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Peter the Great's Family Values

So you're Peter the Great and you hate your kid Alexis 'cause he's stupid? Kill him!

Peter the Great's son, Alexis, received a hefty brunt of physical abuse from his father: beaten about the head, dragged by his hair across the floor, and so forth. Peter had worked hard all his life to create a great Russia, and was damn well not going to let his noodle of a son muck it up. Alexis's "wretched childhood", M.S. Anderson tells us in Peter the Great, "left [him] timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence, characteristics which were coupled with an increasing tendency, notable even in the Russia of that age, to heavy drinking." This did not sit well with Peter, whose correspondence to his son during Alexis's tutelage is filled with disparaging comments. A sampler:

If my advice is lost on the wind and you will not do as I wish, then I do not recognize you as my son.
I see that you go at too lazy a pace in these crucial days to concern yourself with business.
[I grow worried] when I see you, the heir to the throne, who are so very useless for the conduct of state affairs.
How often have I not scolded you for this, and not merely scolded you but beaten you... but nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.
But if [you do not change for the better], understand that I shall deprive you of the succession and cast you off like a gangrened limb.

During this period, Alexis had blundered into an unsatisfying, state-arranged marriage. Peter, no doubt through bouts of intense drinking and work, had grown ill and also wary of his son's capacity to carry on his leadership (i.e., "cast you off like a gangrened limb"). Alexis responded to these insults by begging to renounce his right of succession. Realizing that Alexis could always change his mind, Peter insisted that he join a monastery to ensure no sovereignty would be in his future. Alexis's tactic was instead to flee to Vienna and hide, prompting a manhunt that covered Europe for six months. Peter's life at this moment was in a fair bit of turmoil: his health was ailing, Russia was at war with the Swedes, and her people were wary of Peter and his disrespect for the Church. To make things worse, his nudnik son had vanished, leaving him no way to control the leadership of his beloved Russia after his passing. Indeed, Peter feared his son might prove a focus for conspiring nobles in a plot to overthrow him.

Alexis, not quite clever enough to initiate a coup on his own at this point, had instead relieved his stress by knocking up his Finnish mistress, Afrosinia. He was collared in Moravia by Peter's agents and forced to return home. Upon his return to Moscow, he was forced to swear on a fat bible in the most important church of Russian Orthodoxy that he wanted nothing to do with politics ever again, and would never dream of becoming Tsar.

However, Peter was still sick and ailing. Furthermore, he had plenty of enemies in Russia (as one French minister put it, the Russians hated Peter's leadership and were planning to "wait and hope only for the end of his life to plunge into the slough of sloth and crass ignorance."), and some of these enemies decided to try to convince Alexis to renounce his renunciation. Peter had heard of some of the plots and spent most of 1718 torturing various individuals, looking for a well-organized plan. He heard nothing substantial until Afrosinia told him Alexis had been bragging about his plans as future tsar. This was all Peter needed, and in July 1718 he tortured his son for a while, and then had him put to death. Peter being Peter, "the very next day there were public celebrations... [two days later, a holiday] was, as usual, commemorated by drinking, fireworks, and the launching of new warships."

Fortunately, Peter's life wasn't always so darkly destructive. There were brighter, zanier moments, most of them involving insulting the Church under wild inebriation. In 1692, Peter got some of his friends together and christened themselves the "Most Drunken Synod", and parodied the entry of Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday by having Peter's friend Matvei Flilmonovich ("an elderly drunkard related to the family of the tsar's mother," Anderson tells us) ride on a camel to an inn, "where riotous drinking took place." While this might seem like an exercise better relegated to fraternities, yet perhaps forgivable on a one-off basis, recall this is Peter the Great, who did nothing half way. Anderson elaborates:

The purpose of these childishly provocative ceremonies remains obscure. There is no doubt that Peter himself attached importance to the 'Synod': he wrote out its relatively complex rules with his own hand and revised them several times. A generation later one of the last acts of his life was to attend one of its meetings.

It should not surprise our gentle readers that our buddy Voltaire just couldn't resist such a colorful (and drunk) subject. His biography of Peter the Great displays the smug attitude that got him beaten so often. He notes, "We could not expect the amusements of Peter's day to be as noble or as refined as they have become since," but seems to think some of them were OK, if not downright juicy. The following narrative from Voltaire's work requires no commentary:

Before promulgating his ecclesiastical laws, he created one of his court jesters pope and celebrated the Festival of the Conclave. The jester, whose name was Zotov [later a camel-rider in the Most Drunken Synod. -HH], was eighty-four years old. The tsar conceived the idea of marrying him to a widow as old as himself, and of solemnly celebrating the nuptials. The guests were invited by four stammerers; some decrepit old men escorted the bride, while four of the fattest men in Russia served as runners. The band was on a cart drawn by bears goaded with steel points, which, by their roaring, provided a bass worthy of the tunes being played on the wagon. The bride and groom were blessed in the cathedral by a blind and deaf priest wearing spectacles. The procession, the wedding ceremony, the nuptial feast, the disrobing of the bridal couple, and the ritual of putting them to bed were all equally appropriate to the buffoonery of the entertainment.

Stutterers, fat men, and nude octogenarians. Sheer genius, and he brought a backward eighteenth century Russia up to step with Europe to boot.


  1. M.S. Anderson. Peter the Great. Addison Wesley, 1995.

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