Fortunetellers and Sorcerers in the Service of a Russian Aristocrat of the Eighteenth Century: The Case of Chamberlain Petr Saltykov

Elena B. Smilianskaia[1]

National Research University ‘Higher School of Economics’, Moscow This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it


The case of Petr Saltykov, which stretched on between 1758 and 1765, with a surprising coda in 1796, is noteworthy in many respects. The material collected in connection with Saltykov's crime is useful for an investigation into magic belief as such, offering parallels and supplementary information to the dozens of “magic trials” of the 18th century. However, what makes the Saltykov case unique is how the chancellor’s “superstition” managed so compellingly to bring together two cultures - traditional folk culture and the “Europeanized” culture of the imperial court.

The case of Saltykov’s “sorcery” brought the diametrically opposed cultures of the court elite and the masses into confrontation. But even opposites can come together. As it turned out, the magic beliefs of the masses and medical practices of archaic traditional culture continued to attract adherents at court, getting along just fine in a high-culture, “Europeanized” environment. The chasm that lay between the culture of the aristocratic court elite and popular culture in the 18th century was not unbridgeable, although possible intersections of these two cultures sometimes took on rather strange configurations.


witchcraft, magic; Russian court; Russian nobility; popular religiosity; Ukrainian witchcraft; homosexuality; Russian Enlightenment

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2013

DOI 10.1163/18763316-04004007

In March of 1758, in the Secret Chancellery, chamberlain Petr Vasilievich Saltykov (1724? - after 1796) testified to using a magic potion at the Winter Palace to win the favor of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna.[2] Apparently for the first time in over half a century, since charges had been brought against stewards Andrei Iliych Bezobrazov and Nikita Borisovich Pushkin,[3] a nobleman of such high rank (“the Saltykov family was one of the most ancient and distinguished in the Empire,” wrote Ekaterina II in her “Notes,”)[4] was under investigation for attempting to influence the ruler’s will through magic.

The Secret Chancellery continued receiving documents as late as 1796 concerning the Saltykov case, which ultimately consisted of approximately 1,000 pages. The “crimes” of the former chamberlain caught the attention of two empresses - Elizabeth and Catherine the Great - and two emperors - Peter III and Paul I. These rulers decided his fate.

The case of Petr Saltykov is noteworthy in many respects. Without a doubt, the material collected in connection with Saltykov’s crime is useful for an investigation into magic belief as such, offering parallels and supplementary information to the dozens of “magic trials” of the 18th century.[5] However, what makes the Saltykov case unique is how the chancellor’s “superstition” managed so compellingly to bring together two cultures - traditional folk culture and the “Europeanized” culture of the imperial court.

Petr Vasilievich Saltykov was the eldest son of general en chef, general adjutant, and general chief of police of St. Petersburg, senator, and knight of both orders of Russia, Vasilii Fedorovich Saltykov (1675-1754 or 1755), and brother of the famous, good-looking partier and under-achieving diplomat Sergei Saltykov, first favorite of Empress Catherine the Great. Chancellor Petr Saltykov did not, however, strike people as brilliant. As the Empress described him in her notes, ‘He was a fool in every sense of the word, and he had the most stupid physiognomy... a pug nose, and a mouth always hanging open, with which he was a supreme tattler .... He was otherwise considered a man of no importance.”[6] But neither was P.V. Saltykov totally witless: he kept up a wide-ranging correspondence, as far as he was able, about the affairs of a large estate consisting of many villages and thousands of peasants. Saltykov’s instructions to his overseers make it impossible to conclude that he was a person not responsible for his actions.[7]

To Catherine, a pragmatic woman of the Enlightenment, P.V. Saltykov must have certainly seemed foolish not just due to his appearance, but also thanks to his almost maniacal attachment to “superstition,” first and foremost to magic.

