Gateway to the Classics: Peter the Great by Jacob Abbott
Peter the Great by  Jacob Abbott

The Rebellion

I T will be recollected by the reader that Peter, before he set out on his tour, took every possible precaution to guard against the danger of disturbances in his dominions during his absence. The Princess Sophia was closely confined in her convent. All that portion of the old Russian Guards that he thought most likely to be dissatisfied with his proposed reforms, and to take part with Sophia, he removed to fortresses at a great distance from Moscow. Moscow itself was garrisoned with troops selected expressly with reference to their supposed fidelity to his interests, and the men who were to command them, as well as the great civil officers to whom the administration of the government was committed during his absence, were appointed on the same principle.

But, notwithstanding all these precautions, Peter did not feel entirely safe. He was well aware of Sophia's ambition, and of her skill in intrigue, and during the whole progress of his tour he anxiously watched the tidings which he received from Moscow, ready to return at a moment's warning in case of necessity. He often spoke on this subject to those with whom he was on terms of familiar intercourse. On such occasions he would get into a great rage in denouncing his enemies, and in threatening vengeance against them in case they made any movement to resist his authority while he was away. At such times he would utter most dreadful imprecations against those who should dare to oppose him, and would work himself up into such a fury as to give those who conversed with him an exceedingly unfavorable opinion of his temper and character. The ugly aspect which his countenance and demeanor exhibited at such times was greatly aggravated by a nervous affection of the head and face which attacked him, particularly when he was in a passion, and which produced convulsive twitches of the muscles that drew his head by jerks to one side, and distorted his face in a manner that was dreadful to behold. It was said that this disorder was first induced in his childhood by some one of the terrible frights through which he passed. However this may have been, the affection seemed to increase as he grew older, and as the attacks of it were most decided and violent when he was in a passion, they had the effect, in connection with his coarse and dreadful language and violent demeanor, to make him appear at such times more like some ugly monster of fiction than like a man.

The result, in respect to the conduct of his enemies during his absence, was what he feared. After he had been gone away for some months they began to conspire against him. The means of communication between different countries were quite imperfect in those days, so that very little exact information came back to Russia in respect to the emperor's movements. The nobles who were opposed to him began to represent to the people that he had gone nobody knew where, and that it was wholly uncertain whether he would ever return. Besides, if he did return, they said it would only be to bring with him a fresh importation of foreign favorites and foreign manners, and to proceed more vigorously than ever in his work of superseding and subverting all the good old customs of the land, and displacing the ancient native families from all places of consideration and honor, in order to make room for the swarms of miserable foreign adventurers that he would bring home with him in his train.

By these and similar representations the opposition so far increased and strengthened their party that, at length, they matured their arrangements for an open outbreak. Their plan was, first, to take possession of the city by means of the Guards, who were to be recalled for this purpose from their distant posts, and by their assistance to murder all the foreigners. They were then to issue a proclamation declaring that Peter, by leaving the country and remaining so long away, had virtually abdicated the government; and also a formal address to the Princess Sophia, calling upon her to ascend the throne in his stead.

In executing this plan, negotiations were first cautiously opened with the Guards, and they readily acceded to the proposals made to them. A committee of three persons was a pointed to draw up the address to Sophia, and the precise details of the movements which were to take place on the arrival of the Guards at the gates of Moscow were all arranged. The Guards, of course, required some pretext for leaving their posts and coming toward the city, independent of the real cause, for the conspirators within the city were not prepared to rise and declare the throne vacant until the Guards had actually arrived. Accordingly, while the conspirators remained quiet, the Guards began to complain of various grievances under which they suffered; particularly that they were not paid their wages regularly, and they declared their determination to march to Moscow and obtain redress. The government—that is, the regency that Peter had left in charge—sent out deputies, who attempted to pacify them, but could not succeed. The Guards insisted that they would go with their complaints to Moscow. They commenced their march. The number of men was about ten thousand. They pretended that they were only going to the city to represent their case themselves directly to the government, and then to march back again in a peaceable manner. They wished to know, too, they said, what had become of the Czar. They could not depend upon the rumors which came to them at so great a distance, and they were determined to inform themselves on the spot whether he were alive or dead, and when he was coming home.

The deputies returned with all speed to Moscow, and reported that the Guards were on their march in full strength toward the city. The whole city was thrown into a state of consternation. Many of the leading families, anticipating serious trouble, moved away. Others packed up and concealed their valuables. The government, too, though not yet suspecting the real design of the Guards in the movement which they were making, were greatly alarmed. They immediately ordered a large armed force to go and meet the insurgents. This force was commanded by General Gordon, the officer whom Peter had made general-in-chief of the army before he set out on his tour.

