The Cinderella from Livland
Emperor Peter the Great died in the early morning of January 28, 1725, in his small bedroom-study on the second floor of the Winter Palace. His death did not come easy. Excruciating pain wracked his body; the best efforts of experienced doctors brought no relief, and death was to him a deliverance from unbearable suffering.1
But the first Russian emperor, like almost anyone else, did not want to die. More than once he had looked death straight in the eye on battlefields and stormy seas; yet now he was clinging desperately to life and, according to one contemporary, “grew very fainthearted and even displayed a petty fear of death.”2 He prayed fervently and frenziedly, confessing and taking communion several times. Attending priests did not leave his bedside; he wept and clutched their hands. It seemed as if he were using the Orthodox priests’ brocade chasubles, gleaming in the faint candlelight, as a screen against death, which stared at him steadily from the darkness of night.
The tsar, always merciless toward any violators of his strict laws, gave the order to release criminals from jails and to forgive government officials their debts and fines, an act that, according to Russian custom, was supposed to save his soul. Until the very end he had hope in God’s mercy as well as in his own vitality, for he was only fifty-two years old and there were so many ideas and plans for the future ahead …
The teary-eyed empress Catherine Alekseevna, a stout, comely woman, did not leave the bedside of the dying tsar in the crowded study (big as a giant, the tsar was fond of small cozy rooms with low ceilings). She tried to