Sophia Alekseyevna (1657–1704)

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Sophia Alekseyevna (1657–1704)

Able and ambitious daughter of Tsar Alexis who served as regent of Russia from 1682 to 1689 for her brother Ivan V and half-brother Peter I. Name variations: Tsarevna Sophia; Regent Sophia; Susanna; Sofya Alekseevna, Aleksyeevna, Alexeevna, or Alexinova. Pronunciation: So-PHE-uh Alek-SAY-vnah. Born Sophia Alekseyevna on September 17, 1657, in Moscow, Russia; died at the Convent of Novodevichy in Moscow on July 3, 1704; daughter of Tsar Alexis I (Aleksei of Alexius) Mikhailovich Romanov (1629–1676) and Maria Miloslavskaia (1626–1669); sister of Fyodor (Theodore) III and Ivan V, both tsars; educated informally at her father's court and tutored by Simeon Polotsky and Sylvester Medvedev; never married; no children.

The daughters of early Russian tsars traditionally lived cloistered religious lives, seldom marrying or appearing in public. But Sophia Alekseyevna, daughter of Tsar Alexis I Mikhailovitch,

was a headstrong and ambitious woman who was continually defiant of traditional customs. When her brother Fyodor III died in 1682, her half-brother Peter (the future Peter I the Great), son of Alexis and his second wife Natalya Naryshkina , was proclaimed tsar. Objecting to a government dominated by the Naryshkins, Sophia cunningly broke with tradition and followed the hearse, crying and publicly demonstrating her grief. Leaving the cathedral after the funeral, she made open accusations that Fyodor had been poisoned and her younger brother, the feeble-minded Ivan (V), was being passed over in the succession. Her public charges incited the streltsy (palace troops) to revolt and murder several members of the Naryshkin family. Sophia calmed the streltsy and the populace by arranging for 16-year-old Ivan to become coruler with their half-brother, 10-year-old Peter, with Ivan as senior tsar. With the approval of the zemsky sobor (national assembly), Sophia, at the age of 25, assumed the role of regent for the youthful tsars. Thus governmental power in Russia was in the hands of Sophia Alekseyevna.

Sophia was born in Moscow on September 17, 1657, the sixth child and fourth daughter of Tsar Alexis and Maria Miloslavskaia . She was baptized in the Cathedral of Dormition by Patriarch Nikon on October 4. Little is known of Sophia's childhood and young womanhood. Because of her mother's frequent illnesses and pregnancies, Sophia's upbringing in the terem (women's quarters) of the Kremlin palace was guided by her Aunt Irina Romanov , a dour spinster whose broken betrothal to a Danish prince had left her withdrawn and bitter. Sophia's early years were likely dominated by compulsory prayers, pious conversations, and frequent whippings. The daughters of Russian tsars were unfortunately unmarriageable to European nobles because of religious and political differences, or to Russian princes because such men, despite their nobility, were beneath the royal family's dignity. Usually the tsarevnas were doomed to both celibacy and seclusion. But the veil of obscurity was lifted when Sophia passed her tenth birthday. It became obvious that her active mind demanded more than idle gossip, needlework, antics of court dwarfs and pious conversations.

When the opportunity arose, Sophia enjoyed listening to conversations between the tsar, his heir, and intimate advisors. She was also interested in the outside world. She learned about the English Parliament from the tsar's English doctor, Samuel Collins, and about greater Russia from A.L. Ordyn-Natchokin during his palace visits. Although it was against convention for her to speak to her elders, she could, nonetheless, listen carefully and respond to their questions. She and her brother Alexis (1653–1670) were very close, and one day he proposed to their father that his tutor, Simeon Polotzky, should also tutor Sophia.

Simeon Polotzky, a Belorussian monk, was interested in Western thought and culture and was proficient in several languages. He taught Sophia geography, politics, and diplomacy. She also studied Latin, French, and Polish but loved history so much that she convinced Collins to teach her English history. It is recorded that she opposed the English Parliament's execution of Charles I and believed the Thirty Years' War was a futile endeavor. Under the tutelage of Polotsky and his protégé Sylvester Medvedev, Sophia grew to appreciate Western achievements and culture. She also came to understand that Russia's isolation should be ended by the gradual introduction of Western reform to Russia. Polotsky was impressed enough with his young pupil to dedicate his book Crown of the Catholic Faith to her in 1670.

