She was able to occupy this position because the last tsar had died without issue in 1682. The result was a shaky power-share split between two male tsars who could not rule: Ivan, who was mentally disabled, and Peter, who was 10 years old.
But the problem with 10-year-olds is that, seven years later, they become 17-year-olds.
By 1689, Peter was chafing at his sister’s power. As the regent, how much longer could she expect to rule the tsar now that he was no longer a boy?
A disturbance on the night of August 7, 1689 brought the matter to a head. Moscow’s Streltsy, a body of soldiers who had murderously run amok in the Kremlin in 1682, paraded or demonstrated near the Kremlin.
Shaklovity would claim that this was nothing but a bodyguard for the routine procession of Sophia, but Peter — either actually alarmed or simulating it — bolted to the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius north of Moscow and “immediately threw himself upon a bed and fell a weeping bitterly.”†
Peter accused Shaklovity of attempting to incite another Streltsy rising to win power for Sophia, and maybe that’s exactly what happened. But it might also have been the case that Peter’s party cynically engineered the crisis to force a confrontation.
In either event, the two rivals were now holed up in their respective compounds (Sophia’s was the Kremlin). The standoff never came to blows, for it soon demonstrated that Sophia’s support was distinctly inferior to Peter’s, to whom the legitimate government apparatus increasingly gravitated.‡ Muscovite soldiers, foreign diplomats, and even the Streltsy began abandoning Moscow for Peter’s monastery.
Sophia’s regency ended in September, and the proof of her capitulation was acceding to Peter’s demand that she hand over the “blatant criminal” Shaklovity for condign punishment as a failed regicide. Despite the late hour (10 p.m.), a vast concourse of commoners and elites alike saw Shaklovity’s head axed off by torchlight on the main road near the Trinity-St. Sergius monastery.
On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.
Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.
The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.
Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.
Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.
Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.
The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.
“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.
Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.
Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.
Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)
Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”
Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.
The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.
And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.
Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.
“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.
Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.
Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.
And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.
This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?
Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.
He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.
Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)
Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.
Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.
What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.
On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.
But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.
By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.
Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.
Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.
* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.
On this date in 1690, the Russian stolnik (an administrative office in the Russian court) Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov was put to death with the magicians he allegedly contracted to bewitch Tsar Peter the Great.
Whatever its other sins, Russia enjoys a reputation for having largely steered clear of the frightful witch-hunts that broke out elsewhere in Europe. Certainly tsars issued many decrees against witchcraft and even prescribed the death penalty in law. But unlike courts in western Europe, Russia does not seem ever to have folded the entire swath of extra-Christian folk beliefs and everyday peasant “magic” together into a juridical theory of omnipresent diabolical terrorism stretching from the neighborhood midwife to the Prince of Darkness himself. Perhaps for that reason, its historical record of witch persecutions presents fewer and more scattered data points.
Elites, write Valerie Kivelson and Jonathan Shaheen,* “demonstrated no interest in formulating a systematized or theorized framework for explaining the uncanny power of magic [and] they also made no effort in their courtrooms to unearth evidence of such a framework … Instead of pursuing connections to the devil, Muscovite judges exerted themselves to track the lineages and results of magic: Who taught you? Whom have you taught? Whom have you bewitched? The judges’ concerns were concrete and this-worldly: who were the victims and who were the victimizers?”
Unfortunately for Bezobrazov, his victim was the tsar himself.
Bezobrazov allegedly obtained the service of “sorcerers and witches” who worked magic “on bones, on money and on water” to enspell the new 17-year-old sovereign during the uncertain period after Peter threw off the regency of his older sister Sophia. Despite Peter’s ultimate reputation as Russia’s great westernizer, the immediate effect of this transition was an oppressive interregnum wherein conservative religious interests took advantage of the new sovereign’s distraction from internal Russian politics to reassert themselves violently.
