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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Artists,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Mock Executions,Not Executed,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia

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1861: Anton Petrov, of Bezdna

3 comments May 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1861,* a peasant rebel was shot for demanding a little too much emancipation.

The scene is a village — aptly named Bezdna, which is Russian for abyss — in the Kazan Province, and the time is the critical reign of tsar Alexander II.

This reformer, who ascended the throne in 1855, saw his historic task as modernizing and liberalizing Europe’s most backward great power (fresh off a salutary clock-cleaning at British hands in the Crimean War). Ultimately, he wouldn’t advance Russia’s feudal despotism far enough, fast enough before revolutionaries murdered him, and his descendants suffered the consequences.

Here in 1861, all that bloodshed remains many years to the future, and a young Alexander is reordering Russia with the landmark emancipation of the serfs.


Reading the Manifesto, by Boris Kustodiev. (Also see this version)

Big. Change.

But, you didn’t really think the power and property interests that nobles held in their serfs were just going to be thrown over willy-nilly, did you?

Quite the contrary. Emancipated serfs got small plots of land** along with obligations to pay off their lords, restrictions on using lands designated to aristocrats, and new bureaucracies to answer to. In short, this wasn’t exactly the freedom of the open road. This was swapping an old set of onerous legal encumbrances for a new set. Sort of tsarist Russia’s 40 acres and a mule moment.

The Bezdna unrest started when a charismatic local peasant named Anton Petrov started convincing his neighbors that the the local officials interpreting the new reforms were lying, and that volya, a true open-ended liberty, had been proclaimed. One should bear in mind here that most serfs were illiterate, and both depended upon and distrusted the legal interpretations bandied about by literate country squires who also happened to be directly interested parties in the law they were announcing. Russia had some issues.

Some form of this grumbling must have been common throughout the Empire, but in Bezdna it became even more serious than that. Transported by Petrov’s “perverse interpretation” of the law, emancipated serfs refused to fulfill their alleged obligations to nobles or recognize the legal authorities who were those nobles’ handmaidens.


Klavdy Lebedev‘s painting of Alexander II personally announcing emancipation to serfs. Maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t actually do that.

This experience of volya was as short-lived as it was intoxicating. Within days, troops arrived to “emancipate” the peasantry properly.

On April 12 (April 24 by the “New Style” Gregorian calendar), thousands of unarmed and peaceful ex-serfs were confronted by a detachment of the Russian army. According to a report to the Minister of Internal Affairs translated and excerpted in Daniel Field’s Rebels in the Name of the Tsar, the troops demanded Petrov’s surrender — but

the people kept replying the same thing: “We will not surrender him, we are united for the tsar, you will be shooting at the Sovereign Alexander Nikolaevich himself.” The soldiers, drawn up in ranks, made five or six volleys; they shot the first few without aiming, so that at a distance of 300 paces [only] three or four men fell, but then they became outraged by the peasants’ stubbornness, and hit with every shot on the fourth volley. The poor people stood motionless like a wall and continued to shout, “We will not yield, it is the tsar’s blood that is flowing, you are shooting at the tsar.” After the last volley they wavered and fled, and then Anton Petrov appeared, holing the [Emancipation] Statute on his forehead, and was arrested.

It must have been a riveting spectacle, to see this peaceable and resolute mass of humans fired by the promise of freedom, absorbing volley after volley from their savior tsar’s own foot soldiers. Well over 50 civilians died.

These people, at least, did not endure the last volley of a judicial massacre. Petrov only was punished, lashed to a telegraph pole and shot in public.

Publishing from exile in England, Russia socialist Alexander Herzen lamented the martyred serfs’ suicidal adherence to that venerable myth of the good tsar.

If only my words could reach you, toiler and sufferer of the land of Russia!… How well I would teach you to despise your spiritual shepherds, placed over you by the St. Petersburg Synod and a German tsar…. You hate the landlord, you hate the official, you fear them, and rightly so; but you still believe in the tsar and the bishop … do not believe them. The tsar is with them, and they are his men. It is him you now see — you, the father of a youth murdered in Bezdna, and you, the son of a father murdered in Penza…. Your shepherds are as ignorant as you, and as poor…. Such was another Anthony (not Bishop Anthony, but Anton of Bezdna) who suffered for you in Kazan…. The dead bodies of your martyrs will not perform forty-eight miracles, and praying to them will not cure a tooth ache; but their living memory may produce one miracle — your emancipation.

