Gateway to the Classics: Peter the Great by Jacob Abbott
Peter the Great by  Jacob Abbott

The Condemnation and Death of Alexis

T HE examinations and investigations described in the last chapter were protracted through a period of several months. They were commenced in February, and were not concluded until June. During all this time Alexis had been kept in close confinement, except when he had been brought out before his judges for the various examinations and cross-examinations to which he had been subjected; and as the truth in respect to his designs became more and more fully developed, and the danger in respect to the result increased, he sank gradually into a state of distress and terror almost impossible to be conceived.

The tribunals before whom he was tried were not the regular judicial tribunals of the country. They were, on the other hand, two grand convocations of all the great official dignitaries of the Church and of the state, that were summoned expressly for this purpose—not to decide the case, for, according to the ancient customs of the Russian empire, that was the sole and exclusive province of the Czar, but to aid him in investigating it, and then, if called upon, to give him their counsel in respect to the decision of it. One of these assemblies consisted of the ecclesiastical authorities, the archbishops, the bishops, and other dignitaries of the Church. The other was composed of nobles, ministers of state, officers of the army and navy in high command, and other great civil and military functionaries. These two assemblies met and deliberated in separate halls, and pursued their investigations in respect to the several persons implicated in the affair, as they were successively brought before them, under the direction of the Czar, though the final disposal of each case rested, it was well understood, with him alone.

At length, in the month of June, when all the other cases had been disposed of; and the proof in respect to Alexis was considered complete, the Czar sent in a formal address to each of these conventions, asking their opinion and advice in respect to what he ought to do with his son.

In his address to the archbishops and bishops, he stated that, although he was well aware that he had himself absolute power to judge his son for his crimes, and to dispose of him according to his own will and pleasure, without asking advice of any one, still, "as men were sometimes less discerning," he said, "in their own affairs than in those of others, so that even the most skillful physicians do not run the hazard of prescribing for themselves, but call in the assistance of others when they are indisposed," in the same manner he, having the fear of God before his eyes, and being afraid to offend him, had decided to bring the question at issue between himself and his son before them, that they might examine the Word of God in relation to it, and give their opinion, in writing, what the will of God in such a case might be. He wished also, he said, that the opinion to which they should come should be signed by each one of them individually, with his own hand.

He made a similar statement in his address to the grand council of civil authorities, calling upon them also to give their opinion in respect to what should be done with Alexis. "I beg of you," he said, in the conclusion of his address, "to consider of the affair, to examine it seriously and with attention, and see what it is that our son has deserved, without flattering me, or apprehending that, if in your judgment he deserves no more than slight punishment, it will be disagreeable to me; for I swear to you, by the Great God and by his judgments, that you have nothing to fear from me on this account.

"Neither are you to allow the consideration that it is the son of your sovereign that you are to pass judgment upon to have any effect upon you. But do justice without respect of persons, so that your conscience and mine may not reproach us at the great day of judgment."

The convocation of clergy, in deliberating upon the answer which they were to make to the Czar, deemed it advisable to proceed with great caution. They were not quite willing to recommend directly and openly that Alexis should be put to death, while, at the same time, they wished to give the sanction of their approval for any measures of severity which the Czar might be inclined to take. So they forbore to express any positive opinion of their own, but contented themselves with looking out in the Scriptures, both in the Old and New Testament, the terrible denunciations which are therein contained against disobedient and rebellious children, and the accounts of fearful punishments which were inflicted upon them in Jewish history. They began their statement by formally acknowledging that Peter himself had absolute power to dispose of the case of his son according to his own sovereign will and pleasure; that they had no jurisdiction in the case, and could not presume to pronounce judgment, or say any thing which could in any way restrain or limit the Czar in doing what he judged best. But nevertheless, as the Czar had graciously asked them for their counsel as a means of instructing his own mind previously to coming to a decision, they would proceed to quote from the Holy Scriptures such passages as might be considered to bear upon the subject, and to indicate the will of God in respect to the action of a sovereign and father in such a case.