Miloslavskaia, Maria (1626–1669)

Russian empress. Name variations: Miloslavskaya, Miloslavna, or Miloslavski. Born Maria Ilyanova Miroslavskaia in 1626; died on March 3 or 4, 1669; born into the powerful Miloslavsky family of Russian nobles; daughter of Ilya Milosavsky; became first wife of Alexis I (1629–1676), tsar of Russia (r. 1645–1676), on January 16, 1648; children: 14, including Eudoxia (died after 1706); Marpha (1652–1705, who became a nun); Dimitri (d. 1667); Alexis (1653–1670); Sophia Alekseyevna (1657–1704); Ivan; Fyodor also known as Theodore III (1661–1682), tsar of Russia (r. 1676–1682); Theodosia (1662–1676); Marie Romanov (1663–1723); Michael (1664–1669); Catherine Romanov (1669–1718); Anna Romanov (1655–1674); John also known as Ivan V (1666–1696), tsar of Russia (r. 1682–1689). Alexis' second wife was Natalya Narishkina .

Sophia's mother died on March 3, 1669, and her father remarried in 1671 to Natalya Naryshkina, who gave birth to the future Peter I on June 4, 1672. His birth accelerated the rivalry between the Miloslavsky and Naryshkin families. Natalya eased the tyrannical restrictions of the terem by permitting the other women and herself the privileges of attending the theater, open coach rides, public appearances and trips away from Moscow. The more relaxed rules allowed Sophia to advance her political knowledge and to make important contacts with influential politicians and military officers.

On January 30, 1676, Tsar Alexis died and was succeeded by his 14-year-old son, Fyodor III Alexivitch (r. 1676–1682). Sophia moved into a commanding position, because the sickly young tsar was devoted to her. But Sophia knew that the unavoidable struggle between the two rival families would be decided by the person who held the throne. She had the disadvantage of having two brothers in poor health, while the Naryshkins had a robust heir in Peter and the support of Artamon Matvyeev, the powerful minister of foreign affairs and guardian of Natalya Naryshkina. Compounding matters was the fragile health of Fyodor and his failure to produce heirs. Sophia realized that the real crisis would come following his death, when the choice would be made between the feeble-minded Ivan and the healthy Peter. Fyodor's reign was ruled by ambitious favorites, whose positions were made more precarious by the power struggle between the Miloslavsky and Naryshkin families. By 1682, the young tsar's health was critical and his strength ebbed from day to day. Fyodor refused to name an heir despite pressure from both families and Patriarch Joachim, a Naryshkin supporter. Sophia, who remained silent, knew that her own relatives would oppose a woman as regent or ruler. Her only confidants were Prince Vasili Golitsyn, already believed to be her lover, and Sylvester Medvedev. It has been written that Sophia set aside court etiquette and nursed her brother through his fatal illness and was also present during all the final attempts to manipulate the succession by the various factions. Fyodor died at the age of 20 on April 27, 1682.

Taking advantage of the confusion following Fyodor's death, the Naryshkins, with the support of the patriarch, the princes, and much of the Muscovite citizenry, engineered the accession of Peter. The success and rapidity of the succession created consternation in the disorganized Miloslavsky faction. Fearing exile and persecution, they placed their hopes and efforts behind Sophia. Because she knew that her family's fortunes might rest on the military's support of the traditional succession, Sophia had carefully ingratiated herself to the officers of the streltsy by inviting them to the Kremlin and cleverly reminding them of Ivan's inheritance rights. At the funeral it was traditional for the mother of the new tsar to be the only woman in the procession. But Sophia and all of her ladies, wearing brief veils, broke tradition and left the terem to walk along with Natalya and Peter behind the hearse. When they arrived at the cathedral, Natalya angrily ignored the service and returned to the palace. Following the funeral service, Sophia boldly addressed the crowd: "Ah, here we are left all alone with nobody to protect us. My brother Ivan's rights have been passed over most unjustly … and it should be known to all … that wicked people hurried on my poor brother Fyodor's death."

