Sofia Alekseyevna of Russia

Sophia Alekseyevna
Regent of Russia
Tenure 8 June 1682 – 22 September 1689
Born (1657-09-27)27 September 1657
Moscow, Russia
Died 14 July 1704(1704-07-14) (aged 46)
Novodevichy Convent, Russia
Burial Archangel Cathedral
Full name
Sophia Alekseyevna Romanova
House Romanov
Father Alexis I
Mother Maria Miloslavskaya
Religion Eastern Orthodox

Sophia Alekseyevna (Russian: Со́фья Алексе́евна; IPA: [ˈsofʲɪjə ɐlʲɪˈksʲejɪvnə]; 27 September [O.S. 17 September] 1657  14 July [O.S. 3 July] 1704) was regent of Russia from 1682 to 1689. She allied herself with a singularly capable courtier and politician, Prince Vasily Golitsyn, to install herself during the minority of her brother Ivan V and half-brother Peter I. Her regency was carried out with a firm and heavy fist. She did not hesitate to use violent tactics to promote her agenda. The activity of this "bogatyr-tsarevna" (as Sergey Solovyov called her) was all the more extraordinary, as upper-class Muscovite women, confined to the upper-floor terem and veiled and guarded in public, invariably were kept aloof from any open involvement in politics.[1]

Early life

Sophia was the third surviving daughter of Tsar Alexis by his first wife, Maria Miloslavskaya. She was the only one of her sisters educated by Simeon Polotsky who also taught Tsar Alexis' heirs Tsarevich Alexei and Tsarevich Feodor.[2] After the death of her brother, Tsar Feodor III, on 27 April 1682, Sophia unexpectedly entered Russian politics, trying to prevent her young half-brother, the 9-year old Peter Alekseyevich from bypassing her elder brother Tsarevich Ivan and inheriting the throne.[3]

Rise to regency

Although Sophia emerged on the scene during the dynastic struggles of 1682, her prior influences can help to explain her ascendance to the regency. At the previous change of rule, Sophia may have acted in the interest of her brother, Feodor, as various rumours exist of her pleading with the dying Alexis not to proclaim Peter his heir. Feodor’s capability to lead Russia was questioned, based on his weak nature and poor health. His mental ability developed quite nicely over time, however, as he was taught by Simeon Polotsky. During his brief reign, many historians argue that Feodor actually 'ruled under the protectorate of Sophia his sister.'[4] As his health began to decline, more individuals rose up to counsel Feodor, and Sophia found her influence steadily declining. Taking advantage of a court never open to a woman in her position, she utilized her connections, making allies and formally planning on securing the throne. As Feodor’s health declined, Sophia immediately returned to the political scene, attending her brother’s funeral and causing a commotion while doing so. In Sophia’s age, the female relatives of the tsar were kept away from the courtroom and other political workrooms, and funerals were traditionally carried on without women. Sophia stormed into the funeral, insisting on her presence and simultaneously setting off a chain of events that would result in her regency.

The Miloslavsky party took advantage of the Moscow Uprising of 1682 to place Sophia on the seat of power. Tsar Alexis left behind him two families by his two wives, both of which boasted at least one male heir. As the clans of Alexis' two wives were in conflict, Sophia crafted her scheme to ensure power for herself and her family. Promoting the case of her brother Ivan as the legitimate heir to the throne, Sophia attempted to convince the patriarch and the boyars that their recent decision to crown Peter should be reversed. Insisting that Peter’s election broke monarchic laws by skipping over her brother, who would have been next in line to rule if not for his ineptitude, she proposed a shared crown with Ivan. Upon the court’s swift and unanimous rejection of the proposal, Sophia reached out to the discouraged military troop, the Streltsy, for their aid and support. The unjust dismissal of Ivan's rights acted as a catalyst to the already displeased and frustrated troops. Multiple issues, including merciless motivational tactics and lack of rest, drove the Streltsy to violently oppose the "unjust" election of Peter. As the fighting ceased and Peter’s life was left forever scarred by the blood spilt by his Naryshkin relatives, the Streltsy received their initial demands.[5] Building on the momentum of the Streltsy rebellion, the incompetent Ivan was crowned senior tsar and Peter, only nine years old, junior tsar. Sophia had been deemed the sole intellectually mature member of the family at the time of Feodor’s death, making her the favourite to govern in place of the child, Peter, and the inept Ivan. Using the education and political savvy she acquired by Feodor’s side, Sophia convinced the nobles and patriarch of her capacities to rule Russia. As Sophia had arranged before her Feodor’s death, Vasily Golitsyn was installed as a de facto head of government, responsible for most of the policies during her regency.

Romantic life

Sophia's relationship with Prince Golitsyn was not necessarily a romantic attachment.[6] Golitsyn had a wife and a large family at a time when the boyars were still attached to the Domostroy, a matrimonial code from Ivan IV's reign. Several early 18th-century memoirs gave birth to rumours that Golitsyn had been Sophia's lover. Some see the evidence for this in the tone of Sophia's correspondence with him in 1689.[7] In any case, a romantic interaction between the two could not begin when they met under Fyodor’s rule. Fyodor entrusted great confidence in Golitsyn, and there remains no evidence Sophia and Vasily acted against customs that would have kept them apart until after his death. There is no suspicion of any relations until the letter in 1689, even during the period of Golitsyn’s rise to power.[8]


Ilya Repin's 1879 painting portrays Sophia after her fall from power, confined to a cell in the Novodevichy Convent. Also in the painting, outside the window, a hanging Strelets shows the fate of those who sought to reinstate her.

