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Under Many Flags
Chapter VIII. General Patrick Gordon (continued)


On January 20, 1689, the Czar Peter—known in history as Peter the Great—was married (being in his seventeenth year) to Eudoxia Feodorowna Lapuchon. Gordon had been introduced to his young sovereign just three years before; but it was not until this year that he was admitted into his confidence, in reward for his fidelity in the struggle which took place between the Czar and the Princess Sophia for supremacy, their imbecile brother Ivan being senior Czar only in name.

At this time the Strelitzes, or household troops, who in not a few respects resembled the Janizaries of Turkey, claimed a definitive voice in the settlement of the Crown. Originally established by Ivan the Terrible in the middle of the sixteenth century, as a curb and check on the arrogance of the Boyards, or great nobles, and taking their orders only from the Czar himself, they had developed into a military oligarchy which defied control and insisted on the most exceptional privileges. The Czar being their master, they pretended that it was for them to decide who this master should be. Through a series of ingenious intrigues, and a lavish bestowal of bribes and promises, the Princess Sophia won them to her side; and they undertook to release her from all fear of her brother’s rivalry by the simple expedient of putting him to death. Had they succeeded— and success was almost within their grasp—the course of history, not in Russia alone, but in all Europe, would, we may assume, have been completely changed; and Russia might never have risen to the position of a Great Power.

That the contention between Peter and the Princess was rapidly approaching a climax became evident, in the summer of 1689, to all cool observers, like Gordon, who notes in his Diary on August 6, that “rumours unsafe to be uttered” are nevertheless abroad. On the following day these rumours were tragically confirmed. At midnight some faithful hand conveyed intelligence to Peter that the Strelitzes and soldiers of the Guard had received orders from the Kremlin—his sister’s head-quarters—to march upon Preobraschenskoje, and there do execution upon certain persons. The young Czar at once understood the significance of the message. He sprang from his bed; and without waiting to put on his heavy riding-boots, hurried to the stables, threw himself on the back of the nearest horse, and galloped into the covert of the neighbouring wood, where he remained until a few faithful attendants arrived with his clothes. Then he resumed his flight; and, riding in hot haste, reached the monastery of Troitzka, or the

Holy Trinity—a forty miles’journey—by six o’clock in the morning. Throwing himself upon a bed, he burst into tears, and having informed the Abbot of what had occurred, desired his protection. The sanctity of the place secured his personal safety, and he was free to take steps for the maintenance of his authority. Though he issued immediate orders to the officers of the Strelitzes, he knew that he could not rely upon them, and he turned to the foreigners in his service in the hope of obtaining their adhesion. He was not disappointed. Gordon, after a brief interval of reflection, made known his intention of marching to the Troitzka, and placing himself at the disposal of the young Czar. The others immediately decided to follow his example; and next day saw them drawn up in military array at the gate of the monastery. Peter was at his midday dinner when their arrival was announced. He sent at once for Gordon, and ordered him to keep by his side; while the other officers were instructed to encamp their regiments beneath the convent walls.

Four days afterwards, Peter entered Moscow in triumph, and the trial of the conspirators began. They were found guilty, and beheaded or banished. The Princess Sophia was sent to a convent, where she lived fifteen years in confinement. The weakly Ivan was easily brought to consent that his younger, stronger, and abler brother should take into his hands the sole sovereignty. Thus the revolution ended in placing Peter firmly on the throne. Pie did not forget to reward with liberal hand the Scotch soldier whose allegiance, so promptly given at so critical a moment, had turned the scale of fortune in his favour, and given him the victory over his enemies. It is not, I think, an exaggeration to say that to the loyal and honest service of Patrick Gordon, Russia owes all that became hers through the enlightened and progressive rule of Peter the Great.

Some curious passages, illustrative of the condition of society and the Court in this dawning time of the Muscovite civilization, occur in our soldier’s Diary.

Thus, on January 8, 1690, we read that the Governor of Torki was put to death, because “he had employed magic” to regain the favour of the Czar; two poor wretches whom he had employed for this purpose were burned alive; while ten of his servants were beaten with the knout and sent to Siberia. One of them being asked at the trial what manner of witchcraft he used, answered, that placing himself to windward of the person whom he wished to propitiate, he made a wind blow which accomplished the desired end.

On the 10th, the mother-in-law of the Boyar Golizn, having spoken in his hearing, and in that of his friends, against the Czar’s Government, she, and he, and they were all banished and their properties confiscated, while some of their servants were knouted.

On the 11th, while Gordon was at the Kremlin, the young Czar was making a quantity of fireworks, which, on the 16th, when Gordon dined with him, were successfully discharged.

