Peter and the Destruction of the Streltsy


The streltsy were supposedly the elite of the military and Peter hated them.  This may be an understatement. When he was ten they killed two of his uncles and his regent who was torn from him clutching his robes.

When Ivan the Terrible had created the streltsy  or sharp shooters they had a function. They were loyal to him and Moscow needed a civil service to manage its’ growing population. When they were not defending the Tzar they put out fires, served as police, and kept order in the city.  In return they were the loyal elite of the military with exclusive privileges. Ivan the Terrible would have destroyed them himself if they were not. He was crazy and enjoyed seeing people flayed and roasted alive.

The Streltsy

But the position was declared  hereditary which was the cause of it’s downfall. A competent father does not guarantee the same in a son. One hundred and fifty years later they no longer policed the city and collected garbage.  They had become small shopkeepers who were not taxed.

They were still an  elite military force 150 years later, although dangerous because they were vulnerable to lies and rumors. Though they considered themselves very patriotic, the rulers felt they were undependable.

They had one rebellion after another in the lifetime of Peter  saying Tzar Peter the real ruler, had been replaced by a German, his brother Tzar Ivan V had been murdered at 16 (he lived to over 30), Tzar Fyodor poisoned (he had always been very ill) and Sophia an affront to their religion as she was a woman (then later when she was deposed they wanted her back).  In between insurrection they were leaders of the military, powerful and a key to power. So they were tolerated.

Peter quietly replaced the streltsy as his special guard with the Preobrazhensky brigade in whom he had complete trust. He had trained them himself as a teenager. Then Peter began to destroy the streltsy quietly. He sent many units to the far reaches of the empire, Belgorod, Sevsk and Kiev. They were on very thin ice but were oblivious to the danger.

The New Preobrazhensky guard

Peter left for the Grand Embassy and on his return was in Poland planning the strategy for the Great Northern War. The streltsy began their final uprising because they believed the real Tzar had been replaced, and they wanted to break Sophia out of her convent to rule once again.

General Patrick  Gordon prepared to put down  the rebellion. The two sides confronted one another to fight it out and it was not an even match.  There were 2300 poorly equipped strelsty and 4000 well armed regular military. Gordon  sent them word that if they would disband the Tzar would forgive them all. Sophia had done this because she needed them. Peter would never have made the offer.

Gordon fired shots over their heads. The priests said no one had been killed because God was protecting them.  The streltsy charged thinking a miracle would take place and three thousand people were killed at once, all in the rebel army. The rest were taken prisoner.

Gordon was severe, he hung every 10th man. The rest were taken as prisoners to Moscow to be tortured in order to uncover the ring leaders. The rebellion itself was finished.

But Peter who had cut his trip short to return at the  insurrection  was sick of the streltsy. He wanted the end to be harsh so the rest of Russia would take this as an example; don’t try to rebel against him again.

Fifteen rebel leaders were broken on the wheel and then beheaded. Then 300 streltsy were divided between the nobles, people at court serving him and official assistants of these assistants. The prisoners were buried up to their waist and the courtiers told to behead them. This served a double purpose as the couriers could see what came of plotting against him.

The Tzar looked on from his horseback saying the blood of rebels was pleasing to the Lord. Franz Lefort his Swiss friend refused saying this was not the custom in foreign lands. Boris Golitsyn another member of the inner circle could not use his sword well. He hit the back and not neck of one of the streltsy and chopped him almost in half.  Menshikov grabbed his sword and cut off the rebel’s head. Fyodor Romodanovsky, the head of the secret police, who had been in charge of 4 divisions of the streltsy himself, killed four, and another close friend Alexander Menshikov bragged that he had killed twenty.

The Streltsy Execution

There was no forgiveness for the rank and file this time.  Long lines of carts carried the streltsy to their executions. Each wagon had two men with lighted candles. Their wives and children ran along with the cart screaming and crying. The men themselves were very brave and stoic about their deaths. Afterward their heads were put on spikes and bodies piled up. There they remained until summer.

Another group of ring leasers were hung in the courtyard of the convent where Sophia could see them, including two holding a petition to ask her to rule. They were left there over the winter.

Peter freed 500 because they were 18 or under and easily influenced, but they had their noses and ears cut off or they were branded and then they were sent into exile. People who had been streltsy began to hide their uniforms. Some escaped beyond the Urals. Peter put out the order that neither work nor food be given to the families of the rebels, and they were ordered to leave Moscow.

They officially lived on 20 years more as more bodies were needed for the military but they were no longer a force of elite soldiers. Then they were disbanded.

In Saint Petersburg the military once again performed civic functions such as garbage collectors, police, and health and safety inspectors.  But the positions were not hereditary nor elite. The special guard of Peter, the Preobrazhensky brigade, were provided with special uniforms and food.  They were loyal to him this time and for the future too. They were to hold a palace coup years later that placed his wife on the throne. Fourteen year later they did the same for his daughter.

This is from The Turning Point; Peter the Great by A Gordon

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