From early childhood, I had a passion and an irresistible desire for everything military. I served as a chamber-page to Empress Elizabeth for several years, and was supposed to be transferred, with three of my friends, to the guards in the rank of Lieutenant on January 1, 1762. The Empress died a week before that date. A few hours after her death, Emperor Peter III, who favored me, made me a kammerjunker. I begged him to not make me a courtier and explained that I would much rather be a lieutenant in the guards. He agreed and I was completely happy. As the Emperor often conducted training exercises for his Preobrazhensky regiment, where I served in the first Grenadier company, he soon noticed my passion for the military and began to favor me even more. In early June, he announced what was already well known: that he would lead the campaign against Denmark; the Emperor would leave first and the guards regiments would follow. At this time, I also found out that Count Rumyantsev, who was in command of our army in Pomerania, would soon receive orders to go through Mecklenburg, in order to enter Holstein and begin the campaign. I asked the Emperor for a great favor: to send me as a courier to Count Rumyantsev and allow me to stay in his service until my regiment arrived. The guards would not arrive until at least three months later – I did not want to waste all that time and wanted to be involved when the action began. The Emperor approved of my zeal and granted my request. My regiment was informed of my new mission. This was three days before the coup.
On the eve of that terrible day, I said goodbye to my family and expected to leave the next morning at 8 for Oranienbaum where the Emperor was residing. There, I would receive the orders for Count Rumyantsev and continue on my way to Narva, Riga, etc. But on that next day, the day of the coup, when I was already getting into the carriage, one of my relatives, who lived in my father’s house, came up to me and said that the Empress was with the Izmaylovsky regiment, that they were surrounding her with gleeful cheers, proclaiming her the Sovereign, and swearing oaths of loyalty to her. That a crowd of men from the Semyonovsky regiment was running to join them. That he had seen this with his own eyes and that, certainly, this was the execution of a decisive and well-planned coup d’etat.
I was only 18 then. I was as impatient as a Frenchman and as excitable as a Sicilian. I was overcome with indescribable fury at this news; I understood the meaning of this treason even better than my relative as I knew of certain circumstances which shed light on the situation. However, expecting the Preobrozhensky regiment to stay loyal, I did not think that the rebels could have the upper hand. I rode to this regiment and found it already gathered, in formation and ready to march. At a hundred paces from my company, which was at the font of the formation, I came upon several officers, among them Bredikhin, Baskakov and Prince F. Baryatinsky, who stood together in a circle. Baryatinsky was a second lieutenant in my company. I ask them if they know what is happening in the other two regiments and, in my irritable state, tell them exactly what I think of the rebels and their actions. At the same time, I express confidence in their loyalty as well as in the loyalty of the entire regiment and that we will be an example for the other troops stationed in the city. They did not answer me and simply looked at each other, pale and upset. I only thought that they were cowards, not knowing that they were involved in the conspiracy. Turning away from them, I hurried to embrace my captain, Pyotr Ivanovich Izmaylov, one of our unfortunate Emperor’s bravest and most loyal subjects. He was disgusted by what was happening, was ready to die in the name of his duty and, same as I, hoped that our regiment would not get carried away. Speaking in French, we agreed to inspire loyalty in our grenadiers. We went from row to row, exhorting them to stay loyal to the rightful Emperor, to whom they had sworn loyalty, and explaining that he was the nephew of Empress Elizabeth, the son of Peter I’s eldest daughter and, therefore, the grandson of that great founder of the Empire. That it was better to die honorably as loyal subjects and soldiers than join the traitors who will be defeated: our regiment will give an example and inspire the regiments of the line to do their duty. “We will die for him,” they answered, and this delighted us in the utmost.
At that time, Major Pyotr Petrovich Voyeykov, a man of worth, loyal to the Emperor, rode in front of the regiment, shouting: “Lads! Do not forget the oath you swore to your rightful sovereign, the Emperor Pyotr Fyodorovich. We will die or stay loyal to him!” He stopped to speak with us, gave us his hand, and teared up on seeing that my Captain and I were driven by the same feelings of honor as him. Then he gave the command: march! And we set out to the Kazan Cathedral where, as we were told, the service had already begun in the presence of the Empress. We were hoping – the Major, my Captain and I – that at the first call, our regiment would answer in unison, “Long live Emperor Pyotr Fyodorovich!” That we, when the rebels began firing on us, due to our inability to return fire (we were coming down the Nevsky Prospect and thus had to stay in column formation), would fall upon them with bayonets with the full force of our column, would crush and destroy them. They were in disarray, without rows or columns, like peasants gathered by coincidence and mostly drunk; our formation, on the other hand, was in perfect order. But Providence decided otherwise. A certain Prince Menshikov, a Major in our regiment, an incompetent drunkard, insignificant and allowed to serve only due to the Emperor’s compassion and indulgence, suddenly appeared at the back of our column. Undoubtably egged on by the rebels, he shouted, “Long live the Empress Ekaterina Alexeyevna, our autocrat!” This was like an electric shock. The column repeated this exclamation. Major Voyeykov, my Captain and I tried in vain to subdue this impulse. We were some fifty paces from the other two regiments, but all of our efforts were for naught and I do not know why and how it happened that we were not killed. Voyeykov, outraged by what he was seeing, threw down his sword and shouted as loudly as he could, “Go to hell, rapscallions, traitors, I won’t be part of this!” Then he turned his horse around and rode home, where he was soon arrested, as I found out in the aftermath.
