1740: Artemy Volynsky

1 comment 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

Tags: , , , , ,

1764: Lt. Vasily Mirovich, for attempting to topple Catherine the Great

3 comments September 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1764, one of history’s greatest monarchs cemented her still-uncertain hold on power by beheading a rebellious lieutenant.

Ivan VI: Born under a bad tsar.

Succession in the Russian Empire had been disputatious ever since Peter the Great killed off his last male son, eventually putting far-flung branches of the family into a contest for power.

To skip over much regal jockeying, Peter’s vicious niece Anna, who reigned in the 1730s, had installed her infant nephew Ivan VI as successor just before her own death.

The little Tsar of All the Russias was displaced before his second birthday by Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth, who clapped the former emperor in a dungeon in Schlusselburg fortress to grow up ignorant and alone, isolated from the parties who might scheme to bid for power in his name. Two Caesars are too many.

Into this dangerous scene stepped Sophia Augusta Frederica, better known to posterity by the name she took upon her politically savvy conversion to Orthodoxy: Catherine.

This Catherine immigrated to wed Elizabeth’s simpleminded heir, then overthrew him a few months into his reign.

Catherine had ultimate power, but she wasn’t yet “Catherine the Great”: as a foreigner with the late Romanov’s blood on her hands (if only indirectly), it was nowhere written that she would rule Russia for 34 brilliant years. And with the throne came its rival claimants … like Ivan, now an adult and potentially more “legitimate” than this imported German princess.

Ivan was held in secrecy, known only as “Nameless Prisoner Number One”, and his warders had strict orders to murder him on the spot if any attempt were made to liberate him.

Two years into Catherine’s reign, Lt. Vasily Mirovich, “a tormented young officer … with dreams of restoring his family’s fortunes,” attempted just that. As commanded, the guards put an end to Ivan’s troubles.

Those guards got cash rewards and promotions for their diligence. Mirovich got death. (Other soldiers whom he had rallied to his cause were condemned to run the gauntlet; I have been unable to ascertain if any were killed by this punishment.)

Mirovich was executed in St. Petersburg. When his head was held up to the crowd, it had a terrifying impact, the death penalty not actually having been exercised in Russia for 22 years.** Mirovich himself faced his execution calmly, convincing some of the bystanders that he was expecting to be pardoned at the last minute. His remains were left on public display until the evening, when they were burnt along with the gallows.

And so the first two years of the reign of Catherine II, who set so much store by reason and enlightened principles, had included two assassinations and an execution.

The woman of letters, the correspondent of philosophers, the Semiramis of the North … like the age’s other great enlightened despot, Frederick the Great, Catherine had to rule. She had not the luxury to dispense with statecraft’s cruel necessities.

Her admirers would have to be content with making her excuses. Fortunately, admirers always are.

“These are family matters with which I do not meddle,” wrote Voltaire. “Besides, it is not a bad thing to have a fault to repair; this engages her to make great efforts in order to force the public to esteem and admiration”

* September 26 (pdf) was the date on the Gregorian calendar then prevalent in Europe; it was September 15 by the older Julian calendar still used in Russia at the time.

** Not carrying out the death penalty had been a signature policy of Ivan’s usurper Elizabeth. The elimination of capital punishment in “backwards” Russia for an entire generation during the Age of Absolutism surely urges caution against any assumption that death penalty repeal is a one-way street.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Treason

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Calendar

May 2019
M T W T F S S
« Apr    
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!