In the autumn of 1724, Peter the Great had managed to save about twenty sailors from a sinking ship near the mouth of the Neva. What at first seemed like a cold, a consequence of the heroic enterprise, turned into a serious illness that led to his death (January 28, 1725).
After Peter’s death, the problem of succession appeared in all its acuteness. Peter’s wife, Eudoxia Lopuchina, had been locked up by the Tsar in a monastery; Pietro had fallen in love with a certain Marta Skavronskaja from Marienburg, an energetic and robust woman from an unknown family; accepting the Orthodox religion, she assumed the name of Catherine; the tsar who had had two daughters with her, Catherine and Elizabeth, ended up marrying her and granting her the title of tsarina. But from the first bed Prince Alexis was born: he was an intelligent boy, but slow and more inclined to a quiet life of studies than to the continuous putting himself in danger, to the continuous daring experiment of his father. Alexis soon became the exponent of all the conservative forces, of all the opponents of Peter the Great,
Meanwhile, in the year 1715, two children were born to Pietro and Alessio, both of whom were called Pietro. Convinced that Alexis would try to make Russia’s great transformation work in vain, Peter ordered Alexis to renounce the throne; Alessio obeyed and, fearing worse troubles, he took refuge abroad. With promises of forgiveness he was then sent back to Russia, where, accused of rebellion, he was tortured and sentenced to death. Pietro’s younger son had died while still a child. Overturning the whole tradition, in 1722, Pietro had granted himself with an edict the faculty of appointing a successor. However, death had overtaken the Tsar before he had had time to apply the edict.
Although due to blood ties the succession would have belonged to Pietro, son of Alessio, still a child, a palace revolution instead brought Catherine to the throne. In fact, the real ruler of Russia had become Catherine’s favorite, Menshikov. In order to protect themselves against an unlimited domination of this favorite, numerous dignitaries had managed to establish (1726) the so-called secret supreme council (first, albeit tenuous, link to autocratic power), which in fact limited sovereign power in the matter. foreign policy, administration, finance, etc. But Menshikov was too intelligent to stretch the rope to the extreme: he was aware of the opposition of vast strata against the “usurper” and, with an indisputably skilful move, he obtained that Caterina (whose health had become frail) nominate his successor Pietro, son of Alessio. At the same time, the young Peter was forced to get engaged to Maria, the daughter of Menshikov himself. A conspiracy against these projects was discovered and severely repressed.
When Catherine died in May 1727, Menshikov had absolute dominion of Russia for a few months, but a new conspiracy, of which the main inspirers were the Dolgorukij princes, succeeded this time: Menshikov was exiled and soon died in a distant place of deportation.
In spite of his personal ambitions and his insufficient abilities to effectively dominate a great empire, Menshikov somehow continued some of the reforming lines of Peter the Great.
With his downfall, the Dolgoruky princes became the new masters. The court returned to Moscow and resumed a conservative “tone” across the board. But the young Peter II died as early as 1730, thereby frustrating several carefully thought out plans. Power was in the hands of the senate, the synod and the supreme secret council.
The crown was offered to Anna, Duchess of Courland, granddaughter of Peter the Great. But the secret supreme council had imposed on her some “conditions” (prohibition of granting fiefdoms, declaring war, imposing contributions, etc.) which would have almost entirely deprived the empress and effectively given power to the supreme council itself. Except that the majority of the nobility was in turn opposed to the supreme secret council, in which – instead of a representation of the nobles – they saw an oligarchy. Anna was able to take advantage of this disagreement, tore up the signed pacts, resumed the autocratic tradition, granting truly remarkable privileges to the noble class (including the middle and lower nobility) from above. Energetic, but ignorant, cruel, full of curious superstitions, Anna increasingly handed over the reins of the state to a favorite of hers, Biron, also from Curland, under whose influence the German element of the Baltic regions took a decisive upper hand in high offices. The state coffers were still affected by the effects of the wars of Peter the Great, the court led a costly life, various famines had aggravated the situation: a tax system resulting in ferocious punitive expeditions against defaulting taxpayers had exasperated peasants and landowners. The initial sympathy of large strata of the petty and middle nobility thus gradually faded away.
On Anna’s death, a relative of hers, the newborn John, was declared heir to the throne. With a rescript, Anna had appointed Biron regent. The hatred against Biron was accentuated in large sections of the population by the fact that the former favorite was of German nationality. Furthermore, the currents of opposition – generally more or less discordant with each other – had fixed their gaze on Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great. At some distance from the death of the great tsar, whose qualities and merits were only remembered, Biron was overthrown by a military plot, which was followed by other more or less important palace revolts. Elizabeth herself, taking advantage of the favorable situation for her, proclaimed herself empress at the end of 1741.