His belief in magic apparently contributed to the unhappiness of his married life. In 1751, Petr Vasilievich married Princess Mar’ia Solntseva- Zasekina and they soon had a son, Vasilii. But their marriage was unhappy from the very beginning. Under interrogation at the secret Chancellery in 1758, Petr Saltykov declared that, “Upon his marriage to his wife, Mar’ia Fedorova, his wife became hateful to him by the second day ...” (l.i3).[8] The reason for the Saltykovs’ martial problems had to do with Petr’s relationship, which predated his marriage, with his serf Vasilii Kozlovskii. (Vasilii Kozlovskii testified at the investigation that he performed homosexual acts on his lord Petr Saltykov, “out compulsion by his lord;” that it began in 1751 when his master was still a bachelor; that he admitted his sin at confession, and that he had done penance for these sins.” (l. 55, 109) ). His wife would not tolerate this relationship and Saltykov would not tolerate her complaints to their neighbors about it (l.140-141 ob.).

In 1754, according to his own testimony, Saltykov began his incessant search for “magical” means “to kill his wife,” and simultaneously his mother- in-law, who was perhaps too solicitous. In 1756, while living either at court in St. Petersburg or at the so-called “minor court,” the court of the heir apparent, Peter, and his wife Catherine (later, “the Great”) at their palace at Oranienbaum, Saltykov added to his desire to “kill his wife” the wish that,

“the all-gracious sovereign be kind to him,” by releasing him to Moscow and paying off his many debts.

Thus the magical, having entered the chamberlain’s life, more and more came to influence his thinking and how he perceived his surroundings.

Over the course of four years Saltykov sought out fortunetellers and sorcerers through the services of his administrators, Tolmachev and Antonov, and his favorite Kozlovskii. He visited magical practitioners himself and invited them to his residence. Trofim Vasil’ev Zherebets and two peasants, Nazar, and Aleksei, from the Kolomna district visited Saltykov, as did a number of cunning men from St. Petersburg: a yard-keeper named Ignatii Nikitin, who lived on Liteinaia Street, the retired soldier Gavril Ivanovych Sarychev, who lived 17 versts from Peterhof (the summer palace of the imperial court), and Vlas Efimovych Maimist, who lived near Oranienbaum - all visited Saltykov. Through the services of Stepan Antonov, steward of Saltykov’s Ukrainian villages and estate Viazovoe, a Ukrainian healer named Nastas’ia Ostafeva from the village Vasilkovo belonging to the Lubenskii regiment was also dispatched to Saltykov’s St. Petersburg residence.

It was only at the beginning of 1758 that the steward Tolmachev came forward and denounced his master. References in the denunciation to “state crimes,” including sprinkling powder in the imperial palace, caught the attention of the Secret Chancellery. Almost all of the sorcerers were investigated, and, like Saltykov in his earlier testimony, gave statements acknowledging their guilt before the Russian Empire’s chief organ of political investigation.

Having taken place on the chamberlain’s numerous landholdings, the incidents and details of Petr Saltykov’s case provide information allowing for a comparative study of Russian and Ukrainian witchcraft[9] and sorcery as well as illustrating the ways in which traditional magical rituals were modified within an urban cultural milieu, and how those rituals were adapted to the changing needs of the period.

How did Petr Saltykov’s servants go about fulfilling their master’s wish to kill his wife and obtain the empress’s favor and to whom did they turn?

Obviously, Chamberlain Petr Saltykov did not seek rational solutions to his problematic relationship with the Empress and his marital woes within court politics or in books; it was not in his nature to do so. No matter how brilliant he appeared dressed in “a green brocade suit with gold braid” or in “a flowered vest,”[10] Saltykov continued to think within the categories of traditional culture and seek solutions to his problems only through magical means. He looked for real sorcerers who knew how to bespoil and bewitch people, believing unconditionally in their existence.

Saltykov was well-acquainted with the figure of the wizard, the magician, and the sorcerer from folkloric texts, folk pictures, and from Russian and foreign literary and ecclesiastic pedagogical tracts. But how easy was it to encounter and recognize this “pictorial,” this “ideal” sorcerer during the second half of the 18th century?

