Russian Punishments in the European Mirror

  • Jonathan Daly


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, governments in Western and Eastern Europe gradually undertook to abolish the remaining forms of body mutilation and to lessen the use of other assorted physically violent punishments, such as burning people at the stake, for they appeared barbarous to modern sensibilities.1 This reform movement was part of a broader effort to make punishment not only less inhumane but also more regular, efficient, and proportionate to the crime.2 In some regards, the Imperial Russian government appears to have been at the forefront of this trend. A decade before the publication of Rousseau’s Contrat social (1762) and Beccaria’s Dei delitti e delle pene (1764), the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna strictly limited the legal scope of capital punishment. As the French legal historian Joseph Viaud has written, perhaps only a despot can do something so radical, so unpopular. For the next 70 years, only about a dozen people were executed on court orders in the Russian Empire (though a few times that number of people were summarily executed during the Pugachevshchina). Indeed, for several decades before 1845, capital punishment was considered an exceptional measure in Russia.3 In England and Wales, by contrast, the yearly number of executions as late as the first decades of the nineteenth century was just under one hundred, before falling to roughly ten in the late 1830s. In France, the numbers were even higher in the late 1830s.4


Capital Punishment Corporal Punishment Western European Country Penal Code Criminal Punishment 
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© Susan P. McCaffray and Michael Melancon 2005

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  • Jonathan Daly

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