For Bezobrazov, political turnover augured personal uncertainty. The innocent explanation for his “witchcraft” was invoking a little ritual in hopes of catching a favorable assignment in Peter the Great’s new Russia. It didn’t work.
Bezobrazov was beheaded on Red Square on this date at the same time two folk healers went to the stake with their magic talismans and healing herbs at a swamp across the Moskva from the Kremlin. An essay in this Festschrift describes what it’s like to be a peasant folk healer suddenly under investigation for regicide.
Dorofei Prokofiev … had treated animals belonging to the Bezobrazov household. But when arrested and interrogated, Dorofei did not identify himself as a “sorcerer,” but rather as a posadskii chelovek (artisan), specifically a horse-trainer (konoval) and a blood-letter (rudomet’). He admitted to practicing bean divination and palm reading in addition to treating the illnesses of children and adults with herbs and incantations. His bag contained beans, incense (for protecting brides and grooms from sorcerers, Dorofei said), and a variety of herbs. The herb bogoroditskaia (= royal fern) he gathered himself on St. John’s Day, while reciting the charm “whatever you, herb, are good for, be good for that.” But he denied ever casting a spell to harm the sovereign, and he claimed not to be acquainted with Andrei Bezobrazov — a lie that was quickly uncovered when Dorofei was subjected to torture. At that point Dorofei changed his story: Bezobrazov had asked him to cast a spell on the tsar, but only to make him feel favorably towards Bezobrazov, not to damage the sovereign’s health. Dorofei gave his interrogators examples of the incantations that he used in fortune-telling, all intertwined invocations of Christian figures with sympathetic magic. In short, Dorofei tried to rescue himself by claiming that his healing and fortune-telling activities were all well-intentioned. But the investigators, and Peter himself, were convinced of Bezobrazov’s guilt, which meant Dorofei was guilty as well. Bezobrazov was beheaded, and Dorofei was burned at the stake as a witch.
For everyday folks like Dorofei Prokovie, the author notes, “well-positioned patrons could be either a source of protection or of danger.”
According to Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia, which is also the source of the January 8 date, Bezobrazov’s wife was punitively tonsured for not reporting the “plot” and several other of Bezobrazov’s peasants were knouted and sent to Siberia.
* “Prosaic Witchcraft and Semiotic Totalitarianism: Muscovite Magic Reconsidered” in Slavic Review, vol. 70, no. 1 (Spring 2011)
This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.
Again, in front of the Kremlin Castle two others, whose thighs and extremities had been broken, and who were tied alive to the wheel, with horrid lamentations throughout the afternoon and the following night, closed their miserable existence in the utmoft agony. One of them, the younger of the two, survived amidst his enduring tortures until noon the following day. The Czar dined at his cafe (commode) with the Boyar Leo Kirilowicz Narefkin, all the representatives and the Czar’s ministers being present. The successive and earnest supplications of all present induced the monarch, who was long reluctant, to give command to that Gabriel who is so well known at his court that an end might be put with a ball to the life and pangs of the criminal that still continued breathing.
For the remainder of the rebels, who were still guarded in places round about, their respective places of confinement were also their places of execution, lest by collecting them all together this torturing and butchery in the one place of such a multitude of men, should smell of tyranny. And especially left the minds of the citizens, already terror-stricken at so many melancholy exhibitions of their perishing fellow men should dread every kind of cruelty from their sovereign.
But considering the daily perils to which the Czar’s Majesty was hitherto exposed, without an hour’s security, and hardly escaping from many snares, he was very naturally always in great apprehension of the exceeding treachery of the Strelitz, so that he fairly concluded not to tolerate a single Strelitz in his empire, — to banish all of them that remained to the farthest confines of Muscovy after having almost extirpated the very name. In the provinces, leave was given to any that preferred to renounce military service for ever, and with the consent of the Voivodes to addict themselves to domestic services. Nor were they quite innocent: for the officers that were quartered in the camp at Azov to keep ward against the hostile inroads of the enemy, told how they were never secure, and hourly expected an atrocious outbreak of treason from the Strelitz; nor was there any doubt but that they had very ambiguous sympathies for the fortunes of the other rebels. All the wives of the Strelitz were commanded to leave the neighbourhood of Moscow, and thus experienced the consequences of the crimes of their husbands. It was forbidden by Ukase, under penalty of death, for any person to keep any of them or afford them Secret harbour, unless they would send them out of Moscow to serve upon their estates.
