Royal hooligans: Brawls, drinking, and madness in the Romanov family

Archive photo, Mazalev/Sputnik, susannp4/Pixabay
Some of the Romanovs were pretty mad, like Peter the Great, who made people drink so much booze they sometimes died - he was also known for throwing his subordinates around like rag dolls. One Romanov grand duke also once shot an army general like a stray dog, while another drove a respected engineer to suicide.

1. Peter the Great and his drunken exploits

Peter the Great at an assembly

Drinking was Peter the Great’s ultimate vice. He binged in his youth when he frequented the German quarter in Moscow and drank with German and British people who served the Russian throne. Prince Kurakin, a contemporary, recalled that the drinking would sometimes continue for days, many people died from it (including Peter’s friend Frantz Lefort) - there was a time when no wedding in the German quarter passed without the tsar present.

In the 1690s, young Peter created “The All-Joking, All-Drunken Synod of Fools and Jesters” that included his drink buddies – Russia’s highest officials and noblemen – and was active until Peter’s last days. All members of this club had obscene nicknames and during their binges, they parodied the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church – instead of the Gospel, the club had a box containing chalices of vodka that looked like the Bible.

It’s fair to say Peter was a bit of a hooligan. During his visit to England, he started his day with a pint of brandy and a pint of sherry.

In 1698, Peter noticed Prince Menshikov arriving at a ball with his rapier on his belt, and the tsar reprimanded him with a slap that gave Menshikov a bloody nose. The same year, the 26-year-old tsar got mad at Frantz Lefort at a party, grabbed him, “smashed him against the floor and trampled him with his feet…” When Boyar Golovin refused to eat salad with vinegar (Russian boyars considered European salads “food for horses”), Peter made a colonel hold Golovin upside down on his head and stuffed Golovin with salad and vinegar forcing him to “sneeze until his nose started bleeding.”

Any courtiers who were late for Peter’s “assemblies” (official balls) were made to drink a full “Chalice of The Grand Eagle” (1.5 liters of vodka). After several people died of this, nobody dared to be late for the balls. Drinking with Peter the Great killed many people: Peter’s niece, Anna Ioannovna (later Anna of Russia (1693 - 1740) married Frederick William, Duke of Courland. He came to St. Petersburg to celebrate but died in two and a half months because Peter made him drink without stopping.

Even Peter’s last days were marked with binges. In January 1725 French Ambassador Jacques de Campredon planned to hold negotiations with the tsar about a military union, but proceedings suddenly stopped. As Russian Chancellor Osterman secretly told Campredon, “It’s impossible to talk to the tsar about pressing issues at present. He’s fully immersed in entertainment – all days, he wanders from house to house, visiting the capital’s noblest families along with 200 musicians and jesters, singing all kinds of songs and eating and drinking at the expense of the ones they are visiting.”

Campredon left Russia soon after, his negotiations never continued – Peter the Great died the same January.

2. The future emperor driving an official to suicide

Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich

In his memoirs, Prince Peter Kropotkin, a famous Russian revolutionary and philosopher, described an appalling story that happened to Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich, the would-be Emperor Alexander III, in 1869. Karl Gunius, a Finnish officer, was working in the Russian army as a firearms engineer. He was famous for having improved the Berdan rifle, one of the most-used rifles in Russia in the second half of the 19th century. After one of his business trips to the U.S., he was given an audience with Grand Duke Alexander, at the time – adjutant general of Emperor Alexander II, his father.

“During the audience, Grand Duke… started talking rudely to the officer [Gunius]. He must have replied with dignity. The Grand Duke became outraged and swore at the officer mercilessly… The officer left at once and sent a letter to the Grand Duke, demanding Alexander to apologize and adding that if the apology wasn’t made in 24 hours, he’d shoot himself… Alexander didn’t apologize, and the officer kept his word. I saw him at my close friend’s place that evening when he waited for the apology to arrive. The next day, he was dead. Alexander II was furious at his son and ordered him to follow the officer’s coffin right to the grave [which was a crying shame for a Grand Duke - editor’s note], but even this horrible lesson didn’t heal the young man from the arrogance and impetuosity of Romanovs.”

3. Grand Duke shooting an army general

Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich

Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich (1877 – 1943), a grandson of Tsar Alexander II and a first cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, was brought up to pursue a military career, which was traditional for male Romanovs. He also had a brilliant education and was a devoted Anglophile. Which didn’t make him a gentleman – since his youth, Boris was a notorious drinker and playboy – he didn’t hold back... At Nicholas II’s coronation, he flirted with Crown Princess Marie of Romania (his cousin and already married); his courtships broke several pre-arranged marriages in high European circles. When Boris fathered a child with a French woman out of wedlock, his parents sent him on a world trip, where he hunted tigers with Maharajas and drank champagne from slippers of American actresses. His most infamous exploit also began as a fling.

During the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Boris served at the headquarters of General Aleksey Kuropatkin. While in Liaoyang, Boris harassed a nurse, who turned out to be Princess Gagarina (a woman from a very noble family). She slapped Boris in the face and wrote a letter of complaint to General Kuropatkin.

The general called on Boris Vladimirovich and reprimanded him. Offended, Boris reminded the general that he was a Grand Duke, and Kuropatkin, Russia’s minister of war, lost his temper and shouted: “Silence! Hands down by your sides!” – to which the Grand Duke pulled out a gun and shot Kuropatkin, wounding him in the arm. Fear-stricken, Kuropatkin wrote to Nicholas II asking what he should do, and received a frightening answer: “Do according to law.” The law said that any military man who shot his general should be… executed. Nobody could dare perform that to a Grand Duke, so he was declared mad by a board of medics and sent back to St. Petersburg (which was his wish all along – he didn’t want to serve and risk his life). Maybe the doctors were right, after all.

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