The study of Western-European and Russian materials shows that the “fairy-tale” image of the witch or warlock seldom matched the picture emerging from consideration of “witchcraft trials.”[11] [12] [13] Therefore, questions about the reception of “wise men or women,” healers, witches, sorcerers (“znaiushchie,”, znakhari, veduny, charodei) by society at various times and in various cultures are pertinent.11 Contemporary anthropological studies convincingly demonstrate that the line between magic healing and “wizardry” is very hard to draw. And in reality it was not nearly as easy as it was in literature to distinguish ordinary mortals from “magicians,” nor among the latter to differentiate with certainty “good” magicians from “bad” spoilers and wizards who consorted with unclean spirits^2

According to the testimony of Trofim Zherebets, a peasant horse doctor from Kolomna region, he treated: peasants and their wives according to their wishes for internal, cardiac ailments, and also those who had external wounds... gratis! He searched fields and meadows for the herb known as cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) for heart problems, giving it to them to drink in kvass. For wounds he administered the herb known as bear’s paw (Heracleum villosum)... which he applied to those wounds. And that people sometimes saw benefits from both these herbs (l.ioo).

Ignatii Nikitin, the son of a sacristan from Velikie Luki, who worked as a yard-keeper (dvornik) in St. Petersburg in the Liteinaia part of town, testified that when he once came down with a fever, “some mysterious man, Matvei Grigor’ev’, who lived in the same building, gave him a concoction of cooked “hay dust,” and the fever dissipated. Thereafter Nikitin started to advise other common people who came to him for the recipes “and for that, when people got better they gave him io kopecks and treated him with vodka; he also treated commoners for the French disease, but who exactly he can’t remember except maybe only one - colonel Syslov’s man Ivan ... .” (L58-58 ob.).

Ukrainian Nastas’ia Ostafeva, a peasant healer from outside Putivl’, confessed that having received herbal recipes primarily from her father, she treated,

Ukrainians and their wives according to their wishes for internal, cardiac ailments. And that if a woman was having difficulty in labor she treated that also. And when oxen chafe their necks on the yoke, she treated this. And she treated other wounds without payment, perhaps only accepting some bread. Following what her father taught her, she searched fields and meadows for the herb known in Ukrainian as “garchenets,” administering it for cardiac ailments in water or cabbage soup. And for painful, extended child-birthing she administered the herb known as prosviriak (G. Lavathera?) in water and other ways. And for wounds on oxen she caught moles in the fields, killed them, and dried them, and applied these dried moles. People who received benefit from these herbs and moles and sometimes oxen were healed of their wounds. And that she did not treat anyone for anything except with these herbs... (l.i54 ob.).

Sixty-year-old Vlas Efimovych Maimist who lived near Orienbaum, treated Saltykov’s lover Kozlovskii for stomach pains.

Seventy-six-year-old retired sailor Gavril Ivanovych Sarychev, a boot and shoe-maker, seller of mushrooms, berries, and firewood, “treated ‘the French disease,’ [i.e., venereal disease, by the mid-eighteenth century an important element in the practice of the folk healers of Moscow and Petersburg! E.S.], and stomach and other various ailments with herbs and roots, and other assorted drugs.” By the way, the methodology of treatment outlined by G. I. Sarychev was not especially complicated: in one pot he had raw sea salt, which he gave [to his clients] to drink in water and in kvass over which... he recited an incantation for various illnesses; an herb, the name of which he does not remember, in a bottle, that he applied to the wounds; one white piece of sal ammoniac that he gave [people] to drink for chest pains, one piece also white was “sugar” that he put in eyes, one piece, also white which is called falcon’s salt (salgemmae) he put in eyes too; two yellow pieces of something called devil’s shit (ferula asafoetida) with which he fumigated livestock; a glass containing alum, vitriol and copper carbonate, which he prescribed for wounds and used to treat the French disease; one empty glass containing kanfara (camphor?), which he spread onto arms and legs for muscle pains and swelling, several pebbles and a pig’s tooth, over which he recited spells for various ailments. and with which he rubbed the body (l.82 ob.).