They then proceeded to quote the texts and passages of Scripture. Some of these texts were denunciations of rebellious and disobedient children, such as, "The eye that mocketh his father and that despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pluck it out;" and the Jewish law providing that, "If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father nor the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will hot hearken unto them, then shall his father and mother lay hold of him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place, and shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is rebellious: he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones that he die."

There were other passages quoted relating to actual cases which occurred in the Jewish history of sons being punished with death for crimes committed against their parents, such as that of Absalom, and others.

The bearing and tendency of all these extracts from the Scriptures was to justify the severest possible treatment of the unhappy criminal. The bishops added, however, at the close of their communication, that they had made these extracts in obedience to the command of their sovereign, not by way of pronouncing sentence, or making a decree, or in any other way giving any authoritative decision on the question at issue, but only to furnish to the Czar himself such spiritual guidance and instruction in the case as the word of God afforded. It would be very far from their duty, they said, to condemn any one to death, for Jesus Christ had taught his ministers not to be governed by a spirit of anger, but by a spirit of meekness. They had no power to condemn any one to death; or to seek his blood. That, when necessary, was the province of the civil power. Theirs was to bring men to repentance of their sins, and to offer them forgiveness of the same through Jesus Christ their Savior.

They therefore, in submitting their communication to his imperial majesty, did it only that he might do what seemed right in his own eyes. "If he concludes to punish his fallen son," they said, "according to his deeds, and in a manner proportionate to the enormity of his crimes, he has before him the declarations and examples which we have herein drawn from the Scriptures of the Old Testament. If, on the other hand, he is inclined to mercy, he has the example of Jesus Christ, who represented the prodigal son as received and forgiven when he returned and repented, who dismissed the woman taken in adultery, when by the law she deserved to be stoned, and who said that he would have mercy and not sacrifice."

The document concluded by the words,

"The heart of the Czar is in the hand of God, and may he choose the part to which the hand of God shall turn it."

As for the other assembly, the one composed of the nobles and senators, and other great civil and military functionaries, before rendering their judgment they caused Alexis to be brought before them again, in order to call for additional explanations, and to see if he still adhered to the confessions that he had made. At these audiences Alexis confirmed what he had before said, and acknowledged more freely than he had done before the treasonable intentions of which he had been guilty. His spirit seems by this time to have been completely broken, and he appeared to have thought that the only hope for him of escape from death was in the most humble and abject confessions and earnest supplications for pardon. In these his last confessions, too, he implicated some persons who had not before been accused. One was a certain priest named James. Alexis said that at one time he was confessing to this priest, and, among other sins which he mentioned, he said "that he wished for the death of his father." The priest's reply to this was, as Alexis said, "God will pardon you for that, my son, for we all," meaning the priests, "wish it too." The priest was immediately arrested, but, on being questioned, he denied having made any such reply. The inquisitors then put him to the torture, and there forced from him the admission that he had spoken those words. Whether he had really spoken them, or only admitted it to put an end to the torture, it is impossible to say.

They asked him for the names of the persons whom he had heard express a desire that the Czar should die, but he said he could not recollect. He had heard it from several persons, but he could not remember who they were. He said that Alexis was a great favorite among the people, and that they sometimes used to drink his health under the designation of the Hope of Russia.

The Czar himself also obtained a final and general acknowledgment of guilt from his son, which he sent in to the senate on the day before their judgment was to be rendered. He obtained this confession by sending Tolstoi, an officer of the highest rank in his court, and the person who had been the chief medium of the intercourse and of the communications which he had held with his son during the whole course of the affair, with the following written instructions:

"To M. Tolstoi, Privy Counselor:

"Go to my son this afternoon, and put down in writing the answers he shall give to the following questions:

"I. What is the reason why he has always been so disobedient to me, and has refused to do what I required of him, or to apply himself to any useful business, notwithstanding all the guilt and shame which he has incurred by so strange and unusual a course?

"II. Why is it that he has been so little afraid of me, and has not apprehended the consequences that must inevitably follow from his disobedience?

"III. What induced him to desire to secure possession of the crown otherwise than by obedience to me, and following me in the natural order of succession? And examine him upon every thing else that bears any relation to this affair."

