Diary of an Austrian Secretary of Legation at the Court of Czar Peter the Great

Author: Johann Georg von Korb  | Date: 1862–1863

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Count McDonnell 2 London 1862–1863

Peter the Great Suppresses a Rebellion


How sharp the pain, how great the indignation, to which the tsar’s Majesty was mightily moved when he learned of the rebellion of the Streltsi, betraying openly a mind panting for vengeance!

He was still tarrying at Vienna, quite full of the desire of setting out for Italy. But, fervid as was his curiosity of rambling abroad, it was, nevertheless, speedily extinguished on the announcement of the troubles that had broken out in the bowels of his realm. Going immediately to Lefort1 (almost the only person that he condescended to treat with intimate familiarity), he spoke indignantly:

"Tell me, Francis, son of James, how can I reach Moscow by the shortest way, in a brief time so that I may wreak vengeance on this great perfidy of my people, with punishments worthy of their abominable crime? Not one of them shall escape with impunity. Around my royal city, which, with their impious efforts, they planned to destroy, I shall have gibbets and gallows set upon the walls and ramparts, and each and every one of them I will put to a dreadful death."

Nor did he long delay the plan for his justly excited wrath. He took the quick post, as his ambassador suggested, and in four weeks’ time, he had covered about three hundred miles2 without accident, and arrived the 4th of September [1698]—a monarch for the well-disposed, but an avenger for the wicked.

His first anxiety after his arrival was about the rebellion. What was it all about? What had the insurgents meant to do? Who dared to instigate such a crime? And as nobody could answer accurately all these Points, and some pleaded their own ignorance, others the obstinacy of the Streltsi, he began to suspect everybody’s loyalty, and started to think 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. Prison, tribunal, and rack, for those that were brought in, were in Bebraschentsko. No day, holy or profane, were the inquisitors idle; every day was deemed fit and lawful for torturing. For as many as there were accused there were knouts, and every inquisitor was a butcher.

Prince Feodor Jurowicz Romadonowski showed himself very much fitted for inquiry, as he surpassed the rest in cruelty. The very Grand Duke himself, in consequence of the distrust he had conceived of his subjects, performed the office of inquisitor. He put the interrogations; he examined the criminals; he bullied those that were not confessing; he ordered such Streltsi as were more pertinaciously silent to be subjected to more cruel tortures; those that had already confessed about many things were questioned about more; those who were bereft of strength and reason, by excess of torment, were handed over to the skill of doctors, who were compelled to restore them to strength in order that they might be broken down by fresh tortures.

The whole month of October was spent in lacerating the backs of culprits with the knout and with flames. Those that were left alive were at no time exempt from scourging or scorching. They were broken upon the wheel, or driven to the gibbet, or slain with the axe—the penalties which were inflicted upon them as soon as their confessions had sufficiently revealed the heads of the rebellion . . .

Major Karpakow was said to be beyond the other rebels in treason as he was in official rank. So after being knouted, fire was applied to roast his back to such a degree that he lost both speech and consciousness. Then, as it was feared that death might remove him prematurely, he was commended to the skill, of the tsar’s physician, Dr. Carbonari, who was to apply such remedies as would have the effect of restoring his expiring strength. As soon as he was in some degree restored, he was subjected to additional questioning anew, and fainted away under the sharpest tortures.

Princess Sophia has the reputation of having intrigued, for the last fourteen years, against her brother’s life, and has already been the cause of several seditious movements. By her open schemes and factiousness, she drove him, who was at once her sovereign and her brother, to look out for his own safety. The late perils bore ample witness that, as long as she was at liberty, there would be no stability in Muscovy. Shut up on this account in the Monastery of Nuns, she was watched daily in the strictest manner by a guard of the tsar’s troops. Nevertheless, the wiles of this most ambitious princess could not be quite guarded against by all those watchful eyes. She promised to put herself at the head of a new conspiracy of the Streltsi, and to communicate her advice to them—suggesting the manner and the frauds by which the Streltsi might bring their dark and malignant designs into effect. She was questioned by the tsar himself concerning these attempts, and it is still uncertain what she answered.

But this much is certain—that the tsar wept for his own lot and Sophia’s. Some have it that the tsar was on the point of sentencing her to death, using this argument: "Mary of Scotland was led forth from prison to the block, by command of her sister Elizabeth, Queen of England, a warning to me to exercise my power over Sophia." Still once more the brother pardoned a sister’s crime, and, instead of penalty, decreed that she should be banished some distance away in a monastery.

[Here von Korb tells how Sophia kept in touch with the rebels through a wretched mendicant, a little old woman who begged her daily bread. Sophia won the affections of the old woman by overwhelming her with gifts. Each day the imprisoned princess gave the beggar a loaf of bread, in which letters to the Streltsi were enclosed. The rebels in like manner transmitted their answers to Sophia.]

The First Execution October 10, 1698

To this exhibition of avenging justice the tsar’s Majesty invited all the ambassadors of foreign sovereigns, as it were to assist him anew upon his return to assert that sovereign 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 set. There the first scene of the tragedy lay exposed. The strangers that had gathered for the spectacle were kept from approaching too close; the whole regiment of guards were drawn up in array under arms. A little further off, on a high tumulus,3 there was a multitude of Muscovites, crowded and crushing together in a dense circle.

A German major who was then my companion, concealing his nationality in a Muscovite dress, mingled with the thronging crowd of Muscovites When he came back he 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.

The river Jaufa flows past the barracks in Bebraschentsko, and divides them in two. On the opposite side of this stream there were a hundred criminals set upon those little Muscovite carts, which the natives call Sbosek, awaiting the hour of death. 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 the women, the sobbing on every side, and the shrieks of the dying . . .

