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From the Editors: Russian Roulette

in the minds of Western observers, Moscow seems to embody Russia’s dark past, bustling present, and hopeful future. Yet, over the course of two centuries, this ancient capital vied for supremacy with an upstart metropolis to the north, St. Petersburg, where Cartier—a favorite supplier of treasures to the Imperial Court—opened a new store this year (see “Return to Russia,” page 136).

St. Petersburg was the baroque brainchild of a recently established dynasty. In 1700, during the Great Northern War, Peter I seized a Swedish stronghold on the Gulf of Finland and gave this acquisition its curiously Western name. His reasons for adopting this foreign nomenclature were political and personal. Though linked by marriage to Ivan the Terrible, the first ruler to assume the title of tsar, the Romanovs had only occupied the Russian throne since 1613, when the fall of the short-lived Godunov regime placed the crown on the head of young Michael Romanov, Peter’s grandfather. After his own coronation, Peter undertook an extended journey through Western Europe to enlist the aid of his fellow sovereigns in combating the Ottomans and, while abroad, marveled at European advances in shipbuilding, commerce, civil engineering, and social thought. He returned determined to modernize his nation and cement his family’s authority by erecting a capital that has since been described as the Venice of the North. Artists and architects recruited from Germany, France, and Italy labored to realize Peter’s vision of a canal-strewn city of classically proportioned and intricately detailed palaces and buildings that reflected the ideals of the Age of Reason.

Peter insisted that the lines of his boulevards and canals be symmetrical and straight, but his love of order played little part in matters relating to the Romanov succession. The city that was intended to symbolize Russia’s progressive future under the family’s rule became instead a backdrop to the demise of the male line in only a few short years. Peter’s eldest son, Tsarevich Alexis, resisting his father’s entreaties to take a keener interest in his duties as heir, escaped to Austria, where he received the protection of his Habsburg in-law Charles VI. His suspicious father immediately dispatched emissaries, who successfully persuaded Alexis to return to Russia in 1718. Imprisoned and tortured, the hapless tsarevich confessed to conspiring against his father—and to his intent, once seated on the throne, to abandon St. Petersburg and reinstate Moscow as the capital. Although he was sentenced to death, Alexis was not executed; rather, he died from a series of brutal whippings in the Peter and Paul Fortress—the first structure his father had built in his model city.


With the death of Peter I, Alexis’ 11-year-old son became Peter II; however, he succumbed to smallpox before reaching his majority, and his stepmother, Catherine I, a woman of peasant origins, ruled in his stead. The matrilineal Romanov branch springs from her, but its male descendants proved to be as feckless as the first Peter was great. Peter III—Peter I’s grandson by Catherine I—had an unpopular passion for things Prussian that led to his downfall in 1762, only six months into his reign, when his German-born wife usurped the throne in the wake of a coup. Although Catherine the Great attributed her spouse’s death to hemorrhoidal colic, Aleksey Orlov, one of the conspirators, claimed in a letter to the empress that, after unsuccessful attempts to smother the deposed sovereign between the mattresses of his bed, he strangled her husband with his own hands.

Rather than turn over the reins of power to her son, Paul, when he came of age, Catherine—who treated the boy as contemptuously as she had his father—ruled effectively for 34 years. Tsar Paul I, however, avenged his father by instituting the Pauline Laws, which mandated that the crown pass only to the eldest male heir. In a sense, however, Catherine had the last word. Five years after Paul succeeded his mother, her chief diplomatic adviser, Nikita Panin, organized yet another coup in St. Petersburg. On March 23, 1801, a group of plotters crept into the ornate palace that the tsar had designed for himself and entered the imperial chambers. There, they forced a cowering Paul to sign papers of abdication and, after striking him with a sword, strangled him. The scene of this indecorous and deadly exchange was the Mikhailovsky Castle, where, more recently, Cartier’s guests enjoyed a black-tie dinner.

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