Red Square - The execution of Stenka Razin

On 4 June 1670, the Cossacks of Tcherkasld on the Don delivered to Moscow the man who had set the country alight. Stenka Razin was handed over to the Tsar's justice.

Razin, too, was a Don Cossack, 'very tall and well built, whose features were regular and proud and grave'. He represented perfectly that type of 'free man' who chose to live dangerously; life would be short but good. A law unto himself, he felt boxed in in any community or organization: he hated discipline: he only serc-ed those he would choose, quite prepared to betray them if such was his mood. Razin's adventure is the tale of a brigand who became the head of a vast popular revolt.

And it is the unbridled march of Razin towards the Moscow throne which history chronicles as a feverish illusion gorged on the blood of men. His fleet was comprised of two mysterious boats luxuriously set up; he swore that in one, black-lined, lived the disgraced patriarch, the famous Nikon; in the other, this time lined in red, was the Tsarevitch Alexis. It did not matter that Nikon should still be in his monastery, and the Tsarevitch in his tomb.

In the seventeenth century, no truly popular revolt could succeed if it did not appear sponsored by Church and Monarch to deceive the masses. All conquerors know that defeat in the end will follow the victories. The wheel turns. Those boyars and nobles Razin had promised to exterminate were not the only ones anxious to kill him off.

The seed of doubt was sown. Defections followed; as well as the Zaporojets Cossacks, those of the Don were mostly loyal to the government. It was easy for them to discover the mutineers. The Tcherkasld Cossacks forced Razin out of his much shrunken camp near this town.

Razin's lieutenants were hung instantly. The Ataman and his chained brother Frolka started on their last journey, knowing full well what to expect. The cart taking them to the capital bumped along the dusty roads of the Russian summer, carrying them to an ignominious death. After torture, Stenka Razin climbed the Moscow scaffold. On 6 June 1671, the crowds were even more packed than when, in Astrakan, they had cheered him admiringly in its streets as head of the popular revolt. Now no admiration or even pity could be seen in the eyes of those following his last gestures amongst the living. The game was over, the mirage had evaporated. The man whose head would roll off on to the scaffold, with its thick hair and full beard, was no more the hero Ataman Stefan Timofeievitch, but only Stenka Razin, excommunicated by the Church.

Jacob Reitenfels, nephew of the leading Court doctor of Alexis Milchailmitch, wrote in his description of Muscovy to the Duke of Tuscany:

This traitor was brought to town and tied by chains to the scaffold which was in fact an elevated cart similar to a triumphal chariot so that all could see him. Frolka, his brother, equally in chains, followed on foot the travelling scaffold. Behind the cart, marched in pell-mell order soldiers and other prisoners. The streets teemed with spectators, some coming out of their houses to watch the extraordinary spectacle, others moved to indignation or even pity.

In prison, Stenka Razin had been flogged with the knout, tortured by fire, undergone the water torture, and other more extraordinary horrors. All his body was a living sore, so that the knout fell on raw bones. He was stubbornly brave, never uttered a cry or a whimper and only reproached his brother (tortured as appallingly) for 'his lack of courage'.

The final drama came. Stenka listened to his sentence, which was very long. 'Robber, blasphemer, Don Cossack, Stenka Razin! You have forgotten to fear God, and your Great Sovereign; you are a traitor to your oath, leaving your home on the Volga where you committed abominations and crimes. This document states and repeats that after having been pardoned by the Tsar a first time, Razin abjured again, forgetting the Tsar's charitable grace.

After having heard the death sentence pronounced by the judge in a loud voice, Razin made the sign of the cross and lay down on the scaffold. A hatchet severed his legs and arms, followed by his head. The English author of The Revolt of Stenka Razin, a sailor from the Queen Esther, also described this execution, impressed by the courage of this wretched bandit:

He did not seem to be moved; he never said a word but bowed low to the ground. When the executioner was ready, he made the sign of the cross several times, then greeted the crowd three times, turning himself round and each time saying, Pardon'. He was stretched between two beams, his right hand was cut at the elbow and the left foot at the knee, then off came the head, but this was all done so quickly that Stenka did not utter a murmur.

Witnesses differ a little in the description of the tortures, but all are at one in admiring Razin's courage.

The Secretary of the Dutch Embassy, Koets, was also a witness; after having had a hearty lunch, he went off to contemplate the head and four quarters of the victim, impaled on pikes.