This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.
This differed confiderably from those that preceded. The manner of it was quite different, and hardly credible. Three hundred and thirty at a time were led out together to the fatal axe’s stroke, and embrued the whole plain with native but impious blood: for all the Boyars, Senators of the realm, Dumnoi, Diaks, and so forth, that were present at the council constituted against the rebel Strelitz, had been summoned by the Czar’s command to Bebraschentsko, and enjoined to take upon themselves the hangman’s office. Some struck the blow unsteadily, and with trembling hands assumed this new and unaccustomed task. The most unfortunate stroke among all the Boyars was given by him whose erring sword struck the back instead of the neck, and thus chopping the Strelitz almost in halves, would have roused him to desperation with pain, had not Alexasca* reached the unhappy wretch a surer blow of an axe on the neck.
Prince Romadonowski, under whose command previous to the mutiny these four regiments were to have watched the turbulent gatherings in Poland on the frontier, beheaded, according to order, one out of each regiment. Lastly, to every Boyar a Strelitz was led up, whom he was to behead. The Czar, in his saddle, looked on at the whole tragedy.
Peter scornfully reproached many of the nobles who trembled at being compelled to behead some rebels; adding in a strain of sanguinary justice, “No victim is more acceptable to the Deity than a wicked man.” Mentchikof, however, did not labour under such delicate feelings; for as a prelude to the execution of one hundred and fifty Strelitz, he drove through the streets of Moscow in a sledge, brandishing a naked sword, and boasted of his adroitness in cutting off twenty heads. (Source)
Peter the Great’s ruthless destruction of the Streltsy played out as bloody public theater in October of 1698.
A strelets (or strelitz in a more Germanic transliteration) was a professional guardsman stationed in the Russian capital. Ivan the Terrible had formed the corps initially in the 16th century to give himself a standing musketeer* force when he otherwise had to depend on dicey peasant recruits.
By the 18th century, they were just one more sclerotic Russian bureaucracy.
Their nominal duty to garrison Moscow against invaders was nearly superfluous. Top-level Streltsy had ample time to exploit their tax-favored treatment to become merchants … from which some made enough money to hire out other underemployed Streltsy to fill their occasional duty shifts. Once elite recruits, they now handed down their cushy appointments father to son. Further down the lists, rank-and-file Streltsy politicized as pro-peasant, anti-foreigner, and supportive of the Old Believer movement.
So an institution of 22,000 armed men in the capital with grievances and free time: any government would find this dangerous.
The fall of the Streltsy is connected intimately with the rise of Peter the Great, and some backstory on the latter will be necessary to make sense of the former.
Peter’s father was Alexis I, who ruled Russia from 1645 to 1676. (He’s notable for backing the church reforms that opened the schism between mainline Orthodoxy and the unreconstructed Old Believers.)
Alexis had two wives and sixteen legitimate children, but at his death he left a shaky succession. The crown passed initially to the sickly teenager Fyodor III, but Fyodor died in 1682 without an heir of his own.
Who would rule next? The families of Tsar Alexis’s two wives, the Miloslavskys and the Naryshkins, contended for power.
A boyar duma selected Peter, the younger son of the younger wife.
