1864: Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s “civil execution”

Add comment May 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the Russian writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky was publicly executed in St. Petersburg.

Then he was shipped to Siberia.

Chernyshevsky’s punishment was only a pantomime “civil execution,” somewhat akin to the symbolic executions by effigy elsewhere in Europe. In this case, the faux death penalty was imposed not upon a peeling portrait but on Chernyshevsky’s actual person: “The hangmen led Chernyshevsky to the scaffold on Mytninskaya Square in St. Petersburg, made him kneel down, broke a sword over his head and then chained him to the pillory. Chernyshevsky stood calmly under the rain waiting for this mockery to come to an end.” (Source)

The pillory, exposed to the hoots and brickbats of an offended populace, was supposed to be a humiliation to its sufferer; occasionally, it even proved lethal. Not so for Chernyshevsky: the crowd stood silently. Someone threw a bouquet of flowers.

This ludicrous theater was enacted to punish Chernyshevsky for his leadership of the St. Petersburg intellectual circle that gave birth to the Narodnik movement. Literally “going to the people,” this was a peasant-focused populist-democratic-socialist philosophy paradoxically germinated among Russia’s small coterie of intellectual elites.

Think Marxism for a feudal society here: the Narodnik adaptation was the hope that Russia’s vast peasantry could be roused to serve the part of a revolutionary working class, and skip Russia directly to a socialism still preserving communal traditions unsullied by that interim period wherein (per Marx in the Communist Manifesto) capitalism had “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties … [and] left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest.”

This is why Chernyshevsky and the Narodniks viewed the “emancipation” of serfs of 1861 with a gimlet eye: it was a shift towards capitalist property relations, in which the feudal shackles were merely replaced with new, and heavier irons. Chernyshevsky subversively urged his “emancipated” countrymen to view the move as a heist.

It is of course unlikely that many of the actual peasant malcontents stirred up in the wake of the emancipation perused Chernyshevsky’s “To the Manorial Peasants from Their Well-Wishers, Greetings”. But other bourgeois radicals who did read that sort of thing would in due time — after the suppression of the Narodniki in the 1860s and 1870s drove its underground remnants to terrorism — spawn the revolutionary network Narodnaya Volya, and assassinate the tsar who enacted that emancipation, Alexander II.

Chernyshevsky was more a writer than a fighter. He spent his pre-“execution” imprisonment in Peter and Paul Fortress forging his definitive contribution to the movement — the novel What Is To Be Done?.*

(Our own Sonechka regards What Is To Be Done? as quite possibly Russia’s single worst literary product, but the didactic novel imagined (in the dreams of its principal character, Vera Pavlovna) an egalitarian future, including for women. Chernyshevsky himself wrote that he “possess[ed] not one bit of artistic talent … any merit to be found in my tale is due entirely to its truthfulness.”)

Whatever its artistic shortcomings, What Is To Be Done? entered the revolutionary literary canon. Vladmir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known as Lenin — wasn’t even born until 1870 but as a young man he admired What Is To Be Done? In 1902 Lenin himself published a political pamphlet under that same title.

Far less impressed were the likes of Dostoyevsky, himself a former radical who also underwent mock execution in his time. Unlike Chernyshevsky, Dostoyevsky apostasized from his revolutionary credo; Dostoyevsky’s 1864 Notes from the Underground is “a bitter artistic answer” to (and in several spots a direct parody of) Chernyshevsky’s magnum opus.

* What Is To Be Done? responds to Turgenev‘s Fathers And Sons. A previous Narodnik classic by Alexander Herzen asked the parallel question Who Is To Blame?.

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1880: Ippolit Mlodetsky, Loris-Melikov’s would-be assassin

Add comment February 22nd, 2010 Headsman

If you were a person of any privilege or official authority in late 19th century Russia, chances are that Narodnaya Volya was planning to take a shot at you.

If you were General Loris-Melikov, a Ukrainian Jew did that to you two days before this date in 1880.*

And if you were that errant assassin, Ippolit Mlodetsky, this was your execution date.

Even though Melikov rated as something of a liberal on the Russian autocracy spectrum, he had no qualms about ordering legal proceedings barely this side of summary.

