A French Description of Corporal and other Punishments in Russia Under Nicholas I

[excerpted from Germaine de Lagny, The Knout and the Russians; or, the Muscovite Empire, the Czar and His People, John Bridgeman, tr. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1854), pp. 174-189]


OPPOSITE the palace of the Czars, on an island in the middle of the Neva, is the fortress on the glacis of which, in 1825, were hanged the individuals most deeply cumpromised in the absurd attempt at a revolution of which I have spoken in a former portion of my work.

It was built by Peter the Great. His successors, especially Catherine, after the triumphs of Gustavus, King of Sweden, who bad advanced with his army to within a few leagues of St. Petersburg, made considerable additions to it. A church, consecrated to St. Peter and St. Paul, occupies the middle of the building, and receives the ashes of the Russian Emperors, and those of all the members of their family; here, also, the flags taken in war are deposited.

The tall, slender spire of the steeple is two hundred and forty feet high; it is formed of gilt copper, and seems to point out to the prisoners confined in the cells the way to Heaven, and to remind them of the - verse of Dante,

"Lasciate ogni speranza."
["All hope abandon, ye who enter here!"]

Under the sombre sky, obscured by black and gray clouds, the brick and granite walls of the fortress, isolated in the midst of the water, present a sinister appearance ; they speak to the imagination of foreigners, as well as to that of Russians, a fearful language. The red granite has something repulsive about it ; the colour varied with different tints, is like the exudation of human blood, rotting the walls, and striking outwards to denounce the tortures and punishments with which the Czarinas have defiled themselves, or of which they have been the accomplices, either to satiate their own ven. geance, to smother some secret, or to please their favourites and courtiers, who also had secrets which they wished to bury in tombs of stone. How many crimes have been committed, how many sanguinary and terrible dramas have been enacted, beneath the deep, humid, and black vaults of this fortress, which has become the Bastile of the empire of the Czars ! Oh ! if these walls could but relate all the crimes and pangs of suffering that they have witnessed!

Opposite the fortress, on the other side of the water, is the palace of the Czars, looking like some implacable sentinel, who is keeping an eternal watch over this abyss of blood. From their windows, the autocrats can allow their eye to gloat over the victims whom their policy or their vengeance is about to immolate. No one dares to raise his glance on the gaping openings in this human charnel-bouse, where, instead of cannons, are to be seen corpses torn by the thongs of the knout.

The icy cold, which causes these walls to crack, which kills the sentinels in their sentry-boxes, the coachmen on their seats, the carters and the horses upon the high roads, and the bears and wolves in their dens, kills also the unhappy prisoners, when the season of ice comes round. But whenever this refinement of barbarity, which the Czars alone were capable of inventing, does not effect its end, the inundations of the river perform the task of carrying out the sentence of death.

The floor of the dungeons is on a level with the Neva. The windows look out upon the canals which wash the walls, or upon the stream itself, and when, driven back by the tempests from the north-west, the waters invade the cells, no one replies to the cries of distress and rage of the prisoners. Their groans are lost beneath these vaults covered with slimy moss and fungi. Soon afterwards, their corpses are floating upon the waters, and dashing against the double gratings. All is over, for death is discreet. Besides, who would dare to repeat these groans ? Who would dare to say that lie had seen corpses floating upon the tide 7 The secrets which concern the Czars or the state, are sealed as hermetically in the hearts of all Russians as they would be in a tomb. A single indiscreet word infallibly conducts the person who has spoken it to these catacombs, where he is left to perish by the cold or the inundations.


The want of reflection on the part of the Russians is evident at every step we take. Not content with having their citadel under water, as well as the hut which its founder caused to be constructed at a few paces' distance, in order to superintend the works, they have built their capital on the same level, although they had experience to warn them against such a step.

During the great inundations of 1721, in which Peter 1. himself nearly perished, and that of 1777, the Neva drowned the city under more than ten feet of water. The last inundation of all, which covered the capital with corpses, and filled it with desolation and mourning, was that of 1824, during the night from the 6th to the 7th of November.

In this inundation, all the prisoners in the citadel and the other prisons of the city perished. The police and magistrates had something else to do than to throw open the doors to these poor wretches.

It is from this fortress that those prisoners issue who are doomed to undergo a fatal ordeal -- I use the expression advisedly. All the punishments invented by the ferocious barbarity of this people do not necessarily cause death. Capital punishment does not exist in Russia. It has been abolished ; but, besides the waters of the Neva, there are the knout, the rod, and the whip.