On the 19th, Gordon was again at Court, and accompanied the Czar to the country house of a Boyar, who entertained them at a sumptuous noonday meal. Then they repaired to a summer residence of the Czar, where they had another pyrotechnic display; and returning to the Boyar’s mansion, enjoyed a second magnificent banquet,— with the result that Gordon was too ill next day to rise until the afternoon.

He dined at the Kremlin on the 21st, and again on the 22nd, when his son-in-law, while making fireworks—which seems to have been a favourite pastime at the Court of Moscow—burned his face.

Numerous entries occur of long conversations with the Czar. On the 19th (February), Peter gave him a glass of brandy with his own hand. On the 23rd, the troops were marched to the Kremlin to congratulate the Czar on the birth of a son. Gordon, in the name of the regiments under his command, addressed the Czar as follows— “God grant that thou, great Czar and Grand Duke, Peter Alexisewitsch, Autocrat of all Great, Little, and White Russia, and Lord, Heir and Ruler, through father and grandfather, of many lordships and lands in east, west, and north — with your Majesty’s new-born heir and our lord, the most Serene Prince and Grand Duke Alexis Petrowitsch, of Great, Little, and White Russia—may be preserved in health many years!”

The General then drew up his regiment in line three deep, the first rank kneeling, the second stooping, the third standing. In this array they fired volleys, while their banners waved and their drums beat merrily. The Czar was so delighted with all this military pomp and circumstance, that he ordered it to be repeated again and again. Thus was celebrated the birth of the unhappy prince, who, while still in his youth, was doomed to fall a victim to his father’s jealousy, and perish like a criminal on a dubious charge.

Gordon records a great feast on May 3, in honour of the Imperial birthday; when Peter, who had already developed the taste for brandy which helped to shorten his life, handed a glass to each guest as a signal favour.

To dine with the Czar seems to have been risky work. We frequently meet with frank confessions from Gordon of illness following his participation in the Imperial bouts.

On January 2, 1691, Gordon had an audience at Preobraschenskoje, and, when taking leave, was ordered by the Czar to prepare for a visit from himself and his Court, who would dine and sup with him next day. And next day, about ten o’clock, the Czar arrived, accompanied by eighty-five persons of distinction, with about a hundred attendants. He immediately sat down to a truly imperial banquet, which was highly successful—so also was the supper—and the Czar spent the night as if in camp.

Hospitality on so extensive a scale must have been very costly; but the Czar was liberal with his gifts. On March 6, he presented Gordon with confiscated plate and other property, to the value of a thousand roubles.

Passing on to 1694, we get some glimpses of Peter’s efforts to create a Russian navy. In May he went on a visit to Archangel as the “Great Skipper” or High Admiral, accompanied by Gordon as Rear-Admiral, and a new ship was launched in his presence. In the following month he sailed in his yacht on a fortnight’s cruise. Then a couple of English men-of-war arrived, and the Skipper and his Rear-Admiral went on board, examining and admiring everything; and a good deal of powder was burned, and a good deal of wine drunk. On the 29th, the Rear-Admiral received the Great Skipper on board the newly-launched ship, and congratulated him on the addition to his navy. After receiving a cup of brandy and another of sack from the Skipper, they landed and dined at John Grim’s, where, as Gordon acknowledges, they all drank to excess, in the wild, coarse, Muscovite fashion. A similar revel took place at Gordon’s house on July 6; so that one hopes the Czar and his officers had seasoned heads. But more serious business was at hand.

Early in 1698, Russia declared war against Turkey, and Gordon received orders to march upon Azov. His army came in sight of the city on April 22, and two days later was joined by Peter and his commander-in-chief, Somonowitsch Schein. It was mid-June, however, before the investment of the place was complete. Of two of the forts which defended the approaches, one was captured by Colonel James Gordon; whereupon the enemy evacuated the other. The siege being closely pressed, the Turks, about the middle of July, made an effort to break it up by a desperate sally against General Gordon’s division; but though they fought with immense courage, they were beaten back. During the following night, a German engineer deserted to the Turks, and disclosed the weak points of the Russian lines. They repeated their attack, and were nearly successful, being driven off only by the opportune arrival of General Gordon and his division.

On August 4, in opposition to Gordon’s advice, the Czar ordered the town to be assaulted. As Gordon had predicted, the attempt failed. The carnage was terrible. Of the four regiments in his division, fifteen hundred men were killed, besides officers. A second assault, towards the end of August, was not less unsuccessful; and the Czar then raised the siege.