Gen. Melikoff, on Wednesday evening, ordered a court-martial to assemble on Thursday morning. The trial of the prisoner was opened at 11 o’clock in the morning. The prisoner was insolent in his language and demeanor, and refused to stand up or take any part in the proceedings. He said he had nothing to add … that he did not want to be troubled any more, and wanted the matter finished. … at 1 o’clock … judgment was pronounced against him. The judgment on the prisoner sentenced him to be hanged, and his execution was appointed for 10 o’clock this (Friday) morning on the Simeonofsky Plain, near the Tsarskoe-selo Railway terminus.

And so he was.

Mlodetsky’s public hanging was witnessed by novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the very square where Dostoyevsky himself had faced mock-execution for revolutionary activity 30 years before.

Dostoyevsky was, even then, pulling together his magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov.

The very day Mlodetsky tried to kill Melikov found Fyodor Mikhailovich chatting with fellow reactionary journalist Aleksey Suvorin about the plague of terrorism and its accompanying social malaise.

On the day of the attempt by Mlodetsky on Loris Melikov I was with F. M. Dostoyevsky.

… Neither he nor I knew anything about the assassination. But our conversation presently turned to political crimes in general, and a [recent] explosion in the Winter Palace in particular. In the course of talking about this, Dostoyevsky commented on the odd attitude of the public to these crimes. Society seemed to sympathize with them, or, it might be truer to say, was not too clear about how to look upon them … (Quoted here.)

Dostoyevsky in this conversation revealed that for the planned sequel to The Brothers Karamazov — never to be realized in the event —

he was going to write a novel with Alyosha Karamazov as the hero. He planned to bring him out of the monastery and make a revolutionary of him. He would commit a political crime. He would be executed.

(Much more about this sequel in this paper.)

Melikov’s brush with death did not dissuade him from continuing to push for constitutional reforms as the antidote to terrorism, including introduction of a parliament. Tsar Alexander II was on the point of implementing that proposal … when he himself was assassinated by Narodnaya Volya, precipitating a political backlash.

That murder of Alexander II helped put the kibosh on the Karamazov sequel, which would thereafter have become politically problematic.

Nor was that the only artistic casualty of the Russian terrorists.

A discomfiting thematic similarity in Mlodetsky’s execution with that of the protagonist resulted in the cancellation of a just-opened opera: The Merchant Kalashnikov. (It would be a few more decades before that connection could appear ironic.)

* The assassination attempt occurred on February 20, with the execution on February 22, according to the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the then-12-days-later Gregorian calendar, the dates were March 3 and March 5, respectively.

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1793: Madame du Barry, who hated to go

5 comments December 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Madame du Barry — shrieking pitiably in terror — was guillotined in Paris.

Versaille costume dramas have made great hay with the courtesan who became the mistress of Louis XV, and her catty court rivalry with Marie Antoinette. (Madame Tussaud’s still-on-display Sleeping Beauty figure was also created way back in 1763 in her likeness.)

More portraits of Madame du Barry here.

The sovereign’s bed implied a station of wealth and extravagance, but the low birth that caused Marie to turn up her nose didn’t much help this day’s victim standing with the Jacobins.

Poor Madame du Barry, at 50 years of age, had not lost an ounce of her considerable zest for life … and her apparently ingenuous joie de vivre while the Revolution raged looks somewhere between innocent and daft.

While nobles were scrambling to get out of France, the Comtesse born Jeanne Bécu shuttled back and forth over the English Channel in 1792 to settle her jewelry accounts … and decided to stay in France, returning after the September Massacres no less. Later, she would detail to her gaolers where she had stashed her baubles around her estate, in the delusion that they could buy her life — or at least, “did not each word give her a second of time?”*

She’s remembered for the uncommon scene she made being hauled to the guillotine this date — in a time when the scaffold’s pageantry demanded a stoic public dignity from the guillotine’s victims, the Comtesse came apart, and begged the crowd for her life so frantically and heart-wrenchingly that the executioners felt hurried to dispatch her lest the scene turn against them.

Even to the last, hopeless second she implored Sanson,

Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment.**

One could make the case that if more clients of the national razor had displayed such naked humanity to onlookers, the guillotine‘s technical and social capacity for mass butchery might have been lessened.

Whether true or not, she gives us a glimpse, oddly unusual in these pages, of unadulterated fright — of that visceral instinct to cling to life, even under the blade, even for one little moment more.