Tolstoi went to Alexis in the prison, and read these questions to him. Alexis wrote out the following statement in reply to them, which Tolstoi carried to the Czar:

"I. Although I was well aware that to be disobedient as I was to my father, and refuse to do what please him, was a very strange and unusual course, and both a sin and a shame, yet I was led into it, in the first instance, in consequence of having been brought up from my infancy with a governess and her maids, from whom I learned nothing but amusements, and diversions, and bigotry, to which I had naturally an inclination.

"The person to whom I was intrusted after I was removed from my governess gave me no better instructions.

"My father, afterward being anxious about my education, and desirous that I should apply myself to what became the son of the Czar, ordered me to learn the German language and other sciences, which I was very averse to. I applied myself to them in a very negligent manner, and only pretended to study at all in order to gain time, and without having any inclination to learn any thing.

"And as my father, who was then frequently with the army, was absent from me a great deal, he ordered his serene highness, the Prince Menzikoff, to have an eye upon me. While he was with me I was obliged to apply myself, but, as soon as I was out of his sight, the persons with whom I was left, observing that I was only bent on bigotry and idleness, on keeping company with priests and monks, and drinking with them, they not only encouraged me to neglect my business, but took pleasure in doing as I did. As these persons had been about me from my infancy, I was accustomed to observe their directions, to fear them, and to comply with their wishes in every thing, and thus, by degrees, they alienated my affections from my father by diverting me with pleasures of this nature; so that, by little and little, I came to have not only the military affairs and other actions of my father in horror, but also his person itself, which made me always wish to be at a distance from him. Alexander Kikin especially, when he was with me, took a great deal of pains to confirm me in this way of life.

"My father, having compassion on me, and desiring still to make me worthy of the state to which I was called, sent me into foreign countries; but, as I was already grown to man's estate, I made no alteration in my way of living.

"It is true, indeed, that my travels were of some advantage to me, but they were insufficient to erase the vicious habits which had taken such deep root in me.

"II. It was this evil disposition which prevented my being apprehensive of my father's correction for my disobedience. I was really afraid of him; but it was not with a filial fear. I only sought for means to get away from him; and was in no wise concerned to do his will, but to avoid, by every means in my power, what he required of me. Of this I will now freely confess one plain instance.

"When I came back to Petersburg to my father from abroad, at the end of one of my journeys, he questioned me about my studies, and, among other things, asked me if I had forgotten what I had learned, and I told him no. He then asked me to bring him some of my drawings of plans. Then, fearing that he would order me to draw something in his presence, which I could not do, as I knew nothing of the matter, I set to work to devise a way to hurt my hand so that it should be impossible for me to do any thing at all. So I charged a pistol with ball, and, taking it in my left hand, I let it off against the palm of my right, with a design to have shot through it. The ball, however, missed my hand, though the powder burned it sufficiently to wound it. The ball entered the wall of my room, and it may be seen there still.

"My father, observing my hand to be wounded, asked me how it came. I told him an evasive story, and kept the truth to myself. By this means you may see that I was afraid of my father, but not with a proper filial fear.

"III. As to my having desired to obtain the crown otherwise than by obedience to my father, and following him in regular order of succession, all the world may easily understand the reason; for, when I was once out of the right way, and resolved to imitate my father in nothing, I naturally sought to obtain the succession by any, even the most wrongful method. I confess that I was even willing to come into possession of it by foreign assistance, if it had been necessary. If the emperor had been ready to fulfill the promise that he made me of procuring for me the crown of Russia, even with an armed force, I should have spared nothing to have obtained it.

"For instance, if the emperor had demanded that I should afterward furnish him with Russian troops against any of his enemies, in exchange for his service in aiding me, or large sums of money, I should have done whatever he pleased. I would have given great presents to his ministers and generals over and above. In a word, I would have thought nothing too much to have obtained my desire."

This confession, after it was brought to the Czar by Tolstoi, to whom Alexis gave it, was sent by him to the great council of state, to aid them in forming their opinion.

The council were occupied for the space of a week in hearing the case, and then they drew up and signed their decision.

The statement which they made began by acknowledging that they had not of themselves any original right to try such a question, the Czar himself, according to the ancient constitution of the empire, having sole and exclusive jurisdiction in all such affairs, without being beholden to his subjects in regard to them in any manner whatever; but, nevertheless, as the Czar had deemed it expedient to refer it to them, they accepted the responsibility, and, after having fully investigated the case, were now ready to pronounce judgment.