But with characteristic tenacity of purpose, he resumed the campaign early in 1696; and Gordon, at the head of fifteen thousand men, was again ordered to march upon Azov. He arrived at Womersh on April 19, and he records his being present at a banquet given by General Lefort, when the health of William III. being drunk, the stout old Jacobite refused to join, but drank instead to that of James II.

The second siege of Azov began in June; and Gordon’s advice being taken, the city was compelled to surrender before the end of the month. A brief narrative of the military operations is given by Gordon’s son-in-law, Alexander Gordon, of Auchintoul.

“The Czar,” he says, “considering the great loss of time he had sustained the preceding year, called a council of war to know the opinion of the Generals about the safest and most expeditious method of becoming masters of the place. Most of them delivered their sentiments in the common way, by carrying on attacks, making of great breaches, with mines and batteries, which (they said) would infallibly oblige the Governor to capitulate in the terms of war, or expect the worst. Then General Patrick Gordon, as the oldest General, gave his opinion that the safest and most expeditious way to become masters of the town, would be to carry on before them a whole rampart of earth along the front of the town, which [rampart], as they advanced, would hourly increase. “By having ten or twelve thousand men night and day at work" said he, “we shall carry and roll as much earth before us as will not only be sufficient to fill up the fosse, but will have more over and above than will exceed the height of the town walls; by which means, in a few weeks, we shall oblige the enemy to surrender, or we shall bury them alive.” The Czar preferred this opinion, and told them to do as he [Gordon] proposed.

“And with such vigour did Gordon press the work, that in five weeks the fosse was full, and a great bank or rampart of earth was raised, from the summit of which the fire of the Muscovite guns swept the walls of the beleaguered city. This rampart was kept moving forward by a simple expedient: the men from inside shovelled the earth up the slope and over the summit, where it rolled down outside, the process being repeated till a new rampart was built up of the same height as the preceding one. Then the men began to dig away from the inside and shovel over on the outside again, each time drawing nearer to the city, and increasing the deadliness of their fire, until on June 20 the city capitulated.

“Though this" says Auchintoul, “seems to be a very extraordinary and uncommon method of taking towns, yet here it proved very successful and safe; the loss of men during the siege not amounting to above three hundred. According to General Gordon’s plan, there were constantly twelve thousand men at work, who threw the earth from hand to hand like so many steps of a stair. The greatest danger was at the top ; the earth being so loose, especially as they advanced nearer the town, that the enemy’s small shot killed and wounded several: for which cause they were relieved every half-hour, the uppermost rank falling down and becoming the lowermost, and so on. There were strong guards kept on the right and left, as also in the rear. About June 20, a body of Turks and Tartars, by break of day, endeavoured to pierce the lines and force their way into the town, but were repulsed with considerable loss, and so closely pursued by the Russian cavalry, Cossacks and Calmucks, that most of them were cut to pieces. The only officer of distinction the Czar lost during this siege was one Colonel Stevenson, a Scots gentleman. He was shot in the mouth, being a little too curious, and raising himself too high on the loose earth to observe the enemy. He died of hunger, the eleventh day after he received the wound, not being able to swallow any kind of nourishment. He was a good officer, and much regretted by the Czar, who caused bury him with all the honours of war.

“The army marched out of the town, about six thousand persons, whereof three thousand were armed men.”

Crowned with laurels, the Russian army returned to Moscow on October 9. The Czar was liberal in his rewards to his victorious officers, and especially to Gordon, with whom rested the honours of the siege. He received a medal, a gold cup, a costly robe of sables, and an estate with ninety serfs upon it.

Gordon did not accompany his Imperial master on his celebrated visit to England—where, at Deptford, he worked hard as a shipwright by day, and at night drank brandy with his boon companions; occasionally amusing himself by trying to drive a wheelbarrow through John Evelyn’s famous holly hedge, and by similar frolics—but remained in charge of the capital and of the recent conquests in the Crimea. Both at Azov and Taganrog Gordon superintended the construction of

works of defence on a large scale. In 1698, it fell to his lot to render the Czar a most important service by crushing the mutiny of the Strelitzes. Of this remarkable episode in Russian history, our chief knowledge is derived from Gordon’s Diary.

