History doesn’t remember Peter III of Russia fondly. The grandson of Peter the Great, he’s ridiculed by historians. This is captured effectively by the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica that had this to say about him:
Nature had made him mean, the smallpox had made him hideous, and his degraded habits made him loathsome. And Peter had all the sentiments of the worst kind of a small German prince of the time. He had the conviction that his princeship entitled him to disregard decency and the feelings of others. He planned brutal practical jokes, in which blows had always a share. His most manly taste did not rise above the kind of military interest which has been defined as “corporal’s mania,” the passion for uniforms, pipeclay, buttons, the “tricks of parade and the froth of discipline.” He detested the Russians, and surrounded himself with Holsteiners.
That historians and others should be so hostile to the memory of Peter III and laud so highly the Empress that followed him, Catherine, tends to count against the idea of The Patriarchy. Doubly so when we consider that Catherine was his wife and that she deposed him. History remembers her as Catherine the Great. I prefer to call her Catherine the Usurper. In the end Peter was on the throne for barely six months thanks to the actions of his wife and others.
The man who would later become Peter III, Emperor of Russia, was born in 1728 in the city of Kiel in what is now Germany. His mother died soon after from a postpartum infection and his father died when he was eleven. He was descended from Swedish and Russian royalty and was now a duke in own right. In 1742, when he was 14, he was named the heir presumptive of the Russian Empire by this aunt Empress Elizabeth. Soon after he moved to Russia where he lived for the rest of his life. Not long after moving to Russia he was also named as heir-presumptive of the Swedish throne however when Swedish authorities discovered that he was also the heir to the Russian throne the offer was apparently quietly dropped.
In 1762 Empress Elizabeth died and Peter ascended to the throne. One of his first acts on taking the throne was to end a seven year long war with Prussia. He ordered Russians to leave conquered Prussian land and provided compensation to Prussia He then went on to form an alliance with Prussia. So much for warmongering men.
Peter then embarked on an ambitious programme of reform. In his 186 days on the throne he passed 220 laws. He was able to maintain this prodigious rate as he had been preparing his legislative agenda over his 20 years as the heir to the Russian throne.
His daily routine was disciplined. He would rise at 7am, receive reports on the state of the empire from 8-10am, at 11am he would oversee the changing of the guard. He would generally take lunch at 1pm. Sometimes diplomats or Russians from across the class spectrum were invited to lunch with him.
Peter permitted religious freedom among his subjects, something that was unusual even in Western Europe at the time. He emphasised and encouraged education through his legislative reforms.
Peter went on to abolish the Secret Office of Investigation, a secret police force used principally to crush dissent against the state and the emperor.
Peter also established the first state bank in Russia, significantly reduced the control nobles had over trade and encouraged the rise of a merchant class. This can be seen today as economic liberalisation intended to promote wealth in Russia.
Notably Peter released nobles from compulsory military service. These same nobles were to assist his wife in deposing him months later.
During Peter’s reign the killing of peasants by their lords was abolished. Henceforth lords that killed their peasants were subject to exile. One female landowner, E.N. Golshein-Bek, was reportedly so abusive to her peasants that her lands were taken from her.
While Peter has often been criticised for speaking little Russian, the truth is that French was the language of the Russian court and the Russian royal family had little cause to speak Russian on a daily basis.
Peter’s predecessor, Elizabeth, had seized power from the infant emperor Ivan VI. Elizabeth had Ivan held incommunicado as a baby and forbade him receiving an education. In a story reminiscent of The Man in the Iron Mask Ivan’s jailers were prohibited from even knowing his identity. When Peter came to the throne Ivan was 21 and still rotting in prison. Peter visited Ivan and there is some indication that he intended to improve the conditions of his incarceration.
While Catherine usurped her husbands power she did so with the support of the nobility, the army and the navy. After taking power Catherine reversed many of Peter’s reforms although she retained those that benefitted the crown, such as an increased right to seize church property. Peter died in captivity but it isn’t clear whether Catherine had a hand in this or not.
Catherine also created the infamous Pale of Settlement in which Russian Jews were required to reside. Jews in the army could leave when on active service but had to return to the Pale during leave. The Pale was to remain in place until the fall of the Russian monarchy in 1917.
After he died a number of pretenders stepped forward claiming to be Peter. In at least one case Catherine’s forces defeated a pretender in battle.
As noted, historians have little good to say about Peter, while they praise Catherine. Many historians have uncritically accepted Catherine’s version of events and of her husband.
Peter’s attempts at liberalising Russian society and economy paint a different picture – of a monarch trying to make Russia better than it was. In doing so he made powerful enemies who ultimately removed him from power.
Whatever lead up to it, Russia’s nobles concluded that they would be better off with Empress Catherine than Emperor Peter. Time and again the historical record has examples in which nobles supported a ruler based on their own self-interest rather than the gender of the ruler.
Today a statue stands in the city of his birth, one of the few monuments to this man. The narrative carried down through the centuries, of a small petty man, and that of his wife as a great ruler is itself a clear demonstration of the falsity of the feminist claims of Patriarchy. A Patriarchy would never suppress the good works of an emperor and exhault the empress that usurped him. A Patriarchy would never replace an emperor with an empress in the first place. Catherine rewrote history to justify her own reign and the world has to a large degree uncritically accepted her claims. This was true even before the rise of the modern feminist movement and is a very clear indication of the prevalence of gynocentrism throughout Russian and Western civilisation.
Officially Peter and Catherine had one son, Paul, who would go on to be emperor of Russia after his mother died. Later in life Catherine hinted that Peter had not been Paul’s father however. Paul had a distant relationship with his mother as she showed much more affection to her many lovers than to her only son. Catherine attempted to pass over Paul and make his own son Alexander her heir. This was ultimately unsuccessful and Paul took the throne on the death of Catherine. Paul reportedly resembled Peter physically as well as in personality. Like Peter, Paul had attempted to improve the lot of the peasantry and was ultimately removed from power with the support of the nobility. When he wouldn’t abdicate he was murdered by nobles.
Perhaps Peter’s reforms were too ambitious for his time. It is unfortunate that he’s continued to be viewed so negatively today. With hindsight we can see that his reforms would have helped to modernise Russian and ultimately helped the Russian people. Had Peter stayed on the throne and been able to complete his reforms the Russian revolutions of the early 20th century might never have materialised. If so the world today might be very different. Alas we will never know, because 260 years ago today Catherine the Usurper deposed her husband Peter III and locked him in a prison cell, only to have him die soon after.
Instead of Peter the reformer we got Catherine the Usurper and autocrat. What could have been.
The cover image depicts Peter in 1761, the year of his reign.