Peter the Great revolutionized Russia—but at a terrible price. He crushed rebellions with a cruelty and bloodlust that Russia hadn’t seen since Ivan the Terrible. But nothing could ever stain his legacy more than the worst thing he ever did: He murdered his own son. Brutally. So why are we calling a man like that “great?” It’s complicated. Let’s find out.
1. He Was Low On The Food Chain
Born in Moscow in 1672, Peter was Tsar Alexis of Russia’s 14th child. Despite being so low on the food chain, his father took a keen interest in the boy. Before he was even out of diapers, Peter had some of the best tutors in the country. For the first four years of his life, Peter enjoyed the kind of lavish childhood you’d expect for a Tsarevich.
Then, well…things took a turn.
2. His Older Brother Took Over
Tsar Alexis died when Peter was just four years old. Peter’s 15-year-old brother Fyodor took the throne next. But here’s the thing: Fyodor was a weak and sickly child who had grown into a…weak and sickly teenager. And, unfortunately, in the 17th century “weak and sickly” basically meant your life was a coin flip. Folks in Russia weren’t planning on getting too used to Tsar Fyodor, if you know what I mean.
Fyodor managed to hang on for a few years before succumbing to an illness. That’s when Peter’s life got very interesting.
3. There Was Family Drama
Here’s what you need to know: Tsar Alexis had two wives. Those two wives had families, and both of those families wanted their eldest kid to be the next Tsar. So even though Peter’s older brother Ivan should have been the next Tsar, his family had other plans. They had an advantage, too: This candidate Ivan was…let’s say “not of sound mind.”
Finally, the Russian Boyars made the call: The 10-year-old Peter would be the next tsar. The only problem was, some people were furious about it.
4. His Sister Wanted A Piece
Peter didn’t only have brothers. He also had six older half-sisters—and not all of them were happy with the whole “only boys can inherit the throne” thing. One of those sisters, Sophia, decided to do something about it. No punk little 10-year-old half-brother of hers was getting his grubby little hands on Russia if she had anything to say about it.
Sophia convinced the Streltsy, the elite Russian military corps, to rise up in rebellion. Next, she showed Peter’s family just how brutal she could be.
5. He Witnessed Horrors
Peter the Great witnessed horrors no child should see. Sophia had many of Peter’s closest relatives and friends murdered during her violent coup. Even worse, Peter was personally on hand to see some of these slayings. Such a horrific experience might have broken another child—but Peter the Great was not like most. Soon enough, he would be the one committing the atrocities.
6. He Became His Sister’s Puppet
Sophia wanted to rule Russia, but she couldn’t be so bold as to proclaim herself Tsarina—certainly not when she still had brothers. Instead, she forced the Boyars to name her half-brother Peter and her full brother Ivan as co-tsars. And while they came of age, who would run the country as regent? Why, Sophia of course! It worked brilliantly…at first.
7. His Sister Didn’t Mess Around
Peter’s sister Sophia did not mess around. She knew that her days in charge were numbered, and she took full advantage. She ruled the country with an iron fist. While most women in Moscow were expected to be seen and not heard, Sophia grabbed the country by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Little Peter and Ivan were the Tsars, but she was the real power behind the throne—and we mean that very literally.
8. He Had A Voice In His Ear
Peter and Ivan had a large, dual-seated throne to use for matters of state. How adorable. But Sophia couldn’t trust her two kid brothers to actually remember her orders! So, she had a large hole cut into the back of the throne. While the tsars held court, she would sit behind their throne, listening to every conversation and telling them how to respond.
But the question is: How did Peter enjoy having his older sister tell him what to do?
9. He Didn’t Care About Being Tsar
Young Peter didn’t actually have a problem with Sophia running the show…at first. He was a kid, after all. He liked sailing and learning how to build ships. Otherwise, he played with toy soldiers and staged mock battles. Sophia could have Russia for all he cared. But, though we all wish we could build boats and play with toys forever, eventually Peter was going to have to grow up.
Pretty soon, Peter reached marriageable age—and that meant he couldn’t outrun the game of thrones any longer.
10. His Mom Forced Him To Get Married
Tsars can’t spend their days playing with toys. They need to get married and have babies! Against Peter’s will, his mother pushed him into a marriage with Eudoxia Lopukhina, the daughter of a minor Russian noble. Now, maybe Eudoxia thought she’d hit the jackpot. One day, she was a nobody aristocrat, the next, she was the Tsarina of Russia!
Unfortunately, this was no fairy tale. This was more like a horror story.