They then proceeded to declare that, after a full hearing and careful consideration of all the evidence, both oral and written, which had been laid before them, including the confessions of Alexis himself, they found that he had been guilty of treason and rebellion against his father and sovereign, and deserved to suffer death.

"And although," said the council, in continuation, "although, both before and since his return to Russia, the Czar his father had promised him pardon on certain conditions, yet those conditions were particularly and expressly specified, especially the one which provided that he should make a full and complete confession of all his designs, and of the names of all the persons who had been privy to them or concerned in the execution of them. With these conditions, and particularly the last, Alexis had not complied, but had returned insincere and evasive answers to the questions which had been put to him, and had concealed not only the names of a great many of the principal persons that were involved in the conspiracy, but also the most important designs and intentions of the conspirators, thus making it appear that he had determined to reserve to himself an opportunity hereafter, when a favorable occasion should present itself, of resuming his designs and putting his wicked enterprise into execution against his sovereign and father. He thus had rendered himself unworthy of the pardon which his father had promised him, and had forfeited all claim to it."

The sentence of the council concluded in the following words:

"It is with hearts full of affliction and eyes streaming down with tears that we, as subjects and servants, pronounce this sentence, considering that, being such, it does not belong to us to enter into a judgment of so great importance, and particularly to pronounce sentence against the son of the most mighty and merciful Czar our lord. However, since it has been his will that we should enter into judgment, we herein declare our real opinion, and pronounce this condemnation, with a conscience so pure and Christian that we think we can answer for it at the terrible, just, and impartial judgment of the Great God.

"To conclude, we submit this sentence which we now give, and the condemnation which we make, to the sovereign power and will, and to the merciful review of his Czarian majesty, our most merciful monarch."

This document was signed in the most solemn manner by all the members of the council, nearly one hundred in number. Among the signatures are the names of a great number of ministers of state, counselors, senators, governors, generals, and other personages of high civil and military rank. The document, when thus formally authenticated, was sent, with much solemn and imposing ceremony, to the Czar.

The Czar, after an interval of great suspense and solicitude, during which he seems to have endured much mental suffering, confirmed the judgment of the council, and a day was appointed on which Alexis was to be arraigned, in order that sentence of death, in accordance with it, might be solemnly pronounced upon him.

The day appointed was the 6th of July, nearly a fortnight after the judgment of the court was rendered to the Czar. The length of this delay indicates a severe struggle in the mind of the Czar between his pride and honor as a sovereign, feelings which prompted him to act in the most determined and rigorous manner in punishing a rebel against his government, and what still remained of his parental affection for his son. He knew well that after what had passed there could never be any true and genuine reconciliation, and that, as long as his son lived, his name would be the watchword of opposition and rebellion, and his very existence would act as a potent and perpetual stimulus to the treasonable designs which the foes of civilization and progress were always disposed to form. He finally, therefore, determined that the sentence of death should at least be pronounced. What his intention was in respect to the actual execution of it can never be known.

When the appointed day arrived a grand session of the council was convened, and Alexis was brought out from the fortress where he was imprisoned, and arraigned before it for the last time. He was attended by a strong guard. On being placed at the bar of the tribunal, he was called upon to repeat the confessions which he had made, and then the sentence of death, as it had been sent to the Czar, was read to him. He was then taken back again to his prison as before.

Alexis was overwhelmed with terror and distress at finding himself thus condemned; and the next morning intelligence was brought to the Czar that, after suffering convulsions at intervals through the night, he had fallen into an apoplectic fit. About noon another message was brought, saying that he had revived in some measure from the fit, yet his vital powers seemed to be sinking away, and the physician thought that his life was in great danger.

The Czar sent for the principal ministers of state to come to him, and he waited with them in great anxiety and agitation for farther tidings.

