1943: Marianne Elise Kurchner condemned for a joke 1844: Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes, “Placido”

1740: Artemy Volynsky

June 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1740, the Russian politician Artemy Volynsky was beheaded in St. Petersburg.

Volynsky, as famously corrupt as he was famously able, had worked himself up from Peter the Great’s dragoons into the circles of high statecraft but lost a power struggle in the notoriously cruel court of Empress Anna. He’d made it all the way to Anna’s cabinet, but there made himself the rival of powerful Baltic grand chamberlain Ernst Johann von Biron: in political terms, Biron and the fellow Balt who ran foreign policy had a west-facing, German orientation, while Volynsky looked east to Central Asia, India, and China; in personal terms, Biron was the lover of the queen, and Volynsky … was not.

After Volynsky beat up a poet, Biron had the excuse to have him investigated and was able to construct as treasonable some private correspondence about changing the way things are done in Russia, Biron thereby ridding himself of the rival.


Just a few months after Volynsky’s execution, Anna herself died, leaving an ill-starred one-year-old heir and an uncertain political situation.

In the event, Biron and his fellow Germanophiles were driven out of court by the Russian grandees, who then constructed the late Volynsky — by all indications as cutthroat and grasping as anyone else at court — as a patriotic martyr vis-a-vis the detested late ascendancy of the Baltic types.*

As a result, in 1741, a modest monument (later aggrandized) was set up to Volynsky et al at St. Sampson’s Cathedral.**

Further to that same end, the scaffold-bound 19th century Decembrist poet Ryleyev (Ryleev) paid his own tribute to Volynsky in verse. So far, I’ve only found Ryleyev’s “Volynsky” in Russian, but here’s a little taste [courtesy of blog friend Sonechka] of the gist:

He who resists the overweening
Expects no reward and asks for none
And forgetting even himself
Sacrifices all to the motherland.
Against the cruel tyrants
He will be free even in chains
At execution justly proud
And ever after exalted.


In that same vein, Ryleyev’s contemporary Ivan Lazhechnikov featured Volynsky as the protagonist of his historical novel The Ice Palace or The Ice House,† again whitewashing the man’s ample stock of disreputable qualities.

The book’s title alludes to a famous structure put up in the winter of 1739-1740 for the royal court’s amusement, a vast frozen edifice 20 meters tall and 50 meters wide, designed by the architect Pyotr Yeropkin … a Volynsky ally who ultimately shared Volynsky’s fate on June 27, 1740.

This sounds great, but the decadent amusement park soon became the scene for one of imperial Russia’s more infamous and bizarre horrors: Anna forced an ex-prince who had been demoted to court jester for marrying a Catholic to wed a homely Kalmyk serving-girl, with whom he would have to pass a “wedding night” naked in that icebox. (Somehow, they managed to survive.)


The yellow-clad Anna dances merrily while her terrified servants/prey brace to survive a winter night on the ice bed. Detail view; click for the full painting.

Volynsky’s machiavellian contribution to the ghastly scene had been to associate this spectacle with a celebration of Anna’s name day.

This bit of sucking up didn’t buy him quite enough time when it was all said and done, but it reminds of Volynsky’s highly mitigated claim on eternal exaltation.

* Remembered as the Bironovshchina. Compare to the Yezhovshchina, at the height of Stalin’s purges: why don’t these things ever get named for the actual chief executive?

** Saint Sampson the Hospitable has a June 27 feast date; the cathedral was dedicated in his honor because that was also the date, in 1709, of Russia’s watershed victory over Sweden at the Battle of Poltava.

† There’s more about this novel in the context of both 19th century literature and Volynsky’s own era in this pdf dissertation extract, pp. 7-22.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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