had a chance to forestall this tragedy, but chose not to act.

On 2 July, Alexei Orlov wrote to the empress from Ropsha: “Mother and most merciful sovereign, we all wish thee to prosper for countless years. As I write this letter, the whole detachment and I are fine. Only [Peter III] has fallen very ill, he has caught unexpected colic, and I fear that he might die tonight. Yet I am even more afraid of his returning to life.” Orlov goes on to explain why he is so fearful of the emperor recovering: “The first danger is that he speaks such claptrap, which is not pleasant for us at all. The other danger is that he really is a threat to us all, for he sometimes so speaks of wanting to be back in his former position.”

The main reason for the forthcoming tragedy was that the emperor was guarded by those directly involved in the plot to overthrow him. Orlov and the others were technically guilty of treason and naturally interested in ridding themselves of Peter forever, so that he could not reclaim his throne and take revenge on them. Catherine could not help understanding Orlov’s train of thought, but said nothing and did not change the prison guards at Ropsha.

Peter did indeed fall ill on 30 June, suffering from nervous shock. But the doctors who attended him on 3 and 4 July said that he was already better. On 6 July, Orlov sent two final letters to the empress. The first states: “Mother and most merciful sovereign, I do not know where to begin. I am afraid of the anger of Thy Majesty, that thou wouldst not think anything violent of us, or that we were the reason for the death of the villain of both thee and all of Russia, as well as our law. Now Maslov, the man-servant appointed to look after him, has also taken ill. And [Peter III] himself is now so ill that I do not think that he will live until evening. He is almost completely unconscious, of which the entire detachment is already aware, and prays to God that we are delivered from him as quickly as possible. The aforementioned Maslov and the dispatched officer can report to Thy Majesty, as to what a state he is now in, shouldst thou so think to doubt me.”

This letter suggests that matters were drawing to their inevitable conclusion. In the morning, Peter’s servant, Maslov, was suddenly “taken ill.” He was separated from Peter and taken to St Petersburg, so that he could not testify whether or not his master had indeed suffered a relapse. Even more suspiciously, Orlov – a man with no medical training – predicts that the emperor will die before the end of the day. His diagnosis sounds more like a death sentence – which is what it was.

At six o’clock in the evening of 6 July, Alexei Orlov wrote his last letter to Catherine from Ropsha: “Mother and most merciful sovereign, how can I explain, describe what has happened? Thou wilt not believe thy faithful servant, but so help me God I speak the truth, Mother. I am ready to go to death, but I myself know not how this mischief happened. We are ruined if thou dost not have mercy. Mother – he is no more. But nobody thinks it, and what were we thinking of to raise our hands against our sovereign. But, Thy Majesty, the mischief is done. He struggled behind the table with Prince Fyodor [Baryatinsky], but we succeeded in separating them, and he is no more. I myself do not remember what we did, but the whole lot of us are guilty and worthy of punishment. Have mercy upon me, if only for my brother’s sake. I make my confession to thee and it is no good investigating. Forgive us or order an end to be made of us quickly. The world is unmerciful, we have displeased thee and lost our souls forever.”

The deed was done, only in what circumstances, no one will ever know. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Orlov asks Catherine not to hold an inquiry – something clearly in the interests of both parties. Any investigation would have spotted the clear contradiction between Orlov’s last two letters of 6 July. The first states that Peter was “almost completely unconscious,” while the second claims that, later that day, he had drunk with his prison guards, quarrelled and started a fight. Catherine also spotted the inconsistencies, but looked at the dilemma from a different angle. The important thing for her was that her husband was now dead and she no longer had to worry about what to do with the deposed emperor.

In a letter to one of her former lovers, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, Catherine offers a different account of the death of her husband, claiming that he died of irritable bowel syndrome: “Fear brought on diarrhoea, which continued for three days, but ended on the fourth. That day, he got terribly drunk... He suffered an attack of haemorrhoidal colic, accompanied by rushes of blood to the brain. He spent two days in this state, followed by a dreadful infirmity, and, despite the best efforts of the doctors, breathed his last... I ordered a post-mortem to be carried out, but they could not find the slightest trace of poisoning. He had died of enteritis and apoplexy.” Towards the end of the letter, the empress adds a malicious detail, hinting that he died of cowardice: “His heart was unusually small and all wrinkled.”

Peter III was officially said to have died of haemorrhoidal colic. No one was allowed near his body when it lay in state for three days in a Holstein army uniform at the St Alexander Nevsky Monastery. One eyewitness wrote: “The sight of his corpse was extremely pitiful, evoking horror and fear. His face was black and swollen, though completely recognisable.” Catherine claimed to be ill and did not attend her husband’s funeral.

After ruling Russia for only 186 days, Peter III was interred in the Annunciation Burial Vault of the St Alexander Nevsky Monastery, alongside the former regent of Ivan VI, Anna Leopoldovna. He did not even manage to crown himself. When his son Paul I, a stickler for order, succeeded to the throne in 1796, he disinterred the emperor’s remains, placed an imperial crown on them and reburied them in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral. Those who had taken part in his murder were forced to carry the royal regalia during the reburial ceremony.

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