The trouble began in the early days of spring. On April 3, a large body of discontented Strelitzes presented themselves at the house of their Boyar, Prince Iwan Borissowitsch Trojekurow, and demanded redress for certain alleged grievances. Four of their number were admitted to the Prince’s presence; and they declared that the Strelitzes could not march by the selected route, owing to the badness of the roads, and they asked for delay, inasmuch as they had undergone great privations in the late campaign, and were still feeling the ill effects. The Boyar replied by ordering them to do their duty, and to set out immediately under the command of their officers. When they point-blank refused, he caused them to be arrested and conveyed to prison, but their comrades overpowered the guards and set them at liberty—a mutinous act which necessarily alarmed the authorities. The Generalissimo, Prince Romodanowski, sent in hot haste for Gordon, who, when all the particulars were set before him, thought they pointed only to the insubordination of a limited number, and that it would be unwise to excite the temper of the whole body by treating the escapade seriously. He repaired, however, to the camp of the Strelitzes at Butirki to be prepared for what might happen; and finding the soldiers all in their quarters, and no signs of disorder anywhere, he lay down to rest.

The night passed peacefully; and at early dawn Gordon sent messengers to Moscow to hear how things were going. All was quiet, and he then rode off to Generals Romodanowski and Sussen-owitsch, who had been attending a meeting of the Council of State. Rumours of impending disaster were afloat, and the chiefs and their suites were agreed that the Strelitzes meditated mutiny. Gordon remained cool and collected. “Many persons" he writes, “who are inclined by nature to anticipate dangers, have, in such cases, yet another object—they magnify the circumstances in order that their own zeal and services may appear the more signal in quelling them, and that they may thus extract merit and consideration from them.” In the course of the day he returned to Butirki, where the influence of his firm and resolute temper subdued every symptom of disobedience. He dispatched some companies of a regiment on which he could rely to hasten the departure of the Strelitzes; they attempted no resistance, delivered up the ringleaders of the outbreak, and at midnight marched off in good order.

The probability is that the Strelitzes had not then completed their preparations. At all events, in two months the storm broke.

It was on June 8 that intelligence reached Gordon that trouble was brewing among four Strelitz regiments stationed at a place called Toronetz. An equerry was immediately sent to inquire into the condition of affairs; and hearing from him that something was wrong, he took with him some picked troops, and hurried off for Toronetz. One hundred and forty Strelitzes were arrested and sent into the Ukraine; and he gave orders that all the regiments at Toronetz should be distributed among various stations. These summary measures were necessarily distasteful to those whom they affected; and after holding several secret conferences, the' Strelitzes resolved to disobey orders, to refuse to march to the quarters assigned, and march straight upon Moscow, insisting that their officers should lead them thither. They refused, and were at once deposed. In their places four men were chosen in each regiment to act as a council of command and direct the march.

With five guns and two thousand picked men, Gordon set out in pursuit, and on the 27th arrived at Tschernerva. Learning from a Boyar’s servant that the Strelitzes were marching with all speed to reach the convent of Wortressensk that night, he made forced marches to get there before them, and galloped in with such horsemen as he could muster in advance of his main body. “Two versts from the convent" he writes, “the scouts brought to me four Strelitzes, who said that they were sent, one from each regiment, to take a petition to the Boyar. Reading it, I found in it nothing but a catalogue of their services, with exaggeration of their grievances, and a prayer for leave to come to Moscow to visit their homes, wives, and children, as well as a petition for their necessities. I sent them on to the Generalissimo; and having learned from these deputies that the Strelitzes were still fifteen versts off, and could not reach the convent that night, I gave orders to mark off a camp near the convent as the most convenient place. I arrived at the place fixed upon about sunset, and immediately received information from my scouts that the Strelitzes had reached the river Swednje, and were crossing at a shallow ford. Hearing this, I hastened thither with my horsemen. I spoke to them in a calm tone, and advised them to return across the river, and encamp on the other side. Not heeding this, they turned into a lane, and remained stationed on a meadow beside the river, outside the village. I returned as quickly as possible to bring up our infantry. I made the first two regiments march through the village and take post in the best positions, while the other two stationed in the fields by the Moscow road. I then rode down to the Strelitzes and had a conversation with them ; but I found them very refractory in all that we required.”

Gordon continues—

“After a mutual promise that no movement should take place that night, they returned to their camp, leaving a strong guard in the lane. I made a battalion keep guard not far from them, and stationed another near for relief. I then went to the other regiments, and ordered strong guards and detachments in various places in sight of their camp, to observe them. Having reconnoitred their camp at a little distance, and found no stirring among them, and having also visited our own guards, I went back to the camp at the time of rtveille which I did not allow to be beat, and rested an hour. After which I went to the Generalissimo, and consulted him with what was to be done. After mature deliberation, it was resolved that I should repair to their camp and intimate certain conditions.” These have no interest for us now-a-days; but they were so moderate as to show with what leniency the authorities were disposed to have treated their pampered and arrogant troops. But the conditions were rejected with contumely, and the mutineers declared they would go to Moscow, if only for eight days, or even three. Gordon sternly told them they would not be allowed. They affirmed that they would carry out their project or perish. A couple of veterans took up the parable, and began to dilate on the privations they had suffered; half-a-dozen others talked in a similar strain, evidently bent on inflaming their comrades’ minds. In vain Gordon advised that each regiment should deliberate apart. In vain he urged them to consider what they were refusing, and what must be the consequences of their disobedience. They would not listen to him further, and protested there were no differences of opinion among them; they were all of one mind. With gloomy brows and angry looks they drew together when Gordon informed them of his intention to withdraw and give them an interval for their final answer; adding, that if they rejected his Majesty’s gracious offers, they need not expect them to be repeated when once he was compelled to use force to bring them into obedience. The menace fell upon deaf ears.

The General rode out of their camp, and halting at some distance beyond, waited in grim silence for some fifteen minutes; after which he sent for their answer. As they persisted in their contumacy, he took his departure with much regret. Strong measures could no longer be avoided. To have given way to the Strelitzes would have been ruinous; would have placed in their hands, indeed, the mastery of the empire. Accordingly, after reconnoitring their position, and holding formal consultation with the Generalissimo, Gordon drew out his forces, and proceeded to close round the insurgents with a belt of iron—horse, foot, and artillery. To the last anxious to avoid bloodshed, he sent an officer to demand their submission ; but they rejected every proposal, and boasted that they were as ready for the defence as Gordon was for the attack. A round of cannon-shot was then fired over their heads—an act of humanity which they understood as a confession of weakness— Gordon having posted his forces so skilfully that their superiority was concealed, At all events, with much waving of banners and throwing up of caps, the Strelitzes resumed their march. Then in upon the unhappy men crashed the fire of five-and-twenty great guns, creating many a gap in their close ranks, and scattering wounds amongst them. A panic seized them; and to escape the deadly shot, or in a sudden dismay, they made a rush to escape by a lateral lane, which Gordon, unknown to them, had already occupied with a strong body of foot. Foiled, beaten, broken, they drew back upon their camp, a few seeking shelter in the barns and outhouses of the neighbouring village. Their defeat was complete. In an hour all was over. They had lost twenty-two killed, and about forty wounded, most of them mortally. Throwing down their arms, they surrendered, with a facility which inclines one to think that their previous reputation for bravery must have been exaggerated greatly.

On June 19, Gordon writes—“Information having been got as to a few of the ringleaders, from some who thought to gain favour for themselves, several influential individuals were called up and examined. One of the regiments was then mustered. The greater part of the influential men and others being examined, it was frankly confessed that some had been the ringleaders and guilty rebels. Those that were found good we put on the one side, and the bad on the other. In the afternoon, another regiment was proceeded with in the same way.

“June 21.—We mustered another regiment of the Strelitzes, and examined various individuals, putting them to the torture; whereon they confessed the wicked designs they had meant to carry out when they got to Moscow.

“June 22.—Twenty-four individuals were found guilty, on their own confession, of the most shocking crimes, and of having designed, when they got to Moscow, to massacre certain Boyars, and to extort an increase of pay, and a new regulation of their services. On these we pronounced sentence of death, to consist in beheading. They were confined apart, and directed to confess, receive the Eucharist, and prepare for death.”

On the 23rd the poor wretches were executed. For some time afterwards, entries occur in Gordon’s Diary which show with what tremendous severity the Strelitzes were punished for their misdeeds. It leaves a stain upon Gordon’s career, for the torture was freely applied, at his order; hundreds were knouted; in some companies decimation was adopted; while on one occasion no fewer than seventy men were hanged “by fives and threes” on the same gallows. The General remarks that, with few exceptions, the men met their death bravely. On July 4 he presents a ghastly statement to the effect that one hundred and thirty had been executed; that about seventy had been killed in the engagement, or had died of their wounds; and that one thousand eight hundred and forty-five had been banished to various convents and prisons. The number of those knouted or tortured he does not record.

The news of the formidable mutiny of the Strelitzes reached the Czar at Vienna, towards the end of July, and hastened his return home. It is needless to add that he approved of Gordon’s action, and perpetrated some more cruelties on his own account.

This was the last great service which Gordon rendered to the Czar. His health began to decline, and, after a severe and protracted illness, he died on December 29, 1699, greatly lamented by his Imperial master. His remains were deposited in a vault in front of the high altar of the Roman Catholic Church at Moscow. At the time of his death he was in his sixty-fifth year.


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