History has borne witness to countless royal squabbles between family members, many of which ended terribly for at least one side. But while quite a few monarchs have silenced family members to retain their power, one tale stands out for its uncharacteristic goriness. This is Alexei Petrovich’s story, and it is unusual because the person responsible for his tragic end was none other than his own father. Let’s delve into the past and discover Alexei Petrovich the person, and what he did to incur his dad’s wrath.
Alexei was Peter the Great’s first child. He was born in 1690, in the lap of luxury, to the man who would become Emperor of All Russia—and yet he didn’t have a happy childhood. You might wonder why that was so, considering he would one day inherit his father’s “Tsar” title and rule over Russia. It turns out royal blood is a double-edged sword.
Peter the Great wasn't the best dad—and he wasn't the best husband either. Alexei’s mom, Eudoxia Lopukhina, had to learn this the hard way. She’d only been Tsaritsa for a year when she discovered she was pregnant. Unfortunately, the news didn’t give her much joy, for one heartbreaking reason…
The birth of Alexei only tied Eudoxia even closer to the husband who despised her. Even from a young age, Alexei realized his dad disliked his mom. Unsurprisingly, this made him closer with his mother and drove a wedge between him and his father. But perhaps his parents' struggles weren't as black and white as he thought...
Peter was only 17 when his mom arranged his marriage to Eudoxia, choosing her for her noble connections. The young couple had nothing in common: He was more “western” and liberal and her views were conservative and orthodox. If there was ever a doomed marriage, it was this one.
Alexei was just eight years old when he had to learn to live without mom. And no, fate didn’t take her away from him, his dad did. Peter forced Eudoxia to become a nun and sent her to a convent to spend the rest of her days there. And this despite the fact that she gave him three sons. Brutal, Peter, just brutal. But, as we shall see, this wasn’t the first or last time the Tsar chose this way to get rid of his undesirable connections.
Peter wasn’t just bored with Eudoxia because she was religious. He also had his eyes on another, more beautiful, Dutch woman, Anna Mons. He made her his mistress and they were together for 12 years. Alexei may have resented that—especially if he got hold of his mom’s heartbreaking letters to his dad, begging him to return her love.
Peter the Great had many half-siblings and one real sister. Once Eudoxia moved to the convent, a few of Alexei’s aunts helped raise him—the ones the Tsar didn't have banished to a nunnery along with his ex-wife, at least. Clearly, this was Peter’s preferred way of getting rid of undesirables. Alexei also had private tutors who taught him math, history, geography, and French.
Peter would maybe regret giving his son such a good education—because, in the Tsar's eyes, his son started getting too smart for his own good.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder—well, this is one case where that's definitely not true. Alexei hardly saw his father, as the Tsar was too busy fighting against Sweden and the Ottoman Empire or traveling around Europe. Sure, Peter occasionally took his son to battlefields and army sites when he was around, but these moments were few and far between.
Peter hoped these tours would develop Alexei’s love for his land—but maybe he should have been more concerned with Alexei's love for his father.
Since Alexei hardly saw his dad, his points of view were very different from Peter’s. Like the mostly orthodox Moscow entourage he grew up with, he believed the Russian Orthodox Church should have a bigger role and there should be less westernization. But hey, families disagree all the time! No big deal right? Ha...just wait.
Father and son didn’t just have opposing ideals, they even looked different. While Peter was a strapping man who towered over others at 6’8”, Alexei was smaller in both height and build. Plus, his timid and bookish personality made him seem even more diminutive than he was. Basically, father and son couldn't have been more different, and it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that they butt heads.
It's only that their conflict got so much darker than anyone could have predicted.
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It isn’t easy being alone when you’re surrounded by so many people all the time. Despite having so many tutors and helpers around him, Alexei didn’t have many friends to keep him company. Although his mom had given birth to two more boys after him, both passed in their infancy, so he had no siblings to share his thoughts with. Maybe a little companionship might have saved him from the twisted path he was starting on.
Of course, Peter had a huge say in his son’s life, but there were times when Alexei just refused to do certain things he didn’t want to. When Peter officially married his peasant-born mistress (they secretly married some years earlier), Alexei refused to attend the ceremony. In another instance, Alexei allegedly injured his own hand on purpose, just so he wouldn’t have to do something the Tsar asked him to do.
Did Peter turn a blind eye to these minor transgressions? For a time—but as we'll soon see, he eventually reached his breaking point.