The general public had doubts about the Naryshkin family's ability to govern, and they certainly disliked the prospect of a long regency for the ten-year-old Peter. But the important support for Ivan came from the streltsy whose dissatisfaction concerning their declining importance predated Fyodor's death. Within a week of the funeral, 19 streltsy regiments had declared their support for Ivan and the Miloslavsky family. On May 15, the streltsy, incited by Sophia's accusations, openly rebelled by attacking the palace, killing several influential members of the Naryshkin faction, and demanding that Ivan be proclaimed tsar. Natalya and Peter were not harmed. After a few days of violence, Sophia calmed the streltsy by showering them with gifts of money and promotions and by enlisting their support for a political compromise. By the end of May, they had proposed, and a frightened zemski sobor had proclaimed, a dual monarchy with Ivan V as the first and Peter I as the second tsar. In addition, at the demand of the streltsy, the assembly installed Sophia as regent until the youthful co-tsars were of age. Power had passed to the Miloslavsky family in general and to Sophia in particular. From 1682 to 1689, she served as the first female ruler during the imperial period of Russian history.

Sophia quickly formed her government. She appointed Prince Vasili Golitsyn as minister for foreign affairs and her uncle, Prince Ivan Miloslavsky, as treasurer. In addition, she gave the education ministry to Sylvester Medvedev and appointed Fyodor Shaklovity, an obscure civil servant, as secretary of state. Sophia had a double throne constructed for the co-tsars and a third throne, one step lower than the tsars', was built for her. She signed all decrees, her likeness appeared on all Russian coins, and her nameday, the feast of St. Sophia , was made a national holiday. Sophia was a prudent, even-tempered woman who did not approve of coarse language and practiced an extreme piety by uncommonly large numbers of visits to religious houses and churches. Although she was stout and plain in appearance, Sophia was a sensual woman who apparently shared her favors with both Golitsyn and Shaklovity even as she assumed the regency. While the two men should have been bitter rivals, they remained friends and loyally served Sophia until the tragic end.

Sophia, with some reservations, had appointed Prince Ivan Andreevich Khovansky as commander of the streltsy. Khovansky was an enthusiastic supporter of the "Old Believers," those who opposed earlier religious reforms and favored a return to the old rituals of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He made threats to the regency and appealed to the officer ranks of the streltsy, many of whom were in favor of the old rituals. After trying to hold a debate, which became disorderly, Sophia met with smaller groups of the streltsy where she defended the Orthodoxy of her father and brothers and used a combination of gifts, strong drink and money to win their loyalty. Still mistrusting Khovansky and never certain about the loyalty of the streltsy, Sophia suddenly moved the tsars and the court from Moscow to the nearby village of Kolomenskoe as part of the annual tour of monasteries and country estates. Moving from village to village, Sophia's court reached Vozdvizhenskoe, a short riding distance from the sacred fortress-monastery of Troitsko-Sergievsky. Khovansky, who had continued his intrigues against Sophia, was invited, along with his son, to discuss business matters. In the meantime, she accused him of treason against the church and throne, and her council found him guilty and condemned him to death. Khovansky and his son were arrested on the road to Vosdvizhenskoe and were executed on the feast day of St. Sophia.

With the Khovansky threat removed, Sophia returned to Moscow. Because the streltsy, most of whom had supported Khovansky, had lost their zeal for confrontation, Sophia astutely issued a pardon to all the regiments after placing Shaklovity in command. She later transferred 12 of the 19 regiments to assignments on the Russian borders. Sophia returned to her normal routine of working long hours at her desk. She drew up plans for the first land survey, imposed penalties on public brawling, encouraged the growth of publishing houses, prepared ordinances for fire safety in cities, and attacked lawlessness and brigandage in Russia. Most of her domestic programs followed traditional Russian policies such as improvement of tax assessment and collection, efforts to eradicate government graft and corruption, peasant registration laws, and placating the nobility by efforts to prevent peasants from fleeing to the borders. She endeavored to improve Russian society by signing commercial treaties with Sweden and Poland, eased taxation to encourage cottage industries, encouraged foreign artisans to settle in Russia, and increased exports in furs, iron, and textiles.