Thus, the testimonies of the participants in the Saltykov case in the Secret Chancellery demonstrate that the search for individuals who could do away with the chamberlain’s wife did not take very long, and that in all cases those so-called “sorcerers” turned out to be healers and quacks who openly healed people and animals. The 1758 Secret Chancellery’s investigation of these healers did not find any harmful roots, grasses, or minerals among them; the officials found only fairly simple treatments for a variety of illnesses. While it is true that in their descriptions of their folk-healing practice, all three - Ignatii Nikitin, Vlas Maimist, and Gavril Sarychev confessed to healing with spells, there was nothing mysterious: the combination in books of cures and herbal remedies of natural recipes and incantatory-invocational texts, canonical prayers and apocrypha would hardly have aroused the suspicion of their contemporaries.[14] All the more so that Ignatii Nikitin and Vlas Maimist tried to impress upon the investigation that they recited prayers to God (162, 88). Only the old man Gavrila Sarychev confessed that he always healed with a real spell that he learned in his childhood from his peasant step-father:

On the sea, on the ocean, on the island of Buyan, there lies a stone, and in the stone a hare, and in the hare a duck, in the duck. [an egg?], and from the egg comes light for servant Vasilii, and I, servant Gavril, enchant and remove [the hex] over this salt ...

(torn) save, Lord, your servant Vasilii from all present and future sickness, and as the arrow shoots, the rock breaks, and the devil kills, thus I, servant Gavrila, remove sickness and sorrow from Vasilii. Fall, sickness... to the ground, and from the ground onto the water., onto the white-hot stone, and from the stone, onto the wild winds, into the dark woods. dry wood, onto the aspen or the b[irch?]. or into the rotten well, and I remove it for all time, unto death and the grave (l.8i).

It was no coincidence that, upon hearing about a healer who could treat the “French disease” and stomach ailments, Chamberlin Saltykov wanted to know right away if that “physician” could bespoil or wither a person or make a person amenable to one’s desires. Clearly, in the minds of Petr Saltykov’s contemporaries there was no clear line between healing and sorcery. Otherwise, the following entries would not have been included in the 1773 Church Dictionary put together by arch-priest Petr Alekseev, a catechist of Moscow University, “Sorcerer - the same as a soothsayer, fortuneteller, sorcerer, poisoner, charmer”; “Herbalist - someone who treats illness with grasses and herbs, or enchants grasses and roots, i.e., a charmer.” It is clear that healer-herbalists, regardless of whether they were free or enser- fed, could not always resist bribes and voluntarily took on the guise of expert sorcerers.

But under cross-examination the accused, witnesses, and the seven “sorcerer-healers” revealed varied approaches to magical ritual, which nonetheless all preserved ancient tradition.

The first who agreed ‘to help’ his lord was a village horse doctor, Trofim Zherebets. In 1754, following Saltykov’s instructions, he had already prepared, “the herb known as cardamine (serdechnik) and told him to put it in her [Saltykov’s wife’s. ES] kvass, assuring him, Saltykov, that if she drank it, she, of course, would die” ( l.1). Saltykov sent this herb via his house-serf also to his mother-in-law, the princess Solntseva-Zasekina, to sprinkle this herb around her house so he could forget about the old lady forever. But the house-serf testified during the investigation that he was afraid to sprinkle the herb and instead threw it away on the road. (l. 113 ob.). This would not be the last time that Saltykov would employ the ancient magical practice of “overstepping” using “magical means.” The next time would not be at the estate of his mother-in-law, but across the paths of Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine.

Saltykov got the magic potion for propitiating Empress Elizabeth from the St. Petersburg folk healer Ignatii Nikitin. Saltykov’s overseer brought his boss to Ignatii on Liteinyi Street. The chamberlain’s conversation with the sorcerer is recorded in the transcript of the investigation:

