Peter III of Russia

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Peter III
Coronation portrait of Peter III of Russia -1761.JPG
Peter III, by Lucas Conrad Pfandzelt  [ de ], c. 1761
Emperor of All Russia
Reign5 January 1762 – 9 July 1762
Predecessor Elizabeth
Successor Catherine II
Duke of Holstein-Gottorp
Reign18 June 1739 – 9 July 1762
Predecessor Charles Frederick
Successor Paul
BornKarl Peter Ulrich
(1728-02-21)21 February 1728
Kiel, de facto Kiel state, Duchy of Holstein
Died17 July 1762(1762-07-17) (aged 34)
Ropsha, Russian Empire
(m. 1745)
House Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov
Father Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp
Mother Anna Petrovna of Russia
Religion Russian Orthodoxy
prev. Lutheran
Signature Signatur Peter III. (Russland).PNG

Peter III (Russian : Пётр III Фёдорович, romanized: Pyotr III Fyodorovich; 21 February [ O.S. 10 February] 1728 17 July [ O.S. 6 July] 1762) was Emperor of Russia for six months in 1762. He was born in Kiel as Charles Peter Ulrich of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp (German : Karl Peter Ulrich von Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp), the only child of Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp (the son of Hedvig Sophia of Sweden, sister of Charles XII), and Anna Petrovna (the elder surviving daughter of Peter the Great).


The German-born Peter could hardly speak Russian and pursued a strongly pro-Prussian policy, which made him an unpopular leader. He was deposed by troops loyal to his wife, Catherine, the former Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst who, despite her own German origins, was a Russian nationalist. She succeeded him as Empress Catherine II. Peter died in captivity soon after his overthrow, perhaps with Catherine's approval as part of the coup conspiracy. However, another theory is that his death was unplanned, resulting from a drunken brawl with one of his guards. [3]

Despite his generally poor reputation, Peter made some progressive reforms during his short reign. He proclaimed religious freedom and encouraged education. He sought to modernize the Russian army. He abolished the secret police, which had been infamous for its extreme violence, and made it illegal for landowners to kill their serfs without going to court. Catherine reversed some of his reforms and carried through others, notably the annexation of church property. [4]

Early life and character

Portrait of Peter III by Georg Christoph Grooth, 1740s Peter III of Russia by Grooth (1740s, Russian museum).jpg
Portrait of Peter III by Georg Christoph Grooth, 1740s

Peter was born in Kiel, in the duchy of Holstein-Gottorp. His parents were Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp (a nephew of Charles XII of Sweden), and Anna Petrovna (a daughter of Emperor Peter I and Empress Catherine I of Russia). His mother died shortly after his birth. In 1739, Peter's father died, and he became Duke of Holstein-Gottorp as Charles Peter Ulrich (German : Karl Peter Ulrich) at the age of 11.

When Elizabeth, his mother's younger sister, became Empress of Russia, she brought Peter from Germany to Russia and proclaimed him her heir presumptive in the autumn of 1742. Previously in 1742, the 14-year-old Peter was proclaimed King of Finland during the Russo-Swedish War (1741–1743), when Russian troops held Finland. This proclamation was based on his succession rights to territories held by his childless great-uncle, the late Charles XII of Sweden, who also had been Grand Duke of Finland. About the same time, in October 1742, he was chosen by the Swedish parliament to become heir presumptive to the Swedish throne. However, the Swedish parliament was unaware of the fact that he had also been proclaimed heir presumptive to the throne of Russia, and when their envoy arrived in Saint Petersburg in November, it was too late. It has been reported[ by whom? ] that the underage Peter's succession rights to Sweden were renounced on his behalf. Also in November, Peter converted to Eastern Orthodoxy under the name of Pyotr Feodorovich, and was created Grand Duke of Russia. The words "Grandson of Peter the Great" (Russian : внук Петра Великого, romanized: vnuk Petra Velikogo) were made an obligatory part of his official title, underscoring his dynastic claim to the Russian throne, and it was made a criminal offence to omit them.

Empress Elizabeth arranged for Peter to marry his second cousin, Sophia Augusta Frederica (later Catherine the Great), daughter of Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst and Princess Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. The young princess formally converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Ekaterina Alexeievna (i.e., Catherine). They married on 21 August 1745. The marriage was not a happy one but produced one son, the future Emperor Paul, and one daughter, Anna Petrovna (1757–1759). Catherine later claimed that Paul was not fathered by Peter; that, in fact, they had never consummated the marriage. [5] During the sixteen years of their residence in Oranienbaum, Catherine took numerous lovers, while her husband did the same in the beginning.