General Gordon came up with the rebels about forty miles from Moscow. As soon as he came near to them he halted, and sent forward a deputation from his camp to confer with the leaders, in the hope of coming to some amicable settlement of the difficulty. This deputation consisted of Russian nobles of ancient and established rank and consideration in the country, who had volunteered to accompany the general in his expedition. General Gordon himself was one of the hated foreigners, and of course his appearance, if he had gone himself to negotiate with the rebels, would have perhaps only exasperated and inflamed them more than ever.

The deputation held a conference with the leaders of the Guards, and made them very conciliatory offers. They promised that if they would return to their duty the government would not only overlook the serious offense which they had committed in leaving their posts and marching upon Moscow, but would inquire into and redress all their grievances.

But the Guards refused to be satisfied. They were determined, they said, to march to Moscow. They wished to ascertain for themselves whether Peter was dead or alive, and if alive, what had become of him. They therefore were going on, and, if General Gordon and his troops attempted to oppose them, they would fight it out and see which was the strongest.

In civil commotions of this kind occurring in any of the ancient non-Protestant countries in Europe, it is always a question of the utmost moment which side the Church and the clergy espouse. It is true that the Church and the clergy do not fight themselves, and so do not add any thing to the physical strength of the party which they befriend, but they add enormously to its moral strength, that is, to its confidence and courage. Men have a sort of instinctive respect and fear for constituted authorities of any kind, and, though often willing to plot against them, are still very apt to falter and fall back when the time comes for the actual collision. The feeling that, after all, they are in the wrong in fighting against the government and their country, weakens them extremely, and makes them ready to abandon the struggle in panic and dismay on the first unfavorable turn of fortune. But if they have the Church and the clergy on their side, this state of things is quite changed. The sanction of religion—the thought that they are fighting in the cause of God and of duty, nerves their arms, and gives them that confidence in the result which is almost essential to victory.

It was so in this case. There was no class in the community more opposed to the Czar's proposed improvements and reforms than the Church. Indeed, it is always so. The Church and the clergy are always found in these countries on the side of opposition to progress and improvement. It is not that they are really opposed to improvement itself for its own sake, but that they are so afraid of change. They call themselves Conservatives, and wish to preserve every thing as it is. They hate the process of pulling down. Now, if a thing is good, it is better, of course, to preserve it; but, on the other hand, if it is bad, it is better that it should be pulled down. When, therefore, you are asked whether you are a Conservative or not, reply that that depends upon the character of the institution or the usage which is attacked. If it is good, let it stand. If it is bad, let it be destroyed.

In the case of Peter's proposed improvements and reforms the Church and the clergy were Conservatives of the most determined character. Of course, the plotters of the conspiracy in Moscow were in communication with the patriarch and the leading ecclesiastics in forming their plans; and in arranging for the marching of the Guards to the capital they took care to have priests with them to encourage them in the movement, and to assure them that in opposing the present government and restoring Sophia to power they were serving the cause of God and religion by promoting the expulsion from the country of the infidel foreigners that were coming in in such numbers, and subverting all the good old usages and customs of the realm.

It was this sympathy on the part of the clergy which gave the officers and soldiers of the Guards their courage and confidence in daring to persist in their march to Moscow in defiance of the army of General Gordon, brought out to oppose them.

The two armies approached each other. General Gordon, as is usual in such cases, ordered a battery of artillery which he had brought up in the road before the Guards to fire, but he directed that the guns should be pointed so high that the balls should go over the heads of the enemy. His object was to intimidate them. But the effect was the contrary. The priests, who had come into the army of the insurgents to encourage them in the fight, told them that a miracle had been performed. God had averted the balls from them, they said. They were fighting for the honor of his cause and for the defense of his holy religion, and they might rely upon it that he would not suffer them to be harmed.

But these assurances of the priests proved, unfortunately for the poor Guards, to be entirely unfounded. When General Gordon found that firing over the heads of the rebels did no good, he gave up at once all hope of any adjustment of the difficulty, and he determined to restrain himself no longer, but to put forth the whole of his strength, and kill and destroy all before him in the most determined and merciless manner. A furious battle followed, in which the Guards were entirely defeated. Two or three thousand of them were killed, and all the rest were surrounded and made prisoners.

