Peter III was born on 21 February 1728, the only child of Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp and Anna Petrovna, one of Peter the Great’s older daughters. Anna Petrovna died just a few months after her son’s birth. The baby, who was baptized Karl Peter Ulrich, was heir to Duke of Holstein-Gottorp and probable heir of the titles held by his great-uncle Charles XII of Sweden, the former Grand Duke of Finland.
You would think such a high-born little boy would have been well cared for, wouldn’t you? Sadly, this was not the case. In an effort to toughen up the young Peter, he was put under the tutelage of a sadistic monster named Otto Brummer who physically and psychologically tormented him in a way the boggles the modern mind. Not only was this allowed when Peter’s father was alive, it continued after his father’s death when Peter, at age 11, was in fact the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp.
Some biographers theorize that his tutor’s viscous treatment left permanent scars on Peter’s mind and heart: “The violence which Brummer constantly inflicted on him produced a pathetic, twisted child … fearful, deceitful, antagonistic, boastful, cowardly, duplicitous, and cruel. He made friends only with the lowest of his servants, those whom he was allowed to strike. He tortured pet animals” (Massie, 2011). Others historians defend Peter, claiming that according to a German officer recorded that the adult Peter “was an energetic [and] concerned with education, law, and the courts. Despite his consuming interest in military affairs, Peter consulted frequently with his advisors”. Addtionally, Caspar von Saldern, Peter’s Holstein advisor and a close friend [decried] the “calumnies of his enemies and … the false assertions” … and Charles T. de Laveaux, the French commercial consul in St Petersburg [claimed that] Peter was intelligent; although he suffered “nervous irritability” and was impatient, he was generous and open” (Leonard, 1993).
When Peter’s aunt Elizabeth became Empress of Russia in 1741 (after deposing the infant Tsar Ivan VI, whom she kept locked in a small prison his whole life) she brought the 14 year old duke to Petersburg as her heir apparent in September of 1742. Almost at the same time, in October 1742, Peter was chosen by the Swedish parliament as next in line to the Swedish throne. However, when the Swedes discovered he was Russia’s heir, they disinherited him rather than risk sharing a king with their mortal enemies.
If given a choice, Peter would have preferred to rule Sweden. He considered himself Prussian/Germanic above all else, and was resistant to even learning the Russian language. Thinking of how his life and reign in Russia turned out, it is a great pity he wasn’t allowed to go to Sweden.
Elizabeth betrothed Peter to his paternal second cousin, Sophia Augusta Frederica (later Catherine the Great) in 1744.
Although Peter told his bride-to-be that he was only marrying her to please the empress and that he loved another girl, he also assured her that he liked her and that he was glad to have someone to talk to in German. Catherine herself would later affirm that her fiancée did everything he could to help her adjust to the new life into which she had been thrust (Alexander, 1988). Unfortunately, the fragile affection between Catherine and her fiancé was shattered when Peter contracted smallpox. Inasmuch as Catherine had never had smallpox, she was kept far away from Peter, who lay on death’s doorstep for several weeks. When Catherine saw him again in February of 1745 she unfortunately let her revulsion for his distorted and scarred appearance show briefly on her face. He never forgave her for it.
The marriage was a disaster from the start. Although the Empress Elizabeth was warned by court physicians that Peter, despite being 17 years old, was too physically immature and unhealthy to be married, she still demanded the couple wed on 21 August 1745. As a sexual enthusiast herself, Elizabeth assumed that — the doctors’ warnings of immaturity or not — once Peter was put to bed with his pretty bride then nature would take its course and more heirs would be added to the Russian court. The empress failed to take into account her nephew’s nervousness and delayed puberty, as well as the fact that the bride was utterly and completely clueless about any possible seduction techniques she could use to encourage the groom.
According to Catherine, after was put to bed she was left alone for several hours to wait in anxious boredom for her bridegroom to show up. When he finally entered the room, he commented to Catherine on how “amused the servant would be to find us in bed together” (Rounding, 2008), rolled over, and went to sleep. Bewildered, Catherine did likewise. In her Memoirs, Catherine wrote that this was “the state in which things remained for nine consecutive years without the least change.”
Did Catherine and Peter’s marriage go unconsummated for almost a decade? Evidence favors Catherine’s assertion. Her perpetual virginity was a widespread piece of gossip in the Russian court and there was never a hint that she had conceived. There was also the distinct possibility that the grand duke had phimosis, a condition wherein the foreskin is too small and erections are extremely painful. An agent of the French government wrote that Peter was “unable to have children because of an obstacle, which the Oriental peoples remedy by circumcision, but for which [Peter] thought there was no cure” (Farquhar, 2001). The patient often outgrows phimosis on his own by the time he is 21, and this may have been what Elizabeth’s doctors were trying to convey when they told her Peter was too young to marry.
