Every now and then — okay, it usually involves a Wikipedia binge — I come across a portrait of some historical figure that’s just so arresting that I have to stop and gape. (I have been resisting the urge to make a whole separate Tumblr for it.)
This cranky lady is the Tsaritsa Sophia Alekseyevna of Russia (1657 - 1704). She was the daughter of Tsar Alexis I, and served as regent of Russia for seven years.
The mere fact that we know her name and have her portrait is unusual, because in Sophia’s time, the Tsar’s daughters were kept secluded from, well, everyone. They were of such high rank that it was unthinkable for them to marry a mere Russian aristocrat, but it was equally impossible for them to marry outside the Russian Orthodox faith. So they spent their lives in the palace, and were heavily veiled and guarded when they went out in public. Most weren’t educated, although in this era, the majority of Russian aristocrats were illiterate, so that wasn’t just ye olde sexism.
Sophia rebelled against these restrictions from a young age. She demanded to be given the same classical education as her brother, Feodor. Their father, who seems to have been pretty reasonable for a guy with the title of “autocrat”, agreed. Thus Sophia was one of the most highly educated people in Russia, and probably one of the most educated women in Europe.
When Sophia was 19, her father died at the early age of 46. He left three male heirs: Feodor and Ivan, both of whom were disabled, and, by his second wife, Peter, who was not. History remembers Peter as “Peter the Great”, so, spoilers, Feodor and Ivan aren’t long for this world.
In fact, the book I’m reading (Peter the Great by Robert K Massie) tends to bang on about who Feodor was so very disabled he was a really ineffectual Tsar, only to turn around and then list Feodor’s achievements. Considering that he was frequently bedridden (he was partially paralysed and had some kind of spinal and leg dysfunction), he was quite a reformer.
Of course, it helped that he had Sophia by his side, working with him. Some historians credit Sophia with all of Feodor’s achievements, but this seems unlikely.
(Historical intersectionality problem: do we erase women, or the disabled? HOW ABOUT BOTH?)
Feodor ruled for six years before he died. His death presented Sophia, and Russia, with a problem. Technically, 16 year old Ivan should have been next in the succession, but he was blind and possibly had some kind of intellectual impairment, plus a speech impairment. He was also not all that keen on being Tsar.
On the other hand, there was Peter. Who wasn’t yet Great, but he was clever, charismatic and … oh, ten years old? Oh dear.
Some political wrangling took place, and the result was two Tsars. Prince Caspian’s uncle may have laughed at the idea of siblings sharing one throne, but there was precedent.
Now, Peter’s mother — herself an educated woman, though not as brilliant as Sophia — was named regent, and this meant that her family had a lot of power. I’m not saying the Russian court was totally powered by nepotism, but … no, it was totally powered by nepotism.
This wasn’t great for Sophia, because she didn’t get on all that well with Peter’s mother or her family, and there was talk of putting Sophia in a convent.
So she did what any woman would do in her situation: she engineered (probably) a bloody rebellion, including traumatising the young Peter by having his relatives butchered in front of him. Then she had herself made regent.
I’m not saying I approve, but it’s impressive, is all.
And Sophia was a pretty good regent. She surrounded herself with able advisors, and gave Peter the space to basically do as he pleased growing up. (What Peter pleased was turning his friends into a small army. He was basically Miles Vorkosigan, except Peter’s “small army” was at least double the size of the Dendarii mercenaries.) Sophia oversaw military clashes with China that caused land disputes still going on today. (Hey, I count it as a victory. I like historical continuity!)
But this couldn’t last. Firstly, Sophia’s government oversaw some epic military stuff-ups. But secondly, Peter was growing up, and there would come a point where there was no need for a regent. Sophia made a desperate attempt to have herself declared tsarina, but this failed.
She was eventually arrested, and spent the rest of her life (fifteen years) in a convent. At one point there was a rebellion in her name — she may or may not have been involved — and the bodies of the rebels were hung outside her window. (Russian history: not for the faint-hearted!) That’s what’s depicted in that first picture above, which probably accounts for why she’s looking so pissed off.
IN CONCLUSION, history is great. Especially Russian history, which I have basically only discovered this week? Stay tuned; further amazing portraits may follow.