Scottish Expats and Deja Vu

The surname of my first landlady in the village of Nikolina Gora was Gordon -- which was also the name, I was later told, of a historian who had once lived there, only to be kicked out of his house in the 1930s (and either sent to the camps or executed) by a KGB general. The general was himself later removed by Stalin's evil prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky, who had long fancied the house also -- but that's another story.

Anyway, I wondered at the time what the origin of the name Gordon was. My wife thought it was Jewish. And though that didn't sound right, I still never thought to ask. Now, years later, I've finally found out. And -- I'm delighted to say -- it's almost certainly Scottish.

The early connections between Scotland and Russia are well enough known. Architect and landscape designer Charles Cameron built Tsarskoye Selo for the Empress Catherine; and young Russians were sent to study in Glasgow and Edinburgh during the period of the so-called Scottish Enlightenment. (The best notes on the economist Adam Smith's lectures are said to be in St. Petersburg -- in Russian.) But the connection between the two countries goes back much further than that. Russia was a popular destination for vagrant Scotsmen blocked from advancement in their native country -- and one of the earliest was Patrick Gordon.

Patrick Gordon was born in Aberdeenshire in 1635. Being a Roman Catholic, he wasn't allowed to study in a Scottish university. So he took himself off to a Jesuit College, before dropping out and fighting in the Swedish-Polish wars. In 1661, he signed up for the Austrian army, but then changed his mind, traveled to Moscow and entered the service of the tsar. He hated Russia right from the beginning, but was firmly warned against leaving it. If he tried to do so, fellow-soldiers said, he'd be sent to Siberia as a spy.

After that, this Gordon settled down for a while -- or so it appears from his diaries, published in Aberdeen in 1859. He became engaged to and then married, the daughter of a German also in court service. He was sent to England to negotiate with Charles II over trade. He served in Ukraine for seven years, helping to pacify the Cossacks and remove the Turks. And he was finally rewarded with a major-generalship and the chief command in Kiev. He still pined for home. But he was only allowed to leave on condition that his wife and children stayed in Russia as hostages.

It was after his return from Britain that Gordon became involved in a crucial episode in Russian history. He sided with Peter (the Great) against his half-brother Ivan and his sister Sophia, and helped secure for him sole control of Russia. He became Peter's friend and advisor. He took the city of Azov from the Turks for him, and brutally crushed a revolt of his bodyguard, the Streltsy. When he died at the end of 1699, leaving three sons and two daughters (one of whom married another Gordon-in-exile), Peter was at his bedside.

Patrick Gordon was by no means an isolated case of a Scotsman rising to high position in Russia. There was James Keith, who became a lieutenant-colonel in the Empress Anna's bodyguard and, later, governor of the Ukraine and ambassador to Sweden. There were any number of Scots admirals, among them John Elphinston, Thomas Mackenzie, yet another Gordon (Thomas), and the especially famous Samuel Greig. Greig was responsible for the crushing of the entire Turkish fleet at Chesme in February 1794 (with the loss of between 8,000 and 11,000 Turkish lives).

He later became Grand Admiral, commander of the Baltic fleet and, it was said, one of Catherine the Great's many lovers. When he died in 1788, he was given a state funeral. And his son Alexei Samoilovich Greig also became an admiral, helping create the Black Sea fleet before dying 57 years later.

I've never met any Russian Greigs (or Elphinstons, Mackenzies or Keiths for that matter) -- though I do know of another Scots-Russian, Boris Barnet, who became a famous feature-film-director in the 1930s. Still, there are bound to be a lots of Scots names still about. In fact, if you know any, why don't you let me know? I'll pass them on -- back to Scotland -- where there's to be a big exhibition next year, I'm told, on the Scottish-Russian connection.

P.S. You may have noticed, if you're still with me, that Siberia-for-spying and families being held hostage were, 300 years ago, very much the order of the day. But how's this for d?j? vu? "Spies and searchers [are] everywhere," Patrick Gordon wrote in his diary in 1661. "The soldiers keep ... and sell strong liquor." And "a bribe" is the only way to "attain degrees of preferment."