The sudden death of Alexis, son of Peter the Great by his first wife Eudoxia, has always been and is still shrouded in mystery; but the prevailing opinion of historians is that the unfortunate young man was assassinated by direct order of his father, and all the surrounding circumstances point to this conclusion.
We think we are therefore justified in placing it here among the famous assassinations in history. It is the darkest chapter in the history of Peter the Great, a monarch whose achievements as a civil administrator, reformer, and general entitle him to a high rank among the really great rulers of Europe; but these achievements should not be made a cloak or excuse for a crime from which not only modern civilization, but human nature itself, shrinks back in horror.
It is not necessary here to go into the details of the marvellous activity and energy of Peter’s life. More than any other ruler of ancient or modern times he stands before the world as a model national reformer, introducing, by the force of an indomitable will, the most sweeping changes and reforms into the social, economical, political, industrial, and commercial life of the nation over which he rules, breaking with all the traditions of the past, and lifting his nation by a supreme effort from comparative barbarism into semi-culture, and starting it on the road to political greatness and commercial importance, on which it has made such astounding progress during the last two hundred years. The personal genius and initiative of Peter the Great have contributed more to the development of Russia’s resources, and he has done more to raise her to her present position in Europe than all other causes combined. It is sad for the philanthropist and historian to admit that these great qualities were obscured by vices and habits that were, perhaps, the tribute which even the greatest of mortals has to pay to his age and to his nation.
As a very young man Peter had married Eudoxia Laputkin, the daughter of a powerful and influential family. It was not a love marriage, but he had hoped to gain from this alliance a strengthening of his pretensions to the throne. Eudoxia was very handsome, but, while she pleased Peter, she had not the power to win his exclusive affection. She bore him a son, Alexis, but even the birth of an heir—generally so anxiously expected by autocrats—could not firmly establish intimate relations between Peter and Eudoxia while he permitted the boy to remain entirely under the care of the mother and her relatives. Unfortunately the Laputkin family was strongly attached to ancient Russian traditions and usages. It was entirely under the influence of the priests and clung to the prejudices and prerogatives of the Russian aristocracy. Alexis was brought up in these opinions and absorbed them from his infancy. In fact no two minds, and no two temperaments could have been more at variance than those of the father and of the son; and, as the boy grew up, the antagonism between Peter and Alexis became greater and more pronounced.
Whether from incompatibility of temper or some other cause, Peter discarded Eudoxia and had her shut up in a convent in 1698; he then took the boy out of her hands and entrusted his education to teachers in sympathy with his own ideas. But they found it impossible—and even Peter himself, in spite of rigorous measures and cruelty—to eradicate from the mind of the boy the conservative and old-Russian principles which his mother and the Laputkins had, as it would seem, planted deep within it. When Peter divorced Eudoxia and shut her up in a convent, the antipathy of the boy turned into hatred, and he clung only the more stubbornly to his mother and her family. As he grew older, he became intemperate and dissipated; but, more than these vices, the sluggishness of his mind and the open hostility with which he looked upon the great reforms in which Peter was engaged and in which he took great pride, irritated his father to such a degree that the Czar formed the plan of excluding him from the succession.
In order to break his bad habits and possibly to bring about a salutary change in his rude and uncouth conduct, Alexis was married quite young to a Princess of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, a lovely and refined young woman of great personal beauty; but Alexis treated her very coldly and cruelly. The fact that his father had selected his bride was sufficient cause for him to treat her with contempt and aversion. She bore her misfortune with great resignation; but died of a broken heart, after having given her husband two children, a daughter and a son. The latter afterwards ascended the throne as Peter the Second.
The death of his wife made but little impression on Alexis, who had been living for a long time in open adultery with his mistress, an illiterate serf from Finland. When this matrimonial attempt to reform Alexis had failed, the Czar, more than ever incensed at his obstinacy, gave him the choice between changing his ways and being sent to a convent. The Czar was the more inclined to shut him up in a solitary place of confinement because Catherine, his second wife, had just given birth to a son, and Peter might hope to have a male heir, even with Alexis out of the way. The birth of this half-brother filled the mind of Alexis with vague fears. But being assured by his friends, and especially by the Laputkins and the priests, that he might easily, at the proper time, get out of the convent, since the cowl would not be nailed to his head, he hypocritically declared in favor of the convent, and told his father that he had a greater vocation for spiritual things than for the government of an empire. The confinement was, however, not so very solitary as it might have appeared to the Czar; on the contrary, both Alexis and Eudoxia were the chief personages around whom the malcontents and all the opponents of reform clustered with hopeful expectation. Alexis treated his imprisonment so lightly that he imprudently spoke of what he was going to do as soon as he had ascended the throne. “I shall be the Czar,” said he; “they cannot keep me out of the succession. Let his foreigners intrigue against me; I shall beat them all, for the people are for me, and I’ll set all things right again. We shall then be Russians once more!”
In the meantime Peter the Great had started on a new European tour. Catherine, his wife, accompanied him. He went to Prussia, Denmark, Holland, England and France, and was received everywhere with the greatest honors and distinctions. At Amsterdam the unwelcome news reached him that Alexis had left his convent under a false pretence, saying that he would join the Czar on his travels; but he had proceeded to Vienna and placed himself under the protection of the German Emperor. The Czar immediately despatched two of his most intimate friends with instructions to bring him back, alive or dead. But when the two messengers reached Vienna, the Czarowitz had left that city already, and his whereabouts was unknown. But after a diligent search, it was discovered that he had gone to Naples and had found an asylum at the Castle of St. Angelo. The messengers hurried to Naples and succeeded in getting an interview with the Prince, in which they exhausted their eloquence to induce him to return with them to Russia. They read to him also a letter written by his father, who promised him that, upon his immediate return, his escapade would be forgiven and forgotten. The Prince was not willing to go, and consented only when the Viceroy of Naples joined his own request with the entreaties of the messengers. The Czar had returned already to St. Petersburg when Alexis arrived.
The Prince hoped to be kindly received and to be treated like a repentant son; but in this expectation he found himself badly deceived. He was immediately arrested and subjected to a very severe interrogatory, in the course of which he implicated a number of prominent persons in having planned and assisted him in his flight from Russia. And then a mock trial of the most infamous character was enacted. The young Prince had already renounced all his rights to the crown; but this renunciation did not assuage the vindictive spirit of his father. Those whom Alexis, in his confusion and in the agony of the torture, had implicated in the crime of which he was accused, were tried for high treason, convicted, and beheaded or broken on the wheel. The ex-Empress Eudoxia was transferred to a dungeon in another prison, after having been cruelly chastised by two nuns. Alexis himself, from whom the cruel application of the torture (during which the Czar was present) had extorted the confession of crimes which he had never committed, was convicted of high treason and sentenced to be beheaded. The Czar insisted on a verdict of capital punishment, and the one hundred and eighty-one judges composing the court obeyed the imperial brute; they rendered a unanimous verdict. Peter hypocritically said that he would pardon him. When the decision of the judges and his father’s promise of clemency were communicated to Alexis, he was overcome with terror and excitement, and led back to prison. The next day it was reported that he had died of apoplexy, but that in his last moments an affectionate interview had taken place between him and his father. Another report stated that the Czar had withdrawn his pardon and ordered his son to be beheaded without delay. And still another report, almost too horrid to be true, says that Peter, with his own hands, cut off the head of his son. There is no doubt that the young man was foully murdered. The story of his death by apoplexy was merely invented to whitewash the memory of one of the greatest, but also of one of the most brutal and cruel rulers that ever lived.