Peter III’s childhood and education in Holstein; heir to the Russian throne
The mother of Peter III, daughter of Peter I, died of consumption about two months after bringing him into the world in the little town of Kiel in Holstein, from the despair of being consigned to live there and from being so unhappily married. Karl Friedrich, Duke of Holstein, nephew of Charles XII, King of Sweden, and father of Peter III, was a weak, ugly, short, sickly and poor prince (see Bergholz’s journal in Büsching’s Magazin). He died in the year 1739 and left his son, who was around eleven years old, under the guardianship of his cousin Adolph Friedrich, the Bishop of Lübeck and Duke of Holstein, since chosen King of Sweden as a result of the preliminary talks of the Treaty of Åbo on the recommendation of Empress Elizabeth.
Peter III’s education was directed by Brümmer, the Grand Marshal of the Court and a Swede by birth, and under him were Grand Chamberlain Bergholz, author of the aforementioned journal, and four chamberlains, two of whom—Adlerfelt, the author of a history of Charles XII, and Wachmeister—were Swedish, and the other two, Wolff and Mardefeld, were from Holstein. They raised the Prince for the throne of Sweden in a court that was too large for the country in which it was located and that was divided into several factions, which hated each other and vied to control the Prince’s mind, which each faction wanted to shape. As a result, these factions inspired in him the reciprocal hatred they felt against the individuals they opposed. The young prince politely detested Brümmer and his overbearing way and accused the Grand Marshal of excessive severity; he despised Bergholz, who was Brümmer’s friend and toady, and liked none of his attendants, because they hampered him.
From the age of ten, Peter III was partial to drink. He had to make many public appearances and was never out of sight day or night. Those he liked best during his childhood and the first years of his stay in Russia were his two old valets: Kramer, a Livonian, and Romberg, a Swede. The latter was his favorite; he was a rather vulgar and rough man who had been a dragoon officer under Charles XII. Brümmer and as a result Bergholz, who trusted blindly in Brümmer, were attached to Adolph Friedrich, Prince Bishop of Lübeck and Prince Guardian and Administrator; all the others were unhappy with this Prince and even more with his entourage.
Once Empress Elizabeth had ascended to the throne of Russia, she sent Chamberlain Korf to Holstein to summon her nephew, whom the Prince Administrator sent off immediately, accompanied by Grand Marshal Brümmer, Grand Chamberlain Bergholz, and Chamberlain Ducker, Brümmer’s nephew. The Empress’s joy was great when he arrived. She left shortly thereafter for her coronation in Moscow.§ She was resolved to declare the Prince her heir. But first he had to profess the Greek Orthodox faith. The enemies of Grand Marshal Brümmer, notably Grand Chancellor Count Bestuzhev and the late Count N. Panin, who had long been Russian minister in Sweden, claimed to have in hand convincing proof that as soon as Brümmer saw the Empress determined to declare her nephew heir apparent to the throne, he took as much care to spoil the mind and heart of his pupil as he had taken to make him worthy of the Swedish crown.
But I have always doubted this atrocious allegation and have believed that the education of Peter III was undermined by a clash of unfortunate circumstances. I will relate what I have seen and heard, and that in itself will clarify many things. I saw Peter III for the first time when he was eleven years old, in Eutin at the home of his guardian, the Prince Bishop of Lübeck. Some months after the death of Duke Karl Friedrich, Peter III’s father, the Prince Bishop had in 1739 assembled all of his family at his home in Eutin to have his ward brought there. My grandmother, mother of the Prince Bishop, and my mother, sister of this same Prince, had come there from Hamburg with me. I was ten years old at the time. Prince August and Princess Anna, brother and sister of the Prince Guardian and Administrator of Holstein, were also there.
It was then that I heard it said among this assembled family that the young duke was inclined to drink, that his attendants found it difficult to prevent him from getting drunk at meals, that he was restive and hotheaded, did not like his attendants and especially Brümmer, and that otherwise he showed vivacity, but had a delicate and sickly appearance. In truth, his face was pale in color and he seemed to be thin and of a delicate constitution. His attendants wanted to give this child the appearance of a mature man, and to this end they hampered and restrained him, which could only inculcate falseness in his conduct as well as his character.
