Russian history is loaded with outlandish and often unbelievable stories. From the man-sized frying pans of Ivan the Terrible, to the rumors of Catherine the Great’s equine sexcapades, the story of Peter III’s treasonous rat stands out as a legend all its own.
Because he was the grandson of Peter the Great, Peter III – despite being crude, immature, and supremely unskilled at anything unrelated to playing with toys or dressing his servants up in military gear – was in line for the throne. Peter III is most well-known for being the bat**** crazy husband of Catherine the Great.
Their marriage was doomed from “I do” [it was probably more of an “I have to?” for Catherine…just saying]. She was an educated and practical princess from Germany, and he was neither educated nor practical…but loved Germany, and princesses, so it should’ve worked, right?
Catherine’s legend and legacy stands all on its own, though it’s often forgotten that Catherine eventually became ‘the Great’ as a result of her personally plotting the coup that overthrew Peter and put herself in power, her accomplices all the more willing to assist as a result of incidents like the execution of the treasonous rat.
Peter had an obsession with playing with toys, usually of the military variety. He kept a large box of them under his bed that he would bust out when Catherine would leave for a while or after she had gone to sleep. He’d set up elaborate military formations and battle scenes, playing soldier the best way he knew how; by not actually being a soldier.
One night, Catherine entered Peter’s room and noticed a large rat nailed to the wall. Naturally, she had questions. Peter informed her that the rat had ‘committed a great crime, which, according to the laws of war, deserved capital punishment.’ By ‘committed a great crime,’ Peter meant that the rat had climbed the walls of a fortress he had built out of cardboard, and ate two of his toy soldiers. According to Catherine, he described the gruesome scene as if he had lost loved ones. Of course, this rat had to be punished for its murderous rampage.
Upon his capture, Peter had the rat tried by martial law. The rat’s silence must’ve further implicated him, and Peter found the rotten traitor guilty and sentenced him to death. Beside the fortress, where the mangled bodies of his toy soldiers lay slain, Peter constructed a miniature gallows, where the sentence was carried out: death by hanging. After the deed was done, Peter proceeded to nail the rat to the wall and declare that ‘the rat is to remain three days exposed as a public example.’ Catherine, both terrified and slightly amused by the display, noted in her memoirs, “In justification of the rat, it may at least be said, that he was hung without having been questioned or heard in his own defense.”
Given his odd and immature nature, it should come as no surprise that many in the Russian government wanted Peter ousted. He was unpredictable, and obsessed with the West. On June 28, 1762, Catherine, who feared Peter was about to leave her for another woman, initiated the coup. She had Peter arrested and forced him to leave the throne. He was taken to a small town outside of St. Petersburg, where he died shortly after.
Peter III’s actual death is a hotly debated issue among historians; some argue that he was assassinated, while others argue the evidence points to suicide. Unfortunately for Peter, the story of the treasonous rat has withstood the test of time. Little about his reign is known beyond what Catherine shared in her personal memoirs. He attempted a number of reforms during his time in power – religious tolerance, elimination of the secret police, and an easing of tensions with Prussia and the west – though they would be largely undone by his successor, his wife Catherine.
By the way, Catherine also included in her memoirs that she and Peter never ‘did the deed’ and none of their children were his…SCANDALOUS.