18 July 2022

2022-07-18 The 260th anniversary of the tragic death of Emperor Peter III

July 19 (July 6 according to the Julian Calendar) is the 260th anniversary of the death of Emperor Peter III Feodorovich, the victim of a palace coup and subsequent assassination


Emperor Peter III Feodorovich (b. in Kiel on 10/[21]23 February 1728, d. in Ropsha on 6/19 July 1762).


Peter III was the son of the Tsesarevna Anna Petrovna, the daughter of Peter I the Great, and Duke Karl-Friedrich of Holstein-Gottorp. At birth he was given the name Karl-Pieter-Ulrich. His mother died seven days after his birth, and his father died in 1739.


The Testament” of Empress Catherine I, the wife of Emperor Peter I, named Prince Karl-Pieter-Ulrich as next in line to the Russian Throne after the death of the childless Emperor Peter II, but a conspiracy of members of the Supreme Privy Council prevented the Testament from being fully executed.


The future Peter III was first thought of as the heir to the Swedish throne because he was also the great-nephew of King Charles XII of Sweden. To that end, he was brought up in rugged Spartan conditions, as if he lived in a military camp.


The accession in 1741 to the Russian throne of Karl-Peter-Ulrich’s aunt, Empress Elizabeth I, completely changed his future. He became the heir to the Russian Imperial Throne and moved to Russia in early 1742. His education was placed in the hands of the Academician Ia. Shtelin. Karl-Peter-Ulrich rigorously studied the foundations of the Orthodox Faith and was received into the Orthodox Church by Chrismation in November 1742 with the name Peter Feodorovich, receiving then also the title of Right-Believing Grand Duke.


On 21 August (3 September) 1745 the Heir married Princess Sophie Auguste Friederike of Anhalt-Zerbst (who took the name Catherine Alexeevna in Orthodoxy). For several years the grand-ducal couple did not have children, but in 1754 a son was finally born to them: Grand Duke Paul.


Emperor Peter III ascended the Throne on Christmas Day 1761, establishing the Holstein-Gottorp line of the House of Romanoff, to which belonged every subsequent Emperor of Russia.


His reign began with a successful run of impressive reforms.


The abolition of the Privy Chancery, the complete cessation of the persecution of the Old Believers, and the elimination of the salt tax all greatly improved the condition of the people of Russia.


Count Burkhart von Münnich, the former regent of the Duke of Courland Ernst Johann von Biron, and many other nobles who had suffered during the previous reign, returned from exile.


On 18 February (3 March) 1762, the Emperor issued his Decree on the Emancipation of the Nobility. There is good reason to believe that he also contemplated a parallel decree on the emancipation of Russia’s serfs.


Peter III began the process of the secularization of Church lands, which, while resisted by some clergy, was rooted in the needs of State.


Emperor Peter III deeply respected King Friedrich II the Great of Prussia, but the ending of the hopeless Seven Years’ War, despite a number of successes for the Russians, was brought about not by the excessive respect the Emperor had for the King, but by the actual international interests of Russia. In exchange for the return of several territories to Prussia, which would have been ceded sooner or later anyway, Frederick II the Great promised to support the Russian Empire in its diplomatic and military conflicts with Poland, Courland, and Schleswig, which was more valuable to Russia’s international security and reputation than small tracts of land.


Peter III was a broadly educated man and a talented musician. He understood the intricacies of politics and made bold decisions concerning serious and vitally important domestic and international problems, but he did not correctly assess the attitude of Russian society toward him.


A conspiracy against Peter III had hatched in the Guards Regiments, and the Emperor was not informed about the mounting danger in time to extinguish the threat. Distracted by the preparations for war with Denmark over Schleswig, the Emperor left the capital and went to Oranienbaum. Meanwhile, his estranged wife, Empress Catherine Alexeevna, allied herself with the Guards officers and seized power.


On 28 June (11 July) 1762, Catherine proclaimed herself the sovereign Empress and moved on Oranienbaum. Peter III attempted to flee to Kronstadt but his route was blocked by Catherine Alexeevna’s allies.


Count Burkhart von Münnich advised the Emperor to go to Revel and from there to Pomerania, where he could take personal command of his forces preparing for war with Denmark and march back to the capital to take back his Throne. But the Emperor had lost his will to fight. He returned to Oranienbaum and signed a decree abdicating his throne in favour of his wife. He was then taken into custody.


On his name day—the Feast of the Holy Chief Apostles Peter and Paul—29 June (12 July) 1762—the Emperor was taken to Ropsha until, as he was told, appropriate quarters were prepared for him at the Schlüsselburg Fortress. He spent the last several days of his life there, in anguish and alone, surrounded only by his enemies.


Emperor Peter III was murdered on 6 July (19 July) 1762 in circumstances that remain unclear to this day. He was buried in the Church of the Annunciation in the St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery. At the urging of the Imperial Senate, Empress Catherine II did not attend the funeral.


Peter III was not long enough on the Throne to have arranged for his coronation. On 18 December (31 December) 1796, his remains, solemnly crowned by the decree of his son Emperor Paul I, were moved to the Mausoleum of the Romanoff Dynasty in the Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, where the Emperor was laid to rest next to his wife, who had deposed him.


Noble and liberal, and then even Marxist, historiography created and maintained a negative image of Peter III. But in the memory of the people, the Emperor remained a Tsar-Martyr, an intercessor for the ordinary people. The Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-1775, which shook the foundations of the Empire, was led by Emelian Pugachev, who claimed to be Emperor Peter III. Undoubtedly, it was this claim to the name of Peter III that attracted such a large mass of people of different classes and nationalities to the movement.


All subsequent Russian sovereigns are the direct male descendants of Emperor Peter III, who became the ancestor of the Holstein-Gottorp branch of the Russian Imperial House of Romanoff.

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