* The officer sent to suppress the revolt reported that “the military court passed sentence on April 17, I confirmed it the same day, and it was carried out on the 19th” — referring to the Julian dates, which correspond to April 29 and May 1, respectively. However, this is quoted by Field, who believes that officer is himself mistaken about the 19th; since I don’t have access to the primary documents which lead him to that conclusion, and all the secondary sourcing on the execution date is pretty squishy, I’m just going with the self-reported April 19/May 1 date.

** Serfs who hadn’t been working in agriculture were pretty well hosed: they got emancipation without the land.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot

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1648: The leaders of the Salt Riot

Add comment July 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1648, the ringleaders of a short-lived rebellion over salt taxes were executed in Moscow.

Salt saker image (cc) Greg Bishop

The Salt Riot is exactly what you’d think from its name, right down to being over in a matter of weeks.

Common folk irked at a new salt tax* that made the commodity dramatically more expensive besieged tsar Alexei I at the beginning of June, soon joined by opportunistic Streltsy who hadn’t been paid in a while.

The specific target of their rage was the boyar Boris Morozov, the elder brother-in-law of the teenage monarch, and the true power behind the throne. He accordingly played the traditional role of bad cop to the tsar’s presumptive good cop.

Of course, both guys were really on the same team.

A few days of mayhem, a few boyars’ heads on pikes later, the Streltsy had been bought off and the rioters divided and quashed. Alexei avoided handing over Morozov to the vengeance of the mob, and “exiled” him to a monastery. He would return from “exile” in a few months, once everyone had chilled out and the rising could be taken with a grain of salt.


Salt Riot in Kolomenskoe, by Nikolay Nekrasov.

This passing spasm in the Russian polity left a long-lived and troublesome legacy: one of the demands of the rioters was the convocation of the Zemsky Sobor to hammer out a new legal code.

This happened to be a need for the Russian state anyway, since its rulers were governing by the haphazard issuance of countless ukases nobody could keep straight. So, 1649 saw the promulgation of the Sobornoye Ulozheniye, helpfully rationalizing the lawmaking process.

Win, and win! Except that this legislative milestone also codified serfdom in its most heavy-handed form, formally binding most Russian peasants to their estate without freedom of movement, and making this unhappy condition hereditary. The legal code, and the institution of serfdom subsisted until the 19th century.

* According to The Cambridge History of Russia, the salt tax itself had actually been abolished at the end of 1647, but “other direct taxes were tripled to compensate for the loss of revenue.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Public Executions,Rioting,Russia

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1775: Yemelyan Pugachev

4 comments January 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1775, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great had Cossack rebel Yemelyan Pugachev chopped to pieces in Moscow for sustaining a major insurrection whose effects would haunt Russia for decades to come.

Pugachev’s Rebellion was the most spectacular specimen in populous family tree of 18th century peasant uprisings.

Most such disturbances were local and fundamentally unthreatening. Pugachev’s was neither.

The Cossack commander raised a revolt in the Urals in 1773, styling himself the long-lost tsar Catherine had overthrown a decade before.

Catherine was slow to see the import, but this hinterlands pretender set up a state-like bureaucracy and began issuing ukases as tsar — and one can readily discern from their content why he attracted a following:

We bestow on all those who formerly were peasants and in subjugation to the landowners, along with Our monarchic and paternal compassion … tenure of the land and the forests and the hay meadows and the fisheries and the salt lakes, without purchase and without obrok, and we liberate all the aforementioned from the villainous nobles and from the bribe takers in the city–the officials who imposed taxes and other burdens on the peasants and the whole people … [T]hose who formerly were nobles living on estates are enemies to Our power and disrupters of the empire and oppressors of the peasantry, and they should be caught, executed and hanged, they should be treated just as they, who have no Christianity, dealt with you peasants.

The insurrection speedily metastasized, and by the time a force sufficient to quash it was deployed, it had stretched itself from the Urals to the Volga.

Alexander Pushkin used the story of Pugachev’s rebellion for The Captain’s Daughter (text in English | Russian), which has been adapted to film several times — most recently in 2000.

Catherine the Great, for her part, was deeply shaken by the affair, and the “enlightened despot”, while maintaining traffic with the era’s liberal intellectual ferment, decisively turned against any reform to serfdom. Catherine’s choice, reinforced by her successors, to uphold their security with nothing but repression maintained Russian serfdom until 1861 on a staggering scale — an anchor dragging down the economy just as industrializing western Europe opened a development gap whose effects persist to this day.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Popular Culture,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Soldiers,Treason

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