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The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Vignette 1: Siege of Riga 1710

October 29, 1709 Letter
“I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” Revelation 6:2
Dearest Izabela,
            Praise the Lord, for it was He who sent us on this holy Crusade against the heathen Swedes. It was He who sent us to retake our lands from the blasphemous King Charles XII.
            Thank you for enquiring about my health. I have repented my sins and the Lord, his mercy, has cured my illness the day after the Feast of Assumption.
            Yet, as I was recovering in the hot August sun, a messenger with an imperial letter from Tsar Peter commanded us to march north and reclaim our lost lands unjustly seized for barbarous Swedes. Our destination was the rich port of Riga. Thus, in number of thousands, we marched north swiftly and unmolested for several weeks to the lands of the Baltic. Following our blessed victory at Poltava in early June, the roads were clear of Swedish forces and, by the middle of October, we had arrived largely unmolested at the villages surrounding (Kirby Chapter 11). The next day, we hastily made camp and now await further instruction by the Tsar.
However, these lands are quite miserable. The fields are barren. The villages are devoid of activity. The skies have been grey but not without rain. Along the northern roads, we encountered little life, apart from the occasional bandit, prostitute, and other sinful camp followers. At first, we thought that the ravages of war and murmurings of our arrival had caused the Lettonian peasants and German nobles to flee to the thousands-strong garrison of Riga. Yet, along the road, we encountered bodies of peasants covered with bruised sores and swollen faces. One by one rotten and decayed corpses lined the road, as if milestones marking the distance to Riga. The putrid smell of death hung in the cold air.
            In the final days of our march, a messenger, from the front of our train approached our officer party. He told us of a pressing matter that required my immediate attention—something that was blocking the road ahead. I decided to attend to this matter personally and rode with a party towards the front of the train. We rode swiftly for an hour or so, and found ourselves in a more inhabited region surrounding Riga. A dozen huts lined the road. Yet, beyond the huts, we saw a great stack of smoke that scared our horses. The putrid stench became heavy. It was a sweet smell, yet heavy. It filled our noses and travelled into our throats. We rode towards the smoke. And in the crossroads ahead, we saw a large fire with a hundred Russian soldiers and officers. Only a few meters from the fire, a single Russian officer was yelling loudly and gesturing furiously at a seven black-clad men with large hoods. When we approached, the black-hooded men told us in German, that they were Catholic monks from a local town with a German name called Mitau resting some twenty miles from Riga. From their ragged clothes, they looked onto us with small, black eyes on gauntly faces. They warned us of a terrible disease. A disease that consumed the flesh of man. However, not wanting to waste time, we promptly extinguished the fire and our march continued towards Riga.
I look forward to your embrace,
Prince Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev
November 2nd, 1709 Letter
“The trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.” Joshua 6:20
Dearest Izabela,
            Your letter arrived yesterday, and I have found much delight in your words. We have surrounded the city of Riga, one of the last strongholds of the Swedes in the Baltic. Only a few days after our siege began, Tsar Peter himself arrived to our camp! In a show of great authority and skill, Tsar Peter demanded a decisive bombardment of Riga and directed the artillery to commence firing only four days after his arrival. As if instructed by the Lord, Tsar Peter loaded a single bomb into the cannon and fired it a great distance onto the defenses of Riga. The wind carried with it the sound of crumbling walls and faint screams. The bombardment continued for three days, as we readied ourselves for the first assault of the outer defenses. However, much to my dismay, our first assault has yet to commence. (Kirby Chapter 11)
            Tsar Peter has informed us that the siege will continue into the spring. The winds of winter have arrived early and we endured a merciless blizzard. Luckily, the officers’ quarters are in a noble German house two miles from the front line. However, the next morning, we surveyed the garrison closer to the front line. Tents were strewn across the field, belongings lay scattered between groups of soldiers huddled around fires. But much to my pleasure, the lower officers had already began supervising the restoration of the camp and by midday, the field of debris had been promptly cleaned. Tents were rehung back to their rows and the soldiers rose from their fires and marched to their watch on the front. (Kirby Chapter 11)
            On a separate note, our spies in Riga have reported that the foodstuffs in Riga are terrible and I’m hoping for a quick and decisive victory.