Upon entering the home of yard-keeper Ignatii Nikitin, Saltykov declared, “Greetings, peasant man, I have something I need to discuss with you! And having spoken these words, he, Saltykov, went with this peasant into another room of the house” (l.14 ob.). Saltykov told him: “I heard that you know how to conduct sorcery, so please do something for me so that my wife would die and at first when she is ill also make such kindness [such a favorable atmosphere] for me so that Her Most Gracious Highness is kind to me and releases me to Moscow.” And Nikitin in deceiving Saltykov and wanting to get money from Saltykov, said, “I will aid you in this, only at the moment I don’t have a drug or grasses ready for your wife. Send your man to me afterwards or come yourself, if you please, and I will send you two vials and some powder with some drug, and you will throw one of the vials on one side of the river and the other on the other side and you will thereby be released to Moscow, and sprinkle that powder in the palace where the sovereign deigns to walk, and if the sovereign walks across that powder, she will be kind to you.” Then, not saying anything more, Saltykov left the house and on the next day in the morning the said Tolmachev came to Nikitin ... and he, Nikitin, having taken the two vials and a paper with powder that were on the second identified partition, gave [them] to the identified Tolmachev, at the same time at which he gave Tolmachev [a plaster] to affix to that “hidden knot” [i.e, to his penis, as treatment for “the French disease.” ES] ... And Saltykov took that paper, saying to him, “well, old man, ifyou make the sovereign kind and I am released to Moscow, then I will give you thirty rubles,” and he, Nikitin, told Saltykov: “Don’t worry, it will be done, I visit many people in the palace!” Then Saltykov, having taken leave of him, left the house (L59 -60 ob.).

There are in this remarkable conversation between Saltykov and the wizard-doorman, it seems, all the necessary ingredients of a traditional magic ritual: the speaking of words, the use, in reduced form, of the symbolism of the right and left banks of the river and a magical “overstepping” with magical means. And it turns out, Saltykov fulfilled all the requirements of this action at the Winter Palace. He:

took this powder, and holding onto it for only a couple days, went to the palace - he does not remember the month and the day, only that on that day there was a reception at court - and arriving at court, upon entering the front room sprinkled the powder into his hand from the paper, made a fist, and having passed the guards in grenadier uniform, at the door from which her imperial majesty typically deigns to come into the gallery, scattered this powder from his hand onto the floor, because he, in the words of the peasant testifying, truly believed that if the all-gracious [sovereign - torn] would [step over - torn] this powder she would be gracious to him... (l.i6 ob. - 17; my emphasis, E.S.)

Meanwhile, when Ignatii Nikitin’s “sorcery” failed, according P.V.Saltykov, the search for a “real” sorcerer continued. This time the chamberlain met with sixty-year-old Vlas Efimovich Maimist. When Maimist healed Vasilii Kozlovskii’s stomach pains in 1756, the chamberlain’s lover inquired whether Vlas could do anything to have Kozlovskii’s lord “released to Moscow.” The solicitous healer was soon at the chamberlain’s estate and in mid-eighteenth century St. Petersburg another fully traditional magic ritual was performed: Saltykov received Maimist in the bathhouse, where a magic spell was spoken over an herb, and the sorcerer instructed that the “magical” herb be put “under the heel” (l. 21 ob.). Nobleman Petr Saltykov performed the role assigned to him in this magic ritual as well: he put the herb in his shoe, “and walked on it when he asked to be released to Moscow, only he was not released to Moscow.” Only after this obvious failure “Saltykov, seeing that there was no benefit whatsoever from this herb, thew the herb away...” (l.23 ob.) and demanded that he be sent new sorcerers.

Soon Saltykov was informed that at his Kolomna estate near the village of Vasil’evskoe two peasants, Nazar and Alexei, had been found, and that Stepan Ivanov, the steward from the Ukrainian estate in village of Viazovoe, had found a Ukrainian wizardess. The new “magicians” apparently agreed to help Saltykov resolve the issue with his wife and gain the sovereign’s favor. According to the testimony of Saltykov’s lover (the cross-examination testimony of Nazar and Alexei has not been preserved, perhaps they were not interrogated), Nazar went outside, and then returned to the house and handed over “a gray root,” so that “the lord would wear this [root - torn] around his neck,” Alexei also went outside and going in the house delivered “white wax”, and upon handing over this wax, Alexei said to him, Kozlovskii, the same thing that “the witness Nazar had said” (L52). Kozlovskii mentions nothing about any magic words or actions from either of the two “magicians”, but both the root and the wax - typically after uttering a spell over them - were important objects in magic rituals of “protection.” And Saltykov “tied this root and wax together with a ribbon and wore it around his neck” (l.52 ob.), and threw them in the outhouse only just before his arrest and the start of the investigation.