Peter's letter to his wife in French, the language of the Russian aristocracy Peter III's letter (1746) 02.jpg
Peter's letter to his wife in French, the language of the Russian aristocracy

The classical view of Peter's character is mainly drawn out of the memoirs of his wife and successor. She described him as an "idiot", "drunkard from Holstein" and "good-for-nothing"; this portrait of Peter can be found in most history books, including 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica:

Nature had made him mean, the smallpox had made him hideous, and his degraded habits made him loathsome. And Peter had all the sentiments of the worst kind of small German prince of the time. He had the conviction that his princeship entitled him to disregard decency and the feelings of others. He planned brutal practical jokes, in which blows had always a share. His most manly taste did not rise above the kind of military interest which has been defined as "corporal's mania," the passion for uniforms, pipeclay, buttons, the "tricks of parade and the froth of discipline." He detested the Russians, and surrounded himself with Holsteiners.

There have been many attempts to revise the traditional characterization of Peter and his policies. The Russian historian A. S. Mylnikov views Peter III very differently:

Many contradictory qualities existed in him: keen observation, zeal and sharp wit in his arguments and actions, incaution and lack of perspicuity in conversation, frankness, goodness, sarcasm, a hot temper, and wrathfulness. [6]

The German historian Elena Palmer goes even further, portraying Peter III as a cultured, open-minded emperor who tried to introduce various courageous, even democratic reforms in 18th-century Russia. A monument for Peter III stands in Kiel (North Germany), the city of his birth.


Foreign policy

After Peter succeeded to the Russian throne (5 January 1762 [ O.S. 25 December 1761]), he withdrew Russian forces from the Seven Years' War and concluded a peace treaty (5 May [ O.S. 24 April] 1762) with Prussia (dubbed the "Second Miracle of the House of Brandenburg"). He gave up Russian conquests in Prussia and offered 12,000 troops to make an alliance with Frederick II of Prussia (19 June [ O.S. 8 June] 1762). Russia thus switched from an enemy of Prussia to an ally—Russian troops withdrew from Berlin and marched against the Austrians. [7] This dramatically shifted the balance of power in Europe, suddenly handing the delighted Frederick the initiative. Frederick recaptured southern Silesia (October 1762) and subsequently forced Austria to the negotiating table.

As Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, Peter planned war against Denmark in order to restore parts of Schleswig to his Duchy. He focused on making alliances with Sweden and with England to ensure that they would not interfere on Denmark's behalf, while Russian forces gathered at Kolberg in Russian-occupied Pomerania. Alarmed at the Russian troops concentrating near their borders, unable to find any allies to resist Russian aggression, and short of money to fund a war, the government of Denmark threatened in late June to invade the free city of Hamburg in northern Germany to force a loan from it. Peter considered this a casus belli and prepared for open warfare against Denmark. [8] :220

In June 1762, 40,000 Russian troops assembled in Pomerania under General Pyotr Rumyantsev, preparing to face 27,000 Danish troops under the French general Count St. Germain in case the Russian–Danish freedom conference (scheduled for 1 July 1762 in Berlin under the patronage of Frederick II) failed to resolve the issue. However, shortly before the conference, Peter lost his throne (9 July [ O.S. 28 June] 1762) and the conference did not occur. The issue of Schleswig remained unresolved. Peter was accused of planning an unpatriotic war. [9] [ page needed ]

While historically Peter's planned war against Denmark was seen[ by whom? ] as a political failure, recent scholarship has portrayed it as part of a pragmatic plan to secure his Holstein-Gottorp duchy and to expand the common Holstein-Russian power northward and westwards. Peter believed gaining territory and influence in Denmark and Northern Germany was more useful to Russia than taking East Prussia. [8] :218–20 Equally, he thought that friendship with Prussia and with Britain, following its triumph in the Seven Years War, could offer more to aid his plans than alliance with either Austria or France.