On this, the Miloslavsky family incited the Streltsy to revolt with rumors that the upstart Naryshkins had poisoned off Fyodor and shoved aside the legitimate heir, nicely marrying these grievances to long-overdue Streltsy back pay the cash-poor government had been withholding. The result was a savage May 1682 mutiny of guardsmen who ran amok through the undefended Kremlin. Scenes of unspeakable horror played out before young Peter’s own eyes: shaggy praetorians ransacking the palace in search of noblemen whom Peter had grown up around, and who were now wildly accused of regicide, treason, and tight-fistedness. These men would be put to savage and summary death by the armed mob: hurled onto spearpoints, tortured to death in the dungeons, or just cut apart on the streets. To abate the rampaging death squad after several harrowing days, Peter’s mother was forced to give up her own brother Ivan — especially hated of the Streltsy — to torture and murder.
Alexei Korzukhin’s 1882 depiction of the Streltsy dragging Ivan Naryshkin to his death as a young Peter the Great consoles his mother.
The Streltsy had threatened to slaughter every last boyar in the Kremlin had she not done so.
Their depredations forced the appointment of the infirm Miloslavsky candidate Ivan as Peter’s co-tsar, both sovereigns under the regency of Ivan’s strong-willed elder sister Sophia.
They carried that day and, by virtue of Sophia’s rule, the remainder of the 1680s. But as Peter aged into manhood, the two parties were bound for confrontation once again, and Peter finally took Russia in hand and forced Sophia into a convent in 1689.
So that’s the scene: Peter’s in charge. He has a living rival locked up in a nunnery. And the Streltsy have a definite preference between them.
For obvious reasons, Peter returned the low opinion of the Streltsy.
Due care for his throne dovetailed conveniently with payback for uncle Ivan’s murder, and Peter took every opportunity to reduce the privileged position of this dangerous body in favor of his new Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky regiments. After the Azov campaigns in the mid-1690s, Peter returned in triumph with his prized western-trained armies, leaving Streltsy to garrison his Black Sea outpost.
Disaffected Streltsy started thinking that Sophia would look real good back on the throne.
In June 1698, incensed by an order to march hundreds of miles to the Polish-Lithuanian frontier — and having been secretly in contact with Sophia — four Streltsy regiments mutinied and made for the capital. Peter was away in Vienna, but his general Alexei Shein intercepted the rebels 30 miles from the city and routed them. “Not one got away,” in the words of the communique to Peter. Shein himself executed well over 100 of the captured Streltsy right in the field. Another nineteen hundred were left to wait the pleasure of their returning sovereign and enemy.
Peter was not a man for half-measures; his city, St. Petersburg, remains today a monument to his vision but was thrown up on a fetid quagmire over the bones of countless laborers. Progressive despots don’t always encounter a backward army whose claims to semi-feudal privileges throw the country into commotion, but when they do, they purge wholesale.
“How sharp was the pain, how great the indignation to which the Czar’s Majesty was mightily moved, when he knew of the rebellion of the Strelitz, betrayed openly a mind panting for vengeance,” wrote the Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb — present in Moscow for the occasion, and a man whom the xenophobic Streltsy might well have lynched given the opportunity.
[Peter] began to have suspicions of everybody’s loyalty, and began to cogitate about a fresh investigation. The rebels that were kept in custody, in various places in the environs, were all brought in by four regiments of the guards, to a fresh investigation and fresh tortures … No day, holy or profane, were the inquisitors idle; every day was deemed fit and lawful for torturing. As many as there were accused there were knouts, and every inquisitor was a butcher.
The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy by Vasily Surikov (1881). In fact, there were several different Streltsy executions in October 1698, which Surikov has pictorially conflated.
The journal of the astonished Korb is our guide for the Streltsy executions. “The whole month of October was spent in butchering the backs of the culprits with knout and with flames: no day were those that were left alive exempt from scourging or scorching, or else they were broken upon the wheel, or driven to the gibbet, or slain with the axe,” he notes.
For the occasion, we’re introducing a new post series concept. These executions did not occur on consecutive days, but on several different days over the course of October 1698 — each occasion with a macabre new twist on the proceedings to make the lesson really stick. Intermingled with our regular fare, we’ll cover each distinct execution anniversary as the days come, looping back to this parent series post on each occasion.