Strangulation, imprisonment, the galleys, and decapitation, were punishments too mild -- not sufficiently frightful, and not sufficiently salutary for restraining so many different races of all gradations of ferocity; and the legislators of the country invented, therefore) impalement, the stick, the rod, the knout, and mutilation of the face. There are, also, the eternal depths of the Siberian mines, for those who do not sink beneath one or other of these various kinds of punishment. In sober truth, the legislators do not seem to have been wrong, for the rod and the knout appear to act as a salutary check.

The knout ! There is not in the language of any civilised people, a word which conveys the idea of more cruelties and more atrocious and superhuman suffering. The knout! On hearing this single word, a Russian is seized with an icy shudder, he feels the cold invade his heart, and the blood coagulate in his veins; the word produces fever ; it confuses the senses, and fills the mind with terror : this single word stupifies an entire nation of 60,000,000 souls. Reader, do you know what the knout is I You will answer, perhaps, that it is death. No, it is not death; it is something a thousand times worse. For my own part, I am not sure that I should not prefer the punishment which the Caribs used to inflict upon their enemies.

Russian law does not measure punishments by the standard of physical pain. The chastisement is not proportioned to the nature of the offence. A crime has been committed, and the penalty prescribed by a sanguinary code will be awarded, because the object of the government is, above all thin", to terrify.

The following is the way of administering the knout. Conceive, reader, a robust man, full of life and health. This man is condemned to receive fifty or a hundred blows of the knout. He is conducted, half naked, to the place chosen for this kind of execution ; all that he has on, is a pair of simple linen drawers round his extremities; his bands are bound together, with the palms laid flat against one another ; the cords are breaking his wrists, but no one pays the slightest attention to that! He is laid flat upon his belly, on a frame inclined diagonally, and at the extremities of which are fixed iron ring; his hands are fastened to one end of the frame, and his feet to the other; he is then stretched in such a manner that he cannot make a Single movement, just as an eel's shin is stretched in order to dry. This act of stretching the victim, causes his bones to crack, and dislocates them -what does that matter 1 In a little time, his bones will crack and be dislocated in a very different manner.

At a distance of five and twenty paces, stands another man ; it is the public executioner. He is dressed in black velvet trousers, stuffed into his boots, and a coloured cotton shirt, buttoning at the side. His sleeves are tucked up, so that nothing may thwart or embarrass him in his movements. With both bands he grasps the instrument of punishment -- a knout. This knout consists of a thong of thick leather, cut in a triangular form, from four to five yards long, and an inch wide, tapering off at one end, and broad at the other ; the small end is fastened to a little wooden handle, about two feet long.

The signal is given; no one ever takes the trouble to read the sentence. The executioner advances a few steps, with his body bent, holding the knout in both hands, while the long thong drags along the ground between his legs. On coming to about three or four paces from the prisoner, he raises, by a vigorous movement, the knout towards the top of his head, and then instantly draws it down with rapidity towards his knees. The thong flies and whistles through the air, and descending on the body of the victim, twines round it like a hoop of iron. In spite of his state of tension, the poor wretch bounds as if he were submitted to the powerful grasp of galvanism. The executioner retraces his steps, and repeats the same operation, as many times as there are blows to be inflicted. When the thong envelops the body with its edges, the flesh and muscles are literally cut into stripes as if with a razor, but when it falls flat, then the bones crack ; the flesh, in that case, is not cut, but crushed and ground, and the blood spurts out in all directions. The sufferer becomes green and blue, like a body in a state of decomposition. lie is now removed to the hospital, where every care is taken of him, and is afterwards sent to Siberia, where he disappears for ever in the bowels of the earth.

The knout is fatal, if the justice of the Czar or of the executioner desires it to be so. If the autocrat's intention is to afford his people a sight worthy of their eyes and their intelligence ; if some powerful lord, or some great lady, wishes to indulge in the pleasure of viewing the sanguinary spectacle; if they wish to behold the victim, with his mouth covered with foam and blood, writhe about and expire in frightful agony, the fatal blow is given the very last. The executioner sells his compassion and pity for bard gold, when the family of the miserable sufferer desire to purchase the fatal blow. In this case, he inflicts death at the very first stroke, as surely as if it was an axe that he held in his hand.

