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BY AN ENGLISH MERCHANT, RESIDENT AT ST. PETERSBURGH.
From the time of my arrival in the Russian capital, one of the sights which I was particularly anxious to witness, was that of a criminal undergoing the knout. This gratification, however, is much more difficult to be obtained than a person accustomed to the publicity given to every act connected with the administration of justice in England will easily understand. There, the law wisely considers punishment in the light of aiding in the prevention of crime, by exhibiting, in as awful a manner as possible, the unavoidable and dreadful consequences of convicted guilt, rather than as an act of retribution on the guilty offender. In Russia, it seems nearly the reverse: here, as an example, it is disregarded, and assumes in a great measure the aspect of barbarous and unmeaning revenge. The whole proceedings of the courts of justice are conducted, if not with absolute secrecy, at least without any steps being taken to make their proceedings public. No part of the trial or sentence is ever published; and when the criminal is at last convicted, (and years, I understand, sometimes elapse before the proceedings terminate,) the punishment takes place, not in the heart of the city, but in a remote corner, and at an hour earlier than even an Old Baily execution.
The brutal punishment of the knout being exclusively confined to Russia,
curiosity was naturally excited to witness it, more especially as very few indeed of my countrymen have had an opportunity of doing so. To gratify this morbid longing after the horrible, I applied to every friend who I thought had the slightest chance of assisting me; but being acquainted with no one connected with the criminal courts, I feared that all my efforts would be in vain, and that though I were to reside in Russia till the end of my days, I should be baffled in my purpose of beholding a public execution. It is not from all this to be inferred that I am more cruel than my neighbors; yet in every country in which I have been and I have visited more in every quarter of the globe than most people can boast of — I have endeavored to be present at one execution; more than one I had no desire to see. Hanging I had seen in my native land, beheading in France and Germany, and the bow-string in China. I saw them while I abhorred them. They were part and parcel of the marvels with which every man is to bring home with him on his return from foreign parts : more than this, they were curious leaves, displaying on their respective pages national pictures — national characteristics. The manners and genius of a nation show themselves not less in their penal inflictions than in other circumstances. The refined and ingenious French destroy criminals upon scientific principles, through the prompt and mechanical agency of the guillotine. The plainer Germans decapitate by means of the sword. The semi-barbarous Turks and Chinese strangle with the bow-string- a disgusting and painful death. The English mode of destruction by means of the cord and the drop, is an improvement on the Turkish fashion - less horrible to look at, and undoubtedly accompanied by less suffering ; but
still, coarse and savage, and not a little characteristic of the rough and stern cast of the national mind. The Russian system of the knout is the worst of all. It is the suggestion of a barbarous age, and would only be submitted to by a slavish and rude people. Such a mode of destroying life would not be tolerated for one day in England, France, Sweden, or any country where freedom and civili. zation prevail. But to return.
Late one evening, when nearly despairing of success, I received a note from an acquaintance, informing me that a criminal was to be knouted on the following morning, at seven o'clock. He mentioned his name, which at present I forget, but it then recalled to mind the circumstances of the case, which I had heard' related a few days before ; and they were of so atrocious a nature, as to render it impossible for even the most sympathizing heart to have the slightest sympathy with the parricide — for such he really was. His father was a respectable tradesman, occupying a shop in the Gostinoi Door; a man, from all I could learn, remarkable for sobriety and industry. His son was entirely the reverse, being idle, dissipated, and worthless. One day, having received some well-merited rebuke from his father, he seized a knife, and, in the presence of the whole family, plunged it into the body of the old man, who died upon the spot. He was immediately seized and disarmed, and, after a wonderfully expeditious trial, for Russia, sentenced to the knout. The blows adjudged for infliction amounted to one hundred and one this number being considered equivalent to a sentence of death. A direct sentence of death is by the law of Russia abolished, except for military and state crimes.
