Peter Tekeli (Петр Авраамович Текели, Serbian: Петар Поповић Текелија or Petar Popović Tekelija, Tököly-Popovics Péter) (1720 - 1792) was a Russian general-in-chief of Serb origin. He achieved the highest rank among the Serbs who served in the Imperial Russian Army. He was born in a noble family of military tradition, whose men were officers of the Austrian army in the Military Frontier. Prior to his emigration to Russia in 1748, he fought as a young officer in the War of the Austrian Succession. Characterized by both courage and military cunning, he made a splendid career in Russia. He participated in the Seven Years' War, Russo-Turkish War (1768–1774), and Russo-Turkish War (1787–1792). Under his command, Zaporozhian Cossacks were disbanded and subjugated to the Imperial authority in 1775, without spilling a single drop of blood, for which he received the Order of St. Alexander Nevsky from Empress Catherine the Great. He retired in 1790, and died two years later in his mansion at Mirgorod.
Peter Tekeli was born in Arad in 1720. At the age of 21, with the rank of lieutenant, he went to the War of the Austrian Succession. At that time his father Ranko was the commander of the Arad Company of Pomorišje Militia. When the war started, Ranko fell ill and deputed Peter to command the company. The war ended in 1748, and Peter, after seven years, returned to his hometown as an honored soldier. He wanted to remain the commander of the Arad company, but his father was not willing to cede the authority. The ambitious Peter decided to emigrate to the Russian Empire. Since the reign of Peter the Great, Serbs from the Military Frontier had been emigrating to Russia, which welcomed them. The number of Serb immigrants in Russia allowed its military command to form the Serbian Hussar Regiment in 1727. It was stationed in the region of the Tor Fortress. Peter applied for discharge from the Austrian army, which he was granted, and emigrated to Russia in 1748. Admitted to the Imperial Russian Army, he was commissioned the rank of porutchik, and sent to the Serbian Hussar Regiment. He was given the assignment to popularize the emigration to Russia among the Serbs of Pomorišje. His presence and activities in this region, however, were not welcome with the Austrians, who finally banished him. In 1751 Peter Tekeli was promoted to the rank of captain.
Tekeli contributed to the Russian capture of Berlin in 1760, where he was able to destroy a retreating rearguard of Prussian General Hülsen under Spandau. During the war, Tekeli was a distinguished participant in skirmishes. As the war drew to a close, Tekeli took part in the capture of Kolberg under the command of General Peter Rumyantsev, and was promoted for his service to the rank of colonel in 1763.
After Empress Catherine the Great took to the throne, Colonel Tekeli was soon back in combat against the Bar Confederation in First Polish Republic (1764-1768); for his distinctions he was awarded the rank of brigadier.
The Cossacks who lived in Zaporozhia were tasked in safeguarding the Russian Empire against the Crimean Khanate. Russia’s victory in the war and the annexation of Crimea, however, caused that their sole military role was lost. At the same time there were constant attacks by the Cossacks on the Serbian settlers. Antin Holovaty suggested to Grigori Potemkin to reorganize the Zaporozhian Host by the same style as the Don Cossack Host. Yet after the Zaporozhians offered support to the Pugachev's Rebellion in 1774, Potemkin’s mind was set. Tired of dealing with constant feuds, he ordered Tekeli, an ethnic Serb, to disband the Host.
Tekeli divided his forces into five detachments, and send them along roads which would lead them to fully surround the Sich, which was successfully deployed by dawn of June 4. The lack of any combat in past few years had the effect that the vigilance of Zaporozhians was low, and their guards were asleep upon Tekeli's arrival. Petro Kalnyshevsky, the Kosh otaman, found out that the Sich is surrounded and besieged only after the Russian envoy arrived to call him to meet with Tekeli. By evening Russian guards were placed in all internal and external positions, and next morning the Zaporozhians officially surrendered all their arms and lowered their battle banners.
Tekeli allowed joint visits and gave permissions to the former Cossacks to leave the besieged Sich for personal reasons. As the Host’s Starshynas were sent to Saint Petersburg, the Sich was slowly vacated. When Tekeli realized that some Cossacks ran off to the Danube where they formed the Danubian Sich, he reported that to the Empress, and received order to destroy the Sich. After ensuring it was vacated, the empty fortress was subjected to a prolonged artillery fire. For his role in quelling the Zaporozhian Cossacks without spilling a single drop of blood, Tekeli was awarded the Order of St. Alexander Nevsky.
In 1788 Tekeli had a bad riding accident with a stallion which a Tatar chief gave him as a gift. He resigned from active duty in 1790. Two years later he died in his mansion at Mirgorod, and was buried in the Mirgorod’s Church of Saint Nicholas. The church was razed in the 1930s by the Stalin regime, but his grave’s tombstone with the epitaph has been preserved in the museum in Kirovograd.