Soon after this Holstein court arrived in Russia, it was followed by a Swedish embassy that requested the Empress allow her nephew to succeed to the Swedish throne. But Elizabeth, who had already declared her intentions in the preliminary talks of the Treaty of Åbo, mentioned above, replied to the Swedish Diet that she had already declared her nephew heir to the throne of Russia and that she adhered to the preliminary talks of the Treaty of Åbo, which made the Prince Administrator of Holstein heir apparent to the Swedish crown. (This Prince had had an older brother to whom Empress Elizabeth had been engaged after the death of Peter I. The marriage had not taken place, because the prince died of smallpox several weeks after the engagement. Empress Elizabeth retained tender feelings for his memory, and she gave tokens of her affection to the prince’s entire family.)
Peter III was thus declared Elizabeth’s heir and Grand Duke of Russia after he professed his faith according to the Greek Orthodox rite; Simeon Theodorsky, since named Archbishop of Pskov, was made his spiritual instructor. The Prince had been baptized and raised in the Lutheran faith, the most rigid and least tolerant, and since his childhood he had always been resistant to all instruction. I heard it said by his attendants that at Kiel it had required great effort to make him go to church on Sundays and feast days, and to make him perform devotional acts, which were forced upon him, and that most of the time he acted irreligiously.
His Imperial Highness took it into his head to dispute every point with Simeon Theodorsky. Often his attendants were called in to cut short these bitter exchanges and to calm the Prince’s heated emotions. Finally, after much frustration, the Prince submitted to the wishes of the Empress, his aunt, although, whether from prejudice, habit, or a contradictory spirit, he often made it known that he would have preferred to leave for Sweden rather than stay in Russia.
He kept Brümmer, Bergholz, and his Holstein entourage around him until his marriage. Some other tutors were added to these as a formality: one was Monsieur Isaak Veselovsky for the Russian language, who came at first rarely and eventually not at all; the other, Professor Stählin, was supposed to teach him math and history, but in truth played with him and practically served as his buffoon. The most conscientious teacher was the ballet master Landé, who taught him to dance.
During this period, the Grand Duke spent all his time making two servants, who had been assigned for his personal service, perform military exercises in his private chambers. He gave them titles and ranks and demoted them according to his whim. These were truly the games of a child and of perpetual childishness. In general he was still very much a child, although he turned sixteen in 1744 when the Russian court was in Moscow.
Catherine’s arrival in Russia; Bestuzhev-Riumin and court factions; her illness; her mother’s politics at court; her profession of the Orthodox faith and betrothal to Peter; trip to Kiev; Catherine’s debts; Peter has measles, then smallpox
That year, Catherine II arrived with her mother in Moscow on February 9. At that time, the Russian court was divided into two large factions or parties. The leader of the first group, who had begun to recover from his weakened position, was Vice Chancellor Bestuzhev-Riumin. He was infinitely more feared than loved, exceedingly scheming, suspicious, willful, and daring, rather tyrannical in his principles, an implacable enemy, but a friend to his friends, whom he abandoned only when they turned their backs on him, and otherwise hard to get along with and often overly exacting. He was in charge of the department of foreign affairs. Having battled with the Empress’s entourage, he had lost ground before the journey to Moscow, but had begun to recover. He supported the courts of Vienna, Saxony, and England. The arrival of Catherine II and her mother gave him no pleasure. It was the secret work of the faction opposed to him. The enemies of Count Bestuzhev were numerous, but he made them all tremble. He had the advantage over them in his position and his character, which gave him immense influence in the politics of the antechamber.
