The Red Square as a place of execution

Peter the Great by K. Waliszewski.

An alternative translation of `Krasnaya' Ploshchad also means 'beautiful' square

That blood-stained spot, the Lobnoie miesto, has a character of its own, and a strange history, well worth knowing, which explains (I dare not say, it justifies) both the sanguinary scenes in which Peter insisted on playing so active a part, and that part itself, inexcusable as it appears. The origin of the name is quite uncertain. Some authorities derive it from the Latin word lobium, 'a high or raised place'; others ascribe it to the Russian word lob — — the place where the heads of criminals are placed. There is a legend, too, that Adam's head was buried on the spot, and here my readers will begin to perceive the strange and whimsical mixture of ideas and feelings, with which popular tradition has invested this ghastly enclosure. A place of execution indeed, but a holy spot as well! It stood, like the Lithostrote at Jerusalem, before one of the six principal gates leading into the Kreml, and had a religious and national significance of its own. Here the relics and holy images brought to Moscow were first deposited; here, even yet, on solemn occasions, religious ceremonies were performed; here it was, that the Patriarch gave his blessing to the Faithful; and here too, the most important Ukases were promulgated, and changes of ruler announced to the people. Here, in 1550, Ivan the Terrible came to confess his crimes, and publicly ask pardon of his subjects. Here too the mock Dimitri proclaimed his accession, and here, a few weeks later, his corpse was exposed to the mob, with a mask on the face, and a musical instrument in the dead hand.

Thus the executioner's tools, and his victims' corpses, and all the hideous paraphernalia of criminal punishment, did not here produce the impression which would elsewhere have made them objects of horror and repugnance. For they were associated with the most august incidents in the public life, and when Peter appeared on the scaffold, axe in hand, he neither derogated from his high dignity, nor made himself odious in the eyes of his subjects. All he did was to carry out his functions as their supreme judge. Any man, at that period, might turn executioner, if the occasion arose. When the work was heavy, supplementary assistance in the bloody business was sought for in the open streets, and the supply never failed. Peter, without ceasing to be Tsar, could still be the Tsar's headsman, just as he had been his drummer and his sailor. He turned his hand to the executioner's duty, just as he had previously turned it to the rigging of his ships. No one was shocked by his action nor blamed him for it. He was much more likely to be praised!