When the Old Believers joined the rebels in the fall of 1682 and demanded the reversal of Nikon's reforms, Sophia lost control of the unsteady Streltsy to her once ally, Prince Ivan Khovansky. After aiding Sophia in May, Khovansky used his influence with the troops to force her court to flee the Moscow Kremlin and seek refuge in the Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra. The streltsy rebels, who instigated the rebellion, hoped to depose Sophia and to make Prince Ivan Khovansky a new regent, to satisfy their increasing desire for concessions. Calling together the gentry militia, Sophia managed to suppress the so-called Khovanshchina with the help of Fyodor Shaklovityi, who succeeded Khovansky in charge of the Muscovite army. Silencing the dissatisfied parties until Peter reached his age of majority, Sophia executed Khovansky and the other figureheads of the attempted rebellion.[4]

During the seven years of her regency, Sophia made a few concessions to posads and loosened detention policies towards runaway peasants, which caused dissatisfaction among the nobles. She also made an effort to further the organization of the military. Notably intrigued by baroque style architecture, Sophia held responsibility for the promotion of the foreign district, and the creation of the Slavonic-Greek-Latin Academy, the first Russian higher learning institution. The most important highlights of her foreign policy, as engineered by Golitsyn, were the Eternal Peace Treaty of 1686 with Poland, the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk with China, and the Crimean campaigns against Turkey. Although spearheaded by Prince Golitsyn, Sophia’s reign oversaw two of the earliest diplomatic treaties and underwent inner growth and progress. Despite her other achievements, Sophia’s influence and effect on a young Peter remains as the most historically significant portion of her reign, as the rebellion of 1682 bred a distrust in nobility that came to define his leadership.


Sophia Alekseyevna's regency retained the trappings of a typical regent, and the true tsar was growing into his position with every passing year. At the age of 16, Peter I demanded that Golitsyn report to him regarding all matters, and the Naryshkin family prepared for their long-awaited ascension to power. In 1688, Peter began to promote within his clan, and Sophia remained powerless to halt the gradual shift in control. During this time period, the regent disregarded the young tsar, letting him train his Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky Guards in Preobrazhenskoe. Although some historians claim Sophia made conscious attempts to neutralize Peter, and remove him from the political world, her involvement remains unclear. Sophia and her party had discussed crowning her as tsarina, and in August 1687 had tried persuading the Streltsy to petition on her behalf. Denied their aid, Sophia and her supporters found themselves on the decline in 1688, as the Crimean war brought rioting and unrest to Moscow. To worsen the situation, Peter had married, readying himself for rule, and Ivan V fathered a girl, eliminating any potential claim to the throne from that branch. Tensions between the two factions continued to grow, until Peter I turned 17 years of age, when his Naryshkin relatives demanded that Sophia step down. In response, Shaklovityi advised Sophia to proclaim herself tsarina and attempted to induce the Streltsy to a new uprising. Most of the Streltsy units, however, deserted central Moscow for the suburb of Preobrazhenskoye and later for the Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra, where the young tsar was living. Feeling the power slipping from her hands, Sophia sent the boyars and the Patriarch to Peter, asking him to join her in the Kremlin. He flatly refused her overtures, demanding Shaklovityi's execution and Golitsyn's exile.[8]

After Sophia agreed to surrender her senior boyars, she was arrested and forced to withdraw to the Novodevichy Convent without formally taking the veil. Sophia may have plotted one last attempt at securing power, although her involvement is unclear. Regardless of her conscious intent, her fate was sealed ten years later, when the Streltsy attempted to reinstate her in the Kremlin during Peter's absence from the country. This uprising was suppressed with an iron hand, and soon the corpses of the rebels were suspended in front of Sophia's windows. Having taken the veil, she was kept in the strictest seclusion, with other nuns not allowed to see her except on Easter day. She died in the Novodevichy Convent six years later.[4]

Sophia Alekseyevna in the media

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sophia Alekseyevna.

She was fictionally portrayed in Chinese novelist Jin Yong's novel The Deer and the Cauldron in which the young protagonist Wei Xiaobao went to Russia and helped her lead the coup against her half-brother Peter I. It was suggested that this event led to the peace between the Qing Empire and Russia in the Nerchinsk Treaty.

Vanessa Redgrave portrayed the character of Sophia Alekseyevna in the 1986 miniseries Peter the Great. Her performance received an Emmy award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries.


  1. The position of women in old Muscovy is outlined ed by Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great, His Life and World, 1980, ch. "Old Muscovy" pp 31ff.
  2. Hughes, Lindsey, Sofiya Alekseyevna and the Moscow Rebellion of 1682
  3. O'Brien, C. Bickford (1952). Russia Under Two Tsars 1682-1689: The Regency of Sophia Alekseevna. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  4. 1 2 3 J. Crull, M.D. The Ancient and Present State of Muscovy, vol. 2, London, 1698, p. 200
  5. Hughes, Lindsey, Sophia: Regent of Russia 1657-1704. (c) 1990
  6. Paul Bushkovitch. Peter the Great: The Struggle for Power, 1671-1725. Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 9780521805858. Page 138.
  7. A letter of quoted by Massie 1980, p. 89
  8. 1 2 Hughes, Lindsey.

Further reading

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