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Foreigners in Russia: Franz Lefort

January 2, 1656 – March 12, 1699

Franz Lefort was a General Admiral originally from Switzerland in the Russian navy. 

A close friend and advisor to Peter the Great, Lefort participated in campaigns in the Crimea and Azov, and it is possible that Lefort himself was behind the idea of Peter the Great’s “Grand Embassy” to Europe.  Peter trusted Lefort implicitly, putting Lefort in charge of the Grand Embassy, and granting him numerous gifts.  Upon hearing the news of his counselor and friend’s death in 1699, Peter allegedly remarked “I have lost my best friend at the very moment when I have need of him most…” Peter made sure that Lefort’s funeral would be lavish and be second in ceremony only to a member of the royal family.

Born in Switzerland with a taste for adventure

Franz Lefort was born in 1656 in Geneva, Switzerland, into the family of the merchant Jacques Lefort.  It was the hope of Lefort’s family that Franz would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a merchant. As such, they sent him to Marseilles to learn the art of trading at age 14.  However, Franz had other plans and dreams. Franz was a tall, handsome, and physically strong youth, and his character combined a sharp wit with a dash of bravery and zeal.  It was armed with these qualities that Lefort left for Holland in 1674 to pursue his dream of serving in the army, gaining renown and seeing the world.  Shortly after his enlistment in Holland, however, the young Lefort was advised to try his luck in Russia.  Lefort arrived in Russia in 1675, and in 1676 moved to Moscow, taking up residence in the German Quarter.  Even though he moved to Moscow at the young age of 20, fate would have it that the young Lefort would make Russia his home, learn the language, and play a great role in the fate of his adopted land.

Adjusting to Russia and early career

Lefort had to wait two years before being sent to join the Kiev garrison in 1678 where he would finally get his first taste of real action and adventure, serving two years under the command of General Patrick Gordon (a Scottish general in the Russian army) and Prince Vasily Galitzine on the fronts of the Russo-Turkish War of 1676-1681.  He received permission to go on leave in 1681, and took a trip to Geneva to see his family.  Upon his return home, his family no longer saw the young and raw youth that had left for Holland years before, but an excellent rider and a well trained marksman.  His relatives begged him to stay in Europe, but Lefort refused.  He knew his career had just begun in Russia, and in keeping with his ideals of honor he declared he could not break his word to the Tsar to whom he had promised to return.  

A new friendship: Peter the Great

Upon his return to Russia, Lefort arrived to find that Tsar Fyodor Alekseyevich had died, and that the Tsar’s sister Sofia was ruling the country in the name of her younger brothers Ivan and Peter.  Lefort remained under Galitzine’s command, and was soon promoted to major, and then to colonel in short order.  

In 1687 and 1689, Galitzine mounted two unsuccessful campaigns to the Crimea.  Lefort served under Galitzine for the first campaign, and despite Galitzine’s defeat, Lefort received a promotion and decorations for his services.  The second campaign ended at the height of the power struggle between Sofia and Peter.  In August of 1689, the young Tsar Peter, fearing arrest and death at the hands of Sofia, fled to the Troitse-Sergiev Monastery.  On September 4th of the same year, Lefort together with General Patrick Gordon arrived at the monastery in support of the young Peter and forever tied their fates to that of the young ruler.

It was by and large due to the support of Gordon and Lefort that by the fall of 1689, Peter had deposed Sofia.  The young Tsar became close with his two new friends, who had gained Peter’s eternal trust by their actions.   In 1690, Peter began paying more and more visits to Lefort in the German Quarter.  These visits were frowned upon by the more conservative members of the Moscow nobility, but the young monarch was insufferably drawn to all things European, and that included Lefort.

Lefort’s star rises

The role of Lefort in the development of the young Tsar is hard to understate.  Lefort was at once an advisor, military commander, diplomat, and confidante to the young ruler.  The friendship formed between them was earnest and deep, and Lefort was responsible for instilling in Peter a number of European habits and ideas.

As Peter and Lefort grew closer, it was only natural that Lefort received many different gifts from the Tsar.  In 1690 he was promoted to Major General.  Peter and his entourage paid so many visits to Lefort that it became necessary to enlarge his home in the German Quarter to accommodate the frequent, massive gatherings.  Lefort wrote his family in Geneva, saying his home in Russia was complete with ponds and a park for different wild animals.  Peter felt free and at ease with Lefort, who provided him with a much needed rest from the conservatives of old Moscow.  One of Lefort’s countrymen in the Russian court wrote “in the court, all people talk about are his Excellency and Lefort.  They are inseparable.  As long as Moscow has been Moscow, there has never been a foreigner within her borders that has known such authority.  He would be very wealthy if he weren’t so generous.  It would seem, of course, that it is because of this quality that he has attained such a high reputation.  His Excellency gives him great gifts…”  

War games, Azov Campaign, and the Grand Embassy

As Peter grew older, he began to develop a vision for the future of his country, including a fierce desire to bring it closer to Europe.  Peter organized several “War Games” outside of Moscow with Lefort’s participation.  These “Games” were in fact preparation for Peter’s very real upcoming war with the Turks in the Crimea.  Lefort played a large role in the Azov campaigns of 1695 an 1696, commanding a group of soldiers during the storm of Azov on August 5th, 1695 and personally captured one of the Turkish flags.  

The idea behind Peter’s famous “Grand Embassy” may have been suggested to the Tsar by Lefort himself.  The stated goal of the “Grand Embassy” was twofold; to form a delegation from Russia to gather support for the Tsar’s war against the Ottoman Empire, and to recruit as many European officers to Russia’s ranks as possible.  Secretly, however, Peter himself was to be among the delegates, traveling incognito while getting a first-hand introduction to Europe.  The embassy was formally led by several diplomats, with Lefort as the symbolic leader of the mission.  But despite Lefort’s position as a mere figurehead, the amount of servants and services afforded the Genevan far outstripped the other emissaries.  His brother, Jacob Lefort, wrote from Amsterdam “Everything is presented on a silver platter…the general has from nine to twelve guests over for lunch daily.   He has three French chefs.”

Return to Moscow and death

The Streltsy Uprising in 1698 cut Peter’s Grand Embassy short, and Lefort and Peter hastily returned to Moscow to crush the uprising.  Reports are varied as to Lefort’s role in suppressing the rebellion once he returned; some say he almost engaged directly in the execution of the Streltsy, but refused to decapitate the soldiers personally.  However, it is more likely that upon his return he engaged in the upkeep of his lavish home built for him by the Tsar in their absence.  The Tsar’s favorite counselor would not have the chance to enjoy his new home for long, however; Lefort’s love for party and drink would be his undoing.  On February 12th, 1699, the general held a house-warming party with 300 guests, on February 23rd, with the party still roaring he contracted a fever, and died on March 12th at the age of 43.  Emotionally distressed at the death of his longtime friend, the Tsar ordered that Lefort’s funeral be second in extravagance only to those held for members of the royal family, making sure all of Russia would remember the name of his close friend, teacher, and ally.

Written by Adam Muskin, RT

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