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“The Morning of the Streltsy Execution” by Vasily Surikov

"The Morning of the Streltsy Execution" by Vasily Surikov

“The Morning of the Streltsy Execution” by Vasily Surikov

“The Morning of the Streltsy Execution” by Vasily Surikov depicts the public execution of hundreds after the Streltsy’s failed uprising of 1698.  The scene is set before the walls of the Kremlin with the gallows in the background shown as wooden frames. Peter the Great is shown in his blue and gold-trimmed uniform on his horse supervising the executions by hanging.

Surrounding the prisoners are family members despairing the impending execution of their family members. This large scale painting is a history painting illustrating real events that displayed the ruthlessness and determination of Peter the Great. In the background are the impressive colored onion domes of the Russian cathedral.

The Streltsy uprising was an uprising of the Moscow Streltsy regiments. The Streltsy were the units of Russian firearm infantry and also an elite social stratum. The Streltsy uprising represented a rebellion against the progressive innovations of Peter the Great, who had left the country on a tour of cities in northern and western Europe at the time.

While Peter was abroad in England studying Naval technologies in England, the Streltsy removed their commanding officers, chose four electives from each regiment, and made their way to Moscow. They were getting ready to punish the boyars (aristocrats) and foreign advisers and blaming them for all adversities. The rebels, of approximately 2,300 men, intended to install Sophia Alekseyevna, Peter’s half-sister as their leader.

Peter I, ordered four regiments totaling 4,000 men and a cavalry unit to attack the Streltsy. The Streltsy were defeated 40 km west of Moscow. Peter then implemented savage tortures while investigating the incident.

Many suspects were whipped to death. Many were stretched until their limbs broke. Others had their backs slowly roasted or had their flesh slowly torn apart with red-hot iron pincers. Peter induced suspect after suspect to name accomplices in a virtually constant cycle of forced, and often fake, confessions.

As a result of a significant investigation, about 1,200 Streltsy were executed, and 600 were whipped, branded with iron, or sent into exile. The investigation and executions continued up until 1707. The Moscow regiments, which had not participated in the uprising, were later disbanded. Streltsy and their family members were removed from Moscow.

Streltsy Uprising

The Streltsy discontent started in 1697 when four regiments of Streltsy were unexpectedly sent away from Moscow. On their way to their new assignment, they had minimal supplies and they found themselves starving and carrying their ordnance and supplies without horses. Soon afterward, 175 Streltsy left their regiments and fled to Moscow to file a complaint.

They secretly established contact with Sophia Alekseyevna, Peter’s half-sister, as they hoped for her mediation and support. The runaway Streltsy, despite their resistance, were sent back to their regiments, giving rise to discontent among the rest of them. This discontent has led some historians to view the Streltsy uprising as a riot against the yoke of serfdom oppression, military-service hardships, and harassment.

Peter the Great

Peter the Great or Peter I (1672 – 1725) ruled Russia from 1682 until his death in 1725. He ruled jointly before 1696 with his elder half-brother, Ivan V.

Through several successful wars, he expanded the Tsardom into a much larger empire that became a significant European power and also laid the groundwork for the Russian navy after capturing ports at Azov and the Baltic Sea.

He led a cultural revolution that replaced some of the traditionalist and medieval social and political systems with ones that were modern, scientific, and  Western. Peter’s reforms had a lasting impact on Russia, and many institutions of the Russian government trace their origins to his reign. He is also known for founding and developing the city of Saint Petersburg, which remained the capital of Russia until 1917.

Sophia Alekseyevna of Russia

Sophia Alekseyevna (1657 – 1704) ruled as a regent of Russia from 1682 to 1689. She installed herself during the minority of her brother Ivan V and half-brother Peter I.

Peter I, at the age of 16, started to grow his influence, and  Sophia made attempts to neutralize Peter. Peter eventually had her arrested and forced to withdraw to the Novodevichy Convent without formally taking the veil.

Her fate was sealed ten years later when the Streltsy attempted to reinstate her in the Kremlin during Peter’s absence from the country. This uprising was suppressed with an iron hand, and soon the corpses of the rebels were suspended in front of Sophia’s windows. Having taken the veil, she was kept in the strictest seclusion, with other nuns not allowed to see her except on Easter day. She died in the Novodevichy Convent six years later.

Grand Embassy of Peter the Great

The Grand Embassy was a Russian diplomatic mission to Western Europe from March 1697 to August 1698 led by Peter the Great.

The primary goal of the mission was to strengthen and broaden the Holy League, Russia’s alliance with a number of European countries against the Ottoman Empire.

The tsar also sought to learn from the west and hire foreign specialists for Russian service and to acquire military weapons.

Peter and part of his Embassy arrived in England in January 1698 and left in April to study naval technology. His entourage included four chamberlains, three interpreters, two clock smiths, a cook, a priest, six trumpeters, 70 soldiers as tall as their monarch, four dwarves, and a monkey.

Vasily Surikov

Vasily Ivanovich Surikov (1848 – 1916) was a Russian Realist history painter of Siberian origin. Many of his works have become familiar to the general public through their use as illustrations.

The Morning of the Streltsy Execution

  • Title:                              The Morning of the Streltsy Execution
  • Russian:                         Утро стрелецкой казни
  • Artist:                            Vasily Surikov
  • Created:                        1881
  • Medium:                       Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:                 Height: 218 cm (85.8″); Width: 379 cm (12.4 ft)
  • Museum:                      Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Vasily Surikov

  • Name:                             Vasily Ivanovich Surikov
  • Russian:                          Василий Иванович Суриков
  • Born:                               1848 – Krasnoyarsk, Yeniseysk Governorate, Russian Empire
  • Died:                               1916 (aged 68) – Moscow, Russia
  • Nationality:                    Russian
  • Movement:                     Realism, History painting
  • Notable work:

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Photo Credit 1) Vasily Surikov / Public domain

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