1318: Mikhail of Tver

9 comments November 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1318, the Russian knyaz Mikhail of Tver was executed at the command of the Mongols.

Mikhail was the nephew of legendary prince and allegory Alexander Nevsky.


Not directly Mikhail-related. Just awesome.

Mikhail Yaroslavich (English Wikipedia page | the much more detailed Russian) in 1304 succeeded Alexander Nevsky’s younger brother as Grand Prince of Vladimir, a position granted by Mongol yarlyk that symbolized primacy over all other Russian knyazes. But Mikhail was challenged for leadership by his cousin, the Grand Prince of Moscow.

This fellow, Yuri(y) by name, would fight Mikhail off and on for the latter’s 14 years in power. Their personal rivalry was also the political rivalry of their respective cities, Moscow and Tver — vying for that yarlyk and, in effect, for the eventual leadership of the still-gestating Russian state.

Since it was gestating at the pleasure of the Khanate at this time, the dispute was resolved by Yuri’s getting in with the new khan, Uzbeg.* To get that yarlyk, and he got it in 1317, Yuriy even went so far as to marry one of Uzbeg’s daughters.

We mention this not because it’s a piquant period detail of kingly politics and intercultural exchange, but because the next time Mikhail and Yuriy met in battle, Mikhail won a rout … and ended up with the Mongol princess in his custody.

And then, she died in his custody.

This was a most grave development for Mikhail, almost as much as for the wife herself.

The Mongol commander whom Mikhail released — because Yuriy also got a Mongol army out of the yarlyk deal — reported the tragedy with the most incriminating coloration. While we’re in no position to assert definitively that Mikhail didn’t murder the woman, it plainly does not fit the cui bono test.

The furious Uzbeg summoned Mikhail to the Horde, a summons that, times being what they were, did not admit refusal.

When he arrived, Mikhail found himself already stitched up by the accusations of his enemies, and he was beaten and stabbed to death at the khan’s order.

Mikhail mostly reads as a garden-variety unprincipled local ruler, and he had his own conflicts with ecclesiastical leaders when they took the wrong sides in the Moscow-Tver power struggle. In spite of that, our man was posthumously expropriated by the Orthodox church as a saint.** In fact, he’s the patron saint of the city (which he’s holding, in the icon pictured above) … kind of because of what happened next.

Mikhail’s son Dmitry “the Terrible Eyes” had a terrible revenge for his father’s enemy, and murdered Yuri a few years later, temporarily gaining the yarlyk for himself. The Muscovites almost immediately recaptured the upper hand, however, and in an ensuing Tverite rising the Mongols intervened directly and sacked the city.

Tver would never again regain anything like peer status vis-a-vis Moscow, which in the following years grew larger, stronger, and wealthier under Ivan I; the Mongol yarlyk thereafter became essentially the hereditary possession of his family line. The Orthodox metropolitan outright moved to Moscow under Ivan’s reign … leaving Tver with memories of what might have been, and this monumental equestrian statue of the guy who couldn’t quite make it happen.


(cc) photo of Saint Mikhail’s monument in Tver.

Although the “Tartar yoke” would eventually be thrown off, that was hardly the end for political domination in Russian history.

Experiencing a like phenomenon in altogether different circumstances, the 19th century Decembrist poet Alexander Bestuzhev, aka Marlinsky reclaims the long-ago Mikhail for an updated usage.†

His 1824 poem “Mikhail Tverskoy” (Russian link) casts the knyaz as a martyr for the Russian nation. After all, by Marlinsky’s time, the poet could take comfort that those terrible Mongols were

struck by their vassals,
[And] became their slaves‡

* Also Ozbeg or Uzbek. The longest-tenured khan in the Mongol empire’s history, Uzbeg adopted Islam and might be the namesake of the Uzbek ethnic group.

** According to this tome on the Russian church, Mikhail wasn’t really venerated as a saint until centuries after his death: only when that occurred were hagiographical details of his pious life, principled refusal to worship pagan Mongol gods, and supposed contemporary popular cult backfilled into the story.

† A maneuver quite like his friend Kondraty Ryleyev, who pulled the same trick with Severyn Nalyvaiko.

‡ Full original translation of this poem by friend of the blog Sonechka.

“Mikhail Tverskoy”

by Bestuzhev-Marlinskiy

In a dungeon, glum and hollow,
Amidst nocturnal gloom,
A darkish lampad flickers,
And shines its flimsy light
Upon two men within a shady corner:
One, in his youthful years’ prime,
The other, fettered in chains,
Adorned already with gray hair.
Why has this elder been immured
Within your walls, Abode of fear?
Is he condemned to end existence hither,
Or were the gallows meant for him?
No sighs escape his mouth,
And in his fervent eyes —
The glimmer of serenity divine.
Towards the skies his gaze is often cast,
Or with a tender sorrow, he beholds
His son, imbued with grief,
And speaks in consolation:
“Enough, my dear friend,
Of tears sousing your eyes;
The time has come for us to part,
And buy the tranquil calm of native land
with Mikhail’s head.
Be always honorable, truthful.
And, if you wish
To pay your father homage,
Relinquish all the enemies of his without vengeance …”
The people clatter at the square
In the metropolis of brutal khans,
These Russia’s fierce and evil tyrants;
They gawk with savage joy
At the cadaver, beset by wounds.
Above him, smitten by despair,
The young prince weeps,
And rips his clothes and hair,
Reproaching the Tartars and Uzbeks,
And summoning the deity of vengeance …
This mighty god has heeded prayers,
And aided Russians in revolt;
Obliterating the oppressors,
Whose city turned into the ravens’ dwelling;
Whose fields of wheat were desiccated,
Whose hand that held the arms grew weak,
Who, struck by their own vassals,
Became their slaves.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Bludgeoned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Mongol Empire,Mongolia,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Russia