Turning 13 is a momentous occasion, and all parents want to make it memorable for their kids. Peter the Great was no different. He decided to surprise Alexei by—wait for it—forcing him to join the army. He drafted the newly-turned teenager as a private and sent him off to battle. Word to the wise, maybe ask the kid if he’s into the surprise first? You certainly wouldn’t want it to turn into a shock!
Remember how Alexei’s mom had kinda made him not like his dad in the beginning? Well, the dislike got stronger with time. The priests and teachers young Alexei was studying with didn't help things either. They were all against the Tsar’s policies and encouraged his young son to think badly of him, going so far as to tell the tsarevich they couldn’t wait for him to step into his dad’s shoes.
Not sure how they thought that was going to end well...
Whatever his instructors may have thought of his father, they admired young Alexei’s intellectual prowess and appreciated his passionate interest in archaeology and religion. Unfortunately, Tsar Peter didn't find anything commendable in these interests and wanted Alexei to focus on the New Russia and help in growing its wealth and power.
He figured sending the bookish young Alexei into battle would help change his mind—is it any surprise his plan completely backfired?
Remarkably, Alexei wasn't a total failure as a soldier. After he'd spent a year following the army as a private, he witnessed a battle in which the Russians captured Narva, a city in Estonia. A couple of years later, he collected supplies and recruits and made his way to Moscow to fortify it against the Swedish Charles XII. For a kid who absolutely hated being in the military, Alexei actually did alright—and his father finally rewarded him for it.
Perhaps Peter felt the boy had finally seen enough, because after a few years as a private, he sent Alexei to Dresden, Germany to complete his education. Finally, Alexei was back doing what he loved most: studying. However, his happiness wouldn't last long.
Remember how we mentioned Alexei didn’t really take after his tall, strapping father? Well, turns out our guy's immune system wasn't so strapping either, and he was frequently sick as a youth. Some sources mention he had tuberculosis, but we don’t know for sure if that’s true. Maybe his unhappiness impacted his health more than anything else?
Tsar Peter had big plans for Alexei, at least until that point. He sent him to Saxony to meet with Princess Charlotte Christine. Peter wanted this match for his son for one major reason: It would cement some important connections, which would help him in his future fights with the Ottomans. After his own miserable political marriage, you'd think Peter would have learned his lesson, but nope.
I doubt he realized how catastrophic this match would be, though.
Alexei and Charlotte’s marriage took place in Torgau, Germany in 1711. He was 21 years old. The marriage honestly seemed like it got off to a pretty good start—but sadly, the happy days wouldn’t last for too long.
Alexei signed a marriage contract agreeing to let Charlotte practice her Protestant religion, as long as any kids they had would follow the Orthodox faith. Oops. The man forgot about all the people rooting for him; those who supported him for his orthodox views, which were unlike his dad’s. As you can imagine, they were none too pleased with his heretical wife.
Pretty soon, Alexei began to resent his wife and her religion—and he took his frustration out on Charlotte in the worst way.
In case you couldn't tell, Alexei wasn't exactly the "confront your problems head-on" type. Instead of dealing with the religious rift between him and his wife, he ignored her completely and took refuge in excessive drinking. It certainly didn't help things that their relationship was long-distance half the time, as Peter whisked Alexei away on various campaigns.
The most heartbreaking part though, was yet to come.
Clearly, Alexei's marriage to Charlotte was no fairy tale. As they grew more and more estranged, the Tsarevich turned mean. Alexei declared he didn’t want anything to do with his wife because she was “pock-marked” and “too thin.” Nice, stand-up guy, this one.
Naturally, Charlotte was terribly unhappy and alone. At one point she even ran away to her father’s palace when Peter asked her to return to St. Petersburg without him and Alexei. She couldn’t stay for long though, as Peter intervened himself. Apparently, the Tsar felt some sympathy for the woman his son had scorned: Despite her disobedience, he soothed her, saying she could go back whenever she wanted as long as she had his permission.
Pretty much sounds like she actually couldn’t go back whenever she wanted, to be honest, but hey Peter, you do you.
As if Alexei’s silence and excessive drinking weren’t bad enough, Charlotte soon had to contend with another woman for her husband’s attention. Afrosinya was a Finnish serf—a present from Alexei’s tutor after a few years of marriage. It was love at first sight for the Tsarevich, who lost his heart to the plump teenager with full lips. The fact that she was technically his property didn't seem to dissuade him one bit.
