The following testimony describes what serfdom in Russia could mean for those affected: In the bedroom of an old noblewoman there was “a dark cage in which she kept a slave who styled her hair; the main motive... of the old hag was to hide from the world that she wore fake hair.” The observation came from none other than Catherine II the Great, Tsarina of Russia from 1762 to 1796. In her "Memoirs" she also reports that in numerous houses in Moscow there were "iron collars, chains and other instruments of torture for those who make the slightest advance".
Corporal punishment was part of everyday life for the poor souls unfortunate enough to be the property of a noble landowner in Russia. One of the most notorious excesses is the case of Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova (1730–1801), whom Catherine eventually made an example of.
Saltykowa has been compared to the Hungarian magnate Elisabeth Báthory, who tortured and murdered dozens of serfs in the 17th century. In fact, parallels emerge. Like Báthory, Saltykowa came from old nobility, both married and had children. Both became widows at an early age and were therefore given the task of guiding hundreds, thousands of dependent farming families. But whether this pressure is enough to explain their sadistic excesses is doubtful.
The third daughter of a nobleman had made a good match with Gleb Saltykov. Her husband came from a well-known family and served as an officer in a Guards regiment. But he died early and the widow was left alone with two little boys. It is possible that the end of the affair with the surveyor Nikolai Tyutchev gave her a boost, after all he had left her for a younger woman.
In any case, from the late 1750s onwards, rumors of the “cannibal” circulating in the Moscow governorate terrified her subjects. "She took a sadistic pleasure in slinging hundreds of her serfs with logs and rolling pins, and she murdered 138 women, allegedly concentrating on their genitals," writes British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore.
Girls and young women in particular became their preferred victims. She stuck their heads in the ice, starved them day and night, and burned their faces with boiling water. One girl is said to have driven Saltykowa into the pond in winter and tied her there, and another had her hair burned with a candle. She kicked a pregnant woman in the stomach and tortured two twelve-year-old girls to death, reports the historian.
She first exposed one man to the freezing cold for hours, then forced him into the house, beat him and tore off his ears with red-hot pliers. She had the dying man removed on the grounds that he had died a natural death.
It was only after Katharina came to power in 1762 that two serfs, whose wives had been abused by Saltykowa, managed to send a message to the Tsarina. Katharina, born Princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, was quite critical of serfdom and initiated an investigation. But that dragged on for six years. Investigators allowed themselves to be bribed or blinded by the nobility of the suspects.
Many witnesses also kept their mouths shut for fear of Saltykowa's revenge and the solidarity of her peers. Evidence disappeared, investigations were delayed and that in the vicinity of Moscow. Catherine herself, having deposed her husband, Tsar Peter III, in July 1762 and then at least condoned his assassination, had an idea of how sensitive the process was. Russia's nobility was the mainstay of their rule. She, the foreigner, was not allowed to snub him.
Eventually there was enough evidence to prove Saltykowa at least some of her crimes. She was accused of 38 crimes, and 75 names were included in the list of victims. As a punishment, announced on June 12, 1768, she was stripped of her nobility, her maternal rights and her entire fortune. Since Tsarina Elisabeth had abolished the death penalty (except for high treason) in 1754, Catherine was spared having to execute a Russian noblewoman.
But she wanted to set an example. The Saltykova was chained to the scaffold in Red Square in Moscow for an hour. A sign was hung around her neck that read "tormentor and murderer". Almost the entire population is said to have looked at the "man-eater". She was then locked in a hole in the Ivanovsky Convent, which was lit only during the meal. For 33 years, until her death, she had to endure it.
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