In all, 1,182 Streltsy prisoners were put to death. Most of the rest were exiled to Siberia. By 1705 the Streltsy force had been completely abolished.
One last footnote: Peter interrogated his half-sister Sophia personally over her role in the potential coup, and he threatened to handle her like Queen Elizabeth handled Mary, Queen of Scots. (Kinship was no safeguard from brutality where Peter was concerned.) In the end he decided to spare her — but forced her into a cloister under heavy guard, never allowed to receive visitors until her death six years later.
* Strelets derives from the Russian verb to shoot; when formed around 1550, they were armed with arquebuses.
This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.
To this exhibition of avenging justice the Czar’s Majesty invited all the ambassadors of foreign fovereigns, as it were to aflert anew on his return that fovereign prerogative of life and death which the rebels had disputed with him.
The barracks in Bebraschentsko end in a bare field which rises to the summit of a rather steep hill. This was the place appointed for the executions. Here were planted the gibbet stakes, on which the foul heads of these confessedly guilty wretches were to be fet, to protract their ignominy beyond death. There the first scene of the tragedy lay exposed. The strangers that had gathered to the spectacle were kept aloof from too close approach; the whole regiment of guards was drawn up in array under arms. A little further off, on a high tumulus in the area of the place, there was a multitude of Muscovites, crowded and crushing together in a dense circle. A German Major was then my companion; he concealed his nationality in a Muscovite dress, besides which he relied upon his military rank and the liberty that he might take in consequence of being entitled by reason of his being in the service of the Czar to share in the privileges of the Muscovites. He mingled with the thronging crowd of Mufcovites, and when he came back announced that five rebel heads had been cut off in that spot by an axe that was swung by the noblest arm of all Muscovy. [i.e., Peter’s own] The river Jaufa flows pall the barracks in Bebraschentsko, and divides them in two.
On the opposite fide of this stream there were a hundred criminals set upon those little Muscovite carts which the natives call Sbosek, awaiting the hour of the death they had to undergo. There was a cart for every criminal, and a soldier to guard each. No priestly office was to be seen; as if the condemned were unworthy of that pious compassion. But they all bore lighted tapers in their hands, not to die without light and cross. The horrors of impending death were increased by the piteous lamentations of their women, the sobbing on every fide, and the shrieks of the dying that rung upon the sad array. The mother wept for her fon, the daughter deplored a parent’s fate, the wife lamenting a husband’s lot, bemoaned along with the others, from whom the various ties of blood and kindred drew tears of sad farewell. But when the horses, urged to a sharp pace, drew them off to the place of their doom, the wail of the women rose into louder sobs and moans. As they tried to keep up with them, forms of expression like these bespoke their grief, as others explained them to me: “Why are you torn from me so soon? Why do you desert me? Is a last embrace then denied me? Why am I hindered from bidding him farewell?” With complaints like these they tried to follow their friends when they could not keep up with their rapid course. From a country seat belonging to General Schachin [Shein] one hundred and thirty more Strelitz were led forth to die. At each side of all the city gates there was a gibbet erected, each of which was loaded with six rebels on that day.
When all were duly brought to the place of execution, and the half dozens were duly distributed at their several gibbets, the Czar’s Majesty, dressed in a green Polish cloak, and attended by a numerous suite of Muscovite nobles, came to the gate where, by his Majesty’s command, the imperial Lord Envoy had flopped in his own carriage, along with the representatives of Poland and Denmark. Next them was Major-General de Carlowiz, who had conducted his Majesty on his way from Poland, and a great many other foreigners, among whom the Muscovites mingled round about the gate. Then the proclamation of the sentence began, the Czar exhorting all the bystanders to mark well its tenor. As the executioner was unable to dispatch so many criminals, some military officers, by command of the Czar, came under compulsion to aid in this butcher’s task. The guilty were neither chained nor fettered; but logs were tied to their legs, which hindered them from walking fast, but still allowed them the use of their feet. They strove of their own accord to ascend the ladder, making the sign of the cross towards the four quarters of the world; they themselves covered their eyes and faces with a piece of linen (which is a national custom); very many putting their necks into the halter sprang headlong of themselves from the gallows, in order to precipitate their end. There were counted two hundred and thirty that expiated their flagitious conduct by halter and gibbet.