Dostoyevsky, who knew whereof he spoke would write in The Idiot,

After all this honour and glory, after having been almost a Queen, she was guillotined by that butcher, Samson. She was quite innocent, but it had to be done, for the satisfaction of the fishwives of Paris. She was so terrified, that she did not understand what was happening. But when Samson seized her head, and pushed her under the knife with his foot, she cried out: ‘Wait a moment! wait a moment, monsieur!’ Well, because of that moment of bitter suffering, perhaps the Saviour will pardon her other faults, for one cannot imagine a greater agony.

Spare a thought for that moment of bitter suffering, next time you … uh, dine on cauliflower?

* This line, obviously in the vein of her famous last request to the headsman, is from Memoirs of the Comtesse Du Barry, actually a 19th century work of historical fiction by Baron Etienne Leon Lamothe-Langon.

** “One moment more, executioner, one little moment!”

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1849: Not Fyodor Dostoyevsky

16 comments December 22nd, 2007 Ksenia Zanon

“Brother, I am not dejected or crestfallen. Life, life is everywhere, life is in us ourselves, not outside. Near me will be people, and to be a person among persons and stay him forever, to not be cast down or despondent no matter what the misfortunes are – therein lies life, therein lies its purpose. I realized that. This idea entered my flesh and blood. Yes! It’s true! The head that created and got accustomed to the higher demands of the spirit, that head is cut off from my shoulders. What’s left are the memories and images created and not reified by me. They will ulcerate me, indeed! What I have left is my heart and the same flesh and blood, which can love, suffer, pity, and remember, and this is life, after all …” (quote — in Russian; the translation is mine)

The square — now named Pionerskaya Ploschad’ — where Dostoyevsky faced a mock execution. Image used with permission.

This slightly rambling epistle is authored by a titan of the world literature, a schizophrenic, a gambler, a true believer, a sufferer, a humanitarian, an epileptic, a Russian, a philosopher, a St. Petersburger, the Writer. Let us forgive him a certain incongruity of thought, since that letter was his first salute to a newly acquired chance to live.

On this date in 1849, Dostoevsky, along with some 20 other condemned, was brought out to St. Petersburg’s Semyonovsky platz. They were meant to be shot for affiliation with the Petrashevsky circle, a group of idealistic young intellectuals, apologists of Fourier and fervent advocates of socialism. Just like the generation of aristocrats (alas, some of them will be featured on this macabre blog) before them and generations of intelligentsia (whose destiny is equally unenviable) after them, Petrashevtsy gathered at Petersburg’s flats, read articles and concerned themselves with the fate of the permanently-rising-from-the-knees Motherland.

The formal charges brought upon Dostoevsky were quite bizarre: he listened to a story that criticized the army; had in his possession an illegal printing press; read an open letter to the circle from Belinsky to Gogol which excoriated the church and government; and participated in a regicide plot. The latter accusation Fyodor Mikhailovich vehemently denied, for indeed he was not a bloodthirsty revolutionary, but a proponent of the peaceful Christ’s teaching (this affliction with Christian philosophy was incidentally somewhat of a mauvais ton among the predominantly atheistic circle).

It always seemed to me that Dostoevsky’s participation in the Petrashevky circle was a tribute to the epoch’s fad. It was the imperfections of human nature, not the peculiarities of a hypothetical social structure, that concerned him greatly. The world’s wrongdoings result from something rotten in a man’s soul, and once those internal blemishes are erased, the external harmony emerges. “Beauty will save the world”, a cliché instilled in every Russian by a literature teacher in 10th grade, a phrase attributed to Christ-like kniaz’ Myshkin, and one of Dostoevsky’s most important statements: inner beauty is vital, the rest is a consequence.

The military court condemned Dostoevsky to death. The general-auditor amended this decision and recommended a lighter punishment: “… deprive of all fortune and send to hard labor in fortresses for eight years”. The final resolution of Nicholas I reduced the sentence to four years, “and then [relegate] to [the rank of] private … declare clemency only at the moment when everything is ready for execution”.

“Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute could be a century of happiness …” continued Dostoevsky his letter. In three days, he received a prisoner’s dress, a fur coat, and valenki. He was put in shackles and dispatched to Siberia …

Novels and Short Stories by Dostoyevsky

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