Magazine article Russian Life

By Axe, Rope and Bullet: A Brief History of the Death Penalty in Russia

Magazine article Russian Life

By Axe, Rope and Bullet: A Brief History of the Death Penalty in Russia

Article excerpt

160 years ago, in May 1744, Tsarina Elizabeth imposed a ban on the death penalty. It was the first such ban in Russia and it lasted sixty-nine years. The anniversary offers a pretext for reviewing Russia's history of the death penalty.

Pagan Rus' did not know the death penalty as such, but tribes did engage in private vendettas. Blood feuds were later replaced with a system of fines that varied by social rank.

The Charter of Dvina (1389) is the first written Russian law that mentions the death penalty. The penalty was imposed only for the third incidence of theft.

In the Charter of Pskov (1467), the death penalty was enacted for the crimes of treason, theft from churches, arson, horse stealing, and three convictions for theft. The absence of murder from the list is easily explained: it was more profitable to impose fines for murder than to apply the death penalty.

In the Sudebniks ("Codes of Law") of 1497 and 1550 the list of crimes punishable by death was significantly lengthened. It now included treason, robbery, murder, riot, surrendering a city, falsification of documents, arson, and more.

By the second half of the 16th century, punishment for crimes began to have the motive of deterrence, rather than simply punishing the criminal. This, combined with the cruelty of Ivan the Terrible's reign, led to the torturing of condemned criminals before they were put to death.

In the Penal Code of 1649, crimes covered by the death penalty again spread. There were now 63 crimes punishable by death, including blasphemy, theft, treason and arson. Under Peter the Great (1696-1725), 123 crimes brought the death penalty. The methods of execution were regulated in detail and differed depending on their purpose: they were either aimed at torturing a criminal and making an example of him or at safeguarding society from the criminal.


Against this backdrop, Tsarina Elizabeth's decree of May 7, 1744, temporarily banning the death penalty, was a path-breaking reversal of centuries of state policy. A permanent decree abolishing the death penalty was issued in 1753.

Still, not all was as it seemed. Elizabeth replaced the death penalty with other (often horrendous) types of punishment (like beating and drubbing) that nonetheless lead to death. And, in the 18th century, the death penalty was often used extra-judicially, in response to peasant revolts.

The moratorium came to an end in the Penal Code of 1813, which introduced new systems of punishment, including the death penalty, deprivation of all political and civil rights (so called "civil death"), fines, etc. Rulers began to use the death penalty to rid themselves of political enemies. The execution in December 1825 of five Decembrists, aristocratic conspirators who attempted a coup against the tsar, shocked society. Noblemen were previously largely immune from the sentence of death.

At the Decembrists' hanging, the ropes tore, and the condemned, including Sergey Muravyov, fell to the ground. While Muravyov's injured leg ached severely, he moaned: "Poor Russia, they can't even hang a person properly here!"

The Penal Code of 1832 (introduced in 1835), restricted the death penalty to military crimes, treason and crimes committed during quarantine situations. In general, there were few death penalties in the 19th century, even revolutionaries and terrorists were rarely sentenced to death (Lenin's brother, Alexander Ulyanov, being a notable exception; in 1887--he was hanged for conspiring to assassinate Alexander III).

Revolution changed everything. From 1905 on, the number of executions increased. Statistics show that, between 1826 and 1905, 612 persons were executed, while between 1906 and 1912 the number grew to 4,098. In the beginning of 1906, 6,791 persons were executed.

Of course, these numbers pale in comparison to the victims of Lenin and Stalin's terror. …

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