Culturally, Sophia turned away from Greco-Byzantine influences in favor of Western European forms. Golitsyn was a cultured man with Western leanings who studied Latin and maintained a large library. Together, they encouraged the study of Latin and Greek and encouraged Russian contacts with the large foreign population in Moscow. The Russian-Slavonic-Greek-Latin Academy was opened with a more secular program in 1687. In art, architecture, and literature, a distinctive style referred to as "Moscow Baroque" replaced the old Russian cultural traditions. These changes, which had begun under Tsar Alexis, were continued under Sophia's regency. In art, the new style included straight perspectives, landscapes, still life, use of light and shade and a shift from a predominantly religious art to secular themes and portrait painting. Artists like Ivan Artemievich Bezmin and Simon Ushakov rose to prominence as transitional painters commissioned by the Miloslavskys, churches, and other prominent families during the regency. Literature reflected influences from the Ukraine, Poland, and Byelorussia as the individual author's personality was permitted to filter through his style. This can be seen in the verses of Simeon Polotsky, Sylvester Medvedev, and Karion Istomin which were popular at the regency court.

The problems inherent for a regent were made worse for Sophia by conditions already in existence, and the unfortunate domestic and foreign policy choices she pursued. Like the previous Romanovs, she failed to improve the conditions of the Russian masses, reform the rapid growth of serfdom, or settle the great schism in the Russian churches which were the major sources of discontent and impending upheavals in Russian society. Instead of innovative solutions or liberal change, the regency fell back to the traditional methods of suppression and police control.

In foreign policy, Sophia overruled her advisors, and approved a permanent peace negotiated by Golitsyn with Poland in 1686. Russia received Kiev and the territory east of the Dnieper River in exchange for joining a European alliance against the Turks. Sophia enthusiastically sponsored two disastrous military campaigns led by Golitsyn in 1687 and 1689 against the Turkish-supported Crimean Tatars. Sophia's efforts to proclaim the campaigns as victories increased the unpopularity of her government with the Russian populace. These failures overshadowed successful treaties concerning borders, religious toleration, and commerce negotiated with Denmark and Sweden in 1684. To end armed hostilities with China over the Amur River region, Sophia signed the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1684, the first treaty China ever signed with a Western power. But because Sophia ceded much of the Amur basin to China, the treaty was criticized by her opponents and added to her unpopularity at home.

Sophia knew that her reign was temporary in nature and that one day Peter would challenge her authority. Her brother Ivan was half-witted and nearly invalid. She had procured a bride for him (Praskovya Saltykova ) in 1684 but the marriage produced four daughters and no male heir. On the strength of doubts that Ivan had the stamina to consummate a marriage, the rumor developed that Sophia had placed another youth in the bride's bed. Other rumors suggested that she would have Peter, Natalya, and other members of the Naryshkin family murdered. During the regency, Peter divided his time between the court and the village of Preobrazhenskoye where he acted out military fantasies, first with toy soldiers and later with real soldiers. He studied geometry, navigation, geography and other subjects under the tutelage of several foreign scholars and adventurers. Peter grew to resent Sophia and concluded that she would eventually move against him.

Because of his interest in the army and military campaigns, it was probably the disastrous Crimean campaigns by Golitsyn that aroused Peter's concern. The first incident between Sophia and Peter occurred on July 8, 1684, at the Feast of Our Lady of Kazan to celebrate Russia's deliverance from the Poles. Sophia had attended the ceremony annually since becoming regent, but Peter, suddenly enraged at her presence, ordered her to leave the cathedral. When she refused, he lost his temper and left the ceremonies. Two weeks later, tension was further increased when Peter refused to honor the contrived victories of Golitsyn in the Crimea. After those events, Sophia kept a special streltsy guard around her. Rumors of impending plots dominated discussion in Moscow.