The party opposed to Bestuzhev supported France, its ally Sweden, and the King of Prussia. The Marquis de la Chétardie was its soul and the Holstein court its ringleaders; they had won over Lestocq, one of the principal actors of the revolution that had placed the late Empress Elizabeth on the throne of Russia. Lestocq was greatly trusted by Elizabeth. He had been her personal surgeon since the death of Empress Catherine I, to whom he had also been devoted, and had rendered essential services to both mother and daughter. He lacked neither intelligence, shrewdness, nor capacity for intrigue, but he was malicious and had a black and evil heart. All these foreigners aided one another and promoted Count Mikhail Vorontsov, who had also taken part in the coup d’état and had accompanied Elizabeth the night she took the throne. She had made him marry the niece of Empress Catherine I, Countess Anna Karlovna Skavronskaya, who had been brought up in Empress Elizabeth’s household and was very devoted to the Empress. This faction also included Count Alexander Rumiantsev, father of the Marshal who had signed the Treaty of Åbo with Sweden, about which Bestuzhev had been little consulted. The faction also counted upon the Procurator General Prince Trubetskoi, upon the whole Trubetskoi family and, consequently, upon the Prince of Hessen-Hamburg, who had married a princess of this family. The Prince of
Hessen-Hamburg, who at the time was highly regarded, was nothing by himself, and his influence came from the large family of his wife, whose father and mother were still alive; the latter was highly respected. The rest of the Empress’s entourage then consisted of the Shuvalov family, who opposed in all matters the Grand Master of the Hunt Razumovsky and a bishop, who for the moment was the leading favorite. Count Bestuzhev knew how to exploit the Shuvalovs, but his principal supporter was Baron Cherkasov, Secretary of the Cabinet to the Empress, who had already served in Peter I’s cabinet. He was a rough and headstrong man who wanted order and justice, and to run everything by the rules. The rest of the court chose one faction or the other according to their interests or daily opinions.
The Grand Duke appeared to rejoice at the arrival of my mother and myself. I was in my fifteenth year. During the first ten days he paid me much attention. Even then and in that short time, I saw and understood that he did not care much for the nation that he was destined to rule, and that he clung to Lutheranism, did not like his entourage, and was very childish. I remained silent and listened, and this gained me his trust. I remember him telling me that among other things, what pleased him most about me was that I was his second cousin, and that because I was related to him, he could speak to me with an open heart. Then he told me that he was in love with one of the Empress’s maids of honor, who had been dismissed from court because of the misfortune of her mother, one Madame Lopukhina, who had been exiled to Siberia, that he would have liked to marry her, but that he was resigned to marry me because his aunt desired it. I listened with a blush to these family confidences, thanking him for his ready trust, but deep in my heart I was astonished by his imprudence and lack of judgment in many matters.
The tenth day after my arrival in Moscow, a Saturday, the Empress went to the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergei. The Grand Duke stayed with us in Moscow. I had already been assigned three tutors: Simeon Theodorsky to instruct me in the Greek Orthodox faith, Basil Adadurov for the Russian language, and Landé, the ballet master, for dancing. To make more rapid progress in Russian, I rose from my bed at night and, while everyone slept, memorized the lessons that Adadurov gave me. Because my room was warm and I had no experience of the climate, I neglected to put on my shoes and studied in my bedclothes. On the thirteenth day after my arrival, I came down with pleurisy, which was nearly fatal. It began with chills the Tuesday after the Empress’s departure for Trinity Monastery. I had just gotten dressed to go to dinner with my mother at the Grand Duke’s, when I obtained with difficulty her permission to go to bed. When she returned from dinner, she found me almost unconscious with a high fever and an excruciating pain in my side. She thought I was coming down with smallpox, sent for doctors, and wanted them to treat me accordingly. They recommended that I be bled; she was completely against this, saying that it was from being bled that her brother had died of smallpox in Russia and that she did not want
the same thing to happen to me. The doctors and the attendants of the Grand Duke, who had not had smallpox, made a detailed report of the state of affairs to the Empress, and while my mother and the doctors were arguing, I lay unconscious in my bed, with a burning fever and a pain in my side that made me suffer horribly and moan, for which my mother scolded me, wanting me to endure my suffering patiently.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Memoirs of Catherine the Great by Catherine the Great Copyright © 2005 by Catherine the Great. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.