Being a Tsar in Russia is a bloody business—just ask the Romanovs. But even though that Imperial family has gone down in infamy, their ancestor, Emperor Peter III of Russia, met an even crueler fate. Born into immense privilege and then suffering an unbelievably tragic downfall, the story of Peter III is one of the great melodramas in Russian history.
Peter III Facts
1. He Was Spoiled From Birth
Peter’s birth was a diamond-studded affair, especially when you consider that his father Charles was a Duke and his mother, Anna Petrovna, was a Russian Princess. In fact, little baby Peter’s grandfather was none other than Peter the Great, AKA the big deal in Russia. But tragedy hit the young boy fast and hard.
2. He Went Through a Childhood Horror
Peter was christened Karl Peter Ulrich on February 21, 1728, but the happy day quickly turned sour. After giving birth, Peter’s mother Anna contracted a postpartum infection, passing a week later and leaving her child alone in the game of thrones. With this tragic origin story, is it any wonder Peter became a supervillain of Russian history?
3. His Heritage Was Surprising
Given all this Russian business, it might surprise you to know that “Karl Peter Ulrich” wasn’t Russian at all. He was born in the Duchy of Kiel, and was German to his core. Yeah, I guess that name gives something away.
4. He Had a Loveless Upbringing
Peter’s father Charles was a hard, ambitious man who wanted only one thing: power. He’d pushed for his wife to become the Russian Empress, so when she perished, he wasted no time with “mourning” and turned his beady gaze to his son instead. Not a great childhood…and the consequences were utterly devastating.
5. He Was Uprooted as Child
When Peter was 14, his destiny arrived. His aunt Elizabeth had become Empress, and the childless woman named Peter as her official heir. But this came at a heartbreakingly high cost. Elizabeth demanded that Peter leave everything he knew to come live in Russia with her. And that wasn’t all she forced him to do.
6. His Education Was Pitiful
According to some historians, Peter’s upbringing under his stern father was woefully inadequate. Even before he got shuffled into Russia, Peter’s education was lax. He did receive lessons in various languages and possessed a semi-respectable library, but that was about it. This would soon come back to bite him right where it hurt.
7. He Was Forced Into Marriage
Peter’s aunt Elizabeth didn’t name him heir out of the goodness of her heart, oh heck no. Elizabeth wanted only one thing from her nephew—for him to give the dynasty heirs. To that end, Elizabeth quickly arranged a marriage with his second cousin, the woman who would become Catherine the Great. Spoiler: This did not end well.
8. He Was a Creepy Child
One of little Peter’s tutors noticed a very disturbing tendency in the “darling” boy. Besides the usual laziness and arrogance—two traits that aren’t exactly uncommon among rich little princes—Peter also showed remarkable cruelty to animals. Now that flaw? Definitely moving into Creepsville, Population: Emperor.
9. He Hated His Wife
Peter and Catherine’s relationship was doomed from the very beginning. Close in age, they met for the first time when they were both still children…and their first impressions couldn’t have gone worse. Catherine later wrote that she found Peter “detestable,” and Peter himself seemed to have no fondness for his future wife.
10. He Had a Strange Obsession
According to accounts from Catherine herself, Peter had some very bizarre habits as a child. At age 10, Peter was apparently still obsessed with toy soldiers and would have rather romped with his wooden buddies than romance her. But despite this weird example of delayed development, Peter was disturbingly “mature” in another arena…
11. He Had an “Adult” Addiction
Catherine the Great’s writings describing this time say that the 10-year-old Peter already had an outsized fondness for drinking. He allegedly liked to swig back all manner of drinks whenever he could manage it. Can you say “catch”? Sign me up for the next Tsar.
12. He Made a Very Bad Match
Catherine couldn’t have been more ill-suited to the future emperor. For one, she was reportedly incredibly attractive, while Peter was nothing to write home about. Even worse, Catherine was intellectual, curious, and precocious—all things Peter was, well, not. Unless you count “throwing back drinks at age 10” as precocious.
