Russian Life
heir abhorrent Image Credit: Russian Life
heir abhorrent Image Credit: Russian Life

Heir Abhorrent

ON FEBRUARY 3, 1718, Emperor Peter I issued a manifesto depriving Alexei, his son by his first wife, of the right to succeed him to the throne. Alexei, who had only just returned from Western Europe, where he had traveled in an attempt to avoid his father’s wrath, swore a solemn oath in Moscow’s Dormition Cathedral renouncing any claim to the throne in favor of his half brother Peter. One might have thought that the many years of conflict between father and son had finally been resolved, but in fact its most horrific episodes lay ahead.

Poor, unfortunate Tsarevich Alexei had been separated from his mother in childhood and was unloved by his father, of whom he lived in dread. Who knows? He might have made a perfectly good tsar if the charismatic Peter had not quashed his every impulse and burdened him with terrible psychological complexes, along with the habit of drunkenness.

One moment Alexei would make clumsy attempts to earn his father’s affection; the next he’d admit during confession that he wished his father were dead (the confessor replied: “The Lord will forgive you; that’s what we all wish”). One moment he would naively discuss his prospects with Peter’s courtiers; the next he’d drink himself into a stupor. Peter tolerated such a “failure” of a son, but not out of love – there was certainly no question of that – but rather out of self-interest. He and his second wife Catherine had many children, but most of them died in childhood.

In 1715 Catherine finally gave birth to a son, “Petrushka,” and Peter was elated to have this new “recruit,” as he called his sons. That was when he wrote a threatening letter to Alexei, demanding that he change his behavior or renounce the throne. Apparently Peter saw nothing wrong with giving Alexei this letter right after his (Alexei’s) wife had died.

The tsarevich sought refuge in Europe. Some of his father’s associates warned him not to return to R


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