Feast Day of St. Nicholas

1 comment December 6th, 2015 Headsman

Today is the feast day of Santa Claus himself, St. Nicholas.

Nicholas was a real-life bishop in fourth century Asia Minor. He’s among the prelates to sign off on the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s official profession of orthodox doctrine hammered out at the emperor Constantine’s epochal Council of Nicaea.

Living as he did amid the triumph of his once-persecuted faith, Saint Nick was not called upon to offer God his own martyrdom. Our death penalty context comes from one of the stories in his hagiography — that on one occasion, returning to the seat of his diocese at Myra, Nicholas discovered that three innocent men had been condemned to imminent execution by a wicked magistrate. Hastening to the scene, he dramatically averted their beheading by seizing the executioner’s sword.

The great Russian artist Ilya Repin depicted the scene.


St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilya Repin (1888).

Repin did not love this painting — he slinked out of its 1889 exhibition, allegedly dissatisfied with its ridigity and melodrama* — but it did express the liberal-minded artist’s distaste for capital punishment. The era we now know to be the late tsarist period in Russia saw violent (and sometimes indiscriminate) crackdowns on revolutionary terrorism following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, to the great grief of her dissident intelligentsia. Philosopher Vladimir Solovyov called the death penalty “absolute murder”; with a like attitude, tsarist Russia’s “liberal politicians, academics and journalists repeatedly campaigned against this form of punishment.” (Source)

Around the time that Repin depicted St. Nicholas’s great act of clemency, Leo Tolstoy — who abhorred capital punishment — wrote of his youthful experience witnessing the guillotine in action in Paris, “at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense … [that] murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes.”**

Repin was forever being read and misread by the ideologues afoot in Russia, but this Tolstoyan horror at the scaffold he shared unambiguously. In a later era, by which time Repin was the established senior figure of the Russian art scene, the painter was exercised enough by Stolypin‘s wholesale use of capital punishment following Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution to issue a public denunciation of executions. But it was only ever by the hand of St. Nicholas that he had the experience of preventing one.

* See David Jackson, “The ‘Golgotha’ of Ilya Repin in Context”, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1991).

** Repin also painted Tolstoy in 1887.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Known But To God,Last Minute Reprieve,Myths,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Roman Empire,Russia,Turkey,Uncertain Dates,Wrongful Executions

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1698: Old Believer popes and Princess Sophia’s petitioners

1 comment October 27th, 2013 Johann Georg Korb

This entry in our Corpses Strewn series on the October 1698 extirpation of the Streltsy is courtesy of the diaries of Austrian diplomat Johann Georg Korb, an eyewitness to the events.

Today was assigned for the punishment of the popes — that is to say, of those who by carrying images to induce the serfs to side with the Strelitz, had invoked the aid of God with the holy rites of his altars for the happy success of this impious plot. The place selected by the judge for the execution was the open space in front of the church of the most Holy Trinity, which is the high church of Moscow. The ignominious gibbet cross awaited the popes, by way of reward in suit with the thousands of signs of the cross they had made, and as their fee for all the benedictions they had given to the refractory troops. The court jester, in the mimic attire of a pope, made the halter ready, and adjusted it, as it was held to be wrong to subject a pope to the hands of the common hangman. A certain Dumnoi struck off the head of another pope, and set his corpse upon the ignominious wheel. Close to the church, too, the halter and wheel proclaimed the enormity of the crime of their guilty burden to the passers by.

The Czar’s Majesty looked on from his carriage while the popes were hurried to execution. To the populace, who flood around in great numbers, he spoke a few words touching the perfidy of the popes, adding the threat, “Henceforward let no one dare to ask any pope to pray for such an intention.” A little while before the execution of the popes, two rebels, brothers, having had their thighs and other members broken in front of the Castle of the Kremlin, were set alive upon the wheel: twenty others on whom the axe had done its office lay lifeless around these wheels. The two that were bound upon the wheel beheld their third brother among the dead. Nobody will easily believe how lamentable were their cries and howls, unless he has well weighed their excruciations and the greatness of their tortures. I saw their broken thighs tied to the wheel with ropes strained as tightly as possible, so that in all that deluge of torture I do believe none can have exceeded that of the utter impossibility of the least movement. Their miserable cries had struck the Czar as he was being driven past. He went up to the wheels, and first promised speedy death, and afterwards proffered them a free pardon, if they would confess sincerely. But when upon the very wheel he found them more obstinate than ever, and that they would give no other answer than that they would confess nothing, and that their penalty was nearly paid in full, the Czar left them to the agonies of death, and hastened on to the Monastery of the Nuns, in front of which monastery there were thirty gibbets erected in a quadrangular shape, from which there hung two hundred and thirty Strelitz. The three principal ringleaders, who presented a petition to [Peter’s half-sister and rival] Sophia, touching the administration of the realm, were hanged close to the windows of that princess, presenting, as it were, the petitions that were placed in their hands, so near that Sophia might with ease touch them. Perhaps this was in order to load Sophia with that remorse in every way, which I believe drove her to take the religious habit, in order to pass to a better life.

