Magazine article Russian Life

Sofia's Failed Coup

Magazine article Russian Life

Sofia's Failed Coup

Article excerpt

September 1689

IN 1664, A RUSSIAN diplomat named Grigory Kotoshikhin fled Moscow, first heading for Poland and then continuing on to Sweden (he had been selling the Swedes information for years, so he was welcomed there with open arms). Kotoshikhin understood that he was expected to share the latest news, so he wrote a book in Stockholm that described contemporary Russian life in great detail. Naturally, he started from the top and described the life of the tsar and those around him. The fugitive also described what life was like for certain members of the court who were virtually never seen-the tsar's daughters and sisters.

  The royal sisters as well as daughters, the tsarevnas, have a variety
  of private quarters and they live like hermits, see hardly any
  people, and people hardly ever see them; they are constantly engaged
  in prayer and fasting, and their faces are bathed in tears, because,
  although they have every royal pleasure, they do no have the pleasure
  that is given by Almighty God to people, that they might copulate and
  bear children. It is not the custom to marry them to the princes and
  boyars of their own state, since princes and boyars are their kholopy
  [servants], and it is not the custom to give them in marriage to the
  princes of other states, because such men are of a different faith,
  and tsarevnas cannot renounce their own faith, and furthermore, they
  know neither the language nor the politics of other states, and it
  would be shameful for them to live there.


Kotoshikhin was a well-established court insider, but there is no doubt that he had never seen the royal sisters and daughters with his own eyes. Indeed, there is no doubt that the tsarevnas of the Moscow court were kept in strict isolation. It is also a fact that they were never married. Only one tsar attempted to violate this custom. Boris Godunov tried to arrange a marriage between his daughter Ksenia and a Danish prince, but the prince refused to convert to Orthodoxy and the marriage never took place.

The pious and devout Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, who ruled during the mid-17th century, the period described by Kotoshikhin, could not have conceived of the possibility of marrying his daughters to foreigners, that much is clear. What is less clear is whether or not the faces of these girls really were "bathed in tears." In any event, when their father died, all six tsarevnas immediately adopted "Polish dress" and took lovers. They clearly had no intention of confining themselves to convents and spending their lives in prayer and fasting.

Furthermore, Kotoshikhin was wrong when he asserted that the tsarevnas knew "neither the language nor the politics of other states." In any event, this clearly did not apply to Alexei's eldest daughter, Sofia. It is hard to say what gave the God-fearing Alexei Mikhailovich the highly unusual idea of allowing Sofia to share in her brothers' education. Perhaps he noticed the girl's intellect and inquisitiveness, or perhaps it was the winds of change that were blowing in from Europe, winds that had caught the tsar's attention.

Whatever the case may have been, Sofia, along with the tsar's sons, was educated by the outstanding poet and scholar Simeon Polotsky's. Polotsky's name was expressive of the influences of Polish culture that had shaped him-he was born in the town of Polotsk, where these influences were strongly felt. He brought his knowledge of European life to Moscow and passed it on to his pupils. Sofia's excellent education taught her Polish and Latin and equipped her with a well-developed mind and a strong will.

When Sofia's father died, she was 22, which in those days made her a full-fledged adult, and not a particularly young one. She despised her stepmother and was clearly planning to arrange her life as she saw fit. Sofia needed power and freedom. Her 16-year-old brother, Fyodor, had assumed the throne, and now there was no one to order her about or stop her from doing as she pleased. …

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