Domestic reforms

Peter III depicted as emperor on a 10 ruble gold coin (1762) Russia 1762 10 Roubles.jpg
Peter III depicted as emperor on a 10 ruble gold coin (1762)

During his 186-day period of government, Peter III passed 220 new laws that he had developed and elaborated during his life as a crown prince. Elena Palmer claims that his reforms were of a democratic nature. [10] [ page needed ] He proclaimed religious freedom [11]

Peter III's economic policy reflected the rising influence of Western capitalism and the merchant class or "Third Estate" that accompanied it. He established the first state bank in Russia, rejected the nobility's monopoly on trade and encouraged mercantilism by increasing grain exports and forbidding the import of sugar and other materials that could be found in Russia. [12]

Overthrow and death

With the aid of the two Guards troops whom Peter had planned to discipline more harshly, the emperor was arrested and forced to abdicate on 9 July [ O.S. 28 June] 1762. Shortly thereafter, he was transported to Ropsha, where he later died. There is much mystery surrounding his death. The official cause, after an autopsy, was a severe attack of hemorrhoidal colic and an apoplectic stroke, while others say he was assassinated. He was buried 3 August 1762 [O.S. 23 July] in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, Saint Petersburg. [13]


After his death, four fake Peters (five if Šćepan Mali of Montenegro is included) came forth, supported by revolts among the people, [14] who believed in a rumor that Peter had not died but had been secretly imprisoned by Catherine. The most famous was the Cossack Yemelyan Pugachev, who led what came to be known as Pugachev's Rebellion in 1774, which was ultimately crushed by Catherine's forces. In addition, Kondratii Selivanov, who led a castrating sect known as the Skoptsy, claimed to be both Jesus and Peter III.

In December 1796, after succeeding Catherine, Peter's son, Emperor Paul I of Russia, who disliked his mother's behavior, arranged for Peter's remains to be exhumed and reburied with full honors in the Peter and Paul Cathedral, where other tsars (Russian emperors) were buried.


The legend of Peter is still talked about, especially in the town where he lived most of his life, formerly Oranienbaum, later Lomonosov, situated on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland, 40 km west of St. Petersburg. Peter's palace is the only one of the famous palaces in the St. Petersburg area that was not captured by the Germans during the Second World War. During the war, the building was a school and people say the ghost of Peter protected the children of Oranienbaum from getting hurt by bombs. Furthermore, it was near this town that the siege of Leningrad ended in January 1944. People say that Peter, after his death, stopped Hitler's army near Leningrad, just as the living Peter had stopped the Russian army near Berlin. [9] [ page needed ] [10] [ page needed ]

Cultural references

Monument of Peter III in Kiel Monument of Peter III.jpg
Monument of Peter III in Kiel

Peter has been depicted on screen a number of times, almost always in films concerning his wife Catherine. He was portrayed by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the 1934 film The Rise of Catherine the Great and by Sam Jaffe in The Scarlet Empress the same year. In 1991 Reece Dinsdale portrayed him in the television series Young Catherine . La Tempesta (1958) depicts Yemelyan Pugachev's effort to force his recognition as Peter III and offers a critical view of Catherine the Great, with Van Heflin in the role of Pugachev and Viveca Lindfors as Catherine. He was also depicted as a cowardly, drunken wife-beater in the Japanese anime Le Chevalier D'Eon . He also appears in the 2014 TV series played by Aleksandr Yatsenko. He was most recently played by Nicholas Hoult in the 2020 Hulu series The Great , also starring Elle Fanning as Catherine.


See also

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  2. Great Catherine: The Life of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia by Carolly Erickson. Florence King, The American Spectator , Book Review, August 1994.
  3. Dixon, Simon (2009). Catherine the Great. London, England: Profile Books. pp. 124–25. ISBN   978-1615237326.
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  7. Anderson, pp. 492–494Missing or empty |title= (help).
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  9. 1 2 Mylnikov, AS (2002), Piotr III (in Russian), Moskva, RU.[ page needed ]
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  13. Massie, Robert K (2011). Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. New York: Random House. pp. 274–75. ISBN   978-0-679-45672-8.
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Peter III of Russia
Cadet branch of the House of Oldenburg
Born: 21 February 1728 Died: 17 July 1762
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Emperor of Russia
Succeeded by
Catherine II
Preceded by
Charles Frederick
Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorp
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Charles Frederick
Christian VI
Duke of Holstein
with Christian VI (1739-1746)
Frederick V (1746-1762)
Succeeded by
Frederick V