11. He Treated His Wife Horribly
What can we say, Peter the Great really didn’t want to marry Eudoxia Lopukhina. He never treated her well, and they remained cold and distant for the duration of their marriage. But that doesn’t mean Peter wasn’t interested in women—just not his wife. He quickly took a Dutch woman named Anna Mons as his mistress. Unlike his wife, Peter adored Anna, and that brought a lot of power and influence to her and her family.
Unfortunately, Peter the Great was like a scorching flame. It was hard to be near him without getting burned—something Anna and her family would eventually learn the hard way. But first, Peter needed to get real power.
12. His Sister Was Messing Things Up
By the summer of 1689, Peter was 17, unhappily married, and finally tired of playing with boats. He was ready to take what was his. It didn’t help matters that his half-sister Sophia was out there making quite the mess of things. Crimean Tatars were launching devastating raids into Russia’s southern borders, and Sophia’s two campaigns into Crimea were total disasters.
But, if you know anything about Sophia by now, it should be this: She wasn’t going down without a fight.
13. He Had To Run For His Life
Sophia heard of Peter’s plans, but she wasn’t ready to give up her power just yet. She still had the Streltsy on her side, too, so they came up with a dark plot. They were going to get Peter to fall in line—or else. Thankfully, some members of the Streltsy were in the young tsar’s corner. They warned him, and he fled under cover of darkness to the impenetrable monastery of Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra.
Though it was all happening behind the scenes, there was a cold war breaking out in Russia. Peter vs. Sophia. But who would come out on top? (I think you know the answer).
14. He Came Out On Top
Surprise surprise, there were lots of people in Russia who despised the autocratic Sophia and her machinations. They flocked to Peter’s side, and after a power struggle, the tsar came out on top. His retaliation against Sophia was devastating. Peter forced her to forsake her name, her titles, and her position in the royal family. Then he locked her away in a convent, where she quickly wasted away, passing within six years.
Now it was finally time for Peter to take control—or was it?
15. He Still Played Second Fiddle
Even though Sophia was gone, Peter still didn’t rule Russia outright. Sure, he still had a co-tsar in his older brother Ivan—but that’s not who we’re talking about. Ivan was still sickly and of an unstable mind. No, it was Ivan’s mother, Natalya, who was the real rival. Still kicking around after all these years, she ruled in her son’s stead. It was only after Natalya passed in 1694, followed soon after by Ivan two years later, that Peter finally got the keys to the castle.
By that time, he’d grown into a formidable young man indeed.
16. He Was A Giant
You know how everyone says Napoleon was short, but then people will argue, “Well, actually he was of average height for his time”? Well, there’s no arguing here: Peter the Great was tall. As in, 6’8″ inches. Now, was he gangly? Yes. Did he have a weirdly small head and incessant facial tics? Absolutely. But this spindly giant was no sickly weakling like his two brothers had been.
Peter the Great was a force of nature—and he was about to start proving it.
17. He Changed Everything
When Peter finally took charge in Russia, he looked out at his Tsardom…and he didn’t like what he saw. It was now almost 1700, and compared to the West, Peter thought Russia was still in the stone ages. He soon implemented vast reforms that touched almost every aspect of Russian life. His goal was to bring Russia into the 18th-century. Well, plenty of people liked things the way they were. Things were about to get bloody.
18. He Was Brutal
Surprise, surprise, when Peter the Great tried to completely change everything about Russian life in the blink of an eye, people revolted! Rebellions sprang up all across Russia—but Peter the Great was not someone you wanted to cross. He must have learned a thing or two from his older sister Sophia, because the brutal tactics he used to put down rebellions struck fear into the hearts of anyone who thought about disobeying him.
The little boy who had seen his own family members slaughtered in front of him was now butchering rebels by the thousands. Oh, and he was a daddy, too!
19. He Abandoned His Boy
Alexei Petrovich, Peter’s son and heir, was born in 1690—but Peter didn’t exactly dote over the boy. While he was out modernizing Russia, he left his wife and son by their lonesome. And anyone who says that absence makes the heart grow fonder never met these two. Eudoxia despised her husband for abandoning her, and she raised her son to hate him just as much.
And while their hatred festered, Peter was too busy to notice. Although, to his credit, he did have a lot on his plate…
20. He Wanted Russia To Rule The Seas
Peter had big plans for Russia, but one item was at the top of the list: Turn Russia into a naval superpower. Well, that was a lot easier said than done. Russia’s only outlet to the sea was far to the North; frozen waters that were only navigable in the summer. Sweden held the Baltic Sea, and the Ottomans held the Black Sea. Peter needed at least one of those to create the Russian maritime supremacy he craved. But which?
