The Miracle of Brandenburg!


Emperor Peter III, 1762

After Peter succeeded to the Russian throne (5 January 1762 [O.S. 25 December 1761]), he withdrew Russian forces from the Seven Years’ War and concluded a peace treaty (5 May [O.S. 24 April] 1762) with Prussia (the “Miracle of the House of Brandenburg”). He gave up Russian conquests in Prussia and offered 12,000 troops to make an alliance with Frederick II of Prussia (19 June [O.S. 8 June] 1762). Russia thus switched from an enemy of Prussia to an ally — Russian troops withdrew from Berlin and marched against the Austrians. This dramatically shifted the balance of power in Europe, suddenly handing the delighted Frederick the initiative. Frederick recaptured southern Silesia (October 1762) and subsequently forced Austria to the negotiating table.

The year 1762 promised to be disastrous for Frederick the Great.

Frederick was saved by a remarkable stroke of luck. Tsar Elizabeth had been ill for years. Without legitimate children of her own, she had chosen as successor her nephew, her sister’s son Peter. Raised in Germany as a Lutheran, Peter was deeply unhappy about coming to Russia to learn a strange language and convert to a strange religion. His marriage to Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, renamed Catherine with her conversion to Orthodoxy, was a spectacular failure. An impassioned admirer of Frederick the Great, Peter was the center of opposition to Elizabeth and the Seven Years’ War inside Russia. At least part of Russia’s inability to crush Frederick came from the reluctance of Russian commanders to alienate the heir to the throne, their future tsar. On a more principled basis, others within the Russian elite, particularly vice-chancellor for foreign affairs Mikhail Illarionovich Vorontsov, regarded the complete destruction of Prussia as harmful to the European balance of power and Russian interests and noted the desperate state of Russian finances. When Elizabeth died on 25 December 1761/5 January 1762, Peter came to the throne as Peter III. He promptly took Russia out of the war, requested no compensation from Prussia for doing so, returned all Prussian territory, made Russia a Prussian ally, and provided Frederick with 20,000 troops. Austria saw no prospects in continuing alone and concluded a peace on the basis of the status quo at the outbreak of war, leaving Silesia in Prussian hands.

Though the Russian army fought Frederick the Great toe-to-toe, taking and inflicting enormous losses, calling up 250,000 conscripts, and losing 100,000 dead, Peter had abandoned the war at the moment of victory. Increasingly conscious of their identity and status as skilled and professional commanders, Russian officers did not forgive Peter this betrayal.

Peter III ruled Russia only six months. He fell to a coup organized by and on behalf of his wife Catherine, with whom he shared only mutual detestation. Pregnant with another man’s child when Peter took the throne, Catherine knew herself to be extremely vulnerable. Peter’s German sympathies and withdrawal from the Seven Years’ War were highly unpopular with segments of the Russian elite, as was his confiscation of vast land holdings from the Orthodox church. He moved Russia toward war with Denmark not in defense of Russian interests, but those of his ancestral home Holstein. Though Catherine later attempted to paint her husband as unstable, even insane, the contemporary evidence is more complex. All this was not itself enough to bring a coup. That required Catherine’s active intervention in the personal and factional politics at court. Catherine relied above all on contacts and friends among the officers of the guards regiments, with whom she seized power in St. Petersburg on 28 June/8 July 1762 before Peter, outside the city, even knew what was happening. After a brief attempt to flee, Peter meekly surrendered. Catherine’s coconspirators then murdered him.

Peter’s brief reign produced a major change in the status of the Russian nobility, all of whom in principle were lifelong servants of the state, generally as military officers. In 1736, Tsar Anna Ivanovna had granted the right to retire after 25 years in service and had allowed noble families to keep one son home as estate manager. All tsars had in practice granted lengthy leaves to allow nobles to tend to their estates and families. Peter III went beyond that. On 18 February/1 March 1762, his emancipation of the nobility granted a host of rights that had before only been gifts of the tsar. No noble was obliged to serve, and nobles in service could generally retire whenever they wished. Peter’s goals were professionalizing the officer corps and improving estate management and local government through the greater physical presence of the nobility in the countryside. His emancipation ably served those goals and lasted much longer than Peter himself. As military service still brought prestige and social advancement, large numbers of nobles continued to serve, while the Russian army supplemented them as before with foreign professionals. Peter’s action was immensely popular among the nobility; the Senate voted to erect a golden statue in his honor.

Despite Catherine’s systematic effort to blacken her late husband’s name and character, she reversed none of his policies. She kept the lucrative church lands he confiscated, kept noble military service optional, and formally confirmed this right in her own Charter of the Nobility in 1785. Moreover, Catherine was in no hurry to bring Russia back into the Seven Years’ War. The war’s expense and her empty treasury led Catherine to embark on conservative consolidation. Catherine gracefully and delicately solidified her position on the throne while repairing the worst damage done by Peter’s arbitrary foreign policies.

Catherine retained oversight of foreign affairs, but gave its management to Nikita Ivanovich Panin. Panin’s foreign policy in the early years of Catherine’s reign was a “northern system.” This alliance with Prussia and Denmark was intended to counter the French-Austrian alliance in southern Europe, influence events in Poland, and prevent any attack by Sweden. Centered around a 1764 alliance with Prussia, Panin’s system functioned rather well. It protected Prussia against war with Austria, while providing both countries valuable time to recover from the Seven Years’ War.


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