Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Private Life of Peter the Great

Everywhere you go in St. Petersburg and Moscow you come across statues of Peter the Great, tsar of Russia, born in 1672 and died in 1725. He strides across the Russian landscape, which he shaped, dragging it out of a feudal society of petty fiefdoms and overlords towards the great empire of Catherine the Great.

Peter’s military and civil achievements are well recorded, so I thought I might devote this article to some of the lesser known aspects of Peter’s personal life.

Tall, handsome…a man’s man…is how history records Peter. He was reputedly 6’ 7” tall and indeed based on the boots kept in the Armoury in the Kremlin – they would come up to my waist!  

What the many statues and portraits fail to record about Peter is that he may well have been a sufferer of Marfan syndrome – a genetic disorder of the connective tissue. Sufferers of Marfan’s syndrome tend to be abnormally tall with long, slender feet and hands.  A wax effigy of Peter taken on his death bed is still in existence and using that as a model, a statue of Peter the Great as he may well have actually looked has been made and sits in the centre of the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburgh. The long limbs, big body and tiny pin head, all typical of Marfan, is not how we generally envisage this great Tsar of Russia.
The "real" Peter

A sufferer of Marfan syndrome can experience a range of medical problems – skeleton, eyes, cardio pulmonary. Peter the Great suffered ill health all his life, dying at the age of 52 from a gangrenous bladder (OUCH!). Of course legendary stories pursued him to his end and it is said his bladder problems were exacerbated by his efforts to rescue drowning sailors from a shipwreck. There is no historical basis to that particular story. A quirky sense of humour also seems to be present in many Marfan sufferers and scattered through the gardens of Peterhof are “little surprises” (as my guide described them) – garden benches and paths that suddenly squirt water at unsuspecting strollers.

Sit on this pleasant bench in Peterhof at your peril!

Peter came to the throne in what I would call unusual circumstances, but given Russian history, there is probably nothing unusual about it. At the age of 10 he was declared joint Tsar with his older half brother, Ivan with their sister Sophia Alekseyevna as regent. In the Armoury in the Kremlin the joint throne of the two young Tsars can still be seen. Behind the seat there is a box where Sophia would sit and feed the young Tsar the responses that were required. Ivan was known to be frail in both mind and body and the wit and intelligence of some of his responses astonished the courtiers and ambassadors.

The situation suited the young Peter who used his time in learning shipbuilding and warfare but at the age of 17 he had tired of Sophia’s dominance and intrigues and learning of a plot by her to have him overthrown and herself declared Tsarina, he escaped and gathered a force of his own adherants around him.  Sophia was arrested and as was the fate of many royal women who crossed a Tsar, she was sent to a convent where she died 6 years later. Peter continued to rule with Ivan until Ivan’s death in 1696.

In 1689 Peter married Eudoxia Lopukhina, a marriage arranged by his mother to strengthen ties with the powerful boyars. She gave birth to the Tsaravich Alexei but her other children did not survive infancy.  (Alexei was to die under torture, accused of conspiring against his father).  The marriage was a dismal failure and in 1696 Eudoxia (you guessed it!) was sent to a convent.  She became caught up with the conspiracies of her son and her imprisonment was hardened. Only on the ascent of her grandson Peter II, did she return to Moscow and established a court of her own, dying in 1731.

Anna Mons
Peter abandoned Eudoxia for the daughter of a Dutch wine merchant, Anna Mons.  Their relationship lasted twelve years, during which time he showered her with presents.  When he lost interest in her she became engaged to the Prussian ambassador Keyserling. Engraged, Peter had the pair imprisoned but eventually relented and allowed them to marry.

Catherine I of Russia
The great love of Peter’s life was Marta Helena Skowrońska, later to become Catherine I. Catherine began life as  the daughter of Polish peasants (her humble origins were later deemed a State secret). At the age of 17 she married a Swedish dragoon and was in Marienberg when it was captured by the Russians in 1702. After a mere 8 days of marriage, her husband withdrew with the rest of the Swedish troops and she never saw him again. Said to be a great beauty, she worked as a maid in the household of Prince Alexander Menshikov, favourite of Peter the Great, and it is there that the Tsar first laid eyes on her. Within days she became his mistress and in 1705 converted to Orthodoxy becoming  In 1705, Catherine Alexeyevna (Yekaterina Alexeyvna). They married secretly and she bore him 12 children. Only two daughters survived into adulthood – Anna who died in 1728 and her sister Elizabeth who succeeded her mother as Elizabeth I of Russia.  

Coronation dress of Catherine I

He adored her and she was said to be a woman of great good humour. As can be seen from her coronation dress which survives in the Armoury in the Kremlin,  although a great beauty in her youth, in adulthood and after bearing 12 children, she was inclined to stoutness.  Catherine herself succeeded Peter (who had named no successor), becoming Catherine I of Russia and the first woman to rule Imperial Russia, paving the way for three formidable women rulers to come - Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine II.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmm - are we researching a book, perhaps?