Supposedly after the grand duke had already been married for seven years when his valet, a Frenchman named Bressan, was suborned at the behest of the empress to figure out a way to rid Peter of his virginity so that the future emperor would know how to make babies with his wife (Massie, 2011). Madame Groot, an attractive widow, was successfully requisitioned for this task. Yet even after this deflowering, Peter still preferred to bring his toy soldiers to bed and made his wife play armies with him instead of making love to her.
Trapped in a sexless marriage with a man she was increasingly growing estranged from, Catherine was emotionally, physically, and psychologically vulnerable for an affair. Sure enough, in the late summer of 1752 she was seduced by an experience and handsome womanizer named Sergei Saltykov. Whether or not Peter was also sharing her bed for something other than sleep is unknown, but Catherine and most of Europe assumed that Saltykov was the man responsible for the grand duchess’s first three pregnancies. Although Catherine miscarried twice, on September 20, 1754 she gave birth to a son, the future Paul I of Russia. Peter never repudiated his wife or rejected his heir, in spite of the fact he was well aware that the boy was probably not his child.
Things only got worse between the royal couple when Peter fell in love with Elizaveta Romanovna Vorontsova, and they started treating Catherine horribly. Vorontsova egged the grand duke on and the other maids of honor had become rude and insubordinate toward Catherine under the influence of Peter and his mistress. Peter’s clear preference and elevation of Vorontsova was also a blow to Catherine’s pride, since Vorontsova was the exact opposite of the attractive, cultured, and erudite grand duchess. One eye-witness recorded that Vorontsova had a “broad, puffy, pock-marked face and fat, squat, shapeless figure” while another declared that she was “ugly, common, and stupid” (Massie, 2011). The French ambassador compared Vorontsova unfavorably to a “scullery maid of the lowliest kind” (Anisimov, 2004). One of Peter’s close German friends said that Vorontsova “swore like a trooper, stank, and spat when she spoke” (Kaus, 1935). Catherine was humiliated by Peter’s choice of paramour.
When Empress Elizabeth died on 5 January 1762 the grand duke became Peter III of Russia … and proceeded to shoot himself in the foot.
On one hand, his mess was laudable. Historian Elena Palmer has headed a recent charge to redeem Peter’s legacy. She points out that Peter was “a courageous liberal – at least by Russian standards – who expounded religious freedom, abolished the country’s secret police (revived upon Catherine’s accession), criminalized the killing of serfs by landowners, required education for the children of aristocrats (with proof submitted to the senate), established technical schools for middle-and-lower-class children, and exempted nobles from obligatory state and military service established under Peter the Great. The latter move alone prompted parliament to propose erecting a solid-gold statue of Peter III, but he demurred with the observation that Russia had better uses for its gold” (Newton, 2014).
But Peter was also his own worst enemy. First, he made no secret of his distaste for Russians or for his plans to install non-Russians in key governmental posts. He surrounded himself with German advisors. He arbitrarily gave Frederick of Prussia back all the land the Russian army had shed blood to conquer during the preceding seven years. He wanted a new war with Demark, which would have spent Russian lives solely to gain back a small slice of the duchy of Holstein. He wanted the Russian army to emulate the rigid discipline of the Prussian army and his guardsmen resented it bitterly. He enacted his new laws (which were awesome) with no thought toward sweetening the medicine when he forced the nobility (whose support he needed) to swallow it. His “policy changes left influential groups and individuals threatened, disgruntled, anxious” (Alexander, 1988). He offended Russians deeply when he “pulled faces and laughed out loud” (Neville, 2006) during the state funeral of Empress Elizabeth. He told the Orthodox Archbishop that the rites of the church were superstitions, and that they all had to shave their beards and denude their church of iconography. He also managed to insult powerful men personally, practically driving away influential political players away with a stick and into collusion with his wife, Catherine.
Even with all those blunders, it is nevertheless possible no coup would have occurred. Peter was, after all, the only grandson of Peter the Great. His adoration of Germany could have been forgiven; the English king George I also remained as German as sauerkraut and yet he reigned unmolested. Furthermore, Peter had been heir to the throne for almost 20 years. What could have toppled a man so entrenched in his position?
An embittered and insulted empress with intelligence, patience, immense political savvy, charisma, and an axe to grind, that’s what.