Poor Charlotte, she didn’t stand a chance. She confined herself to her own wing of the castle, while Alexei kept Afrosinya with him at all times.
As if Charlotte's life wasn't enough of a nightmare, she still had to perform her "marital duties." Alexei became a father for the first time in 1714, around the same time Afrosinya came into his life. His daughter, Natalia, got the same name as his aunt and grandmother, and she was a welcome distraction for Charlotte. Sadly, though, her trials were far from over.
Just a year after Natalia’s birth, Alexei became a dad again, this time to a son. Isn’t it sad though, that instead of rejoicing at little Peter Alexeyevich's birth, Alexei was forced to come to a grim realization: With another male heir to Peter the Great's throne, Alexei himself was suddenly a lot more dispensable. That fact wasn't lost on Peter, either...
Thankfully, Princess Charlotte's nightmare was finally over, at least. She passed a few days after giving birth to her son, allegedly refusing any drugs because she “wished to die.” In private, Alexei must have rejoiced—he was finally rid of his hated wife! Don't you worry, though: He'd get what was coming to him in the end.
About half a century later, someone came up with the story that Charlotte hadn’t really, truly passed at all. They claimed the body in her casket was a wooden doll and that and she secretly escaped to Louisiana, married a French officer, and moved to Paris! Another version even details how Alexei came across her, thought she was a ghost, and took his own life.
It was a compelling story, but a completely false one—and anyway, the truth was so much darker than that.
Considering the way he’d treated her when she was alive, it’s no surprise that Alexei didn’t mourn Charlotte’s passing at all. On the contrary, he was happiest with Afrosinya anyway, and he moved on pretty much immediately. But, as much as he wanted to, he couldn't spend his days fooling around with his serf/mistress—his father still had big plans for him.
Peter took Alexei with him on an inspection tour of Finland, but his son’s lack of enthusiasm on the trip dismayed him. He decided to send Alexei to oversee the navy's shipyards, but found his son's performance lacking yet again. Naturally, Peter wasn’t going to put up with Alexei's couldn’t-care-less attitude—and this time, he gave his son a grim warning.
Peter didn’t wait long to warn Alexei. He sent him an ultimatum on the day of Charlotte’s funeral, insisting that he show more interest in state affairs or else he’d cut him off from his inheritance. Supposedly he told him, “better a worthy stranger [on the throne] than my own unworthy son.” Wow. The guy sure didn’t believe in mincing words. But compared to what he'd do later, this was straight-up coddling.
Say what you will, it seems like Alexei wasn’t especially excited about sitting on the throne anyway. He sent a meek reply to his father, agreeing with his sentiments and offering to renounce his stake on the throne, letting his son take his place. Maybe he was just bluffing—but I doubt he expected how seriously his father would take that.
Well, Peter certainly didn’t become Peter the Great by trusting people. He told Alexei he couldn’t take his word for it, and he’d have to become a monk to prove he was serious about giving up the throne. It was time for Alexei to make a serious decision—so of course, he did what he always did. He took the coward's way out.
As the months went by and Alexei gave no response to his father's ultimatum, Peter grew restless. The Tsar sent his son another letter, saying if Alexei wanted to remain heir to the throne, he had to join Peter with the army immediately. Alexei chickened out and ran—a decision that would end up sealing his fate forever.
Ironically, Alexei could think of only one person to turn to in his hour of need: His deceased wife Charlotte’s brother-in-law, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. He changed his direction and sailed to Vienna, traveling under the fake name of a Polish nobleman. Afrosinya, who was with him, disguised herself as a male page. At first, it seemed like Charles would be his salvation—but Peter the Great wasn't an easy man to avoid.
According to his own letters, Charles VI was genuinely worried about what Peter might do to Alexei, but he wasn't just some white knight here. Charles hoped that he might one day be able to make Alexei his puppet. If everything went according to plan, Charles could potentially add all of Russia to his empire—but, let's just say, things did not go according to plan.
Peter had already sent out spies to discover where Alexei was hiding. Two of them got into Charles VI’s castle and discovered Alexei’s whereabouts quite easily. However, Charles VI and his followers were one step ahead in the game, and they sent Alexei elsewhere before the spies got their hands on him.
Charles VI had recently captured Naples, so he sent Alexei and Afrosinya there to keep them safe from prying eyes. Unfortunately, however, Naples wouldn’t prove to be a safe haven for too long either. Peter the Great's spies were almost as great as he was, and they were hot on Alexei's tail.
