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Peter III

On the death of Elizabeth, her nephew Peter, son of her sister Anne and Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein, succeeded. He was an ardent admirer of his cousin, Frederick the Great, and to the astonishment of all Europe one of his first acts was to make a peace with the Prussian king and to renounce all the conquests which Russia had made and the fruits of her victories. Frederick, who had been in the lowest depths of despair, now breathed again. A treaty was concluded between Russia and Prussia in 1762. Peter's violent change in the policy of his country resulted from the fact that Russia was in reality gaining nothing by the war, which was a constant drain to her in money and men. Two other measures of Peter were more popular among his subjects - he put an end to the secret Chancery established by the Empress Elizabeth, and to the law of Peter the Great, by which all members of the aristocracy were compelled to take some civil employment. Peter ordered the State prisons to be opened and many exiles to be recalled.

In spite, however, of some sensible laws and generous treatment of fallen greatness, the German propensities of the Emperor made him disliked. The Russians had been too thoroughly exploited by this people to have forgotten the disagreeable traditions associated with their name. Peter, moreover, attempted to interfere with the property of the Church, a vigorous measure for which he had hardly the requisite strength. He reunited to the Crown lands all those throughout his empire which belonged to the monasteries, and he made over in exchange to the archbishops and abbots a fixed revenue and a sum for the maintenance of the monks. This measure was carried by Catherine afterwards, but it only added to the load of unpopularity of the unfortunate Emperor. The memory of Peter has been so absolutely eclipsed by the brilliance of the extraordinary woman who superseded or, rather, suppressed him, that to many people he is only interesting as the husband, the murdered husband of Catherine. His short life is a mere episode in her turbulent and dramatic career. Most of the memoirs relating to Peter are frankly polemical - either lampoons or apologies. While the friends of Catherine are obviously interested in representing Catherine's detested husband as a brutal, vicious, irresponsible despot, the friends of Peter, exaggerating his many amiable personal qualities and extenuating his undeniable absurdities, picture him, as simply and solely the victim of an ambitious consort and an ungrateful people. As usual the truth lies midway between these two extremes.

Peter was notoriously unfit for ruling an Empire, but he would have made a good average eighteenth century junker or squire. His heart was good if his head was weak; although anything but a hero himself, he was capable of an exalted hero-worship; and a Prince who could conduct an orchestra and plan a library, should not in fairness be stigmatized as a mere idiot. Contemplating some of the actions of Peter, it is difficult to believe that he could have been a man of such weak mental powers as he has been represented. His face, as seen in his portraits, is decidedly feeble and irresolute, but he had already begun to suffer from the low orgies with which he disgraced himself.

A full and impartial life of Peter III on modern lines must be very much more than a mere personal rehabilitation. The reign of Peter III coincides with perhaps the most acute diplomatic crisis, not merely in the history of Russia, but in the history of Europe during the eighteenth century, namely the imminent collapse of the Prussian monarchy at the beginning of 1762, a catastrophe only and hardly averted by the enthusiastic devotion of the new Russian Emperor to Frederick the Great. This important epoch-making event was crammed into the brief six months during which Peter III, to his own hurt and harm, saved Frederick II from apparently inevitable ruin.

Catherine had long lived separated from her husband, and was gradually forming a party devoted to her interests. With the help of the Orlovs, Potemkin (pronounced in Russian Patyomkin), and others, she succeeded in gaining over the troops - those praetorians who had so often decided the fate of the Russian Empire. Hearing that the Empress was marching thither at the head of twenty thousand men, Peter III made but a feeble resistance, and signed an act of abdication on condition that he was allowed to retire to Holstein.

Peter was taken from Oranienbaum to Peterhof, and thence on his way to Schliisselburg he stayed at a little place called Ropsha, where he died four days afterwards from a colic, according to the official announcement, but is supposed to have been strangled by one of the conspirators. Only in the late 19th century did the thick veil which covered the tragedy enacted at the little country house at Ropsha been partially lifted. We still do not know precisely how Peter III was done to death, but that he actually perished by violence there can now be no doubt whatever; moreover, the long debated question of Catherine's innocence or guilt can at last, in the light of recently discovered documents, be regarded as practically settled. This event took place on July 19, 1762.

From this time dates the reign of Catherine II.



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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:48:00 ZULU