The first step taken by General Gordon, with the advice of the Russian nobles who had accompanied him, was to count off the prisoners and hang every tenth man. The next was to put the officers to the torture, in order to compel them to confess what their real object was in marching to Moscow. After enduring their tortures as long as human nature could bear them, they confessed that the movement was a concerted one, made in connection with a conspiracy within the city, and that the object was to subvert the present government, and to liberate the Princess Sophia and place her upon the throne. They also gave the names of a number of prominent persons in Moscow who, they said, were the leaders of the conspiracy.

It was in this state of the affair that the tidings of what had occurred reached Peter in Vienna, as is related in the last chapter. He immediately set out on his return to Moscow in a state of rage and fury against the rebels that it would be impossible to describe. As he arrived at the capital, he commenced an inquisition into the affair by putting every body to the torture whom he supposed to be implicated as a leader in it. From the agony of these sufferers he extorted the names of innumerable victims, who, as fast as they were named, were seized and put to death. There were a great many of the ancient nobles thus condemned, a great many ladies of high rank, and large numbers of priests. These persons were all executed, or rather massacred, in the most reckless and merciless manner. Some were beheaded; some were broken on the wheel, and then left to die in horrible agonies. Many were buried alive, their heads only being left above the ground. It is said that Peter took such a savage delight in these punishments, that he executed many of the victims with his own hands. At one time, when half intoxicated at a banquet, he ordered twenty of his prisoners to be brought in, and then, with his brandy before him, which was his favorite drink, and which he often drank to excess, he caused them to be led, one after another, to the block, that he might cut off their heads himself. He took a drink of brandy after each execution while the officers were bringing forward the next man. He was just an hour, it was said, in cutting off the twenty heads, which allows of an average of three minutes to each man. This story is almost too horrible to be believed, but, unfortunately, it comports too well with the general character which Peter has always sustained in the opinion of mankind in respect to the desperate and reckless cruelty to which he could be aroused under the influence of intoxication and anger.


Peter Turning Executioner.

About two thousand of the Guards were beheaded. The bodies of these men were laid upon the ground in a public place, arranged in rows, with their heads lying beside them. They covered more than an acre of ground. Here they were allowed to lie all the remainder of the winter, as long, in fact, as the flesh continued frozen, and then, when the spring came on, they were thrown together into a deep ditch, dug to receive them, and thus were buried.

There were also a great number of gibbets set up on all the roads leading to Moscow, and upon these gibbets men were hung, and the bodies allowed to remain there, like the beheaded Guards upon the ground, until the spring.

As for the Princess Sophia, she was still in the convent where Peter had placed her, the conspirators not having reached the point of liberating her before their plot was discovered. Peter, however, caused the three authors of the address, which was to have been made to Sophia, calling upon her to assume the crown, to be sent to the convent, and there hung before Sophia's windows. And then, by his orders, the arm of the principal man among them was cut off, the address was put into his hand, and, when the fingers had stiffened around it, the limb was fixed to the wall in Sophia's chamber, as if in the act of offering her the address, and ordered to remain so until the address should drop, of itself, upon the floor.

Such were the horrible means by which Peter attempted to strike terror into his subjects, and to put down the spirit of conspiracy and rebellion. He doubtless thought that it was only by such severities as these that the end could be effectually attained. At all events, the end was attained. The rebellion was completely suppressed, and all open opposition to the progress of the Czar's proposed improvements and reforms ceased. The few leading nobles who adhered to the old customs and usages of the realm retired from all connection with public affairs, and lived thenceforth in seclusion, mourning, like good Conservatives, the triumph of the spirit of radicalism and innovation which was leading the country, as they thought, to certain ruin. The old Guards, whom it had been proved so utterly impossible to bring over to Peter's views, were disbanded, and other troops, organized on a different system, were embodied in their stead. By this time the English ship-builders, and the other mechanics and artisans that Peter had engaged, began to arrive in the country, and the way was open for the emperor to go on vigorously in the accomplishment of his favorite and long-cherished plans.

The Princess Sophia, worn out with the agitations and dangers through which she had passed, and crushed in spirit by the dreadful scenes to which her brother had exposed her, now determined to withdraw wholly from the scene. She took the veil in the convent where she was confined, and went as a nun into the cloisters with the other sisters. The name that she assumed was Marpha.

Of course, all her ambitious aspirations were now forever extinguished, and the last gleam of earthly hope faded away from her mind. She pined away under the influences of disappointment, hopeless vexation, and bitter grief for about six years, and then the nuns of the convent followed the body of sister Marpha to the tomb.

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