On October 10, 1698, the public execution of the 144 streltsy troops, who served as the major active force in Russia since the times of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, took place on Red Square in Moscow per the order of Peter the Great. The execution was performed as punishment for the uprising they had organized and the attempted overthrow of Tsar Peter.
It is traditionally believed that streltsy forces were punished as they planned to overthrow Tsar Peter, replacing him with his sister, Princess Sofia. Another version, however, suggests that the streltsy meant no harm to the existing government: all they wanted was to ask the authorities to stop garnishing their wages, since they had been performing a lot more chores other than actual military service during the exhausting Azov campaign of 1695-1696. Moreover, the government was behind with the payments.
The incitement for the uprising was the news that instead of returning home to Moscow, the government would send the streltsy to the town of Velikie Luki to guard the country’s western borders. In the March of 1698, 175 streltsy defectors showed up in Moscow, demanding the fulfillment of their requirements. The attempts by the Moscow authorities to arrest the streltsy’s diplomatic mission failed. Hiding in their homes, the streltsy soldiers contacted Princess Sofia - Peter the Great’s sister and his alleged rival for the throne, who had been placed by Peter into a convent - asking her to be their leader and the Tsarina instead of Peter. After several attacks by troops loyal to Tsar Peter, the streltsy regiments were successfully driven out of the city, depleted but not defeated.
While the major uprising was at its hottest, Peter the Great himself was in England; upon his return, he sparked the so-called “great investigation”, convinced the streltsy troops had an overthrow in mind, and therefore determined to punish the culprits. The investigation was conducted with no protocol, and had it not been for the diaries of Patrick Gordon, the Scottish general in the Russian service, revealed 150 years later, the information would have never been revealed.
The Tsar, known not only for his farsightedness, but also for his unprecedented cruelty toward those he thought his enemies, ordered fourteen extra torture cells be built to speed up the execution. He organized what would now be referred to as a conveyer: while in one cell one strelets soldier was questioned, in the other – the torture of another one was in full swing. Bearing great resentment toward Princess Sofia ever since his childhood, Peter subjected her to a violent torture, too.
The streltsy execution was very quick – each case took no longer than fifteen minutes and was very violent. This is how Vladimir Soloviev, the outstanding Russian historian, described the event, “The streltsy troops, 201 in number, were taken to the Pokrovskie gates: each cart had two people in it, holding a lit candle; wives, mothers, and children were running after them, shrieking and moaning. By the Pokrovskie gates, the charges against them were voiced… After that, the convicts were taken out to be executed at the assigned spots, while five of them were executed right there. Witnesses explain that oddity by the fact that Peter himself chopped off the heads of these five people.”
To add grandeur to an already violent execution, it was decided to use logs, so that several people could be killed simultaneously; this technology was successfully tested during the next execution, as two pine tree trunks housed fifty streltsy soldiers. Again, people from the streets were invited to perform justice along with the executioners, even being given free alcohol to spice up the event.
More executions followed; Nikolay Kostomarov, another prominent Russian historian, in his works, described how it happened, “Then, again, the torture proceeded, and the wives of the streltsy soldiers were also tortured… four people had their arms and legs broken with the wheels in Red Square; others had their heads chopped off, the majority were hanged. 772 people died… the execution was performed, per the Tsar’s order, by the boyars and the Duma members, while the Tsar himself was watching it all, sitting on his horse. On different days, outside the Novodevichy monastery, 195 people were hanged right in front of Princess Sofia’s cell… the last streltsy executions were performed in the February of 1699.”
From September of 1698 till February of 1699, 1,182 streltsy soldiers were executed, with over 600 exiled to Siberia, and 2,000 forcefully dispatched to serve in the distant regions of the country. The streltsy as a branch of troops was totally eliminated in 1705.