On this date in 1724, Willem Mons was beheaded in St. Petersburg for peculation.
Mons was the brother of the German commoner Anna Mons, a beautiful young woman who segued from being the May-December lover of Peter the Great‘s trusted admiral Franz Lefort to the mistress of the teenage emperor himself. Peter and Anna had a famous (famously scandalous) romance through her twenties, but as she entered her thirties and heard the clock ticking, her bid to make Peter put a ring on it by flirting with a Prussian diplomat came to grief and got her briefly tossed in prison.
Willem Mons was still a minor when his big sister fell from Peter’s graces. He would prove to have an equally adroit instinct for imperial bedchamber politics.
“One of the best-made and most handsome men that I have ever seen,” in the French ambassador’s estimation, Mons hustled his way into the train of the woman Peter had married instead of Anna — Catherine.
There Willem Mons and his other sister Matryona Balk monopolized the access routes to the empress and lucratively tolled all petitioners who traveled them. Wealth and status accumulated; the immigrant bourgeois’s son even stopped going by William in favor of the more impressive “Moens de la Croix”.
Not surprisingly, the emperor himself was the last to discover the open secret of his wife’s household’s river of graft.* Peter, who could be quite the moralist, was incensed; he interrogated the chamberlain so terribly that the young man fainted dead away.
“Moens de la Croix” was no longer. In both senses.
Having issued the confessions to condemn himself under the very credible threat of torture, Mons was socked away in Peter and Paul Fortress. Catherine made bold to defy Peter’s edict that nobody petition him for Mons’s life; in response, the enraged tsar smashed a Venetian mirror with his bare hand and roared, “thus I can annihilate the most beautiful adornment of my palace!” Court observers reported that marital relations between the two were visibly strained well after the scandal.
These weren’t happy days for the oft-sickly Peter; indeed, they were the last months of his life. Early the next year, he would succumb to a gangrenous bladder and leave the throne to this very Catherine. Perhaps his decrepit state accounts for the likely scurrilous rumor that the handsome chamberlain’s real offense wasn’t so much corruption as cuckoldry. It’s fair to say that such an affair would have been an extraordinarily reckless thing for Catherine.
On November 16, 1724, William Mons and Matrena Balk were taken in sledges to the execution site. Mons behaved courageously, nodding and bowing to friends he saw in the crowd. Mounting the scaffold, he calmly took off his heavy fur coat, listened to the reading of the sentence of death and laid his head on the block. After his death, his sister received eleven blows of the knout, very lightly administered so that not much harm was done, and was exiled for life to Tobolsk in Siberia. Her husband, General Balk, was given permission to marry again if he wished. (Source)
The late courtier’s severed head was preserved in alcohol (legend says that the fuming Peter made Catherine contemplate it). It was eventually deposited in the Kunstkamera museum, famous for housing Peter’s gross horde of collected pickled fetuses, dwarves, and other medical curios. Mons’s head still resides there today.
In the diary of that remarkable man, Gen. Patrick Gordon, who left Scotland in 1651 a poor, unfriended wanderer, and, when he died, in 1699, had his eyes closed by the affectionate hands of his sorrowing master, the Czar Peter the Great, the following entry is to be found, under date Hamburg, March 22, 1686:
This day, a man and a woman, a burgher of the towne being the womans master, for murthering, were carted from the prisone to the house where the murder was committed; and there before this house, with hotte pinsers, the flesh was torren out of their armes, and from thence were carted to the place of justice without the towne, and there broken and layed on wheeles.
