Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to the Religious-Philosophical Renaissance
Chapter 9: The Petrashevtsy
Chapter 9The Petrashevtsy
On December 22, 1849, the inhabitants of St. Petersburg were witness to a curious spectacle: twenty-one political prisoners were brought from the Peter and Paul Fortress to Semenovsky Square and lined up in front of a scaffold draped in crepe. An official read out the death sentences, a priest called on the prisoners to repent, and soldiers dressed each man in the white cloak and hood traditionally associated with executions. The first three men were tied to posts, their faces were covered, the drums began to roll, and the command was given for the soldiers to shoulder arms – but at that very moment an imperial adjutant appeared with a last-minute reprieve. The death sentences were commuted to hard labor in Siberia, prison, or banishment. The condemned men were now ordered to kneel on the scaffold and executioners in colorful robes began the symbolic ceremonial of breaking swords over their bare heads. The leading prisoner was immediately placed in shackles and put in the covered cart that was to take him to Siberia.
This was the method chosen by Nicholas I to deal with the secret discussion groups active in St. Petersburg in the years 1845–49. The main circle from which most of the others had branched off was founded and led by MIKHAIL BUTASHEVICH-PETRASHEVSKY (1821–66). It was he who was publicly shackled in Semenovsky Square; the other two men who had to face the firing squad were two officers, N. P....