Sophia was one of the nine daughter
s of Tsar Alexei
. She was born in 1657
, at a time when the daughters and sisters of Russian tsars were superfluous and stuck behind the walls of the terem
women's quarters. They could not marry foreigner
s to make alliance
s between countries, as was usual for princesses in Europe
, because none of the men of their own rank were members of the Orthodox Church
and they couldn't marry those of other branches of Christianity, who were viewed by Russians as heretic
s. They couldn't marry Russian
men because none were high enough in rank
except their fathers and brothers. And aristocratic women of the time were generally kept in the terem, never allowed to come in contact with men not married to or related to them.
Sophia, however, wouldn't stand for that. She persuaded her father to let her share the tutor of her younger brother, the later Fyodor III, and did just as well as he did at lessons. During Fyodor's reign, she attended council meetings and other government functions where no woman had ever taken part. Fyodor's death in 1682 was a great blow to her, not only because she cared about her brother, but because she might not have the same freedom under a new tsar.
The two candidates for tsar were Sophia's younger brother Ivan, weak and nearly blind at age sixteen, and her healthy half-brother Peter, who was only ten. It would take too long to call nobles from all parts of the country for a proper council, so the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church went in front of the Moscow crowd and asked which should be ruler. The shouts for Peter grew louder and drowned out those for Ivan. So at first, it seemed that Peter would be the new tsar, and that his mother would be regent. Sophia had never gotten along with her stepmother, and did not want her own family to be expelled from power. First she protested to the Patriarch that Ivan was older and should have been first choice. Then, during Fedor's funeral procession, Sophia ducked out from under the moving canopy which hid the female royalty from view and wailed her grief loudly and publicly -- a very daring act but calculated to make an impression on the crowd.
It's only circumstantial evidence that gives Sophia a place among those who stirred up the Streltsy soldiers stationed in Moscow, but those known to have been conspirators certainly were close to her. On May 15, 1682, horsemen galloped through the Streltsy's living areas yelling that Ivan had been murdered by the Naryshkin family, and the soldiers crowded to the Kremlin to punish the traitors who had killed a tsar's son. Natalya Naryskin tried to calm the Streltsy by bringing out both Peter and Ivan to show that no one was dead, and at first it seemed to have worked. But then the son of the Streltsy commander came out and yelled at the soldiers for their foolishness, threatening them with punishment. The angry soldiers became worked up enough to charge the noble speaking to them and throw him off a staircase onto the sharp pikes of those below. They then stormed through the palace killing Naryshkin family members and those aristocrats associated with them. Natalya, Ivan, and Peter were unharmed, but witnessed everything. Natalya's brother Ivan Naryshkin was a particular target but managed to hide until Sophia walked up to Natalya and demanded that Ivan Naryshkin be given up to preserve the safety of all the royal family. Natalya reluctantly went to his hiding place and presuaded him to come out; after his death the Streltsy seemed to run out of steam for more killings.
Nonetheless, they still had demands, one of which was that Ivan and Peter rule jointly. When this was agreed to, they demanded that Sophia be the regent, as Peter was young and Ivan was ill. The nobles and church also accepted this. On June 28, 1682, Ivan V and Peter I were crowned. It wasn't a bad arrangement, as Ivan was not interested in ruling and Peter was not old enough, so for seven years Sophia ruled in her brothers' names. They still had to sign documents and show up at public functions, but that was all.
Sophia continued to persecute the Old Believers who would not accept the church reforms from Alexei's reign; she tried to continue the mild Westernization her father and brother had started; and she kept peace with Russia's European neighbors, even joining in a European coalition to fight the Ottoman Empire. In 1687, her favorite and possible lover Vasiliy Golitsyn led Russian armies to attack the Crimean Tatars who had been raiding southern Russia for centuries. Unfortunately his campaigns were not all that successful, and Sophia's rule became less popular. And Peter was growing up, threatening Sophia's position. She had tried to get the Streltsy to support her being crowned as her brothers had been, but a crowned woman was too radical an idea for them.
Peter was disgusted with Golitsyn's military losses and made this publicly known; tension between his supporters and Sophia's was growing. On August 16, 1689, it all came to a head. An anonymous letter circulated in the Kremlin that said Peter and the soldiers he had with him at his home outside Moscow were going to attack the Kremlin. A worried Sophia ordered more Streltsy for her own guard. During the evening, a routine messenger from Peter to the court was pulled from his horse and beaten. One of Peter's supporters assumed that this meant Sophia was planning an attack and sent messengers to warn Peter, who was pulled from sleep and told to flee to the Triotsky Monastery, one of Russia's holiest spots. Though there was not a real attack on Peter being planned, the public view of a crowned tsar in danger was powerful. Gradually, Peter's supporters gathered at Troitsky, and he sent a message commanding the Streltsy colonels to come to him there. Sophia, of course, did not want this to happen and threatened anyone who left with beheading. After the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church joined Peter, Sophia tried to come and negotiate, but Peter refused to see her. She tried to speak to the people of Moscow and sway them to her side, and seemed to have done some good, until letters from Peter arrived in the city naming several men in Sophia's government as conspirators against Peter's life. At this point, the foreign officers in the Russian army, who had tried to stay neutral, asked Golitsyn's advice, and Golitsyn waffled a bit. This made the foreigners decide that Peter was obviously on the stronger side and go over to him, after which the remaining Streltsy gave up their support for Sophia.
At this point, Peter had won. He interrogated those accused of a plot against his life under torture, but no one implicated Sophia. She was placed in a convent and not allowed to leave, rather than executed as were many of her high-placed supporters. It was not uncomfortable; she could receive visits from her aunts and sisters and was not then forced to actually become a nun.
Peter remained worried about Sophia, and when some regiments of Streltsy rose against him a decade later, he was convinced that Sophia had some part in the conspiracy. Several excuted soldiers' bodies were hung outside her window, near enough for her to reach out and touch, even though there was no evidence that she had anything to do with that rising; it was enough that some had talked of restoring her. At that point she was actually forced to take religious vows, and became the nun Susanna until her death in 1704.
Sources: Robert K. Massie's Peter the Great: His Life and World in addition to those listed under Monarchs of Russia.