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1826: The Decembrists

7 comments July 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1826, five leaders of the Decembrist revolt were hanged at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul fortress for their abortive eponymous uprising eight months before.

The most renowned and romantic of Russia’s hapless liberals, the Decembrists were a secret clique of idealistic young officers, many of whom had cut their teeth chasing Napoleon’s grande armee out of Russia in 1812.

In Russia’s complex interaction with the West — its ideas, its political institutions, its ways of life — these were the westernizers, who saw constitutionalism as the way of the future.

Upon the mysteriously sudden death of Tsar Alexander I, an irregular succession to the second-oldest surviving brother, Nicholas I, gave our day’s doomed and gallant youth cause to occupy St. Petersburg’s Senatskaya Square to uphold the rights of the first brother — and more to the point, to uphold the constitution to the extent of constraining the monarchy.


Decembrists at Senate Square, as depicted by Karl Kolman.

Uh … Now What?

This badly organized affair failed in its aim to attract the mass of soldiery and, constitutionalists as its organizers were, did not even aim at mobilizing the general populace.

After the initial heady rush of marching into the square in the name of liberty, the Decembrists were left in a standoff against a much larger force of loyalists. When the latter started shooting, that was that.

Those that survived faced trial, with five — Peter Kakhovsky, Kondraty Ryleyev, Sergei Muravyov-Apostol, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Pavel Pestel — initially sentenced to drawing and quartering.

“Mere” hanging was deemed sufficient for the purpose. That would be about the maximum embrace of liberalism by the Russian autocracy, whose lesson from the uprising was to crack down against any hint of forward-thinking politics — ultimately an unsuccessful strategy for the Romanov dynasty.

St. Petersburg’s Senate Square — renamed Decembrist Square by the Soviet government — where the action happened. The iconic equestrian statue of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great and unveiled in 1782, witnessed it all; the statue acquired its enduring moniker, “The Bronze Horseman”, from a poem of the same title penned in 1833 by Alexander Pushkin, a friend of several Decembrists.

One of the greatest works of Russian literature, Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” weaves an ambiguous Decembrist-tinged critique of cruel imperial power and overreach into a complex narrative of St. Petersburg whose upshot is still up for lively literary debate. “The Bronze Horseman’s crag rose up before the poet on an empty square,” wrote one historian, “washed with the blood of those who rebelled on December 14, 1825”

Appalling there
He sat, begirt with mist and air.
What thoughts engrave His brow! what hidden
Power and authority He claims!
What fire in yonder charger flames!
Proud charger, whither art thou ridden,
Where leapest thou? and where, on whom,
Wilt plant thy hoof?

“They don’t even know how to hang you …”

When the hangings were carried out, Kakhovsky, Muravyov-Apostol and Ryleyev all had their ropes break; while some in the crowd anticipated the old prerogative of mercy for any prisoner who survives an execution, they just got re-hung instead. “Unhappy country,” quipped Ryleyev as the fresh nooses were fixed up, “where they don’t even know how to hang you.”**

Other Decembrists not condemned to the unreliable craftmanship of the Russian gallows were shipped to Siberia, where they invigorated the cultural life of the Lake Baikal city of Irkutsk — many of them famously followed by their “Decembrists’ wives,” an iconic type that continues to denote heroically sacrificial loyalty since the women had to renounce their own right to return to European Russia.

These, at least, had a place to call their own, however distant. But the class of Russian elites to which they belonged would be thrust into a trackless wilderness by their failure (in the Decembrist rising and otherwise) to carve out some distinct place for themselves. Russia’s long reckoning with modernity still had many years to run.


A worn postcard of a 19th century Russian painting depicting (perhaps) a political prisoner in the Peter and Paul Fortress.

* July 25 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was July 13.

** Ryleyev was quite the saucy one, having fought a “mysterious” duel with Pushkin in 1823, and instigated (and served as second at) a famous St. Petersburg jilted-love duel in 1825 that cost the lives of both antagonists.

A poet himself and a romantic to the point of fanaticism, Ryleyev wrote odes extolling executed national heroes like Artemy Volynsky and Severyn Nalyvaiko, seemingly alluding (as in this excerpt from the latter work) to his anticipation of joining them.

I know full well the dire fate
Which must upon the patriot wait
Who first dare rise against the foe
And at the tyrant aim the blow.
This is my destined fate

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Language,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Nobility,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Soldiers,Treason

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