Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

The Fall of the Strelitz

History presents us with four instances of an imperial soldiery who took the power into their own bands and for a time ruled as the tyrants of a nation. These were the Pretorian Guards of Rome, the Mamelukes of Egypt, the Janissaries of Turkey, and the Strelitz of Russia. Of these, the Pretorian Guards remained preeminent, and made emperors at their will. The other three came to a terrible end. History elsewhere records the tragic fate of the Mamelukes and the Janissaries: we are here concerned only with that of the Strelitz corps of Russia.

The Strelitz were the first regular military force of Russia, a permanent militia of fusileers, formed during the early reign of Ivan the Terrible, and themselves in time becoming a terror to the nation. The first serious outbreak of this dangerous civic guard was on the nomination of Peter I. to the throne of the czar. They did not dream then of the terrible revenge which this despised boy would take upon them.

Two days after the funeral of the czar Theodore the insurrection began, the Strelitz marching in an armed body to the Kremlin, where they accused nine of their colonels of defrauding them of their pay. The frightened ministers hastened to dismiss these officers, but this did not satisfy the savage soldiery, who insisted on their being delivered into their hands. This done, the unfortunate officers were sentenced to be scourged, some of them by that fearful Russian whip called the knout.

Their success in this outbreak led the Strelitz to greater outrages. The tiger in their savage natures was let loose, and only blood could appease its rage. Marching to the Kremlin, they declared that the late czar had been poisoned by his doctor, and demanded the death of all those in the plot. Breaking into the palace, they seized two of the suspected princes and flung them from the windows, to be received upon the pikes of the soldiers in the street below. The next victim was one of the Narishkins, the uncles of Peter the Great. He was massacred in the same brutal manner and his bleeding body dragged through the streets. Three of the proscribed nobles had fled for sanctuary to a church, but were torn from the altar, stripped of their clothing, and cut to pieces with knives.

The next victim was a friend and favorite of the Strelitz, who was killed under the belief that he was one of the Narishkins. Discovering their error, the assassins carried the mangled body of the young nobleman to the house of his father for interment. The old man, timid by nature, did not dare to complain of the savage act, and even rewarded them for bringing him the body of his son. For this weakness he was bitterly reproached by his wife and daughters and the weeping wife of the victim.

"What could I do?" pleaded the helpless father; "let us wait for an opportunity to be revenged."

A revengeful servant overheard these words and repeated them to the soldiers. In a sudden fury the savages returned, dragged the old man from the room by the hair of his head, and cut his throat at his own door.

Meanwhile some of the Strelitz, seeking the Dutch physician Vongad, who had attended the dying czar and was accused of poisoning him, met his son and asked where his father was. "I do not know," replied the trembling youth. His ignorance was instantly punished with death.

In a few minutes a German physician fell in their way. "You are a doctor," they cried. "If you have not poisoned our master Theodore, you have poisoned others. You deserve death." And info moment the unlucky doctor fell a victim to their blind rage.

The Dutch physician was at length discovered and dragged to the palace. Here the princesses begged hard for his life, declaring that he was a skilful doctor and a good man and had worked hard to save their brother's life. They answered that he deserved to die as a sorcerer as well as a physician, for they had found the skeleton of a toad and the skin of a snake in his cabinet.

The next victim demanded was Ivan Narishkin, who they were sure was somewhere concealed in the palace. Not finding him, they threatened to burn down the building unless he were delivered into their hands. At this terrifying threat the young man was taken from his place of concealment and brought to them by the patriarch, who held in his hands an image of the Virgin Mary which was said to have performed miracles. The princesses surrounded the victim, and, kneeling to the soldiers, prayed with tears for his life.

All their supplications and the demands of the venerable patriarch were without effect on the savage soldiery, who dragged their captives to the bottom of the stairway, went through the forms of a mock trial, and condemned them to the torture. They were sentenced to be cut to pieces, a form of punishment to which parricides are condemned in China and Tartary. This tragedy went on until all the proscribed on whom they could lay their hands had perished and Sophia felt secure in her power.

In the end, Ivan and Peter were declared joint sovereigns (1682), and their sister Sophia was made regent. The acts of the Strelitz were approved and they rewarded, the estates of their victims were confiscated in their favor, and a monument was erected on which the names of the victims were inscribed as traitors to their country.

The Strelitz had learned their power, and took frequent occasion to exercise it. Twice again they broke out in revolt during the regency of Sophia. After the accession of Peter their hostility continued. He had sent them to fight on the frontiers. He had supplanted them with regiments drilled in the European manner. He had organized a corps of twelve thousand foreigners and heretics. He had ordered the construction of a fleet of a hundred vessels, which would add to the weight of taxes and bring more foreigners into the country. And he proposed to leave Russia, to journey in the lands of the heretics, and to bring back to their sacred land the customs of profane Europe.

Palace of Peter the Great


All this was too much for the leaders of the Streslitz, who represented old Russia, as Peter represented new. They resolved to sacrifice the czar to their rage. Tradition tells the following story, which, though probably not true, is at least interesting. Two leaders of the Strelitz laid a plot to start a fire at night, feeling sure that Peter, with his usual activity, would hasten to the scene. In the confusion attending the fire they meant to murder him, and then to massacre all the foreigners whom he had introduced into Moscow.

The time fixed for the consummation of this plot was at hand. A banquet was held, at which the principal conspirators assembled, and where they sought in deep potations the courage necessary for their murderous work. Unfortunately for them, liquor does not act on all alike. While usually giving boldness, it sometimes produces timidity. Two of the villains lost their courage through their potations, left the room on some pretext, promising to return in time, and hastened to the czar with the story of the plot.