In 1760, under the reign of the indolent and luxurious Elizabeth, who had abolished capital punishment, Madame Lapoukin, a woman of rare beauty, of which the Czarina was envious, was condemned to the knout and transportation, in spite of the privilege of the nobility never to suffer the former punishment. She had been fêted, caressed, and run after at court, and had, it was said, betrayed the secret of the Empress's liaison with Prince Razoumowsky. She was conducted by the executioners to the public square, where she was exposed by one of them, who rolled up her chemise as far as her waist; he then placed her upon his shoulders, when another arranged her, with his coarse dirty hands, in the required position, obliging her to hold her head down while a man of the lower classes, squatting at her feet, kept her legs still. The executioner cut her flesh into shreds by one hundred strokes of the knout, from the shoulders to the lower portion of the loins. After the infliction of the punishment, her tongue was torn out, and, a short time subsequently, she was sent to Siberia, whence she was recalled, in 1762, by Peter III.


After the knout comes the rod, or the punishment known as that of 11 running the gauntlet "-a punishment of another description, but still more barbarous, since it is always, or, at least, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, followed by, death. In this instance, it is the army that carries out the decrees of the justice of the country, and the sentences of the autocrats. It is the army that acts the part of executioner.

The number of soldiers employed is equal to the number of blows to be given. Six thousand blows are not the highest number which the law allows to be inflicted on a prisoner, but they are the most common number. Here again Russian legislation has given proof of in. genuity. Less than a thousand blows are more than sufficient to produce death ; with six thousand blows death is six times more certain.

It was my fate to be present once at this kind of execution. The following is a summary description of it.

It took place in 1841. The unhappy prisoner was a gamekeeper, of Swedish extraction, in the flower of his age. He was born in the neighbourbood of Viborg, and consequently a freeman, by the same right as the Swedes, who were the first people of Europe to live under a constitutional government. He had been for some years in the service of a prince, who had discharged him without paying his wages, -- a tolerably common custom, by-the-bye, of Russian boyars. He had a wife and children, and demanded the payment of the sum due to him. Winter was close at hand, and he was destitute of everything, even of bread and wood. Very many times he had gone on foot to St. Petersburg, to beg as a favour what, in every other country, he could have claimed as a right, with fewer forms, from his creditor, and on each occasion he had related the misery which pressed upon him and his family, and all the suffering which he endured in consequence. He entreated most humbly; but a great nobleman, who possesses fifteen or twenty thousand slaves, is not acquainted with misery like the poor gamekeeper's ; he has never either feared or suffered hunger and cold. The Swede was driven away with the stick ; a pretty thing, forsooth, for a low, base- born scoundrel to dare to annoy a lord ; to disturb the siesta and the digestion of a nobleman nursed in the lap of luxury ! Having no resource left, exasperated by the unworthy treatment to which he had been subjected, and driven half mad, the gamekeeper armed himself with a pistol, and returned to the prince, who caused him to be beaten and turned out of doors. His senses left him; he waited until the prince came out, and then shot him dead upon the spot.

The formalities of a regular trial would have been too long. The idea of a peasant killing a nobleman, a boyar, a prince Such a thing bad never been known, and might prove a bad example for the people. Besides, in any other country it would also have been murder. It is not this which I would excuse. Brought up, a few hours after his crime, which he did not deny, before a council of war, that contented itself with merely identifying him, he was condemned to six thousand strokes of the rod, and, twenty-four hours afterwards, six thousand men, drawn up in two parallel lines in a plain outside the city, were awaiting, armed with rods of green wood, of the thickness of the little finger, the hour of execution. The criminal was conveyed in a cart escorted by a few men ; no priest had administered to him the consolations of religion. He was fettered, and dressed in a pair of drawers, rolled up and fastened by a cord above his hips. The rest of his body was naked, or rather covered merely with a soldier's greatcoat, thrown over his shoulders. Having been made to get out of the cart, his two hands were securely fastened to the muzzles of two muskets, crossing one another at the bottom of the bayonets with which they were armed. In this position, his hands rested on the barrels, and the bayonets on his breast. A roll of the drum was now heard. All the officers retired within the ranks, while two non-commissioned officers came and took the muskets, which they held in the same position as a soldier does when he advances or retires with his bayonet at the charge. Here again we must admire the barbarity and refined intelligence of this people. At a given signal, the sufferer has to advance, with a slow step, between the rows of soldiers, each of whom, in turn, must apply a vigorous blow on his back ; the pain he endures might perhaps suggest to him the idea of passing as quickly as possible through the double row of executioners in order to lessen the number and the force of the blows which hack his flesh to pieces ; but he calculates without Russian justice. The two non-commissioned officers retreat slowly, step by step, in order to afford every one time to perform his task. They drag the unhappy wretch forward, or push him back, by driving the points of the bayonets into his breast. Every blow must tell, it must enter his back and cause the blood to gush out. No pity. Every one must do his duty. As I have said in another part of this work, the Muscovite soldier is a machine which is not allowed to possess any individual feeling; and woe betide his own shoulders, if he manifests the least hesitation, for he will, on the spot, receive from twenty-five to a hundred blows, according to the caprice of the general who has the honour of commanding the six thousand executioners. The Russian government is scrupulous in the most trifling details. It insists on everything being done with precision. But with such men as it has at its disposal it cannot trust to chance, and therefore it has rehearsals to execute a human being just as it exercises its troops previous to a review. A few hours before the time appointed for the punishment, a truss of hay or straw placed upon a chariot is driven along the ranks.

