Tsaritsa Sophia Alekseyevna of Russia – would-be usurper, all-around cranky lady

I posted this to my Tumblr a few days ago, thinking a couple of my followers would appreciate it.  When I went to bed last night, it had 30 notes, which is well above the average for anything I post.

When I woke up at 3am, it had 380 notes.  (Look, the little notifications kept lighting up my phone’s screen, of course I was going to peek!)  Right now, it’s 583.

I always meant to post it here eventually, just for the sake of archiving, but also to correct the typo now spreading like a virus through the world.  In terms of wacky history adventures, it’s probably the spiritual cousin of this post.

Sophia, holding the regalia of the Tsar.  This made the actual Tsar (one of them) a bit cross.
Sophia, holding the regalia of the Tsar. This made the actual Tsar (one of them) a bit cross.

Every now and then — okay, it usually involves a Wikipedia binge — I come across a portrait of some historical figure that’s just so arresting that I have to stop and gape. (I have been resisting the urge to make a whole separate Tumblr for it.)

This cranky lady is the Tsaritsa Sophia Alekseyevna of Russia (1657 – 1704). She was the daughter of Tsar Alexis I, and served as regent of Russia for seven years.

The mere fact that we know her name and have her portrait is unusual, because in Sophia’s time, the Tsar’s daughters were kept secluded from, well, everyone. They were of such high rank that it was unthinkable for them to marry a mere Russian aristocrat, but it was equally impossible for them to marry outside the Russian Orthodox faith. So they spent their lives in the palace, and were heavily veiled and guarded when they went out in public. Most weren’t educated, although in this era, the majority of Russian aristocrats were illiterate, so that wasn’t just ye olde sexism.

Sophia rebelled against these restrictions from a young age. She demanded to be given the same classical education as her brother, Feodor. Their father, who seems to have been pretty reasonable for a guy with the title of “autocrat”, agreed. Thus Sophia was one of the most highly educated people in Russia, and probably one of the most educated women in Europe.

When Sophia was 19, her father died at the early age of 46. He left three male heirs: Feodor and Ivan, both of whom were disabled, and, by his second wife, Peter, who was not. History remembers Peter as “Peter the Great”, so, spoilers, Feodor and Ivan aren’t long for this world.

In fact, the book I’m reading (Peter the Great by Robert K Massie) tends to bang on about how Feodor was so very disabled he was a really ineffectual Tsar, only to turn around and then list Feodor’s achievements. Considering that he was frequently bedridden (he was partially paralysed and had some kind of spinal and leg dysfunction), he was quite a reformer.

Of course, it helped that he had Sophia by his side, working with him. Some historians credit Sophia with all of Feodor’s achievements, but this seems unlikely.

(Historical intersectionality problem: do we erase women, or the disabled? HOW ABOUT BOTH?)

Feodor ruled for six years before he died. His death presented Sophia, and Russia, with a problem. Technically, 16 year old Ivan should have been next in the succession, but he was blind and possibly had some kind of intellectual impairment, plus a speech impairment. He was also not all that keen on being Tsar.

On the other hand, there was Peter. Who wasn’t yet Great, but he was clever, charismatic and … oh, ten years old? Oh dear.

Some political wrangling took place, and the result was two Tsars. Prince Caspian’s uncle may have laughed at the idea of siblings sharing one throne, but there was precedent.

Now, Peter’s mother — herself an educated woman, though not as brilliant as Sophia — was named regent, and this meant that her family had a lot of power. I’m not saying the Russian court was totally powered by nepotism, but … no, it was totally powered by nepotism.

This wasn’t great for Sophia, because she didn’t get on all that well with Peter’s mother or her family, and there was talk of putting Sophia in a convent.

So she did what any woman would do in her situation: she engineered (probably) a bloody rebellion, including traumatising the young Peter by having his relatives butchered in front of him. Then she had herself made regent.

I’m not saying I approve, but it’s impressive, is all.