At length a third messenger came, and said that it was thought that Alexis could not possibly outlive the evening, and that he longed to see his father. The Czar immediately requested the ministers to accompany him, and set out from his palace to go to the fortress where Alexis was confined. On entering the room where his dying son was lying, he was greatly moved, and Alexis himself, bursting into tears, folded his hands and began to entreat his father's forgiveness for his sins against him. He said that he had grievously and heinously offended the majesty of God Almighty and of the Czar; that he hoped he should not recover from his illness, for if he should recover he should feel that he was unworthy to live. But he begged and implored his father, for God's sake, to take off the curse that he had pronounced against him, to forgive him for all the heinous crimes which he had committed, to bestow upon him his paternal blessing, and to cause prayers to be put up for his soul.


The Czar's visit to Alexis in Prison.

While Alexis was speaking thus, the Czar himself, and all the ministers and officers who had come with him, were melted in tears. The Czar replied kindly to him. He referred, it is true, to the sins and crimes of which Alexis had been guilty, but he gave him his forgiveness and his blessing, and then took his leave with tears and lamentations which rendered it impossible for him to speak, and in which all present joined. The scene was heart-rending.

At five o'clock in the evening a major of the Guards came across the water from the fortress to the Czar's palace with a message that Alexis was extremely desirous to see his father once more. The Czar was at first unwilling to comply with this request. He could not bear, he thought, to renew the pain of such an interview. But his ministers advised him to go. They represented to him that it was hard to deny such a request from his dying son, who was probably tormented by the stings of a guilty conscience, and felt relieved and comforted when his father was near. So Peter consented to go. But just as he was going on board the boat which was to take him over to the fortress, another messenger came saying that it was too late. Alexis had expired.

On the next day after the death of his son, the Czar, in order to anticipate and preclude the false rumors in respect to the case which he knew that his enemies would endeavor to spread throughout the Continent, caused a brief but full statement of his trial and condemnation and of the circumstances of his death, to be drawn up and sent to all his ministers abroad, in order that they might communicate the facts in an authentic form to the courts to which they were respectfully accredited.

The ninth day of July, the third day after the death of Alexis, was appointed for the funeral. The body was laid in a coffin covered with black velvet. A pall of rich gold tissue was spread over the coffin, and in this way the body was conveyed to the church of the Holy Trinity, where it was laid in state. It remained in this condition during the remainder of that day and all of the next, and also on the third day until evening. It was visited by vast crowds of people, who were permitted to come up and kiss the hands of the deceased.

On the evening of the third day after the body was conveyed to the church, the funeral service was performed, and the body was conveyed to the tomb. A large procession, headed by the Czar, the Czarina, and all the chief nobility of the court, followed in the funeral train. The Czar and all the other mourners carried in their hands a small wax taper burning. The ladies were all dressed in black silks. It was said by those who were near enough in the procession to observe the Czar that he went weeping all the way.

At the service in the church a funeral sermon was pronounced by the priest from the very appropriate text, "O Absalom! my son! my son Absalom!"

Thus ended this dreadful tragedy. The party who had been opposed to the reforms and improvements of the Czar seems to have become completely disorganized after the death of Alexis, and they never again attempted to organize any resistance to Peter's plans, Indeed, most of the principal leaders had been executed or banished to Siberia. As to Ottokesa, the first wife of the Czar, and the mother of Alexis, who was proved to have been privy to his designs, she was sent away to a strong castle, and shut up for the rest of her days in a dungeon. So close was her confinement that even her food was put in to her through a hole in the wall.

It remains only to say one word in conclusion in respect to Afrosinia. When Alexis was first arrested, it was supposed that she, having been the slave and companion of Alexis, was a party with him in his treasonable designs; but in the course of the examinations it appeared very fully that whatever of connection with the affair, or participation in it, she may have had, was involuntary and innocent, and the testimony which she gave was of great service in unraveling the mystery of the whole transaction. In the end, the Czar expressed his satisfaction with her conduct in strong terms. He gave her a full pardon for the involuntary aid which she had rendered Alexis in carrying out his plans. He ordered every thing which had been taken away from her to be restored, made her presents of handsome jewelry, and said that if she would like to be married he would give her a handsome portion out of the royal treasury. But she promptly declined this proposal. "I have been compelled," she said, "to yield to one man's will by force; henceforth no other shall ever come near my side."

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