13. He Founded a Wild “Young Court”
Despite these bad first impressions, Peter’s aunt forced him to go through with the wedding, and the unhappy couple tied the knot on August 21, 1745. They set up a new court at Oranienbaum Palace, which people dubbed the “young court” after the couple’s youthful friends and relations. Surprise surprise, it soon became debauched…
14. He May Have Been Horrifically Ugly
Accounts vary about Peter’s appearance. Some of our only information comes from his wife Catherine, who didn’t exactly think the world of her new hubby. Still, according to her, Peter was nothing less than grotesque. Sickly and pale, the future Emperor of Russia also suffered from unsightly smallpox scars across his face.
15. His Personality Had a Dark Side
Hey, at least Peter had a glowing personality to recommend him…right? Uh, wrong. Again, according to his less-than-pleased wife, Peter had a mean streak in him that went hand-in-hand with his child-like behaviors. He apparently particularly liked playing practical jokes…as long as they involved someone getting hurt.
16. He Worshipped His Own Enemy
Peter never loved Russia, but then again he didn’t exactly try. In fact, he was obsessed with Russia’s sworn enemy, the Prussian King Frederick II. Peter also insisted on keeping his own private guard of German men from his native Holstein rather than choosing people from the Russian court. This would be his downfall.
17. His Wife Gave Him a Cruel Nickname
Catherine had some choice nicknames for her sweetums. She called Peter “idiot,” and “good-for-nothing.” Aw, thanks babe.
18. His Marriage Was a Sham
Catherine and Peter were obviously unhappy—but they hid even darker secrets behind bedroom doors. Catherine infamously took up a series of lovers, but Peter was no monk in this department, either. They were so distracted, Catherine even claimed they didn’t consummate the marriage for years. As we’ll see, this road led straight to scandal.
19. He Had Bizarre Taste in Women
Peter’s chief mistress was thecourtier Elizaveta Vorontsova…but she wasn’t what you’d expect. Even her closest friends said Elizaveta “swore like a soldier, squinted her eyes, smelled bad, and spit while talking.” Catherine, called her a “very ugly, extremely dirty child.” Peter though? As we’ll see, he was into it.
20. His Mistress Controlled Him
Despite the fact that his entire court was flabbergasted at his new ladylove, Peter placed Elizaveta in his most intimate confidences—on both sides of the top-sheet. When Peter became Emperor, he put her rooms next to his own in the Imperial Winter Palace, earning her the title “the new Madame de Pompadour.” And that wasn’t all.
21. He Tried to Betray His Wife
Peter’s devotion to Elizaveta led to some dark rumors, some of them likely true. Many in the Russian court whispered that Peter was planning on shoving his wife Catherine in a convent in order to marry his bawdy mistress and live happily ever after. However, none of this came to pass…especially not the “happy” part.
22. He Was a Radical Ruler
Peter III became emperor on January 5, 1762—and his reign might surprise you. Today, experts consider Peter a progressive ruler, since he did things like tell landowners they couldn’t…slay their serfs without going on trial. Wait, what? They could before? Turns out “progressive” was a very relative thing in 18th-century Russia.
23. His First Child Caused a Scandal
In October 1754, Peter’s empress birthed a son, Paul. The little boy ignited a scandal. Catherine later claimed that since she and Peter hadn’t yet consummated their miserable union, the boy had to belong to her lover, Sergei Saltykov. If so, the Russian Crown Prince was illegitimate…but the truth is much more complicated.
24. His Wife Told a Cruel Lie
Today, historians dare to contradict Catherine the Great, and their reason is hilarious. According to modern experts, the description of Paul as a stout, ugly man marks him as Peter’s biological son. You see, Catherine and her lover Sergei were both super hot—much too attractive to have an uggo together. Peter, meanwhile, fit the bill. Uh, okay then.
25. He Was a Victim of History
Despite Catherine’s smear campaign, there’s evidence to suggest Peter wasn’t a total fool, and some sources point out his rationality and honesty. One time, his sycophants even wanted to build a gold statue in his honor, and Peter replied that there were much better uses for gold in Russia. Somebody give this man a cookie!
