Catherine I and Peter II (1725-1730)
THE UNEXPECTED death of Peter I instantly raised the critical issue of succession. There were several claimants: first, the second wife of Peter, Catherine I; another, the half-niece of Peter I and currently a widow, Anne of Courland, the daughter of Ivan V. There was the daughter of Peter I by his second marriage. Finally, there was young Peter, a grandson of the deceased emperor and son of the executed heir-apparent, Alexis. The general feeling was in favor of the grandson, but since he was a minor, the question immediately arose of the naming of a regent. Deliberations of the assembled dignitaries soon became superfluous when it was learned that the Royal Guard had decided to name the wife of Peter I, Catherine I, as Empress of Russia. Catherine I thus became the first woman sovereign in the history of the Russian state. It may be noted that Catherine was named neither by the Senate nor by the Synod, neither by a testament of the departed sovereign nor by any specially summoned deliberative body, but by the Royal Guard. It set a precedent which became the frequent practice during the eighteenth century. Those who assembled at the palace to consider the issue of succession had no choice but to accept the decision made for them.
For the next three quarters of a century the question of succession was to be resolved by a series of court revolutions in which the Royal Guard played a pre-eminent part. For some years Peter I had feared that his opponents might take advantage of his death to bring all his reforms to naught. To assure continuation of his measures to Europeanize his country Peter went as far as to consent to the execution of his one and only son when the latter showed Muscovite proclivities. At the time of his own death Peter I must have been tormented by thoughts on the fate of the throne. Of all the children of his second marriage no male heir had survived, only two daughters. Of these two, Anne seemed to be out of the picture, being married to the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. The second daughter, Elizabeth, in 1725 was sixteen years of age and displayed neither intention nor talent to become an occupant of the throne. As to the grandson of Peter (son of the Alexis who had been executed), Peter II, he proved to be rather a challenge to any theory of physical or mental heredity than a worthy successor of Peter I.