21. He Started In The South
Peter set his eyes on the Ottoman Empire first, capturing their fortress at Azov and soon after founding Taganrog, the first Russian port connected to the Black Sea. But the Ottomans weren’t going to sit around and let him challenge their supremacy. He needed allies to hold them off. Apparently, he also needed a vacation—and he decided to kill two birds with one stone.
22. He Did A Year Abroad
In 1697, Peter the Great embarked on his so-called “Grand Embassy.” Under a fake name, he traveled incognito across Western Europe. Well, as incognito as a 6’8″ man could be in the 17th century. He wanted allies for his fight against the Ottomans, but that wasn’t his only reason for going. He adored the culture of the West and wanted to get ideas for how to shape Russia in its image.
For 18 glorious months, he traversed Europe, meeting diplomats, learning about shipbuilding, and just taking in the sights. Maybe he would have just stayed in Europe forever, enjoying a lifelong vacation in his favorite place—but eventually, yet another crisis in Russia dragged him back home.
23. His Old Enemies Rebelled
It was those darn Streltsy again. Nothing if not traditionalists, the Streltsy hated Peter’s reforms, and with him out of the country, they took their chance to strike. Now, lucky for Peter, his men managed to quash the rebellion long before he arrived. But Peter didn’t like mutineers—and he really didn’t like his dream vacation getting cut short.
Peter wanted revenge—and he had a particularly twisted idea of what that meant.
24. He Had Truly Appalling Methods
Have we ever said, “Don’t cross Peter the Great?” Maybe, but we’ll say it again: Do not cross Peter the Great. He ordered some of the most horrific, inhumane, and gruesome tortures inflicted on his Streltsy captives, in the hope that they would give up their comrades. Well, while having their thumbs slowly crushed, backs slowly roasted, limbs slowly stretched beyond breaking, and feet slowly removed with red-hot pincers…the Streltsy would say anything to make it stop.
By the time Peter decided he’d had enough, nearly 1,200 Streltsy had died.
25. He Left His Wife
Well, now that Peter was back in Russia, he had another order of business: Divorce. He’d never wanted to marry Eudoxia anyway, and now that he was the head honcho, he figured he’d do whatever he wanted. He dropped her like a bag of hammers and banished her to a convent. She’d spent nine miserable years married to him, given him a son, and now she had to become a nun against her will.
But Peter wasn’t done ruining her life just yet. His cruelest act was yet to come.
26. He Made His Wife Become A Nun
At first, you might think Eudoxia got lucky. The convent where Peter sent her didn’t particularly care to force her to be a nun against her will, at least not in the traditional sense of the term. The former Tsarina got to live a fairly normal life—she even found herself a lover. Oh, that poor, poor man…he had no idea what he was getting into…
27. He Impaled Her Lover
Peter the Great expected his ex to be living a miserable life as a nun, not sleeping around with some local hunk! When he found out about the affair, he reacted the way you’d expect him to: He had Eudoxia’s lover executed—but not by some simple hanging. According to legend, he had the man slowly impaled on a stake. Oh, and he made Eudoxia watch.
And yet somehow, that barely even makes the list of “Top 10 Most Disturbing Things Peter The Great Ever Did.”
28. He Dumped His Mistress
Peter was finally rid of his wife and he could marry his longtime mistress Anna Mons—except, he was pretty much done with her, too. She could see the writing on the wall, but she had the chance to be tsarina! She wasn’t going to let that pass by. That’s why she did something very stupid. She started flirting with a Prussian ambassador on the side. She thought she’d make Peter jealous—instead, he found out, kicked her out of her estate, and put her and her entire family under house arrest.
Hey, consider yourself lucky that’s all he did, Anna. Either way, Peter was done with her, and he had a new gal waiting in the wings.
29. He Found A New Lady
Anna Mons was Peter’s main squeeze, but she wasn’t his only mistress. A few years after his divorce, he shacked up with Marta Helena Skowrońska, a Polish-Lithuanian peasant who’d caught his eye. I don’t know what they put in the water in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, but Marta must have been one heck of a woman. Peter fell head over heels, ditched Anna Mons, and grew obsessed with his pauper mistress.
She converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and took the name Catherine. She was a peasant when Peter found her—soon, she’d be one of the most powerful women on earth.
30. He Wanted To Go West
Peter was in no great rush to remarry—as usual, he had plenty else to keep him occupied. He had managed to broker a peace with the Ottomans that let him keep the fort he’d captured at Azov, but he hadn’t forgotten about the Baltic. He wanted Russia to be one of Europe’s most powerful nations, and they’d need access to the Baltic Sea to do it. So, with one war ending, he went and started another one: The Great Northern War.
It lasted two decades, but by the time it had finished, Russia would be changed forever.