Despite my youth and extreme excitement, I suddenly had a good idea. Throwing down my gun and officer’s cap, I decided to run to the river, give the 10 or 12 imperials that I had in my pocket to the first boatman I saw, and go to Oranienbaum where the Emperor was. He could still ride to Narva, find the troops stationed there, inspire them with his presence and, at least, afford himself protection if he were to decide to immediately go to the army, which was abroad, under the command of such a great and loyal general as Count Rumyantsev. But as soon as I began to push my way through the crowd, I felt someone grab me by the color. I unsheathed my sword, turned and dealt a blow to my insolent attacker, which glanced off his hat and shoulder. He was an officer of the Izmailovsky regiment. He shouted, “Grab him!” I was surrounded and detained by one junior officer and six musketeers of this same regiment. The officer gave the order: “Take him to the winter palace and keep him under guard.”
When they brought me to some corner of the guardhouse at the Winter Palace I was not discouraged and began to speak with the junior officer and six musketeers as a man who is completely certain that their venture would end badly and that the rightful Emperor would emerge the victor. As they did not answer me, I was encouraged to continue and I even asked them to release me or to follow me to the first available boat. I promised the junior officer a promotion and offered my imperials to the soldiers, which they seemed willing enough to accept, however the officer remained unmoved. He told me to be quiet and sent for another sergeant (who, I think, was one of the conspirators), gave him the command and left. I understood that he had gone to make report of what had happened.
Once the junior officer returned after 4 or 5 hours, I was taken to a house which belonged to the Ministry of the Imperial Court and was located across the old wooden palace. There I was given over to the custody of an officer of the Semyonovsky regiment who had a team of one sergeant and 6 or 8 soldiers.
The officer stayed and slept in the same room as me while the anteroom was occupied by the soldiers. This officer was Pyotr Fyodorovich Talyzin, who was always very humane and gentle with me, despite the fact that we had never met before. His commanding officer, Prince Cherkassky, a major in the horse guards, who was in charge of the political prisoners, on the contrary, addressed me with the utmost rudeness at every opportunity. I never left him without rebuttal for I was unable to control my passionate and sensitive nature.
I no longer remember if I remained under guard for 8 or 10 or 12 days; I only know that I was released two days after the Emperor’s death. G. Poroshin, who had been one of the Emperor’s adjutants, came to tell me that he had orders to return my sword to me and that the Empress had said that I ought to go home and continue my service.
That was when I learned of the details of what had occurred and of the Emperor’s death. I also found out that only three other men had shared my fate: Major Voyeykov, my Captain Izmaylov, and Ivan Ivanovich Cherkasov, a staff captain in the first musketeers company, where the Emperor himself had been a captain.
Coming home, I found many soldiers at our house, for my father and sister had also been arrested. My father was subsequently sent to Moscow and my sister to our estate outside of Moscow. I learned that an officer had also been stationed at the house of my uncle, the grand chancellor. Officially, this was to protect him from the people, even though the people had nothing against him and had no intention of disturbing him. But you know how honorably and steadfastly my uncle behaved during the coup.
I remained at home, alone and having no more desire to serve. I said that I was ill and, in fact, felt rather unwell. Being overly excitable, everything I had seen and lived through produced in me a feverish state, in light of which I wrote to my uncle and asked him to secure for me permission to go to England where my brother was serving as an envoy. My uncle promised to help me, but, knowing my impetuosity, decided to put me in the care of an elderly man, who could inspire in me more obedience than my brother. He secured for me permission to go to Vienna, as an embassy Counsellor, to Prince Golitsin, whom my uncle greatly admired. I made haste to leave, happy at the chance to get out of Russia. Fifteen or sixteen months later, my uncle was coming through Vienna on his way to Italy, a trip which was meant to right his health. I joined him and visited France and Berlin, where he stayed for four months before returning to Russia and bringing me with him.
Seeing as I was disgusted by the prospect of serving in the guards, I wanted to retire, but since my uncle would not allow me to do so, I petitioned for a transfer to an army regiment. This was in 1766. I was a lieutenant and was supposed to be promoted to staff captain, for which there were five vacancies. Also, by the customs of that time, I ought to have been promoted to lieutenant colonel at the start of the new year. However, I was only promoted to Major and assigned to the 4th grenadier regiment. This was an offense that even Count Zakhar Chernyshev, who was fond of me then, could not shield me from, as the order had been signed by the Empress herself. I patiently bore this slight for over a year, and finally retired, despite the objections of Count Chernyshev, and followed my uncle, who had also retired, to Moscow and then to his estate.