And Sophia was a pretty good regent. She surrounded herself with able advisors, and gave Peter the space to basically do as he pleased growing up. (What Peter pleased was turning his friends into a small army. He was basically Miles Vorkosigan, except Peter’s “small army” was at least double the size of the Dendarii mercenaries.) Sophia oversaw military clashes with China that caused land disputes still going on today. (Hey, I count it as a victory. I like historical continuity!)

But this couldn’t last. Firstly, Sophia’s government oversaw some epic military stuff-ups. But secondly, Peter was growing up, and there would come a point where there was no need for a regent. Sophia made a desperate attempt to have herself declared tsarina, but this failed.

She was eventually arrested, and spent the rest of her life (fifteen years) in a convent. At one point there was a rebellion in her name — she may or may not have been involved — and the bodies of the rebels were hung outside her window. (Russian history: not for the faint-hearted!) That’s what’s depicted in this picture below, which probably accounts for why she’s looking so pissed off.

She’s so mad, you guys. SO MAD.

IN CONCLUSION, history is great. Especially Russian history, which I have basically only discovered this week? Stay tuned; further amazing portraits may follow.

Books read in September 2013

Why does WordPress hate freedom, and by freedom I mean consistent paragraph breaks?  FIVE TIMES I have tried to edit this post and get consistent paragraphing!  FIVE!  And it hasn’t worked.  I’m all out of sacrificial goats, so please accept my apologies for the weirdness of the formatting.

The Fabric of Sin Phil Rickman Supernatural
To Dream of the Dead Phil Rickman Supernatural
The Secrets of Pain Phil Rickman Supernatural
Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol Iain Gately History
Three Dog Night Elsebeth Egholm Crime
Going Clear: Hollywood, Scientology and the Prison of Belief Lawrence Wright Contemporary issues
The Digger’s Rest Hotel Geoffrey McGeachin Crime Australian
Longbourn Jo Baker Historical
Blackwattle Creek Geoffrey McGeachin Crime Australian
Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport Anna Krien Contemporary issues
The Ghost Bride Yangsze Choo YA
A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money and an Epic Power Struggle in China Pin Ho, Wenguang Huang Chinese politics



Thirteen.  That’s thirteen books I read last month, and none of them were graphic novels or re-reads of old and familiar stories.  There’s quantity and quality.  Except that now I have to remember what I was going to say about them.

  • It’s a sad reflection on the state of popular histories in general that I got really excited when Iain Gately’s Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol devoted an entire chapter to Australia and the Rum Rebellion.  And then split a chapter between China and Japan.  And, um, mentioned Africa.Okay, what I’m saying is that if you’re setting out to write a history of [something] in a Euro-American context, you should say so upfront and not go around calling it something silly like “a global history”.  That way, people won’t be pathetically grateful when you remember there are other parts of the world.Vague observations on the state of popular non-fiction aside, this was a light, breezy read that actually didn’t contain much that I didn’t already know, but it seemed generally accurate and sensible.
  • Exciting news!  I’m now doing the odd bit of guest reviewing for the new Australian crime fiction blog, Reading Kills!  You can find my thoughts on Three Dog Night here, and my review of Safe as Houses will follow.
  • After Three Dog Night, I started reading Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter, on account of how I enjoy Chinese history and it was ridiculously cheap on the Kobo store.  But it’s a really hard slog, not just because of the subject matter (grim), but because the author occasionally lets his right wing flag fly and makes dubious claims about how great life was under the Kuomintang.  Uh, sure, dude, whatever.So I’ve been alternating that with other books, and let me tell you, going from a history of Mao’s China to Scientology is … not that much of a headspin, actually.  In fact, according to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Hollywood, Scientology and the Prison of Belief, L. Ron Hubbard based part of Scientology’s practices on Chinese brainwashing techniques (the Church of Scientology denies this claim), not to mention the deliberate creation of a cult of personality (the Church of Scientology denies this claim), and the fact that totalitarian systems are all basically alike.