The following morning, accompanied by the friend from whom I received the intimation, I repaired, between six and seven o'clock, to the place of punishment, which is in a field where a horse-market is held, on the banks of the Ligasa canal, rather more than a mile from the Admiralty. The neighborhood of the place exhibited so few of the appearances of an approaching execution, that at first we thought that we had been misinformed; but, on entering the field, the stake planted in its centre, a garrison battalion drawn up on one side, and some scores of people lounging about, showed that our information had been correct. From being so early on the ground, we had a good opportunity of examining the preparations for the execution. They were simple enough. A strong flat stake, and a few mats laid on the ground, formed the whole that were visible. The stake was nearly five feet high, planted very firmly in the ground, and sloping about eight or ten inches off the perpendicular. In thickness it was about four inches, but its breadth was very unequal, being fully two feet at the top, and tapering gradually groundward to the earth, where it was not above eight inches. On the top, it was hollowed out into three semi-circles — the central one being appropriated for the neck, and the two others for the arms of the criminal. Near to the ground, the stake was penetrated by a hole of some two or three inches in diameter, for the reception of a cord wherewith to bind the malefactor's ancles. The mats were spread out on one side of the stake, for the purpose, as I imagined, of making the footing of the executioner as firm as possible.
Exactly at seven o'clock, a bustle among the military attracted our attention; and on looking round, we saw the criminal approaching on foot, guarded by four dismounted gen-d'armes with naked sabres, accompanied by several officers of police, and followed by two executioners each bearing under his arm a bundle, which we afterward found contained knout thongs. The battalion now formed a hollow square, three deep - the police, executioner, and criminal, being in the centre.
No sooner had the soldiers taken their ground, than a rush ensued among the crowd to secure good situations, and in the scramble I was separated from my friend, whom I did not again see till after the execution. So shoved about was I by the crowd, that at one time I thought I should have missed seeing the ceremony, after all. However, the soldiers saved me from this disappointment, as they politely received me into their ranks, and I was at once placed within a few yards of the criminal, where I had an uninterrupted view of every thing that was going on. Immediately upon the square being formed, the military presented arms, and the crowd uncovered their heads, while the principal officer of police in attendance read the emperor's warrant for the execution. This being done, the criminal was delivered over to the executioners.
Even at this moment, when the prisoner was naturally the chief object of interest, my attention was strongly arrested by the appearance of the principal executioner, so much so, indeed, that I had the curiosity to inquire afterward into his history. His name, if I recollect aright, was Kozloff: he originally belonged to the higher class; but, for cruelties committed upon his peasants, which, s believe, in some cases extended even to the commission of murder, he was degraded and sentenced to the knout. From this he saved himself by volunteering to his present situation. He was, I think, withont exception, the coarsest specimen of humanity that I ever beheld. His age seemed to be about fifty: his stature was greatly beyond the average, and in spite of a stoop, must by some inches have exceeded six feet, while his shoulders were immoderately broad, his body large, without corpulency, and his limbs bulky and athletic. A profusion of dark-colored hairs, or rather bristles, enveloped his head : his complexion was of a fierce mahogany tinge, while his huge, uncouth, shapeless features wore an expression in which it was impossible to say whether ferocity or stupidity most predominated. The assistant of this male Gorgon — this ogre in the form of man was about twenty-two years of age, and the reverse in every respect of his principal. I cannot describe him better than by saying that he formed one of the most favorable specimens of a young Russian peasant I ever met with. He had been originally a postillion in the service of the Grand Duke Michael ; but being implicated in a robbery of his imperial highness's baggage, whe, like his chief, to save himself from the knout, volunteered to the same execrable service. Both these men are kept constantly in prison, and are only brought out when their revolting task is to be performed. My informant mentioned, at the same time, that Kozloff seemed sunk in misery and despondency, except when he managed to procure the means of intoxication, and then he becomes absolutely furious. Dear must
life be to some men, when a bare subsistence is purchased on such terms !