When all were brought to the place of execution, and the half dozen were duly distributed at their several gibbets,4 the tsar’s Majesty, dressed in a green Polish coat, and attended by a numerous suite of Muscovite nobles, came to the gate . . . Then the proclamation of the sentence was read, the tsar exhorting all bystanders to mark well its tenor. As the executioner was unable to dispatch so many criminals, some military officers, by command of the tsar, were compelled to assist in this butcher’s task.

The guilty were neither chained nor fettered; instead 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 to the four corners of the world, and they covered their eyes and faces with a piece of linen (which is a national custom). Many, in order to hasten the end, put their necks into the halter and sprang headlong from the gallows. There were counted two hundred and thirty who expiated their heinous conduct by halter and gibbet.

Second Execution October 13, 1698

Although all those that were accomplices of the rebellion were condemned to death, still the tsar’s Majesty would not dispense with strict investigation. This was desirable, for the unripe years and judgment of many seemed to call for mercy, since they were, as one may say, rather victims of error than of deliberate crime. In such case the penalty of death was commuted to some corporal infliction—as, for example, the cutting off of their ears and noses, to mark them with ignominy for life—a life to be passed, not as previously, in the heart of the realm, but in various and barbarous places on the frontiers of Muscovy. To such places fifty were transported today after being castigated in the manner prescribed.

Third Execution October 17, 1698

Only six were beheaded today, who had the advantage over the others, if rank be a distinction of honor in executed criminals.

Fourth Execution October 21, 1698

To prove to all people how holy and inviolable are those walls of the city which the Streltsi rashly meditated scaling in a sudden assault, beams were tun out from all the embrasures in the walls near the gates, in each of which two rebels were hanged. This day saw about two hundred and fifty die in that manner. There are few cities fortified with as many palisades as Moscow has given gibbets to her guardian Streltsi.

Fifth Execution October 23, 1698

This differed considerably from those that preceded. It was hardly credible. Three hundred and thirty at a time were led to the fatal axe’s stroke. The whole plain was stained with native but impious blood. All the boyars [nobles], senators of the realm, Dumnoi, Diaks, and so on, who were present at the council instituted against the rebel Streltsi, had been summoned at the tsar’s command to Bebraschentsko, and ordered 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 one noble [probably the Prince Galizin], whose erring sword struck the back instead of the neck. The rebel was thus chopped almost in half, and would have been roused to desperation with pain, had not Alexasca struck 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, hastily, to every boyar, a rebel was led up, whom he was to behead. The tsar, in his saddle, looked at the whole tragedy.

Sixth Execution October 27, 1698

Today was assigned for the punishment of the "popes"—that is to say, those who by carrying images to induce the serfs to side with the Streltsi, had invoked the aid of God with the holy rites and his altars for the success of this impious plot. The place selected by the judge for the execution was the open space in front of the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, which is the High Church of Moscow. An ignominious gibbet cross awaited the priests, by way of suitable reward for the thousands of signs of the cross they had made, and as their fee for all the benedictions they bad given to the refractory troops. The court jester, in the mimic attire of a "pope," made the halter ready, and adjusted it, as it was held to be wrong to subject a priest to the hands of the common hangman.

The tsar’s Majesty looked on from his carriage while the other priests were hurried to execution. To the populace, who stood around in great numbers, he spoke a few words touching the perfidy of the "popes," adding the threat:

"Henceforward let no one dare to ask any pope to pray for such an intention."

. . . The tsar then hastened to the Monastery of the Nuns, in front of which thirty gibbets were erected in a quadrangle shape, from which there hung two hundred and thirty Streltsi. The three principal ringleaders, who had tendered a petition to Sophia touching the administration of the realm, were hanged close to the windows of that princess, presenting, as it were, the petitions that were placed in their hands, so near that Sophia might with ease touch them. Perhaps this was in order to load Sophia with that remorse in every way, which I believe drove her to take the religious habit, in order to pass to a better life.

Last Execution October 31, 1698

Again, in front of the Kremlin Castle two others, whose thighs and extremities have been broken, and who were tied alive to the wheel, with horrid lamentations throughout the afternoon and the following night, dosed their miserable existence in the utmost agony. One of them, the younger of the two, survived amidst his enduring tortures until noon the following day. The tsar dined at his ease. The successive and earnest supplications of all present induced the monarch, who was long reluctant, to give command that an end might be put with a ball to the life and pangs of the criminal that still could breathe.

For the remainder of the rebels, who were still guarded in places nearby, their separate places of confinement became their places of execution, lest by collecting them all together this torturing and butchery should smell of tyranny.

All the wives of the Streltsi were commanded to leave the neighborhood 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 harbor, unless they would send them out of Moscow to serve upon their estates.

1A Swiss adventurer, Francois Lefort, a shrewd and convivial rascal, who, with Falstaffian zest, had initiated the Russian monarch into the joys of profligacy.

2German miles, each equal to about rice American (or English) miles.

3An artificial hillock.

4At the side of all the city gates there was a gibbet erected, on each of which six rebels were hanged on that day.

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Chicago: Johann Georg von Korb, Diary of an Austrian Secretary of Legation at the Court of Czar Peter the Great, trans. Count McDonnell in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed February 23, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=92ZTWQH9B5V8S8Y.

MLA: Korb, Johann Georg von. Diary of an Austrian Secretary of Legation at the Court of Czar Peter the Great, translted by Count McDonnell, Vol. 2, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 23 Feb. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=92ZTWQH9B5V8S8Y.

Harvard: Korb, JG, Diary of an Austrian Secretary of Legation at the Court of Czar Peter the Great, trans. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 23 February 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=92ZTWQH9B5V8S8Y.