The simple-minded tsar Ivan V of Russia (1666-1696) was only capable of fulfilling curemonial functions, so his sister took over the regency. Ivan liked to sit motionless for hours at a time, while his wife was energetic and dominant, and could be quickly angered.

Tsar Alexis I of Russia (1629-1676) begot 13 children by his first wife, Maria Miloslawskaja, but many of them died young. Tsarevitch Alexis died just short of his 16th birthday, but the semi-invalid Fyodor III (1662-1682) and the simple-minded Ivan V (1666-1696) survived. Fyodor suffered from an ailment that confined him to his bed most of the time. Ivan V was also a sickly child and, in addition, both mentally and physically handicapped. He was retarded and retiring, a "sad-head". He stammered and he was partially blind due to a growth of skin over his eyes. In 1669, the Tsarina Maria died shortly after giving birth to her 13th child, when Ivan was still only three years old. In January 1671 Tsar Alexis remarried Natalya Naryshkina and had 3 additional children, among them a healthy boy, Peter (1672-1725). His birth intensified the rivalries between the Miloslavskys and the Naryshkins, the families of the Tsarinas. Tsar Alexis died on January 29, 1676.

Fourteen-year-old Fyodor III was consecrated as the new Tsar. He was well educated and devout and surrounded himself with bright young men who were also educated in Western thought. He abolished the practice of cutting off the hands and feet of thieves, substituting for it deportation to Siberia. He married the Polish Agafia Grushevskaya, who gave birth to their son Ilya in 1681. Both she and the child died within a few days. Fyodor remarried in 1682, but a few months later he was dead without designating an heir.

The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church hastily organised an assembly. Because Ivan suffered from a number of handicaps, it was decided that the crown should pass to 9-year-old Peter with his mother as regent. This arrangement was challenged by Ivan's 25-year-old sister Sofya (1657-1704, to the right), the Miloslavsky family and the Streltsi infantry regiments1. On May 15, a rumour spread that fifteen-year-old Ivan had been murdered and a mob broke into the Kremlin demanding to know the truth. Peter's mother, Natalya Naryskina, appeared before the mob with Peter on one hand and Ivan on the other to show that the boys were both in good health. Peter with his above-average height stood erect and showed no fear before the well-armed men, but Ivan was terrified. Asked if he was really the Tsarevitch, Ivan stammered that he was.

When Prince Mikhail Dolgorouky tried to intervene and condemned the Streltsi mutineers, he was dragged from the staircase, thrown onto the Streltsi pikes and hacked to pieces before the eyes of Dowager Tsarina Natalya and the young Princes. Thousands of Streltsi swarmed through the palace searching for "traitors". They murdered several members of the Naryskin family. The next day they demanded that Ivan Naryskin, Natalya's brother, who had hidden in a cupboard, be handed over to them. He gave himself up to prevent more massacre and was tortured for hours, mutilated, dismembered and hacked into small pieces. Further violence followed. It must have been a very traumatic experience for the two young Princes. On May 23 the Streltsi demanded that Ivan was appointed joint ruler with Peter. Thus, an agreement was reached and Sofya assumed the regency.

Ivan V and his half-brother Peter (to the right) sat on twin thrones and their crowns and scepters were identical. Peter was usually restless and animated, while backward Ivan sat staring at the floor. He was capable of fulfilling ceremonial functions, but Ivan frequently needed physical support from courtiers. Peter resided with his mother at Preobrazhenskoe and was allowed to enter Moscow only for state occasions that required the presence of both Tsars. Meanwhile, Sofya ruled Russia. She was an educated, able and determined woman. Although Russian Royal women were supposed to spend their time in seclusion and usually received little if any education, Sofya managed - with no real support, but through sheer willpower and personal courage - to rule Russia for seven years. She abolished the customary punishment of live burial for women who had murdered their husbands. Her principal adviser was the enlightened Prince Vasily Golitsyn, who started the construction of stone buildings in Moscow. They invited skilled craftsmen from Europe to settle in Russia. This eventually had a profound influence on Co-Tsar Peter. From 1684 coins and medals were being issued with Sofya's likeness on them, and in 1686 she assumed the title of Autocrat. She twice sent Golitsyn to the south to fight the Tatars, but both times he suffered crushing defeats that undermined Sofya's power.

Ivan was almost a vegetable, sitting motionless for hours at a time. He could walk only with the help of two men. Despite his handicaps, Sofya set out to find a wife for Ivan, who would give birth to an heir. Many Russian noblewomen were willing to exchange the prospect of a life with an abusive magnate for a live with a gentle and pious idiot, especially since he was Tsar. Soon after Ivan had passed his seventeenth birthday, Sofya married him to proud Praskovya Saltykova (1664-1724, to the right), an aristocratic woman with auburn hair and blue eyes. She was an energetic woman and a tyrant to her household; she was quickly angered and her anger was frightening. Meanwhile, Sofya hoped that an heir would help to prolong her regency, but it wasn't until 1688 that Ivan finally managed to impregnate his wife. In the following years Praskovya bore Ivan five daughters of whom three survived: Catherine, Anna2 and Praskovya junior.

Peter was a healthy, energetic and intelligent boy and as he grew older, he became a threat to Sofya's power. By the summer of 1689 seventeen-year-old Peter and Sofya both believed that their life was in danger, that the other was about to use violence to resolve the conflict between them. With the terrible scenes of the palace massacre of 1682 in mind, Peter began suffering from nightmares and one side of his face showed twitches. In August he panicked completely and fled to a fortified monastery near Moscow. In the following weeks an increasing number of officials and officers defected to his side. As regent, Sofya had appeared too often in public and diverted too far from the Old-Russian ideal of female virtue to be accepted on the throne. Ivan too, agreed to support Peter and in return Peter allowed him to retain the title of Co-Tsar. By early September Sofya no longer had sufficient support and retired to a convent, where she died in 1704. At first, Peter left the government in the hands of his mother and her boyar advisors, while he pursued his enthusiasm for shipbuilding. After the death of his mother in 1694 he took a more active role in the government. On January 29, 1696 Ivan V died, and Peter became Peter the Great.

Copyright © 2000 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.


1 The Streltsi was an elite force created by Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible.
2 Anna Ivanovna assumed power as Tsarina Anna I in 1730, while Catherine's grandson became Tsar Ivan VI of Russia.


Content: Joan Bos. Design: Klaas Vermaas. Info: FAQ.