I must now describe the criminal. He was apparently about twenty-five years of age, very full-built, but of low stature, with a countenance of that stolid description which defies all the science of the physiognomist. Though near him, and anxious to read in his features the workings of the mind within, I could neither trace remorse, ferocity, nor fear. He seemed perfectly callous to his situation, and while sentence was being read, he deliberately took off his cap, and prepared himself with perfect coolness for his punishment. Having thrown aside his caftan and shirt, and having nothing on but his trowsers and boots, he approached the stake with a firm step, and was duly fastened to it by the executioners. This done, these functionaries threw off their coats, and got ready the instruments of torture. The knout consists of a handle about a foot long, with a piece of twisted hide of the same length. To this hide is attached, by a loop, a piece of thong prepared to almost metallic hardness, in length about four or five feet, perfectly flat, and an inch broad : it is changed after every six or eight blows, as it is considered unfit for use when it becomes soft.
The principal executioner having placed himself within five or six feet of the prisoner, with the thong of the knout on the ground, rather behind him, then drew it forward, raising it slowly and steadily till it had attained the proper elevation, when he brought it down with tremendous force upon the middle of the criminal's back, leaving a deep crimson mark of nearly an inch in breadth, extending from his neck to the waistband of his trowsers. Upon receiving the blow, the wretch uttered a scream, or rather a yell of agony, and every fibre of his body seemed in a state of violent and instantaneous contortion. With scarcely any interval, the blow was repeated, followed by the same result — the same frightful yell — the same appalling shudder. The second mark appeared about an inch from, and parallel to, the first : a third, fourth, and fifth blow followed, in quick succession, when the operator stepped aside and resigned his place to his assistant. The blows from the latter were light when compared with those inflicted by the elder executioner, more so, indeed, than the difference between their size and strength, great as it was, might seem to justify. After giving eight blows, the assistant retired in his turn, when his principal, who in the meantime had fitted on a fresh thong, resumed the dreadful task. He was again succeeded by the young man, who in like manner bad renewed the efficacy of his weapon by a similar process of renovation. In this manner did they continue mutually relieving one another; and, at each relay, adding a new thong, till the destined number of blows were inflicted on the lacerated back of the parricide. About the fiftieth stroke, his struggles having partially loosened the fastenings, it was found necessary to stop and have them fixed more firmly. From the first till about the twentieth blow, each was followed by the same scream and convulsions ; from the twentieth till the fiftieth both gradually became weaker ; the latter indeed had degenerated into a sort of shivering. After the fiftieth, both ceased : the criminal's head fell to one side, and though each touch of the knout
brought with it a convulsive shudder, he seemed to be perfectly unconscious of pain.
The punishment concluded, the chief executioner took some in. struments from his bag, and with them marked the malefactor on the forehead, on each cheek, and on the chin. This, I understand, was merely a form typical of branding, which, as well as slitting the nostrils, was always inflicted upon a knouted criminal, until the humanity of the Emperor Alexander prompted him to abolish both practices. The marks are now made with a cold instrument, and are, I believe, easily effaced.
The criminal's back now exhibited a horrid spectacle. It was one mangled, bloated mass, of a deep crimson hue; yet still, mangled as it was, no blood ran from it. A common cart having been drawn into the square, the executioners untied the strap by which the malefactor was fastened to the stake, and, with the assistance of the gend'armes, carried him to and placed him in the cart, throwing his shirt lightly upon him, then his caftan, then a mat over all. When removed from the stake, he was quite insensible ; so much so, that I did not suppose he would survive till he reached the hospital : but I was mistaken ; for upon observing him attentively, after being placed in the cart, I perceived that he had so far recovered as to attempt to move one arm. I could not observe any surgeon
attending the execution; nor indeed would it have been of any consequence, as the number of stripes is specified, and, whatever happens, they must be administered.
He was driven off to the prison with the same guards and attendants as at first; the whole affair, from the arrival till the departure of the criminal, not exceeding twenty minutes. What became of him afterward, I could not learn; but I have little doubt that in a few days he died from the fever and mortification that were likely, or rather certain, to follow such severe injury. On the event of his recovery, he would be sent to end his life in the mines of Siberia, and this could scarcely be called the least part of his punishment. Such is the knout.
There's a cloud in the east — 't is like night in its liue,
In a desolate spot as gay flower ever grew in,
The frail water-lily is tossed to and fro