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by Leo Tolstoy

In the twenties of the nineteenth century the officers of the Seménovski Regiment, the flower of the youths of that day, for the most part Masons and subsequently Decembrists, decided not to use any corporal punishment in their regiment.  In spite of the strict demands of military service at that time, the regiment continued to be a model one, even without the application of corporal punishment.

One of the commanders of a company of the Seménovski Regiment, upon meeting one day Sergyéy Ivánovich Muravév, one of the best men of that time, and indeed of any time, told him about one of his soldiers, a thief and drunkard, saying that such a soldier could not be brought to his senses in any other way than by means of the rod.  Sergyéy Muravév did not agree with him and offered to take the soldier in his company.

The transfer was made, and the soldier in the very first days stole a pair of boots from his comrade, and with the proceeds from the sale of them got drunk and acted riotously.  Sergyéy Ivánovich called together the company and, calling the soldier to the front, said to him, “You know that in my company soldiers are not beaten or flogged, and I will not have you punished.  I will pay with my own money for the boots that you stole, and I beg you, not for my sake, but for your own sake, to reflect upon your life and to change it.”  And, having given the soldier friendly instructions, Sergyéy Ivánovich dismissed him.

The soldier again got drunk and had a fight.  And again he was not punished, but only admonished, “You will only harm yourself the more, but if you mend your ways, you will be better off for it.  For this reason I ask you not to do such things.”

The soldier was so surprised at this new way of being treated that he changed completely and became a model soldier.

The narrator of this story was Sergyéy Ivánovich’s brother, Matvyéy Ivánovich, who, like his brother and all the best men of the time, considered corporal punishment to be a disgraceful remainder of barbarism.  He considered it disgraceful not so much for the man punished, as for the men punishing, and could never keep back tears of emotion and transport when he spoke of it, and it was equally impossible to restrain tears when listening to him.

Corporal punishment was viewed thus by cultured Russians seventy-five years ago.  Now seventy-five years have passed, and in our time the grandchildren of these men preside in the capacity of County Council chiefs in courts and calmly discuss the question whether rods are to be administered or not, and how many rods are to be given to such and such an adult – a father of a family, often a grandfather.

But the leaders among these grandchildren sitting in committees and County Council assemblies hand in memorandums, addresses, and petitions asking, in the name of hygienic and pedagogical purposes, that not all the peasants, but only those who have not finished a course in a popular school, be subject to flogging.

An enormous change has taken place in the midst of the so-called higher cultured class.  The men of the twenties, considering corporal punishment to be a disgraceful act for themselves, found a way for abolishing it in the army, where it was thought to be indispensable.  The men of our time calmly apply it, not to the soldiers, but to all men of one of the classes of the Russian people.  Cautiously, diplomatically, in committees and assemblies, and with every imaginable excuse and circumlocution, they address and petition the government as to whether punishment with rods complies with the demands of hygiene and so must be limited, or whether it would be desirable to flog only such peasants as have not finished a course in the rudiments, or whether the peasants who are included in the manifesto on the occasion of the emperor’s marriage may be exempted from corporal punishment.

Obviously, a terrible change has taken place in the midst of the so-called higher Russian society.  What is most remarkable, this change has taken place at a time when the peasant class as undergone an equally vast change in the last seventy-five years, and especially in the last thirty-five years since its liberation, only in the opposite direction.  And yet is assumed necessary to make this class submit to the disgusting, coarse, and stupid torture of flogging.

While the higher, ruling classes have coarsened and fallen morally to such an extent that they have legalized flogging and calmly discuss the same, there has taken place in the peasant class such an uplifting of the mental and moral level that the application of corporal punishment to this class appears to the them not only as a physical, but also as a moral torture.

I have heard and read of cases of suicide among peasants condemned to rods.  I cannot refuse to believe this, because I myself saw an ordinary young peasant, at the mere mention in the township court of the possibility of administering corporal punishment to him, grow as pale as a sheet and lose his voice.  I also saw another peasant, of about forty years of age, who was condemned to corporal punishment, burst out weeping when, in reply to my question whether the decree of the court was carried out, he had to answer that it was.

I also know of a case in which an acquaintance of mine, a respectable middle-aged peasant, was condemned to be flogged for having, as usual, called the stárosta names, without paying attention to the fact that the stárosta wore the insignia.  This peasant was taken to the township office, and from there to the shed where the punishment is administered.  The watchman came with the rods, and the peasant was told to take off his clothes.

“Parmén Ermílych, I have a married son,” said the peasant, turning to the township elder, and shaking with his whole body.  “Can’t this be omitted?  It is a sin.”

“The government, Petróvich – I should gladly – what is to be done?” replied the embarrassed elder.

Petróvich took off his clothes and lay down.

“Christ has suffered and told us to suffer,” he said.