26. He Despised His Wife’s Pregnancies
In the end, Paul may have been the only child Catherine and Peter had together. In any case, by the time Catherine was pregnant with “their” second child, Peter was wise to her gaming. His response to the birth was disturbing. He apparently only screamed at Catherine to “Go to the devil” with her illegitimate child.
27. He Was a Traitor to His Country
For all Peter’s progressive policies, he made one fatal error. Even though Russia was at war with Prussia and King Frederick II, Peter declared peace between the two countries as soon as he took the scepter. Instead of Russia’s eternal respect, the move earned him the dubious title “The Betrayer.” Yeah…this is going nowhere good.
28. He Had a Little-Known Talent
Though Peter was academically pretty hopeless, he did have one semi-intellectual hobby: Playing the violin. Uh, no word on if he was actually good at this, though.
29. His Reign Was Tragically Short-Lived
All in all, Peter III reigned for a measly 186 days, or about six months. And you wonder why we don’t call him “the Great.”
30. He Gave Up His Throne in the Most Embarrassing Way
In July 1762, Peter III and Catherine the Great were in something of a stalemate—then he made one fatal mistake (more on that later). The next days of Peter’s reign are some of the most infamous in Russian history. With the Russian court in her pocket, Catherine forced Peter to abdicate on July 9th, threw him behind bars, and then declared herself Empress of All Russia. Oh Peter, you are so dumped.
31. His Wife Imprisoned Him
Catherine wasn’t even finished yet, and she sent Peter to the remote village of Ropsha. It was a far cry from the Winter Palace, but, hey, Peter was still alive. Some believe Catherine intended to banish him back to his home of Holstein, which— to be honest—was probably what he wanted anyway. Too bad that’s not what happened.
32. He Made One Tragic Last Request
Catherine allowed Peter his dogs, a bed, and his violin while he was behind bars. But she denied his one heartbreaking request. Peter kept pleading to see his beloved mistress Elizaveta Vorontsova, an appeal that the newly-minted Empress Catherine was all too happy to deny. Thing is, Peter’s nightmare was just beginning.
33. He Died Under Mysterious Circumstances
Catherine the Great’s coup of her own freaking husband shocked the entire world—but the situation was about to get a whole lot more scandalous. On July 17, 1762, Peter was found dead in his cell, the once-mighty emperor’s body now lifeless and cold. What had happened to the former ruler of Russia? Well then, there’s the rub.
34. His Official Autopsy Has More Questions Than Answers
Catherine went through all the motions and gave Peter III an official autopsy, and the results were surprising in more ways than one. The attending doctors deemed that Peter had perished from a massive stroke, even though he was a trim 34 years old at the time of his passing. The Russian courtiers had other ideas.
35. He May Have Met a Humiliating End
Peter’s autopsy actually contained one more finding—and it was mega embarrassing. In addition to the stroke, doctors claimed Peter had suffered from a fatal case of “hemorrhoidal colic,” i.e. his hemorrhoids hurt him so much he keeled over and bit the dust. Okay, was Catherine just messing with him at this point?
36. One of His Addictions Could Have Ended Him
Given Peter’s love of the drink, there’s a persistent rumor that, while holed up in Ropsha, the emperor got into a brawl with one of his captors and ended up accidentally dying. Sure, stranger and more violent things have happened in Russian history (*cough* Rasputin *cough*), but a much darker theory abounds….
37. He Came Back to Haunt Catherine
Peter had an eerie second life after his tragic end. People claimed to be the long-lost emperor for years after, usually with tales about finally escaping Ropsha. One of these men, Yemelyan Pugachev, even started a full-blown rebellion…before Catherine crushed it under her thumb and brutally executed him. Not today, ghost ex-husband, not today.