Prince Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev
May 30th, 1710 Letter
"‘I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps, yet you have not returned to me,’ declares the LORD.” Amos 4:10
Dearest Izabela,
            I have at last returned to the frontlines of the siege. My officers have told me that the winter has been mild, yet the siege is a precarious situation. Tsar Peter has decided definitively that no attempt shall be made to breach outer defenses of Riga. Indeed, the Tsar has decided that the siege will not continue until the spring has arrived in full. Prince Repnin, who led the siege with a small force of 7,000 in my stead, has relinquished command. (Frandsen, 50) Our present numbers have swelled back up to 30,000 and we await an order to breach from the Tsar. (Frandsen, 49)
            However, we have uncovered out a terrible truth—the rumors of a great and unholy plague are true! The city of Riga along with much of Livonia, has been infected with a terrible plague. With little food and little hope, Swedish soldiers and Livonians alike are fleeing Riga in the night and have made their way towards our camp. Ignorant of the true extent of plague, we, at first, received the surrendering soldiers and fleeing peasants.We let the peasants return to the fields and imprisoned the fleeing Swedish soldiers. They were stripped of weapons, uniforms, and interrogated for any sensitive and useful material. We at first thought their yellow faces were from the dogs and rats they were consuming. Yet, within a week, plague began to spread around camp!
Early today, our infirmary attendants were reporting Russian soldiers with fevers and deep coughs. Some even had yellow crooked faces, with black blisters covering the legs and arms. Only four days later, every inch of the infirmary was filled with blistered bodies--swollen, black and feverish. In every corner of the camp, men could be found with a crooked spine and black blistered body. Within this single week of May, over a 100 Russian soldiers have passed to the plague. We have decided to burn the bodies.  
The Tsar, already notified of the diseased Riga, instructed us to withdraw south of the Dvina this afternoon. With the river as our wall, we are establishing a strict cordon around the city, using the river as a natural wall and the bridges as our gates. (Frandsen, 42) Any fleeing peasants, noblemen, or surrounding soldier crossing the Dvina is to be shot on sight (Ibid).
May the Almighty Father forgive my men of their sins and have mercy on our souls.
Prince Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev
June 29th, 1710 Letter
Dearest Izabela,
            I write to you today to inform you of our victory at Riga. This morning, when General Strömberg announced the official capitulation of the city his countenance told us of the true conditions of Riga. His face was yellow and scarred with red holes. He had no aides by his sides. His officers were few—a dozen lieutenants, and couple majors perhaps. All bore the same marks of disease as Strömberg.
It was a victory not without cost, however. Within a month of my last letter, our camp has suffered serious death. So much that 10,000 soldiers have perished due to this terrible disease. (Frandsen, 45) The hardest struggle has been burying our dead. The fires of death have raged every night.The summer heat has settled over our camp,trapping the unbearable scent. News across the Baltic has reached our camp. In both the old Teutonic city of Königsberg and in the fortress city of Vynborg, over 10,000 have perished from disease. (Kirby, Chapter 13)
A brave detachment of 300 Russian cavalry marched into the city. They have reported that dead line the streets on every corner—shapeless bodies, long forgotten, and no longer bearing resemblance to anything human. They also reported that city council was exterminated entirely by the terrible disease. (Kirby, Chapter 13)
Though the siege has passed, the cordon has remained intact. The brave detachment, under strict orders to have little interaction and observe from a far, did not suffer a single case of disease.
The Tsar has instructed us to begin drafting terms of capitulation with General Strömberg, before his expected arrival to our camp.
Prince Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev
July 20th, 1710 Letter
            Thank you for your kind words in the last letter,
The Tsar has ridden out to Vyborg to survey his victory at the great fortress. With his instruction, we have secured our own terms of capitulation from General Strömberg. Despite the promise of transfer to King Augustus, the Tsar has decided that Livonia should be a Russian territory. The Tsar firmly believes that the Russian Empire should be awarded its rightful spoils. (Kirby, Chapter 13)
General Strömberg and the remnants of his Swedish garrison have returned to mainland of Sweden. Due to my knowledge of the vicinity of Riga and the local populace, the Tsar has willed that I should be in charge of governing the province. With the Tsar’s approval, I have dictated the Livonian nobility their ancient rights to their lands.
Prince Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev


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