1682: Ivan Khovansky

Add comment September 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1682, the boyar Ivan Andreyevich Khovansky went from being the power behind the throne to one of the skulls under it.

A veteran military commander, Khovansky (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) became a key figure in the months after the death of Tsar Feodor III of Russia. This perilous political moment left the throne in the hands of two underage half-brothers overseen by a female regent.

With benefit of hindsight we know that 10-year-old (in 1682) Peter will emerge from this troika to become the mighty Tsar Peter the Great. In 1682, it was anybody’s guess whether any of these dubious prospective autocrats might survive at all.

Peter in particular had cause to fear for his life in May 1682 when the Streltsy, a hereditary guard of Moscow musketeers, bloodily rebelled in favor of his co-heir’s privileges and against his own, rampaging through the Kremlin murdering princes in Peter’s circle. And at the head of these furies stood Khovansky.

Many years later, Peter would revenge himself upon the Streltsy for this horror but in the moment it carried the day, incidentally also carrying Khovansky to a preeminent position in the state.

But he was pitted almost immediately against his erstwhile patron and ally, the regent Sophia Alekseyevna.

Even though the Streltsy rebellion had been conducted on Sophia’s behalf, she could see as well as the next tsar the perils of embracing these latter-day praetorians‘ authority to remake the government by force … and the Streltsy made sure to remind her of it almost immediately when the “Old Believer” movement that predominated among its ranks started raising complaints about Sophia’s religious accommodations.*

Fearing an overmighty nobleman at the head of a treasonable host — and Khovansky has been suspected by both his contemporaries and posterity of coveting the regency for himself — Sophia and the young co-tsars briefly fled Moscow “because we could not tolerate the many offences, unlawful and gross actions and violations committed by criminals and traitors.” Meanwhile she maneuvered adroitly to isolate him politically and had the boyar Duma vote his attainder.

His fate was sealed by the discovery of an anonymous (probably fabricated) letter of denunciation. On 17 September, her own name day, Sophia succeeded in luring Ivan Khovansky and his son Ivan to the royal summer residence at Vozdvizhenskoe outside Moscow. The charges against them centred on their ‘evil designs upon the health and authority of the great sovereigns’ which involved no less than plotting to use the strel’tsy to kill the tsars, Tsaritsa Natalia, Sophia and the patriarch, then to raise rebellion all over Moscow and snatch the throne. The lesser charges included association with ‘accursed schismatics’, embezzlement, dereliction of military duty, and insulting the boyars. The charges were full of inconsistencies and illogicalities, but their sheer weight sealed the Khovanskys’ fate and Prince Ivan and his son were beheaded on the spot … The strel’tsy were forced to swear an oath of loyalty based on a set of conditions, the final clause of which threatened death to anyone who ‘speaks approvingly of the deeds of late, or boasts of committing murder or makes up phrases inciting rebellion as before, or stirs up people to commit criminal acts.’ (Source)

He’s the subject of the Mussorgsky opera Khovanshchina.

* Old Believers wanted a rollback of religious reforms decreed in recent years; Sophia said no dice. Once Peter the Great took over, Sophia and Old Believers alike would end up in the same boat.

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1689: Fyodor Shaklovity, marking the arrival of Peter the Great

Add comment October 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date* in 1689, Fyodor Shaklovity was beheaded in Russia: a signal of the transfer of imperial power just days before to the young Peter the Great.

A commoner who rose to the apex of political power — or at least its orbit — Shaklovity (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was the “second favorite”** of Sophia Alekseyevna during her run as the Russian regent in the 1680s.

She was able to occupy this position because the last tsar had died without issue in 1682. The result was a shaky power-share split between two male tsars who could not rule: Ivan, who was mentally disabled, and Peter, who was 10 years old.

But the problem with 10-year-olds is that, seven years later, they become 17-year-olds.

By 1689, Peter was chafing at his sister’s power. As the regent, how much longer could she expect to rule the tsar now that he was no longer a boy?

A disturbance on the night of August 7, 1689 brought the matter to a head. Moscow’s Streltsy, a body of soldiers who had murderously run amok in the Kremlin in 1682, paraded or demonstrated near the Kremlin.

Shaklovity would claim that this was nothing but a bodyguard for the routine procession of Sophia, but Peter — either actually alarmed or simulating it — bolted to the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius north of Moscow and “immediately threw himself upon a bed and fell a weeping bitterly.”†

Peter accused Shaklovity of attempting to incite another Streltsy rising to win power for Sophia, and maybe that’s exactly what happened. But it might also have been the case that Peter’s party cynically engineered the crisis to force a confrontation.

In either event, the two rivals were now holed up in their respective compounds (Sophia’s was the Kremlin). The standoff never came to blows, for it soon demonstrated that Sophia’s support was distinctly inferior to Peter’s, to whom the legitimate government apparatus increasingly gravitated.‡ Muscovite soldiers, foreign diplomats, and even the Streltsy began abandoning Moscow for Peter’s monastery.