31. He Finally Touched The Sea
Sweden controlled the Baltic and most of the lands around it, but Peter had to start somewhere! He pushed west towards the sea and claimed the Swedish province of Ingria for himself. Ingria, wouldn’t you know it, sat on the Eastern coast of—you guessed it—the Baltic Sea. Peter finally had the artery to the Atlantic Ocean that he’d craved for so long.
And I don’t think Peter planned on giving up his new land any time soon. How do I know? Well, he founded a city there. That seems pretty permanent to me.
32. He Built This City
St. Petersburg is one of Russia’s great cities, but it hasn’t actually been around very long. Peter the Great founded the city in 1703 and named it after St. Peter. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that happens to be his name as well… . He set about turning it into a great city to rival Paris, Rome, and London. Then, in an unprecedented move, he moved the capital from Moscow to his new utopia.
Peter the Great wanted to reshape Russia in his image. Well, I’d say he’d done that. OK fine, I’ll admit, that’s a little “Great.” But it doesn’t erase what he did to the people in his life—people like his next mistress, Mary Hamilton.
33. He Took A Side-Piece
By all accounts, Peter loved his second wife, Catherine—but he was still the Tsar. He just had to have some mistresses. He started seeing Mary Hamilton, one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, in 1713. She was gorgeous and exciting, and Peter had to have her. They embarked on a passionate affair. For a few years there, things looked pretty good for Mary Hamilton. She lived a lavish life, and she even had the Tsar’s ear.
But remember how people around Peter the Great tended to die absolutely horrible deaths? Well…
34. She Flew Too Close To The Sun
It was probably for the best if Peter the Great didn’t know your name. When one of Hamilton’s ex-lovers happened to get arrested, he accused her of adultery and abortion. Now, that was already a crime in Russia—but there was a chance that Hamilton’s child might have been Peter’s! Yeah, this isn’t going to be good… After brutally extracting a confession from her, Peter had his lover beheaded—but in classic Peter the Great fashion, he had to do it in the most messed up way possible.
35. He Kissed Her Head
According to legend, Peter promised his one-time lover that he would not allow the executioner to touch her after the deed was done. His sword fell, and Peter strolled over, picked up Hamilton’s head, and spoke to it for a while. Then he gave it a kiss…then simply threw it away. Oh, and I hate to say it, but that’s still not the most twisted thing he ever did…
36. He Got What He Wanted
The Great Northern War with Sweden dragged on for two long decades, but Peter got what he wanted out of it. When the dust settled, he got to keep Ingria, Estonia, and several other lands along the Baltic. St. Petersburg was here to stay. Peter was in his 40s now, and you can bet he was just getting started—but unfortunately, his health started to catch up to him.
And hey, maybe karma is real after all—because Peter’s illness was absolutely gruesome.
37. He Was Blocked Up
Around 1723, Peter the Great’s health took a turn for the worse. Specifically, he started having problems with his urinary tract and bladder. Ok, that’s not ideal—but it gets so much worse. The following summer, doctors performed surgery to ease his pain…and released four pounds of blocked urine. I cannot even being to imagine the relief.
38. He Decided He Was Better
Even after his surgery, Peter didn’t get much better. He stayed bedridden for months until he couldn’t take it anymore. By October of 1724, he’d decided he was cured. He left his bed and decided to do his favorite activity: Performing lengthy inspections of the various building projects across his city! Doesn’t that sound like a good time!
39. He Was Not Better
Despite his own insistence, Peter was not cured. He worked himself to the bone all autumn and winter, and by January, his uremia had returned. Unfortunately, you can only pull the ol’ “remove found pounds of urine” trick once. He gave his last breath sometime in the early hours of February 8, 1725. Peter the Great was no more—but at least he had his son Alexei to take over for him, right? Right???
We’ve finally reached the main event. It is time to discuss the darkest stain on Peter the Great’s legacy.
40. His Son Hated Him
Though Peter the Great had 14 children, only three of them survived to adulthood: One son, Alexei, by his first wife, and two daughters, Anna Petrovna and Elizabeth, by his second. If you’ll recall, Alexei and dear old dad didn’t exactly get along. Peter’s first wife raised Alexei to despise him as much as she did. His traditionalist tutors—who despised Peter’s reforms—told him that when he became Tsar, he could return Russia to its pre-Peter greatness.
Alexei grew up mostly only hearing horror stories about his father—and when Peter finally did give the boy some time, he wasn’t exactly nurturing…
41. He Worked His Son To The Bone
Peter the Great expected his son to be as dedicated to the new Russia as he was. Once Alexei was old enough, he worked the boy to the bone, sending him all over Russia on one errand or another. So Alexei already hated his father, then Peter went and sent him on all these grueling campaigns in service of a “New Russia” that Alexei didn’t even want!
