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Emperor Peter III

Emperor Peter III

Empress Elizaveta Petrovna died on 25 December 1761.

Her nephew – the son of the elder Elizaveta’s sister Anna Petrovna and Karl Friedrich, the duke of Schleswig-Holstein – Peter Ulrich came to the Russian throne.

Prince Peter was born in Kiel in 1728. His mother died when he was three months old, and when he was 11, he lost his father and was under the care of the marshal of the court Brümer “who was a soldier rather than an educated man, a groom rather than a teacher. He often turned to kneeling on peas, to decorating with donkey ears, whipping and even beating with anything that came to hand (often in the presence of the court nobility) as his teaching method”. It is no surprise that the “upbringing” led to the young prince’s aversion to learning and his propensity to coarse jokes. For instance, at the table he would pour the wine on those who were sitting next to him or to turn up dishes on their clothes. He reminded a teenager for a long time, and being already an 18-year-old married man, he passionately played with dolls.

Being the grandson of Peter I on his mother’s side and the grandson of the sister of Karl XII on his father’s side, Peter Ulrich of Holstein had a right both to the Russian and the Swedish throne, and at first he was taught the Swedish language and brought up as a Protestant. Having become the empress, Elizaveta Petrovna officially announced her nephew to be her heir. In 1742 14-year-old Peter was taken to Russia (Brümer came with him), was baptised and called great prince Pyotr Fyodorovich. Attempts to teach him the Russian language and basics of Eastern Orthodoxy were vain; he spoke mainly German, and at church he behaved very improperly mocking the priests during the service. In 1745 his marriage with his second cousin - an Anhalt-Zerbst princess – who eventually became empress Ekaterina II was arranged.

Elizaveta Petrovna regretted her decision very soon. The nephew worried her not only because of his bad manners, lack of education and aversion to the Russian. They also completely differed in political likings: when Russia and Prussia were at war, Peter was proud he was a lieutenant of the Prussian army, wore a Prussian uniform and a ring with a portrait of Friedrich II who was his idol. The Prussian king and the heir to the Russian throne shared their passion for military parades and everything related to the military science. Ekaterina II recalled in 1791: “In Peterhof he amused himself teaching military things to me; thanks to his efforts I can still perform all gun techniques with the accuracy of the most seasoned grenadier. He also put me on guard with a musket on my shoulder at the door between his room and my room, and I stood there hours long”. Having become the emperor, Peter immediately made peace with Prussia and returned it all the lands conquered during 7 years of the war. He became the most devote vassal of Friedrich. Naturally, this could not make the new Sovereign popular in the Russian society. (The King of Prussia awarded Peter with the title of the major-general, and the count Kyril Razumovsky suggested appointing Friedrich field marshal).

At the beginning of the rule Peter III amazed and pleased his subjects when he signed the Decree on the liberty of the nobility, according to which the noble got a possibility not to do a civil service. He also abolished the terrible Secret Office (historians believe the documents had been prepared by the ministers of Elizaveta long before, and Peter only signed them). His further actions were really nonsense. Having lived at court of Elizaveta Petrovna for 20 years, Pyotr Fyodorovich did not wish to get to know the country which he had to rule over. Transforming the Russian army in the Prussian manner, he set the guard which “was used to special attention” and which “felt insulted and was very unhappy” against him. Peter wished to remove icons from churches and the Eastern Orthodox clergy to wear unclerical dress. The private life of the emperor also caused indignation: almost every day he was so drunk by the midday that he didn’t control his temper talking and “revealed such secrets of politics and court relationships that should be kept”. Peter didn’t keep back his wish to shut his wife up in the convent and to marry Elizaveta Vorontsova. The declaration of war against Denmark to win back his family Duchy of Holstein became the last straw. Ekaterina was right when she said Peter had no more dangerous enemy than himself.

The overturn that brought her the crown appeared to be very easy and quick. A few days later, cloistered in Ropsha (he was forbidden even to leave the palace), the former emperor Peter III died in mysterious circumstances. An old-standing foreboding of his death in Russia, foreign and strange to him, appeared to be true. The note of Aleksey Orlov set to protect the decrowned Peter has remained where he tried to justify himself: “Mother, dear Madam, how can I explain and describe what has happened? Mother! I’m ready to meet death, but I don’t know how the trouble came. We are lost if you don’t grant pardon to us. Mother, he died. But nobody wanted that. How can we think of raising the hand against the Sovereign? Mother, the trouble has however come. He argued with duke Fyodor at the table, barely had we separated them, he died. We don’t remember what we were doing, but each and every is guilty and deserves execution. We are in despair: we angered you and ruined our souls forever”.

The original note was burnt by Pavel I after Ekaterina died, but Fyodor Rostopchin had managed to make a copy of it.

“A guest of the Russian throne by chance, he flashed like a falling star in the Russian political heaven leaving everybody bewildered why he appeared there”, said Vasily Klyuchevsky about Peter III.

… A young man in a three-corner hat and a military uniform is looking at us from a small portrait painted (perhaps by Fyodor Rokotov) in 1762.

A green caftan with a red collar and golden buttons is decorated with a blue band and the order of St. Andrew the First-Called – the symbols of belonging to the tsar family. A swarthy face with a light colour and a dimple on the chin fascinates with the youthful uncertainty of features, a shy and hesitating smile hardly touching the corners of the lips as if the unknown artist felt deeply hidden helplessness and loneliness of the emperor whose life and death were ridiculous – a boy that got lost in the world of adults.

 The authors of the project:

Text – by the research assistant Marina Scherbakova

Images (their digitization) – by Dmitry Kozlov

Translation into the English language – by Olga Scherbakova

 Adding the project to the website – by Polina Yanitskaya – the head of the branch for multimedia technologies of the department for research and education of the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus