An Estonian and the Rise of Russia

Johann von Patkul

Johann Reinhold von Patkul  began and ended his life in prison. In fact he was drawn and quartered when it was no longer done by Sweden. But he was special,  Before he was born his father was accused of treason. His son was born in prison. Later his father was released and the boy grew up on a wealthy estate in Estonia.

He became a Captain in the Swedish army at twenty nine, which was very young, and  had a promising career before him. But he stepped on the toes of many.  He was described as “impatient, obstinate and intractable, with a high opinion of himself, and no opinion at all of anyone else.” 

But the cause of the problem was this. Sweden had ruled Estonia for 80 years now.  Charles XI of Sweden wanted the rich Baltic German estates in Livonia, those making over 250,000 annually, to pay greater taxes. It was very Swedish. The state had to have more sources of money because they had war debts, and Sweden found serfdom odd. They had a system of lords and Kings but the people were never serfs. They were small farmers.

Von Patkul came in person and tried to convince the King that it was unfair to tax the rich. He did not convince Charles XI of his trickle down theory, but he was graciously told by the King that he was very eloquent. He was then sent home to pay his taxes. Von Patkul was enraged that his brilliant logic had not won the day.  But he did not give up. He sent the King a strongly worded petition,  which was a terrible miscalculation as upon receiving it  Charles XI was furious rather than persuaded by the numbers who signed the document and  he declared this was treason.

The King  ordered the confiscation of the estates of Patkul, and attempted to have him arrested. Patkul had to leave the country to avoid prison and in all likelihood execution. He lived unhappily as a rich man in exile in France for the next  four years.

Then Patkul saw a ray of sunshine. Charles XI died at 42 of stomach cancer. His son Charles XII had declared himself King of Sweden at a mere 15 years of age. Patkul wrote to ask if he would pardon him. His land and fortune would be restored. But Charles XII who was more dogmatic and terse than his father simply refused.

So von Patkul came up what he thought was a brilliant plan with would get back his estates and achieve revenge complete revenge. He moved to Poland and used his influence to suggest to Augustus the Strong and Frederick IV of Denmark that they attack Sweden along with the Kingdom of Brandenburg. Poland and Denmark would gain land they felt had been taken from them, and Brandenburg which was decimated in the 30 Years War simply thirsted for revenge. They all thought the 15 year old king would undoubtedly break down and concede at once.  As history was to show they had made the mistake of  declaring war on a man who was a military genius.

30 Years War

Augustus the Strong (famous for an alleged 100 illegitimate children) and Frederick IV (a bigamist-he had three wives because he hated the first) thought this was a very good idea. But the ruler of  Brandenburg, the main Kingdom of Prussia didn’t want to participate in the war. Frederick III, the psychotically cruel father of Frederick the Great, was about to be made the first King of all Prussia. The Kingdom had opened the door to all Huguenots, their fellow Protestants, and they were flooded with well qualified professionals. There was too little to be gained in a war at that time. 

Peter the Great at 25 on Grand Embassy

Peter just happened to be on his way back from the Grand Embassy where he had failed to get support for a war with the Ottoman Empire from which he hoped to gain a port. He was asked if Russia was interested in attacking Sweden. The prospect of a port from which he could trade with Europe made him drool.

The two needed a third party to attack causing Sweden to divide their forces and were willing to settle for Peter. They hoped what Peter’s army lacked in skill they would make up for for in size. But Patkul himself said, be careful of Russia “lest she snatch the roast from our spit beneath our noses.”

So Peter eagerly agreed to fight as an ally to Denmark and strangely enough their old rival, the Poles. The plan was to attack Sweden on three sides at once. The preparations which took three years were secret.  

The war began in 1700 and by 1707 Denmark and Poland were defeated. Only Russia the weakest of the three remained.

By then von Patkul was serving as Ambassador for Peter in Poland and as such even in 1707 was protected by international law.  But as part of the peace agreement at the request of the Swedes he was to be turned over to Charles XII. Augustus the Strong secretly sent word to the Governor of Konigstein  where he was being held, that he was to let him escape. Unfortunately the Governor exploiting this opportunity wanted a large bribe from von Patkul to let him go. Von Patkul refused on principal.

What he did not know was that Charles was nursing a very large grudge. He wanted Patkul killed as a traitor  in as painful a manner as possible. Patkul went into convulsions of terror when he found that he was to be broken on the wheel, drawn and quartered.

Charles made the mistake of entering Russia. Peter as is well known went on to defeat Sweden at Poltava. Augustus was placed back on the throne of Poland. Thus through the efforts of an Estonian, the rise of Russia began.


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