Sophia’s regency ended in September, and the proof of her capitulation was acceding to Peter’s demand that she hand over the “blatant criminal” Shaklovity for condign punishment as a failed regicide. Despite the late hour (10 p.m.), a vast concourse of commoners and elites alike saw Shaklovity’s head axed off by torchlight on the main road near the Trinity-St. Sergius monastery.

Peter had arrived: and over the next two generations, he would bend all Russia to his will.

* Per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time.

** Per Peter the Great: A Biography, by Lindsey Hughes. The first favorite was Golitsyn, whom Peter exiled.

† Hughes, op. cit., quoting the diaries of the fascinating Scottish general Patrick Gordon, whose loyalty to Peter in 1689 helped to decide the conflict.

‡ The disastrous Russian performance in Crimean campaigns launched by Sophia did the regent no favors.

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1690: Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov, stolnik

Add comment January 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1690, the Russian stolnik (an administrative office in the Russian court) Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov was put to death with the magicians he allegedly contracted to bewitch Tsar Peter the Great.

Whatever its other sins, Russia enjoys a reputation for having largely steered clear of the frightful witch-hunts that broke out elsewhere in Europe. Certainly tsars issued many decrees against witchcraft and even prescribed the death penalty in law. But unlike courts in western Europe, Russia does not seem ever to have folded the entire swath of extra-Christian folk beliefs and everyday peasant “magic” together into a juridical theory of omnipresent diabolical terrorism stretching from the neighborhood midwife to the Prince of Darkness himself. Perhaps for that reason, its historical record of witch persecutions presents fewer and more scattered data points.

Elites, write Valerie Kivelson and Jonathan Shaheen,* “demonstrated no interest in formulating a systematized or theorized framework for explaining the uncanny power of magic [and] they also made no effort in their courtrooms to unearth evidence of such a framework … Instead of pursuing connections to the devil, Muscovite judges exerted themselves to track the lineages and results of magic: Who taught you? Whom have you taught? Whom have you bewitched? The judges’ concerns were concrete and this-worldly: who were the victims and who were the victimizers?”

Unfortunately for Bezobrazov, his victim was the tsar himself.

Bezobrazov allegedly obtained the service of “sorcerers and witches” who worked magic “on bones, on money and on water” to enspell the new 17-year-old sovereign during the uncertain period after Peter threw off the regency of his older sister Sophia. Despite Peter’s ultimate reputation as Russia’s great westernizer, the immediate effect of this transition was an oppressive interregnum wherein conservative religious interests took advantage of the new sovereign’s distraction from internal Russian politics to reassert themselves violently.

For Bezobrazov, political turnover augured personal uncertainty. The innocent explanation for his “witchcraft” was invoking a little ritual in hopes of catching a favorable assignment in Peter the Great’s new Russia. It didn’t work.

Bezobrazov was beheaded on Red Square on this date at the same time two folk healers went to the stake with their magic talismans and healing herbs at a swamp across the Moskva from the Kremlin. An essay in this Festschrift describes what it’s like to be a peasant folk healer suddenly under investigation for regicide.

Dorofei Prokofiev … had treated animals belonging to the Bezobrazov household. But when arrested and interrogated, Dorofei did not identify himself as a “sorcerer,” but rather as a posadskii chelovek (artisan), specifically a horse-trainer (konoval) and a blood-letter (rudomet’). He admitted to practicing bean divination and palm reading in addition to treating the illnesses of children and adults with herbs and incantations. His bag contained beans, incense (for protecting brides and grooms from sorcerers, Dorofei said), and a variety of herbs. The herb bogoroditskaia (= royal fern) he gathered himself on St. John’s Day, while reciting the charm “whatever you, herb, are good for, be good for that.” But he denied ever casting a spell to harm the sovereign, and he claimed not to be acquainted with Andrei Bezobrazov — a lie that was quickly uncovered when Dorofei was subjected to torture. At that point Dorofei changed his story: Bezobrazov had asked him to cast a spell on the tsar, but only to make him feel favorably towards Bezobrazov, not to damage the sovereign’s health. Dorofei gave his interrogators examples of the incantations that he used in fortune-telling, all intertwined invocations of Christian figures with sympathetic magic. In short, Dorofei tried to rescue himself by claiming that his healing and fortune-telling activities were all well-intentioned. But the investigators, and Peter himself, were convinced of Bezobrazov’s guilt, which meant Dorofei was guilty as well. Bezobrazov was beheaded, and Dorofei was burned at the stake as a witch.

For everyday folks like Dorofei Prokovie, the author notes, “well-positioned patrons could be either a source of protection or of danger.”

According to Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia, which is also the source of the January 8 date, Bezobrazov’s wife was punitively tonsured for not reporting the “plot” and several other of Bezobrazov’s peasants were knouted and sent to Siberia.

* “Prosaic Witchcraft and Semiotic Totalitarianism: Muscovite Magic Reconsidered” in Slavic Review, vol. 70, no. 1 (Spring 2011)

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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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