Friday, May 8, 2009

A soldier of fortune

General Patrick Gordon, a Scottish-born soldier of fortune who became a friend and military adviser to Russia’s Peter the Great, is today being celebrated and discussed at a conference organised by University of Aberdeen. Also today, the conference is hosting a party to launch the first volume of a new and complete set of Gordon’s diaries in the original English - although, it seems, three volumes have already been published! A complete German version was printed over 150 years ago, but until now only extracts have ever been published in English (and those extracts are freely available on the internet).

Gordon was born in 1635 into a landholding family in Auchleuchries, Scotland, but he went abroad, to Poland, to study at a Jesuit college. In 1655, war broke out between Poland and Sweden, and Gordon turned to soldiering, fighting for both sides on different occasions, until 1660 when peace was signed. The following year he joined the Russian army under Tsar Aleksei I, where he remained under successive regimes, while also studying military techniques. In 1678, he defended Chigirin (now in Ukraine) when beseiged by the Turks; and, in the 1680s, he was promoted to general after warring with the Crimean Tartars.

During the 1689 revolution in Moscow, Gordon and his troops played a decisive role in favor of Tsar Peter I against the Regent, Sophia Alekseyevna. Subsequently, he became the Tsar’s close friend and chief military adviser, and was allowed to train the army according to European methods. When Peter was travelling in Europe, in 1698, Gordon quashed a revolt by the Strelitzes who were trying to restore Sophia to the throne. He died in 1699 with the Tsar at his bedside.

Gordon wrote a diary for much of his life, and this was preserved in manuscript form in the archives of the Imperial Russian foreign office. A complete German translation, edited by Dr Maurice Possalt, was published in the mid-19th century; but only parts of the diary ever appeared in English, in 1859, thanks to the Spalding Club which published Passages from the Diary of General Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries (AD 1635–AD 1699).

However, according to an Aberdeen university press release and conference schedule, the first volume of a full set of Gordon’s diaries in English is now being published. In fact, a launch party is taking place today (8 May) at the conference convened by the university especially to discuss Patrick Gordon (and the Scottish diaspora in Eastern Europe).

Professor Paul Dukes, who worked with the university’s Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies to bring about publication of the diary, says ‘Gordon was a truly remarkable man and the diary is an outstanding historical source . . . He was a fascinating and very accomplished character resembling many before and after him, who left Scotland to make their way in life and had a profound effect on the history of their adopted land. Now, with the publication of his diary in Scotland, and in his own tongue at that, he has at last come home.’

The diary is being edited by Dr Dmitry Fedosov and is to be published in six volumes by MAIK Nauka/Interperiodica, a company established in 1992 by the Russian Academy of Sciences and US company Pleiades Publishing. (All volumes and editions can be found at the Aberdeen University Online Store - search for Diary of General Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries, 1635-1699.)

A short essay on Gordon’s diary can be found on the website of Xenophon Group International (which says it was set up to promote the study of military history). One passage relates to how Gordon came to enter the Russian army. Quoting from the essay: ‘They arrived at Moscow on 2 September 1661 and were allowed an audience with the Tsar. The Tsar thanked Gordon for his kindness to Russian prisoners in Poland. On 6 September the boyar, Elia Danielovich Miloslavski, took Gordon and his comrades to a field. He was the Tsar’s father-in-law and in charge of the ‘Stranger’ Prikaz. At the field the boyar ordered the officers to demonstrate their skill with the musket and pike. This Gordon did not consider proper, as an officer’s job did not include such menial tasks. Gordon related:

‘Wee found the Boyar there before us, who ordered us to take up pike and musquets (being there ready) and show how wee could handle our armes; wherewith being surprised, I told him, that if I had knowne of this, I should have brought forth one of my boyes, who perhaps could handle armes better as I myself; adding, that it was the least part of an officer to know how to handle armes, conduct being the most materiall. Whereat, he, takeing me up short, told me, that the best colonell coming into this countrey must do so; to which I replyed, Seeing it is the fashion, I am content. And so haveing handled the pike and musket, with all their postures, to his great satisfaction, I returned.’ ’

But far more of Gordon’s diary can be found on the internet. The 1859 Spalding Club edition - Passages from the Diary of General Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries (AD 1635–AD 1699) - is freely available at Internet Archive. Here is Gordon’s own short introduction at the start of the diary:

‘I AM not ignorant that it is thought as hard a taske for any man to writt the story of his own lyfe, and narrative of his actions, as for one artist truly to draw his owne picture ; yet, haveing proposed to my self to writt only by way of a journall, without makeing any reflections by blameing or commending any of the passages of my lyfe (following herein the counsell of Cato, Nee te laudaveris, nec te culpaveris ipse), I think it not uneasy especially not intending it for publick view, as also leaving to others, if any shall take paines to read it, the free censure of any thing here done. I have mentioned no more of publick effaires as came to my knowledge relateing rumours for such and thruths for verity. Some publick effaires (military I meane, for with those of state I have medled very litle, being out of my spheare) I have touched in a continued series, and others interlaced with the story of my owne lyfe (defective, I confess, and that for want of documents and intelligence) being such things the most whereof I have been present at and seen myself. To conclude, I cannot tell you a better or truer reason for writing this, as that it is to please my owne fancy, not being curious of pleasing any bodyes else, seing omnibus placere hath been reckoned as yet among the impossibilia.’

And here are several extracts from the very end of Gordon’s diary:

2 July 1698
‘To-day, seventy men were hanged by fives and threes on one gallows. Numbers more were sent away to confinement.’

4 July 1698
‘In the morning, the four Strelitzes condemned last Saturday were brought out and beheaded. With few exceptions, all those executed submitted to their fate with great indifference, without saying a word, only crossing themselves; some took leave of the lookers-on. One hundred and thirty had been executed, about seventy had been killed in the engagement or died of their wounds, eighteen hundred and forty-five been sent to various convents and prisons, and twenty-five remained in this convent.’

July 1698
‘The tidings of the formidable revolt of the Strelitzes reached the Czar at Vienna, towards the end of July, and hastened his journey homewards.’

17 September 1698
‘Many Strelitzes were brought up and put to the torture, his Majesty being desirous to institute a stricter examination than ours.’

19 September 1698
‘I was unwell and kept the house. A sharp enquiry was made into the Strelitz business.’

20 September 1698
‘More Strelitzes put to the question. A number were directed to prepare for death.’

3 October 1698
‘I was at Preobraschensk, and saw the crocodile, swordfish, and other curiosities, which his Majesty had brought from England and Holland.’

1 November 1698
‘Orders were issued not to give support to any of the wives or children of the executed‘ Strelitzes.’

31 December 1698 (the last entry)
‘Almighty God be praised for his gracious long suffering towards me in sparing my life so long. Grant, gracious God, that I may make a good use of the time that thou mayest be pleased yet to grant me for repentance. This year I have felt a sensible decrease of health and strength. Yet thy will be done, gracious God!’

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