38. His Empress Dealt Him a Final Blow
Even after his ignominious passing, Catherine couldn’t help dealing her “dearly” departed husband one final betrayal. She initially had him buried in Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. Many Russians didn’t consider it a place fit to bury a tsar. But don’t worry, this wasn’t Peter’s final destination.
39. His Son Rescued Him
When Peter’s “son” Paul succeeded his mother to the throne in 1769, he didn’t forget about his father. Paul always had a chilly relationship with Catherine, and he took a posthumous swipe at her by exhuming Peter’s body and having him reburied in Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral with the rest of the Russian Tsars. Ah, I love a good exhumation feud.
40. His Final Resting Place Is a Nightmare
In an irony to end all ironies, Paul had Mommy and Daddy buried together, and Peter now lies eternally beside the woman who bumped him from the throne. Okay, I know we all saw The Parent Trap, but this is not how you get Mom and Dad to love each other again. Plus, Paul may not have known the crucial detail about Peter’s end…
41. He Banned Books
Peter III wasn’t above petty frustrations—and even pettier revenges. According to one source, the young Peter despised Latin with such an intense bitterness, he later banned all Latin books from his personal library.
42. He Was Never Supposed to Be Emperor
Peter was never supposed to take the Russian throne. Even though Russia was his father’s deepest dream, people originally groomed the young noble for the Swedish throne, teaching him about Nordic patriotism and even schooling him in the Lutheran faith. Needless to say, the switch to Russia was a little jarring for the boy.
43. His Ghost Still Haunts His Palace
There’s one more ghost story about Peter—but this one really takes bizarre to new levels. During WWII, people claimed that Peter’s specter saved children from a bombing of a schoolhouse at the old site of his palace at Oranienbaum. Look, I’m just glad somewhere in the world someone remembers this idiot fondly.
44. He Was a Heretic
One of Peter’s biggest advancements during his reign is also the least talked about, even though it was actually a huge deal. See, in the middle of backwoods, Orthodox, 18th-century Russia, Peter declared religious freedom. It was such a radical move, no Western European country had even done it yet. Ok, ok, begrudging props, Peter.
45. He Showed Mercy in Strange Ways
Peter III abolished the secret service in the Muscovite palaces, considering them “merciless” and a holdover from a more savage and brutal time. A good guy move, but not a lasting one. As soon as Catherine snatched his throne, she reinstated those merciless officers.
46. He Attacked His Wife
Not long into his marriage, Peter quickly gave up all pretense of actually liking his wife—and his scorn soon manifested in disturbing ways. Following what historians have called his “corporal’s mania,” Peter had his cadre of men take aim and fire at Catherine’s nearby private residences, just for kicks. This guy, he’s hilarious.
47. His Wife Turned Against Him
In July 1762, everything changed for Peter III, and not in a good way. See, while he had been cozying up to Prussia and King Frederick II, his not-so-beloved wife Empress Catherine had been cozying up to his Russian courtiers…and plotting his end. Peter eventually got wise to this—and his reaction was swift and brutal.
48. He Tried to “Put Down” His Empress
That summer, Peter caught one of Catherine’s co-conspirators and had the man detained as a warning shot to Catherine not to mess with him or his crown. Victory, huzzah! Well….not really. They didn’t call Catherine “The Great” for nothing, and she made sure her estranged husband’s message blew up right in his face.
It was this move that caused Catherine to take action and enact the plot to snatch the throne from her husband. If he’d just left good enough alone…
49. He Was Actually Assassinated
Today, it’s pretty widely accepted that Peter was assassinated on purpose, likely at the hands of a courtier named Alexei Orlov. But that’s not even what makes this theory so scandalous. You see, bloodthirsty Alexei was the brother of a man named Grigori Orlov, who just so happened to be in bed with…Catherine the Great.
50. His Wife May Have Done the Dirty Deed
Given this evidence, many have suggested that Peter’s end came at Catherine’s bidding. That closure might be nice for Peter’s obviously real ghost, but it’s also just as likely that Orlov acted without Catherine’s consent. As one historian put it, the circumstances of his passing “can never be known.” History’s greatest mystery, much?