The sufferer advanced up to the nine hundredth and third stroke ; he did not utter a single cry, or prefer a single complaint ; the only thing which betrayed his agony, from time to time, was a convulsive shudder. The foam then began to form upon his lips and the blood to start from his nose. After fourteen hundred strokes, his face, which had long before begun to turn blue, assumed suddenly a greenish hue; his eyes became haggard and almost started out of their sockets, from which large blood-coloured tears trickled down and stained his cheeks. He was gasping and gradually sinking. The officer who accompanied me ordered the ranks to open, and I approached the body. The skin was literally ploughed up, and had, so to say, disappeared. The flesh was backed to pieces and almost reduced to a state of jelly; long stripes hung down the prisoner's sides like so many thongs, while other pieces remained fastened and glued to the sticks of the executioners. The muscles, too, were torn to shreds. No mortal tongue can ever convey a just idea of the sight. The commandant caused the cart which bad brought the prisoner to be driven up. He was laid in it on his stomach, and although he was completely insensible, the punishment was continued upon the corpse, until the surgeon appointed by the government, who had followed the execution step by step, gave orders for it to be suspended. He did not do this, however, until there was hardly the slightest breath of life left in the sufferer's body.

When the execution was stopt, two thousand six hundred and nineteen strokes had cut the body to pieces.

But, in Russia, the fact of striking a corpse is not cruel enough, and would not inspire a nation of slaves with a sufficient amount of terror. A man must revive before he undergoes the remainder of his punishment.

The unhappy wretch was taken to the hospital, where, as is the custom in these cases, be was placed in a bath of water saturated with salt, and then treated with the greatest care and solicitude until a complete cure was effected, so that he could bear the rest of his sentence. In all instances, and at all times, the penal laws of Russia are stamped with atrocious barbarity. It was seven months before -he was cured and his health re-established; and, at the expiration of this period, he was solemnly taken back to the place of execution, and forced once more to run the gauntlet, in order to receive his full amount of six thousand strokes. He died at the commencement of this second punishment.


When a prisoner sometimes escapes with his lifewhich, however, is a very unusual circumstance-he is sent to end -his days at the bottom of the mines of Siberia.

I will not dilate upon the other kinds of punishment -- the whip and the stick-which are the most common methods of redressing grievances. In both these cases, two men alone are sufficient to execute the sentence. The poor wretch condemned to smart beneath the rattan or the lashes of the cat with seven tails is laid, with his body bare, upon a bench. One of the executioners seats himself astride upon the sufferer's legs, and the other upon his bead, and both of them strike him in turn with similar instruments, like two blacksmiths belabouring an anvil, until the nobleman or his wife judges the punishment sufficient.

In Russia, persons can escape more easily from the punishments to which they are sentenced than in any other country. When a peasant has the means of paying his executioners, the latter spare his skin.

After the knout and the rod, comes Siberia. When a Russian subject is condemned to exile, his beard is shaved off, and his hair cut short in front in the shape of a brush, like that of 'the soldiers, and quite close behind. He is dressed in a pair of linen trousers, a great-coat, of very coarse cloth, a round cap, like a pancake, and enormous leather boots, without stockings or socks. He is then despatched upon a sledge or a car, in company with other exiles, under the escort of a few Cossacks, as far as Irkoutsk, or beyond it.

These exiles are made to travel in all weathers; no matter how intense the cold may be, they must reach their destination. More than half of them perish on the road. During the journey, their movements are free, and no precaution is taken to prevent their flight. What could they do with liberty I They possess no passport ; and in Russia it is impossible to travel for twelve hours without papers. An inhabitant of Moscow or St. Petersburg cannot enter or leave the city without showing the soldiers stationed at the barriers either a permit or a passport. The troops in French barracks are more free than the population of Russia.

After all, Russia is only an immense barrack, in which every one is in a state of arrest.