On August 7, 1689, Sophia requested an escort of streltsy for a pilgrimage to the country. Peter, who was staying at Kolomenskoye Palace, was awakened at midnight by an informer warning him that the streltsy would soon arrive. This was untrue, but Peter hysterically fled by horseback to Troitsko-Sergievsky, the same monastery that had shielded Sophia seven years earlier. Natalya and the loyal Preobrazhenskoye Guards arrived to support Peter. Sophia tried to rally the streltsy regiments, nobles, and the populace but her pleas for support fell on deaf ears. Peter's impassioned call for support was answered by his friends in the foreign quarter, the streltsy, and most of the prominent noble families. Sophia was isolated, and she and her leading supporters were arrested. Fyodor Shaklovity was cruelly tortured but refused to implement Sophia in a plot against Peter. He and many other of Sophia's advisors were executed. Prince Golitsyn was stripped of his possessions and banished into exile. Sophia, still only 32 years old, was confined in the Novodevichy convent in Moscow.

It is doubtful that Peter had as much to fear from Sophia as he thought. She and her supporters had plans to dethrone Peter in favor of Ivan but there was never evidence of any plot against his life. If Sophia intended to murder Peter, she would hardly have waited until he came of age but would have legally ended the regency earlier. Peter, who as a boy had seen his Naryshkin relatives murdered in 1682, never trusted the streltsy or Sophia. When another streltsy revolt in support of Sophia was suppressed in 1698, Peter violently tortured, executed and exiled many of the elite troops. Concluding that he was unsafe with Sophia at liberty, he forced her to take the veil on October 21, 1698. Sophia, who took the name Susannah, was permitted only limited visits from her closest relatives on feast days. She died on July 3, 1704, and was buried the following day under a white tombstone in the Church of the Immaculate Virgin of Smolensk. She had emerged from the inferior position of women in the terem to seize power and govern the Russian people. She had ruled with competence and success during the transitory period prior to the reign of Peter the Great.


Almedingen, E.M. The Romanovs: Three Centuries of an Ill-fated Dynasty. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

Hughes, Lindsey A.J. "'Ambitious and Daring Above Her Sex': Tsarevna Sophia Alekseevna (1657–1704) in Foreigners' Accounts," in Oxford Slavonic Papers. Vol. 21, 1988, pp. 65–89.

——. "Sofiya Alekseyevna and the Moscow Rebellion of 1682," in Slavonic and East European Review. Vol. 63, 1985, pp. 518–539.

——. "Sophia Alekseevna (1657–1704)," in Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History. Vol. 36, 1984, pp. 165–172.

——. "Sophia, Regent of Russia," in History Today. Vol. 32. July 1982, pp. 10–15.

——. Sophia: Regent of Russia 1657–1704. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Korb, Johann Georg. Diary of an Austrian Secretary of Legation at the Court of Tsar Peter the Great. Edited and translated by Count MacDonnel. 2 vols. London: Frank Cass, 1968.

O'Brien, C. Bickford. Russia Under Two Tsars, 1682–1689: The Regency of Sophia. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1952.

Schakovskoy, Z. Precursors of Peter the Great: The Reign of Tsar Alexis, Peter the Great's Father, and the Young Peter's Struggle Against the Regent Sophia for the Mastery of Russia. London: Jonathan Cape, 1964.

suggested reading:

Bergamini, John D. The Tragic Dynasty: A History of the Romanovs. NY: Putnam, 1969.

de Jonge, Alex. Fire and Water: A Life of Peter the Great. NY: Coward, McCann and Geohegan, 1980.

Graham, Stephen. Peter the Great. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971.

Massie, Robert K. Peter the Great: His Life and World. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

Putnam, Peter Brock. Peter, The Revolutionary Tsar. NY: Harper and Row, 1973.

related media:

"Peter the Great," NBC television miniseries based on Robert Massie's book, starring Vanessa Redgrave as Sophia.

Phillip E. Koerper , Professor of History, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama.

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Sophia Alekseyevna (1657–1704)

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