The seventeenth century was a period of religious instability in Scotland. Following the victory of the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, many Catholic Scots were at risk of persecution after the Scottish Church became Calvinist. This was the fate that threatened Patrick Gordon, a Scottish Catholic born in 1735 in Auchleuchries, Aberdeenshire. Gordon decided to embark on a career as a soldier of fortune, serving in Germany, Sweden and Poland. In 1661 he enlisted in Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich's Russian army and distinguished himself as an officer in campaigns against the Turks and Tatars in southern Russia.
Gordon disliked Russian service and was often exasperated by the lack of discipline among his men, despite the tsar's attempts to reorganise part of the Russian army into units based on the organisational principles of western European armies. Gordon himself was well-favoured and became major general in 1678 and lieutenant general in 1683. He participated in Prince Vasily Golitsyn's campaigns against the Crimean Tatars in 1687 and 1689. Although the campaigns were unsuccessful, Gordon was made a full general.
The defeat of the Crimean expeditions was one of the reasons which contributed to revolution in Moscow. Supporters of eighteen-year-old co-tsar Peter I challenged the regime of Tsarevna Sofia, who ruled in conjunction with her favourite Golitsyn. During these vital moments Gordon's troops joined Peter's side and forced the tsarevna out of the Kremlin. Peter acknowledged his debt to Gordon and the Scotsman remained in the tsar's favour for the rest of his life.
Although Peter was nominally still co-tsar and the junior partner of his half-brother Ivan V, Ivan was ill for his entire life and was incapable of making decisions. In effect, Peter was sole ruler of his country and took steps to realise his vision of Russia as a modernised European state. From a young age Peter was interested in naval affairs, and hoped to make territorial conquests in the Black Sea, where he planned to build a port for a marine navy. In 1795 he sought to seize control of the fortress of Azov from the Ottomans but was unsuccessful in his attempt as the Ottoman navy came to the rescue of the besieged fortress. Having learnt his lesson, Peter returned the following year with a river fleet that he built at Voronezh and sailed down the Don. On land Gordon came up with the idea of the 'movable rampart', which allowed the Russian soldiers to remain under cover while advancing on the city.
General Gordon was one of the most trusted military men in the tsar's circle. When Peter left on his famous Grand Embassy in 1697-98, Gordon was given the task of running the state in Peter's absence. In this capacity Gordon was able to crush an attempted rebellion by the streltsy (elite musketeers) against Peter while the tsar was still abroad. When the tsar returned, he was in no mood to be merciful towards the streltsy. The rebels were hanged in Red Square and the streltsy units disbanded. In 1699 the 64-year-old Gordon died following an illness. The tsar was at his bedside and personally closed his loyal general's eyelids when he expired.
Patrick Gordon was not the only Scotsman to be a high-ranking Russian officer during the seventeenth century. General Paul Menzies was Peter the Great's tutor in military affairs and served Tsar Alexei as a diplomat, and together with Gordon persuaded the authorities to establish the first Roman Catholic congregation in Russia. Other Scotsmen who served Peter include Count Jacob Bruce and his brother Robert Bruce, whose family moved to Russia in 1649. Robert served as the first commandant of the Peter and Paul fortress (effectively Governor of St Petersburg) until his death in 1720, whereupon he was buried in the grounds of the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
By Jimmy Chen