As the scribe who was present told me, everybody’s arms trembled, and nobody dared to look into his neighbor’s eyes, feeling that they were doing something terrible.  It is assumed to be indispensable and apparently useful for someone to flog these people like beasts.  Indeed, even animals are not allowed to be tortured.

For the good of our Christian enlightened state, it is indispensable to subject, not all the members of this Christian enlightened state, but only one of its classes – the most industrious, useful, moral, and numerous – to a most insipid, indecent, and offensive punishment.

Nineteen centuries after Christ, the highest authorities of an enormous Christian state have not been able to invent something more useful, clever, and moral to counteract the violation of laws than that the people who have violated the laws, grown men, and sometimes old men, be undressed, thrown on the floor, and beaten with rods on their backsides.[1]

The men of our time, who consider themselves to be leaders, the grandsons of the men who seventy-five years ago destroyed capital punishment, now most humbly and quite seriously ask the minister or someone else not to subject the adult Russians to flogging so much, because the doctors find this unhealthy.  They ask not to subject to flogging those who have finished a course, and to free from flogging those who should be flogged immediately after the emperor’s marriage.  But the wise government keeps profound silence in response to such frivolous requests or even prohibits them.

But is it possible to ask about these things?  Can there be a question about them?  There are certain acts, whether they are committed by private individuals or by governments, which cannot be discussed coolly, condemning the commission of these acts only under certain conditions.  The flogging of adults from one of the classes of the Russian nation in our time, amidst our meek and enlightened Christian people, belongs to this class of acts.  It is not right to diplomatically approach the government on the score of hygiene or school education for the abatement of the transgression of all divine and human laws.  Such things must either not be mentioned at all, or must be talked about as to their essence and always with contempt and horror.  To ask that only such peasants as have finished the rudiments be not beaten over their bare hips is the same as if, where the punishment of an adulterous woman was that she be taken naked through the city, one should ask that the punishment be applied only to those women who do not know how to knit stockings, or something like that.

About such things people cannot “ask most humbly” and “ prostrate themselves before one’s feet,” and so forth.  Such things can and must only be arraigned.  Such things must be arraigned, because these things, when the aspect of legality is given to them, only disgrace all of us who live in the state where such acts are committed.  Indeed, if the flogging of the peasants is a law, this law is made for me as much as for anybody, to secure my peace and well being, but this cannot be admitted.

I do not want and am not able to recognize a law that violates all the divine and human laws, and I cannot imagine myself of one accord with those who write and confirm such crimes under the form of law.

If we have to speak at all of this monstrousness, we can only say that there can be no such law, signatures, or command of the czar that can make a law of a crime, and that, on the contrary, the vesting of such a crime with the form of law proves better than anything else that, where such an imaginary legalization of a crime is possible, no laws exist, but only savage arbitrariness of rude power.  And the crime is this: that the adults the best class, the peasants, may at the will of the worst class, the gentry and officials, be subjected to an indecent, savage, and disgusting punishment.

If we must speak at all of the corporal punishment, which is administered to but one class, the peasant class, we must not defend the rights of the County Council assembly.  We must not complain to the governor who protested against the solicitations about stopping the flogging of those who know how to read.  We must not complain to the senate, or complain still higher than the senate, as was proposed by the Tambóv County Council.  Instead, we must never stop crying and shouting that the application of this savage punishment, which is no longer used in the case of children, to one class, the best class of Russians, is a disgrace for all those who take part in it, directly or indirectly.

Petróvich, who lay down to receive the rods, making the sign of the cross and saying, “Christ suffered and told us to suffer,” forgave his tormentors and, after the rods, he remained what he had been.  The torture accomplished upon him could have had but one result, that of making him despise the power that can prescribe such punishments.  But on many young men not only the punishment itself, but also frequently the mere acknowledgment that it is possible, has the effect of lowering their moral sense and provoking either desperation or brutality.  But this is not yet the chief harm of this monstrousness.  The chief harm consists in the mental condition of those men who establish, permit, and prescribe this illegality, those men who use it as a threat, and all those who live in the conviction that such a violation of all justice and humanity is necessary for a good, regular life.  What a terrible maiming there must be in the brains and hearts of such men, frequently young men, who, as I myself have heard, assert with an aspect of profound wisdom that it is impossible not to flog the peasant, and that it is better for the peasant that he should be flogged.

It is these people who are to be pitied most for the bestiality into which they have fallen and in which they abide.

Therefore, the liberation of the Russian people from the corrupting influence of this legalized crime is in every way an affair of vast importance.  This liberation will not take place when those who have finished a course, or any other peasants, or even all the peasants with the exception of one single peasant, shall be exempted from corporal punishment, but only when the ruling classes will recognize their sin and meekly confess to it.

December 14,1896

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[1] Why this particular stupid, savage method of causing pain, and no other?  Why not stick pins into the shoulder or some other part of the body, compress the hands or feet in a vise, or something like that?