Peter knew not the meaning of the words timidity and procrastination. His plans were instantly laid. The time fixed for the conflagration was midnight. He gave orders that the hall in which the conspirators were assembled should be surrounded exactly at eleven. Soon after, thinking that the hour had come, he sought the place alone and boldly entered the room, fully expecting to find the conspirators in the hands of his guards.

To his consternation, not a guard was present, and he found himself alone and unarmed in the midst of a furious band who were just swearing to compass his destruction.

The situation was a critical one. The conspirators, dismayed at this unlooked-for visit, rose in confusion. Peter was furious at his guards for having exposed him to this peril, but instantly perceived that there was only one course for hint to pursue. He advanced among the throng of traitors with a countenance that showed no trace of his emotions, and pleasantly remarked,

"I saw the light in your house while passing, and, thinking that you must be having a gay time together, I have come in to share your pleasure and drain a cup with you."

Then, seating himself at the table, he filled a cup and drank to his would-be assassins, who, on their feet about him, could not avoid responding to the toast and drinking his health.

But this state of affairs did not long continue. The courage of the conspirators returned, and they began to exchange looks and signs. The opportunity had fallen into their hands; now was the time to avail themselves of it. One of them leaned over to Sukanim and said, in a low tone,—

"Brother, it is time."

"Not yet," said Sukanim, hesitating at the critical moment.

At that instant Peter heard the footsteps of his guards outside, and, starting to his feet, knocked the leader of the assassins down by a violent blow in his face, exclaiming,—

"If it is not yet time for you, scoundrel, it is for me."

At the same moment the guards entered the room, and the conspirators, panic-stricken by the sight, fell on their knees and begged for pardon.

"Chain them!" said the czar, in a terrible voice.

Turning then to the commander of the guards, he struck him and accused him of having disobeyed orders. But the officer proving to him that the hour fixed had just arrived, the czar, in sudden remorse at his haste, clasped him in his arms, kissed him on the forehead, proclaimed his fidelity, and gave the traitors into his charge.

And now Peter showed the savage which lay within him under the thin veneer of civilization. The conspirators were put to death with the cruellest of tortures, and, to complete the act of barbarity, their heads were exposed on the summit of a column with their limbs arranged around them as ornaments.

Satisfied that this fearful example would keep Russia tranquil during his absence, Peter set out on his journey, visiting most of the countries of Western Europe. He had reached Vienna, and was on the point of setting out for Venice, when word was brought him from Russia that the Strelitz had broken out in open insurrection and were marching from their posts on the frontier upon Moscow.

The czar at once left Vienna and journeyed with all possible speed to Russia, reaching Moscow in September, 1698. His appearance took all by surprise, for none knew that be had yet left Austria.

He came too late to suppress the insurrection. That had been already done by General Gordon, who, marching in all haste, had met the rebels about thirty miles from Moscow and called on them to surrender. As they refused and attacked the troops, he opened on them with cannon, put them to flight, and of the survivors took captive about two thousand. These were decimated on the spot, and the remainder imprisoned.

This was punishment enough for a soldier, but not enough for an autocrat, whose mind was haunted by dark suspicions, and who looked upon the outbreak as a plot to dethrone him and to call his sister Sophia to the throne. In his treatment of the prisoners the spirit of the monster Ivan IV. seems to have entered into his soul, and the cruelty shown, while common enough in old-time Russia, is revolting to the modern mind.

The trial was dragged out through six weeks, with daily torture of some of the accused, under the eyes of the czar himself, who sought to force from them a confession that Sophia had been concerned in the outbreak. The wives of the prisoners, all the women servants of the princesses, even poor beggars who lived on their charity, were examined under torture. The princesses themselves, Peter's sisters, were questioned by the czar, though he did not go so far as to torture them. Yet with all this nothing was discovered. There was not a word to connect Sophia with the revolt.

The trial over, the executions began. Of the prisoners, some were hanged, some beheaded, others broken on the wheel. It is said that those beheaded were made to kneel in rows of fifty before trunks of trees laid on the ground, and that Peter compelled his courtiers and nobles to act as executioners, Mentchikof specially distinguishing himself in this work of slaughter. It is even asserted that the czar wielded the axe himself, though of this there is some doubt. The opinion grew among the people that neither Peter nor Prince Ramodanofsky, his cruel viceroy, could sleep until they had tasted blood, and a letter from the prince contains the following lurid sentence: "I am always washing myself in blood."

The headless bodies of the dead were left where they had fallen. The long Russian winter was just beginning, and for five months they lay unburied, a frightful spectacle for the eyes of the citizens of Moscow.

Of those hanged, nearly two hundred were left depending from a large square gallows in front of the cell of Sophia at the convent in which she was confined, and with a horrible refinement of cruelty three of these bodies were so placed as to hang all winter under her very window, one of them holding in his hand a folded paper to represent a petition for her aid.

The six regiments of Strelitz still on the frontier showed signs of a similar outbreak, but the news of the executions taught them that it was safest to keep quiet. But many of them were brought in chains to Moscow and punished for their intentions. Various stories are told of Peter's cruelty in connection with these executions. One is that he beheaded eighty with his own hand, Plestchef, one of his boyars, holding them by the hair. Another story, told by M. Printz, the Prussian ambassador, says that at an entertainment given him by the czar, Peter, when drunk, had twenty rebels brought in from the prisons, whom he beheaded in quick succession, drinking a bumper after each blow, the whole concluding within the hour. He oven asked the ambassador to try his skill in the same way. It may be said here, however, that these stories rest upon very poor evidence, and that anecdote-makers have painted Peter in blacker colors than he deserves.

In the end the corps of the Strelitz was abolished, their houses and lands in Moscow were taken from the survivors, and all were exiled into the country, where they became simple villagers.