On this date in 1719, Mary (Marie) Hamilton, lady-in-waiting upon the tsaritsa Catherine I, was beheaded in St. Petersburg for infanticide.
A frightened Mary Hamilton contemplates her imminent execution in this 1904 painting by Pavel Svedomsky.
Lady Hamilton — her Scottish family had emigrated generations earlier — did not like to wait on her libido.
She could tell you if Peter the Great deserved his nickname, and dish on any number of other courtiers, nobles, and hangers-on.
This pleasing sport, of course, assumes with it the risks imposed by an equally impatient biology. Hamilton’s gallantries two or three times quickened her womb.
Her decision to dispose of these unwanted descendants in the expedient way — once by abortion, and again by infanticide — was done on the sly (voluminous court gowns helped) but surely also with no expectation of such a severe sanction in the unlikely event of detection.
But according to Eve Levin,* Russia’s longtime slap-on-the-wrist policy for infanticide was changing, and beginning “to distinguish between a woman who killed her child to hide illicit sexual conduct, and a woman who killed her child because she was too poor to care for it. In the first instance, the killing of the child reflected selfish behavior and was considered to be murder.”
Mary Hamilton was obviously not too poor to raise children.
In 1717, an unrelated investigation of another of Hamilton’s lovers led him to accuse the libertine lady-in-waiting of practicing post-natal birth control, which Mary admitted to,** certainly expecting her mistress the queen and her paramour the king to look forward, not back.
Peter, the towering and intense “learned druzhina” with his eye fixed on the West and a modernity that Russia lagged behind, was a liberal man in many respects. But he remained eminently capable of ruthlessness in service of an idea. This affair played out, after all, in his brand-new capital St. Petersburg, built on the bones of thousands peasants who threw up the city over swampland at Peter’s command. In 1718, he’d had his own son knouted to death.
On the day of the execution, the prisoner appeared on the scaffold in a white silk gown trimmed with black ribbons. Peter climbed the structure to stand beside her and spoke quietly into her ear. The condemned woman and most of the spectators assumed that this would be her last-minute reprieve. Instead, the Tsar gave her a kiss and said sadly, “I cannot violate the laws to save your life. Support your punishment with courage, and, in the hope that God may forgive you your sins, address your prayers to him with a heart full of faith and contrition.” Miss Hamilton knelt and prayed, the Tsar turned away and the headsman struck.
Then, the bystanding tsar picked up the severed head that had once shared his pillow and discoursed to the multitude on its anatomical features — another idea imported from the West. That strange tsar afterward had the disembodied dome preserved in a jar until Catherine the Great ran across it and (after remarking that the woman’s youthful beauty had been preserved this half-century) had it decently buried.
Something else of Mary Hamilton outlasted her pickled cranium, however.
In one of those unaccountable twists of history, Hamilton maybe became conflated with the “four Marys”, Ladies-in-Waiting of Mary, Queen of Scots — and the story seemingly became translated backwards into this altogether different time and place. This is a much-disputed hypothesis† but for purposes of a blog post is well worth the noticing, while resigning to wiser heads the literary forensics at stake.
There was no “Mary Hamilton” among the Queen of Scots’s attendants, but in at least some of the many different versions of this ballad that survive, a person of this name is held to have become the lover of the king (“the highest Stuart,” in this case) and been put to death for killing her illegitimate child.‡ It is, at the very least, rather difficult to miss the parallel.
O little did my mother ken,
The day she cradled me,
The lands I was to travel in,
Or the dog’s death I wad d’ee!
Variants of this ballad remain popular to this day.
* “Infanticide in Pre-Petrine Russia,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Neue Folge, Bd. 34, H. 2 (1986).
** She had also pilfered some effects from the Queen.
† Dissenting opinions on identifying the “Mary Hamilton” of the ballad with our Mary Hamilton can be read here and here.