Charles VI couldn't keep Alexei hidden from his father forever. The spies who’d found Alexei in Vienna now managed to track him down in Naples. One of them was Peter’s most trusted man: Peter Tolstoy. He came up with a cunning plan to lure Alexei back to Russia.
Peter Tolstoy enlisted none other than Princess Charlotte’s mom, Princess Christine Louise, to get to Alexei. Obviously, Christine Louise had little love for her daughter's miserable husband—but she had even more reason to betray him. Afrosinya was pregnant, and Christine Louise worried this child might cut her grandson out of the line of succession.
So what did she do to make Alexei sail to Russia? Just told him Afrosinya wasn’t welcome in the castle any longer.
With his beloved mistress at risk, Alexei agreed to go back to Russia and talk to his father. His only condition was that Peter allow him to marry Afrosinya and live peacefully with her, away from the court and the line of succession. Sounds like a pretty awesome deal to me. Unfortunately, the Tsar did not feel the same way.
Being the smitten lover he was, Alexei left Afrosinya in Venice, with her brother to take care of her. He sailed to Russia alone, hoping he could talk to his father, give up the throne, and find a peaceful place to stay with Afrosinya once she returned. Sadly, a devastating surprise awaited him once he got to his homeland.
Alexei quickly discovered that Peter had absolutely no plans to honor the commitment he’d made to him. Peter’s men took him in custody and it was all downhill from there. A couple of days later, Alexei had to beg his captors to call Afrosinya so they could at least be together and so he could see his baby.
Tragically, even this wouldn’t work out the way he wanted it to.
Alexei’s captors managed to get a “confession” of treason out of him. The poor guy named a few of his supporters who had always preferred him as tsar instead of his dad and those men came under fire as well. It turned into a complete bloodletting, with Peter paranoid about schemes to depose him. He refused to allow his men to let up on Alexei—in fact, the worst was yet to come.
As if it wasn’t enough to institute a witch hunt against ordinary people, Peter took it a step further and had his men drag Alexei’s mom (remember her?) out of her convent and try her for adultery. Peter put an end to her lover’s life as well, and cruelly forced her to watch his execution by impalement. Well, all I can say is, he may have been good for Russia, but nothing particularly “great” about Peter the Great as far as I can see.
In the meantime, Afrosinya had arrived in Russia and Peter’s men detained her immediately. She gave birth while in custody, and tragically no one knows what became of the child; not even if it was a boy or a girl. If Alexei thought things would get better once Afrosinya arrived, he was grievously mistaken.
In a strange twist, Afrosinya betrayed the very man who had done everything he could for her. She turned witness against Alexei and handed over the letters he wrote to various people, asking them to save him from his father’s wrath. This betrayal hit Alexei in the worst way. He no longer had anything to live for.
Although the letters excited much attention, they revealed nothing except the general dislike that Alexei felt for his dad. Even Afrosinya’s statement was only about how Alexei had declared he would “bring back the old people.” He also made the "treasonous" claim that he'd live in Moscow during the winter, instead of Peter's beloved St. Petersburg.
It appeared to be more wishful thinking than an elaborate plot to get rid of his father—but at this point, Peter didn't need much to push him over the edge.
Peter’s men inflicted every gruesome punishment they could think of upon Alexei in order to extract a confession of treachery out of him. Even then, they only managed to get him to say the names of his friends and supporters. Their methods were twisted—but they were even crueler than they seemed. You see, the inquisitors didn't limit their torment to just Alexei.
Peter's men had Alexei's servants' tongues cut out among other gruesome tortures, just for the crime of serving the "treacherous" tsarevich.
Despite the fact that no one found any real evidence against him, the committee to decide Alexei's fate ruled against him, sentencing him to death. It should have finally been the end of Alexei's torment—but fate had one final cruel twist in store. Peter balked at the execution, seeing as Alexei hadn't technically admitted to a conspiracy against him.
So the committee, composed of 126 individuals, agreed to continue "examining" Alexei through the same painful means until he finally cracked.
Alexei had already suffered enough. He passed two days after the sentencing, in June 1718, while enduring a whipping.
Alexei had certainly loved Afrosinya, but it is questionable if she ever loved him back. After all, she didn't exactly have a choice in the relationship. In any case, she did recover from the trauma of being detained, losing a child, and hearing of Alexei's horrifying end. Peter the Great actually gave her her freedom in the end, and she eventually married a St. Petersburg Guard. She lived for about thirty years after Alexei’s passing.
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