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1881: The assassins of Tsar Alexander II

8 comments April 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1881, five members of the Russian terrorist organization Narodnaya Volya were publicly hanged in St. Petersburg, where they had slain the tsar Alexander II a few weeks before.

“The People’s Will” etched in blood its place in the dangerous late 19th century ferment of Russian revolutionaries. In time they would read as the politically immature forerunners of the Bolsheviks, whose turn into terrorism was a political dead end.

But as of this date, they were at the top of their arc.

Every St. Petersburg tourist sees the place Alexander II died: the spot received a picturesque church that is now one of the city’s principal attractions.

On March 13, 1881, Narodnaya Volya assassinated the former tsar with a suicide bombing on the streets of St. Petersburg. With the death of the monarch who had emancipated the serfs, and was on the very day of his murder tinkering with plans to introduce an Assembly, liberalism arguably lost its weak purchase on Russia’s future.

The Nihilists** — who immediately sent an open letter to the new tsar demanding amnesty and a representative political body† — did not prevail in any direct sense.

Their dramatic gesture failed to ignite a social revolution or topple the autocracy, and they would find in Alexander III an implacable foe.

But while this spelled the end for the old man’s five assassins,‡ and even the end of Narodnaya Volya as an effective organization as the 1880’s unfolded, Alexander III’s efficacious repression was a Pyrrhic victory for the Romanov dynasty.

By depending on police operations rather than political reforms, Alexander III bequeathed his doomed successor a hopelessly backward political structure … and a considerably more dangerous revolutionary foe.


Refusal of Confession (Before Execution), by Ilya Repin, 1879-1885. (Via)

Alexander II’s death in the context of the times and its effect for Russia’s fate receive diverting treatment in a BBC In Our Times broadcast

* April 15 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was April 3.

** A quick summary of the strains of Russian revolutionary thought of the time here.

† Despite their dramatic tyrannicide, the Nihilists’ letter was angled for the consumption of mainstream post-Enlightenment Europeans. Karl Marx noted its “cunning moderation,” and its call for freedom and civil rights commonplace in more developed countries drew considerable support in the west. The Nihilists even took care to underscore their reasonableness a couple months later by condemning the senseless assassination of American President James Garfield. (See Inside Terrorist Organizations.)

Andrei Zhelyabov, Sophia Perovskaya, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and — though he had backed out of the plot — Timofei Mikhailov, whose noose broke twice in the attempt to hang him. A sixth condemned assassin, Gesya Gelfman, escaped hanging due to pregnancy … but she and her child both died shortly after the birth.

Perovskaya gets adulatory treatment in this 1910 New York Times retrospective (pdf) on Russian political violence and repression.

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1635: Ivan Sulyma

4 comments December 12th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1635, Cossack commander Ivan Sulyma was put to death in Warsaw for razing the Kodak Fortress on the Dnieper River.

Sulyma‘s death, a footnote historically, unfolded in the rising action of Zaporozhian Cossacks‘ conflict with the Polish-Lithuanian empire then at the peak of its power.

Those famed corsairs of the steppes made their way in the world by plunder. The European powers at play around the Black Sea domains of the Zaporozhian host — Poland, Russia and the Ottoman Empire — each struggled to exploit Cossack raiders for their own ends of statecraft.

The Zaporozhian Cossacks, as portrayed by Ilya Repin

It was perhaps the misfortune of Poland to claim suzerainty during this unruly horde’s upswinging arc. The Poles endeavored to gather the Cossacks into the formal apparatus of the state, “registering” an elite corps of Cossacks inducted into the armed forces while reducing the remainder to peasantry.

The registry’s size and privileges became a permanent bone of contention, driving a cycle of uprisings through the 1620’s and 30’s that sapped Cossacks’ loyalty to the Polish crown.

Sulyma was a partisan of the militant unregistered Cossacks, fresh from war against the Ottomans. He returned to find that Poland had thrown up a fortress controlling the Dnieper, with an eye both to checking Cossack provocations against the now-peacable Turks, and to controlling internal Cossack disturbances.

Sulyma sacked the fortress, slaughtering its 200 inhabitants, but the disturbance was quickly put down and loyal registered Cossacks handed over the rebel. By the late 1630’s, Poland had imposed a peace of arms on the region … but hardly a secure one. As historian Orest Subtelny notes:

[E]ach successive uprising reflected the growing strength and military sophistication of the rebels. Their numbers grew, their tactics improved, and Cossack identification with the plight of the peasantry and the defense of Orthodoxy deepened. The decade-long Golden Peace merely masked a problem that was waiting to explode again.

It exploded in 1648. Where Sulyma had failed, Bohdan Khmelnytsky would succeed — breaking the Cossack lands permanently free of Poland.

Remembered to the modern state of Ukraine as a father of the country, Khmelnytsky’s immediate achievement was to rearrange the balance of power in Eastern Europe. Poland, ravaged by invading Swedes just as the Cossacks slipped away, fell into permanent decline — leaving a vacuum filled by Russia, which soon pulled the Cossacks into its orbit.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Soldiers,Treason,Ukraine

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