    Going Clear was a good read, but I did have to keep putting it down to text my BFF, who read it before me, going, “BUT SERIOUSLY!”  Of course, any book that heavily relies on disaffected former members of a group is going to have a heavily negative bias, but unless you’re a big fan of self-help systems that drive people to suicide (the Church of Scientology denies this claim), it’s hard to put a positive spin in Scientology.

  • The Digger’s Rest Hotel and Blackwattle Creek by Geoffrey McGeachin are Australian crime novels centred around Charlie Berlin, an ex-RAAF pilot suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following the Second World War.  The first novel is set in 1947; the second a decade later, when Charlie is married with a family.Both were good reads — I particularly enjoyed the first — and Charlie is a likeable character, although it’s all a bit White Guy Discovers Racism Is Bad.  (It’s saved from being entirely obnoxious by the fact that, while Charlie comes to regard Aborigines and Asians as actual people, he still has a lot of unexamined prejudices.)

    The second book gets into the more preposterous end of Cold War conspiracy theories, which sat rather uncomfortably against the background of 1950s suburbia, but it was quite entertaining.

  • I discussed Longbourn in more detail here.
  • Night Games by Anna Krien examines rape culture in AFL.  Suffice to say, it made me a bit mad.  Not just because of the nature of the issue (although that was a big part of it), but the book is centred around a rape trial, and I wasn’t completely comfortable with the way she covered it.What happened was, after the night of the (tie-breaker) grand final between Collingwood and St Kilda (coincidentally the only year I paid attention to the AFL), two Collingwood players and a guy from a small local team were accused of raping a young woman.Due to what I can only call legal shenanigans, the two Collingwood players were never charged, so this young, unknown bloke was left holding the ball, as it were.The court decided that the events that took place before this third alleged rape could not be mentioned or used as evidence in any way, which basically created a big blank spot in the evening, and created enough doubt that the jury basically had to find the young footballer not guilty.Krien follows the trial closely, and is scrupulous about reporting the accused’s family’s vicious victim-blaming and general unpleasantness.  But the victim didn’t respond to any of Krien’s overtures, plus her evidence was heard in a closed court.  So her voice is, essentially, silent.  And in what purports to be a feminist examination of a rape trial, that’s a pretty big omission.  (I’m not saying that the victim wasn’t perfectly within her rights to decline to speak to Krien, but I think it was a bad idea to persist with the trial as the centrepiece of the book in that case.)

    She does, however, highlight a particular peeve I have with the Victorian legal system.  In this state, a “genuine belief in consent” is enough to escape a conviction for rape.  This has led to delightful circumstances like, “She was unconscious, but she grunted when I undressed her, so she was totally into it, Your Honour.”  I transcribe criminal court proceedings.  I DO A LOT OF ANGRY!TYPING!

  • I talked about The Ghost Bride at some length at No Award.
  • Finally, A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel starts with the murder of British businessman David Heywood in China, and the ensuing investigation, cover-up, attempted defection, political headrolling and trials, and puts it all in the context of contemporary Chinese Communist Party politics.Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on here, and it felt rather like three books compressed into one.  If I was the type of person who gave books star ratings, I’d give this … hmm, maybe two and a half, three stars?  The ground it covers is really interesting, from the events themselves to the current and upcoming generations of Communist Party leaders, to the limits of freedom of speech in China and the use of social media to extend them, to the scapegoating of women when a leader falls, to … well, you get my drift.So it was an informative but busy book, not helped by the structure of the chapters:  we’d be told about a person doing something, then we’d be told who that person was and how they fit into the bigger picture, and then I had to go back and reread the beginning of the chapter so I could put their actions into context.  And then I started looking people up, and realised that certain trials were still ongoing, two months after the book was published.

Because Chinese politics and Scientology are apparently BFFs, I’m now reading a Scientology biography.  Stay tuned for next month!