Anyone could see this father-son relationship was in the toilet—but I doubt anyone foresaw what Peter would do to his own son.
42. He Gave His Son An Ultimatum
By 1715, Peter and Alexei’s relationship was at an all-time low. Peter wrote Alexei a stern letter, threatening to cut him off if he didn’t get on board with the whole “New Russia” thing. Alexei’s reply was pitiful. He wrote back, offering to renounce his claim to the throne in favor of his own son, Peter II. By this point, Peter was out of patience. He agreed, as long as Alexei would agree to become a monk.
Either way, he told Alexei to join him right away, no more funny business. And what did Alexei do? More funny business.
43. His Son Ran Away
Alexei wasn’t sure if he could handle becoming a monk, but he definitely knew he didn’t want to join his father. So, he ran away. He fled to Vienna, where he had an ally in his brother-in-law: Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles knew better than to get involved in Russian politics—but he also knew Peter was totally insane and might very well murder his own son.
Against his better judgment, Charles helped Alexei, stashing him away in a castle in Naples. How do you think Peter took it?
44. He Put His “Fixer” On The Job
Peter was furious when he found out Charles had helped his son—but he blamed Alexei for it more than Charles. His own son, rebelling against him and taking refuge with a foreign power? That was too humiliating to take. So, he put his best man on the job. Count Peter Tolstoy was essentially Peter’s “fixer.” If Peter needed something shady done, he turned to Tolstoy.
Tolstoy went to Naples personally. What he said to Alexei is lost to history, but whatever it was, it worked.
45. He Got His Son To Come Home
Alexei Petrovich agreed to return to Russia, but only if Peter agreed to not punish him at all, and to let him live out his life quietly and comfortably on his estates with his mistress/slave Afrosinia. Peter, excited to have this whole humiliating affair behind him, agreed immediately. But Peter had an incredibly cunning ace up his sleeve. He…lied.
46. He Had Some Questions For His Son
The second that Alexei stepped back on Russian soil, Peter had him locked up and put to the question. Remember the crushed thumbs, roasted backs, and red-hot pincers? Yeah…Peter inflicted all of those nightmares on his own son. Sure, he’d agreed that he wouldn’t punish Alexei—but if Alexei was guilty of treason, then all bets were out the window! And the thing about Peter’s “methods” is, they were really good at getting whatever confession you wanted out of people…
47. He Went Way Too Far
Peter the Great had done some awful things before, but he really went off the deep end during the whole Alexei affair. He dragged his ex-wife Eudoxia out of her convent and had her tried for adultery…because. Anyone who had ever been friends with Alexei was impaled, or broken on the wheel, or whatever other nightmare execution Peter dreamed up for them.
Any name that left Alexei’s lips met the same horrific fate. His servants’ had their tongues cut out. But after all that, there was still no actual evidence that Alexei had done anything wrong. So Peter just…kept going.
48. He Wouldn’t Quit
After weeks of unimaginable torment, the worst thing they could get Alexei to admit was that he had, at one point, wished his father was dead. To Peter, that was tantamount to treason, but not quite a good enough reason to embark on this whole gruesome affair. Even after a court declared Alexei guilty of treason and sentenced him to death, Peter still didn’t quit.
He needed Alexei to admit to it all, as if to prove to himself that all of this was worth it. Well, in the end, fate made the decision for him.
49. His Son’s Heart Gave Out
Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich returned to Moscow on January 31, 1718. He endured his father’s brutal questioning methods for nearly five long months, but in the end, his feeble body simply couldn’t take any more. Two days after the courts laid down their sentence, Alexei’s heart simply gave out. When Peter passed, his wife Catherine took the throne, followed by Alexei’s son, Peter II.
Peter II ended up dying childless, leaving the throne to Peter’s niece, Empress Anna of Russia. Though she continued Peter’s legacy, the male line of the House of Romanov, the family that had ruled Russia for over a century, was extinct.
50. He Was A Horrible Great Man
Peter the Great, for all of his horrible, horrible flaws, did certainly leave his mark. He expanded Russia’s borders, gained access to the sea as he’d planned, and turned the kingdom he’d inherited into a superpower. Under his watch, the Tsardom of Russia grew into the formidable Russian Empire, making himself the first Emperor of All Russia. He accomplished more than perhaps any other Tsar or Tsarina in Russia’s history.
And he was a horrible, horrible man.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
An earlier version of this article had the incorrect date of death for Peter. It has been updated to reflect the correct date.