1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sophia Aleksyeevna
SOPHIA ALEKSYEEVNA (1657–1704), tsarevna and regent of Russia, was the third daughter of Tsar Alexius and Maria Miloslavskaya. Educated on semi-ecclesiastical lines by the learned monk of Kiev, Polotsky, she emancipated herself betimes from the traditional tyranny of the terem, or women’s quarters. Setting aside court etiquette, she had nursed her brother Tsar Theodore III. in his last illness, and publicly appeared at his obsequies, though it was usual only for the widow of the deceased and his successor to the throne to attend that ceremony. Three days after little Peter, then in his fourth year, had been raised to the throne, she won over the stryeltsy, or musketeers, who at her instigation burst into the Kreml, murdering everyone they met, including Artamon Matvyeev, Peter’s chief supporter, and Ivan Naruishkin, the brother of the tsaritsa-regent Natalia, Peter’s mother (May 15–17, 1682). When the rebellion was over there was found to be no government. Everyone was panic-stricken and in hiding except Sophia, and to her, as the only visible representative of authority, the court naturally turned for orders. She took it upon herself to pay off and pacify the stryeltsy, and secretly worked upon them to present (May 29) a petition to the council of state to the effect that her half-brother Ivan should be declared senior tsar, while Peter was degraded into the junior tsar. As Ivan was hopelessly infirm and half idiotic, it is plain that the absurd duumvirate was but a stepping-stone to the ambition of Sophia, who thus became the actual ruler of Russia. The stryeltsy were not only pardoned for their atrocities, but petted. A general amnesty in the most absolute terms was granted to them, and at their special request a triumphal column was erected in the Red Square of the Kreml, to commemorate their cowardly massacre of the partisans of Peter. When, however, instigated by their leader Prince Ivan Khovansky, who is suspected to have been aiming at the throne himself, and supported by the reactionary elements of the population, conspicuous among whom were the raskolniks or dissenters, they proceeded on the 5th of July to the great reception-hall of the palace in the Kreml to present a petition against all novelties, Sophia boldly faced them. Supported by her aunts and the patriarch, and secretly assured of the support of the orthodox half of the stryeltsy, she forbade all discussion and browbeat the rebels into submission. A later attempt on the part of Khovansky to overthrow her was anticipated and severely punished. By the 6th of November Sophia’s triumph was complete. The conduct of foreign affairs she committed entirely to her paramour, Prince Vasily Golitsuin, while the crafty and experienced clerk of the council, Theodore Shaklovity, looked after domestic affairs and the treasury. Sophia’s fondness for Golitsuin induced her to magnify his barely successful campaigns in the Crimea into brilliant triumphs which she richly rewarded, thus disgusting everyone who had the honour of the nation at heart. Most of the malcontents rested their hopes for the future on the young tsar Peter, who was the first to benefit by his sister’s growing unpopularity. Sophia was shrewd enough to recognize that her position was becoming very insecure. When Peter reached man’s estate she would only be in the way, and she was not the sort of woman who is easily thrust aside. She had crowned her little brothers in order that she might reign in their names. She had added her name to theirs in state documents, boldly subscribing herself “Sovereign Princess of all Russia.” She had officially informed the doge of Venice that she was the co-regent of the tsars. And now the terrible term of her usurped authority was approaching. In her extremity she took council of Shaklovity, and it was agreed (1687) between them that the stryeltsy should be employed to dethrone Peter. The stryeltsy, however, received the whole project so coldly that it had to be abandoned. A second conspiracy to seize him in his bed (August 1689) was betrayed to Peter, and he fled to the fortress-monastery of Troitsa. Here all his friends rallied round him, including the bulk of the magnates, half the stryeltsy, and all the foreign mercenaries. From the 12th of August to the 7th of September Sophia endeavoured to set up a rival camp in the Kreml; but all her professed adherents gradually stole away from her. She was compelled to retire within the Novo-Dyeyichy monastery, but without taking the veil. Nine years later (1698), on suspicion of being concerned in the rebellion of the stryeltsy, she was shorn a nun and imprisoned for life under military supervision. As “Sister Susannah” she disappeared from history. Russian historians are still divided in their opinion concerning this extraordinary woman. While some of them paint her in the darkest colours as an unprincipled adventuress, the representative of a new Byzantinism, others simply regard her as the victim of circumstances. Others, more indulgent still, acquit her of all blame; and a few, impressed by her indisputable energy and ability, evade a decision altogether by simply describing her as a prodigy.
(R. N. B.)