16. The revolt of the Streltsy in 1698 in Peter the Great's absence

When they saw that some were stretched lifeless, courage and fierceness at once deserted the terror-stricken streltsy, who broke into disorder. Those that retained any presence of mind endeavoured by the fire of their own artillery to check and silence that of the Tsar; but all in vain; for Colonel de Grage had anticipated that design, and directing the fire of his pieces upon the artillery of the seditious mob, whenever they would go to their guns, vomited such a perfect hurricane upon them that many fell, numbers fled away, and none remained daring enough to return to fire them. Still Colonel de Grage did not cease to thunder from the heights into the ranks of the flying. The streltsy saw safety nowhere; arms could not protect them; nothing was more appalling to them than the ceaseless flash and roar of the artillery showering its deadly bolts upon them from the German right. And the same men who, but an hour before, had spat upon proferred pardon, offered in consequence to surrender — so short is the interval that separates victors from vanquished. Supplicant, they fell prostrate, and begged that the artillery might cease its cruel ravages, offering to do promptly whatever they were ordered. The suppliants were directed to lay down their arms, to quit their ranks, and obey in everything that would be enjoined to them ...

When the ferocious arrogance with which they were swollen had been made to subside completely, in the manner we have just narrated, and all the accomplices of mutiny had been cast into chains, General Shein instituted an inquiry, by way of torture, touching the causes, the objects, the instigators, the chiefs, and the accomplices of this perilous and impious machination. For there was a very serious suspicion that more exalted people were at the head of it. Every one of them freely confessed himself deserving of death; but to detail the particulars of the nefarious plot, to lay bare the objects of it, to betray their accomplices, was what no person could persuade any of them to do. The rack was consequently got in readiness by the executioner, as the only means left to elicit the truth. The torture that was applied was of unexampled inhumanity. Scourged most savagely with the cat, if that had not the effect of breaking their stubborn silence, fire was applied to their backs, all gory and streaming, in order that, by slowly roasting the skin and tender flesh, the sharp pangs might penetrate through the very marrow of their bones, to the utmost power of painful sensation. These tortures were applied alternately, over and over again. Horrid tragedies to witness and to hear. In the open field above thirty of these more than funeral pyres blazed at the same time, and thereat were these most wretched creatures under examination roasted amidst their horrible holdings. At another side resounded the merciless strokes of the cat, while this most savage butchery of men was being done in this very pleasant neighbourhood .. .

[The news of the streltsy rebellion reached Peter in Vienna]; he took the quick post, as his ambassador suggested, and in four weeks' time, he had got over about three hundred [German] miles without accident and arrived [in Moscow] on 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. In what it consisted? What the insurgents meant? Who had dared to instigate such a crime? And as nobody could answer accurately upon all points, and some pleaded their own ignorance, others the obstinacy of the streltsy, he 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. Prison, tribunal, and rack, for those that were brought in, was in Preobrazhenskoe [the village where Peter spent his youth]. 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. Prince Feodor Iurelich Romadonovskii showed himself by so much more fitted for his inquiry, as he surpassed the rest in cruelty. The very Grand Duke himself [Peter], in consequence of the distrust he had conceived of his subjects, performed the office of inquisitor. He put the interrogatories, he examined the criminals, he urged those that were not confessing, he ordered such streltsy 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, and almost of their senses, by excess of torment, were handed over to the skill of the doctors, who were compelled to restore them to strength, in order that they might be broken down by fresh excruciation. The whole month of October [1698] 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 — the penalties which were inflicted upon them as soon as their confessions had sufficiently revealed the heads of the rebellion .. .

Vaska Girin, the insurgent ringleader, after undergoing four times the exquisite tortures, confessing nothing, was condemned to be hanged. But on the very day appointed for his execution, there was led out of prison, with the rebel streltsy, to the question, a certain youth of twenty years of age, on being confronted with whom, he, of his own accord, broke his stubborn silence, and revealed the counsels of the traitors, with all the circumstances. Now that youth of twenty had fallen in by chance with these rebels near the borders of Smolensk, and being forced to wait on the principal instigators of the mutiny, they took no notice of his listening, nor was his presence forbidden even when they used to deliberate about the success of their nefarious enterprise. When he was dragged along with the rebels before the tribunal, he, in order to prove his innocence the more easily, cast himself at the judge's feet, and with the most ardent sighs implored not to be subjected to the torture — that he would confess all that he knew with the most exact truth. Vaska Girin, who was condemned to the halter, was not hanged before having made his judicial confession; for he was one of the prime rebels, and an excellent witness of what he very truly detailed .. .

[Sophia] was interrogated by the Tsar himself, touching these attempts, and it is still uncertain what she answered. But this much is certain — that in this act the Tsar's Majesty wept for his own lot and Sophia's. Some will have it the Tsar was on the point of sentencing her to death, and used 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, enjoined that she should be banished to a greater distance, in some monastery [the Novo Dyevichi] .

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