Encouraged by his uncouth mistress, Peter had been treating Catherine worse daily. The envoy from Britain “wrote to London in March 1762 that the empress’s influence was slight: not only was she disregarded in matters of state, but it private affairs, too”, and the French ambassador also noted that Catherine was held “in utter contempt” by Peter (Anisimov, 2004). Peter was openly talking of shipping off Catherine to a convent so he could marry his mistress and make Vorontsova the new empress. The French charge d’affairs wrote that, “Peter III’s barbarous, senseless ferocity made it seem quite possible that he intended to eliminate his wife” (Farquhar, 2014). Throughout the Russian court and in diplomatic circles, “rumors were rife that the Emperor wished to rid himself of his troublesome spouse, by prison or by poison” (Alexander, 1988). Baron Breteuil warned that although Catherine put on “a manly face” when dealing with her husband’s abuse, it was “impossible not to suspect (for I know her passionate audacity) that, sooner or later, she will venture on some desperate step” (Bain, 1899).
On 28 June 1762 the Empress began her coup.
Peter, at his summer retreat of Oranienbaum, initially had no idea he had been deposed. When he heard that Catherine was marching toward him with a large number of soldiers, he sent away everyone but Vorontsova (who would not abandon him) and wrote Catherine a letter of apology promising to share power with her. When he didn’t get a prompt response, Peter wrote again to Catherine offering to abdicate if she would let him and Vorontsova flee to Holstein. Catherine sent him a message that she needed him to give her his abdication in writing before she would let him go. Either credulous enough to think Catherine would let him go or just desperate, Peter wrote his abdication. It promised in part that:
“I, Peter, of my own free will hereby solemnly declare, not only to the whole Russian empire, but also to the whole world, that I forever renounce the throne of Russia to the end of my days. Nor will I ever seek to recover the same at any time or by anybody’s assistance, and I swear this before God.” (Massie, 2011)
If Peter had been able to better hold himself together, it is unlikely Catherine would have taken his crown. The emperor had several advantages: “his armies in nearby Livonia, primed for the Danish war, could easily crush the guards. Then there was the fortress of Kronstadt, still under his control, which commanded the sea approaches to St. Petersburg itself …[but instead of fighting back, Peter] wept, drank, and dithered” (Montefiore, 2005). Frederick of Prussia said that Peter had “allowed himself to be overthrown like a child being sent off to bed” (Lincoln, 1981).
After Catherine’s rise to power, Peter was separated from Vorontsova (it is hard to see this as anything but spite) and sent to Ropsha. It was there that Prince Bariatinsky, a good friend of the Orlov brothers, murdered the former emperor. It seems to have been done without Catherine’s knowledge or explicit consent, since Alexi Orlov sent her a note swearing, “no one intended to do it so … at dinner, he started quarreling and struggling with Prince Bariatinsky at the table. Before we could separate them, [Peter] was dead. We ourselves know not what we did. But we are all equally guilty and deserve to die … Forgive us or quickly make an end of me … We have angered you and lost our souls forever” (Massie, 2011). Catherine, hoping to quell accusations and censure, proclaimed that Peter had died of hemorrhoid colic. Very, very few people in Europe believed her story.
Peter’s funeral didn’t exactly help quell the rumors of his murder. His throat was swathed in multiple folds of a cravat, preventing anyone from seeing if it had markings. His hat was too large, and pulled down to obscure his blackened and swollen face. His hands were encased in gloves, so no one could tell if there were defensive wounds. His coffin was kept in dimly lit chapel during the viewing, and guards surrounded it; people were not allowed to get to close or look too long. He would be buried a second time by his son, Paul I of Russia, came to the throne after Catherine’s death.
Thus ended a life demonstrating how being born in privilege is no preventative for childhood abuse and an existence filled with unkindness, cruelty, isolation, followed by a brutal ending.
Alexander, John T. 1988. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. Oxford University Press.
Anisimov, Evgeniĭ Viktorovich. 2004. Five Empresses: Court Life in Eighteenth-Century Russia. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Bain, Robert Nisbet. 1899. The Daughter of Peter the Great: A History of Russian Diplomacy and of the Russian Court Under the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, 1741-1762. A. Constable & Company.
Farquhar, Michael. 2001. A Treasury of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories History’s Wickedest Weirdest Most Wanton Kings Queens. Penguin.
———. 2014. Secret Lives of the Tsars: Three Centuries of Autocracy, Debauchery, Betrayal, Murder, and Madness from Romanov Russia. Random House Publishing Group.
Leonard, Carol S. 1993. Reform and Regicide: The Reign of Peter III of Russia. Indiana University Press.
Lincoln, W. Bruce. 1981. The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russias. Dial Press.
Massie, Robert K. 2011. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. Random House Publishing Group.
Montefiore, Simon Sebag. 2005a. Potemkin: Catherine The Great’s Imperial Partner. Vintage Books.
———. 2005b. Potemkin: Catherine The Great’s Imperial Partner. Vintage Books.
Newton, Michael. 2014. Famous Assassinations in World History. ABC-CLIO.
Neville, Peter. 2006. A Traveller’s History of Russia. Interlink Books.
Rounding, Virginia. 2008. Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power. Macmillan.