May 1st, 2012 Headsman
On this date in 1861,* a peasant rebel was shot for demanding a little too much emancipation.
The scene is a village — aptly named Bezdna, which is Russian for abyss — in the Kazan Province, and the time is the critical reign of tsar Alexander II.
This reformer, who ascended the throne in 1855, saw his historic task as modernizing and liberalizing Europe’s most backward great power (fresh off a salutary clock-cleaning at British hands in the Crimean War). Ultimately, he wouldn’t advance Russia’s feudal despotism far enough, fast enough before revolutionaries murdered him, and his descendants suffered the consequences.
Here in 1861, all that bloodshed remains many years to the future, and a young Alexander is reordering Russia with the landmark emancipation of the serfs.
But, you didn’t really think the power and property interests that nobles held in their serfs were just going to be thrown over willy-nilly, did you?
Quite the contrary. Emancipated serfs got small plots of land** along with obligations to pay off their lords, restrictions on using lands designated to aristocrats, and new bureaucracies to answer to. In short, this wasn’t exactly the freedom of the open road. This was swapping an old set of onerous legal encumbrances for a new set. Sort of tsarist Russia’s 40 acres and a mule moment.
The Bezdna unrest started when a charismatic local peasant named Anton Petrov started convincing his neighbors that the the local officials interpreting the new reforms were lying, and that volya, a true open-ended liberty, had been proclaimed. One should bear in mind here that most serfs were illiterate, and both depended upon and distrusted the legal interpretations bandied about by literate country squires who also happened to be directly interested parties in the law they were announcing. Russia had some issues.
Some form of this grumbling must have been common throughout the Empire, but in Bezdna it became even more serious than that. Transported by Petrov’s “perverse interpretation” of the law, emancipated serfs refused to fulfill their alleged obligations to nobles or recognize the legal authorities who were those nobles’ handmaidens.
Klavdy Lebedev‘s painting of Alexander II personally announcing emancipation to serfs. Maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t actually do that.
This experience of volya was as short-lived as it was intoxicating. Within days, troops arrived to “emancipate” the peasantry properly.
On April 12 (April 24 by the “New Style” Gregorian calendar), thousands of unarmed and peaceful ex-serfs were confronted by a detachment of the Russian army. According to a report to the Minister of Internal Affairs translated and excerpted in Daniel Field’s Rebels in the Name of the Tsar, the troops demanded Petrov’s surrender — but
the people kept replying the same thing: “We will not surrender him, we are united for the tsar, you will be shooting at the Sovereign Alexander Nikolaevich himself.” The soldiers, drawn up in ranks, made five or six volleys; they shot the first few without aiming, so that at a distance of 300 paces [only] three or four men fell, but then they became outraged by the peasants’ stubbornness, and hit with every shot on the fourth volley. The poor people stood motionless like a wall and continued to shout, “We will not yield, it is the tsar’s blood that is flowing, you are shooting at the tsar.” After the last volley they wavered and fled, and then Anton Petrov appeared, holing the [Emancipation] Statute on his forehead, and was arrested.
It must have been a riveting spectacle, to see this peaceable and resolute mass of humans fired by the promise of freedom, absorbing volley after volley from their savior tsar’s own foot soldiers. Well over 50 civilians died.
These people, at least, did not endure the last volley of a judicial massacre. Petrov only was punished, lashed to a telegraph pole and shot in public.
Publishing from exile in England, Russia socialist Alexander Herzen lamented the martyred serfs’ suicidal adherence to that venerable myth of the good tsar.
If only my words could reach you, toiler and sufferer of the land of Russia!… How well I would teach you to despise your spiritual shepherds, placed over you by the St. Petersburg Synod and a German tsar…. You hate the landlord, you hate the official, you fear them, and rightly so; but you still believe in the tsar and the bishop … do not believe them. The tsar is with them, and they are his men. It is him you now see — you, the father of a youth murdered in Bezdna, and you, the son of a father murdered in Penza…. Your shepherds are as ignorant as you, and as poor…. Such was another Anthony (not Bishop Anthony, but Anton of Bezdna) who suffered for you in Kazan…. The dead bodies of your martyrs will not perform forty-eight miracles, and praying to them will not cure a tooth ache; but their living memory may produce one miracle — your emancipation.
* The officer sent to suppress the revolt reported that “the military court passed sentence on April 17, I confirmed it the same day, and it was carried out on the 19th” — referring to the Julian dates, which correspond to April 29 and May 1, respectively. However, this is quoted by Field, who believes that officer is himself mistaken about the 19th; since I don’t have access to the primary documents which lead him to that conclusion, and all the secondary sourcing on the execution date is pretty squishy, I’m just going with the self-reported April 19/May 1 date.
** Serfs who hadn’t been working in agriculture were pretty well hosed: they got emancipation without the land.
Also on this date
- 1897: John Gibson, under Jim Crow
- 1830: The slave Jerry, the last American execution by burning?
- 2009: Delara Darabi, "Oh mother, I can see the noose"
- 1820: The Cato Street Conspirators
- 1461: James Butler, War of the Roses casualty