Sunday, July 12, 2015

After Peter Part I

Russian Guards of the 18th Century. #6 is an Izmailovskii Guards grenadier.

Peter’s death in 1725 left no son to take the throne. His son Aleksei Petrovich by his first wife was nothing at all like what Peter wanted in a son, i.e., nothing at all like Peter himself. Aleksei was passive, bookish, and uninterested in state affairs: in Peter’s view not tsar material. In 1716 Aleksei offered to give up all right to the throne. Peter, furious, summoned Aleksei to a personal confrontation, whereupon Aleksei fled to Austria. Brought back to Russia by Peter’s agents, Aleksei was arrested, charged with conspiracy, tortured, and died under questioning in 1718, leaving behind a small son, Peter Alekseevich. With his second wife, Catherine, Peter fathered a number of sons, none of whom survived to adulthood. After the death of Aleksei Petrovich, Peter made incomplete preparations for the succession. In 1722 he declared it was the choice of the tsar, not a matter of genealogy, but did not name an heir. In 1724, he proclaimed his second wife, Catherine, Empress of Russia. While this strengthened Catherine’s claim to power, Peter never specifically named her as heir. Peter’s rejection of his son Aleksei as lacking manly virtues meant, ironically, that Russia was ruled by women and children for all but six months of the next 81 years.

When Peter died, Catherine easily took the throne. She enjoyed the support and affection of the politically vital guards regiments, which she had accompanied on a number of campaigns with Peter. Peter’s associate Menshikov backed her as well. As Tsar Catherine I, she had no interest in ruling, and Menshikov took over government as head of the Supreme Privy Council, a small group of Peter’s inner circle. Catherine and Menshikov cultivated the guards regiments while cutting taxes and army expenditures to reduce the unsustainable burden Peter’s military machine had placed on Russia.

Catherine outlived Peter by only two years, and her death in 1727 raised the issue of succession once again. Peter and Catherine had two surviving daughters, but Menshikov engineered the succession of Aleksei’s son Peter, grandson of Peter the Great, as Tsar Peter II. Menshikov overreached by engaging Peter to his own daughter, bringing Peter into his household, and one by one eliminating his rivals on the Supreme Privy Council. Menshikov’s bald grasp for power and astounding corruption alienated a growing proportion of the high nobility, who managed to turn Peter II against Menshikov. He was exiled to Siberia and died in 1729. Peter II did not live much longer, dying of smallpox in 1730. Neither Catherine I nor Peter II had much impact on Russian military history. Their chief contribution was a negative one: reducing Peter the Great’s military burden by discharging large numbers of officers and soldiers and allowing the navy to lapse into disrepair. Russia’s expansionist wars of the 1730s ended the army’s decay, but the navy continued its decline for most of the eighteenth century.

After the death of Peter II, no obvious candidates for tsar remained. The Supreme Privy Council’s choice was Anna Ivanovna, widow of the Duke of Courland and daughter of Peter the Great’s handicapped brother, Ivan V. Her chief attraction was her political weakness as a woman and widow, and the Council made its offer conditional. To receive the crown, Anna agreed to cede to the Supreme Privy Council the right to make war and peace, promulgate new taxes, create new generals, and control the guards regiments. The conditions, had she abided by them, would have gutted the autocratic power of the Russian tsar and created an oligarchy under the Supreme Privy Council. The prospect of domination by the oligarchs of the Council was terrifying to the rest of the Russian nobility, and they communicated to Anna their opposition to the conditions. As niece to Peter the Great, she enjoyed a natural following among the guards regiments, which she carefully groomed upon her return to Moscow in February 1730. With her political support in place, she publicly tore up the conditions the Privy Council had imposed, dissolved the Council, and proclaimed full restoration of her autocratic powers. Though the guards regiments played a key role in her triumph, she nonetheless balanced their power by creating a third guards regiment, the Izmailovskii Guards.

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