The testimony given by steward Stepan Antonov and sorceress Nastas’ia Ostafeva contains remarkable details about the realization of a St. Petersburg nobleman’s dreams by means of magic rituals from the Ukrainian, rather than the Russian tradition. Thus, Nastas’ia Ostafieva gave instructions to complete the following ritual of sympathetic magic:

In order to live in harmony with one’s wife. you need to take a black chemise your lady has taken off and boil it. Then take the place with her sweat under the arm and wash it in clean water. Then boil this herb in the water. Having boiled it, give her to drink this herb in place of tea, and his lordship should drink it also. And having drunk three cups each God will send them harmony, and her ladyship will no longer be upset about Kozlovskii and will be kind to him (L149-149 ob.) [my emphasis E.S.].

The abbreviated written descriptions of magical acts carried out by order of Petr Vasil’evich Saltykov demonstrate the existence of a variety of magical material components - grasses, roots, salt, wax, sweat - and the intersection of a number of different regional traditions (Kolomna, Velikie Luki, the Northwest, Moscow, and Putivl’ in Ukraine[15] [16]) which have retained features of ancient magical practices.15

Nevertheless, there are many incomplete descriptions and contradictions between the written descriptions contained in Saltykov’s case and the well-studied techniques for the proper execution out of magical rituals. First, it is important to point out that Petr Saltykov’s goal actually requires the use of maleficent means, i.e., a demonic source and apostasy. However, during the investigation of Saltykov’s case before the Secret Chancellery the investigators never found evidence of “black magic.” The individual instances of demonic acts - Vlas Maimist’s incantations in the bathhouse, the placing of a magical item under Saltykov’s heel, and the preparation of a concoction with the object of having a magical effect on an individual - are not sufficient in themselves for a malevolent act or an act of bewitchment involving incantations.

Nowhere in the case do the so-called sorcerers besmirch the name of God. Instead, they refer to God in a deferential fashion. Trofim Zherebets, in answer to the landowner’s [Saltykov’s] displeasure, (“you give me herbs and roots, but they are of no use, and you know they are the wrong ones. You should be whipped for this,”), said, “it’s all God’s will, it must be that God protects [them] (that is, Saltykov’s wife and mother-in-law - ES)” (1.ii8-ii8 ob.); “Nastas’ia [Ostafeva - E.S.]... said that when she prays to God and God helps her - then his lord and his wife will then live in harmony, and his wife will obey him.” (I.146), Sarychev, “said., that he helped his imperial highness’s chamberlain Lev Aleksandrovich Naryshkin, and that now his imperial highness especially favors him, Naryshkin, and that he,

Naryshkin, prays to God for him [the wizard Sarychev - E.S.]” (I.22); Nastas’ia made herself look better in similar fashion, “Nastas’ia said to him, Antonov, that she also helped Roman Lukianovich Strutinskii ..., that he would forever pray to God for her and that he would never abandon her because of what she did for him” (l.i44; my emphasis everywhere - E.S.).

To whom exactly did chamberlain Petr Vasil’evich Saltykov appeal in 1754-1758 for help in realizing his desires to exterminate his wife and gain the favor of the Empress, to luckless folk healers or to sorcerers? If they were sorcerers, then why did none of them supposedly know how to summon evil forces, like Nastas’ia Ostafeva, who feared destroying her soul?

The folk healers subpoenaed to the Secret Chancellery could, of course, have been lying, but they unanimously maintained that they did not practice magic, sorcery, or heretical acts. Perhaps Saltykov was not able to locate any real sorcerers and those he approached were not actually “knowers,” keepers of secret magical practices? I do not believe that even on the basis of such an informative source as the Saltykov case we can draw such conclusions. An analysis of two hundred investigative court cases regarding sorcery and witchcraft in eighteenth-century Russia leads us to the conclusion that such investigations very rarely succeeded in determining whether someone was a sorcerer or witch.[17] Well-known admissions of magical “bespoiling,” as in Saltykov’s case, did not involve apostasy or the recitation of ancient “black incantations.” All this once again demonstrates that looking for academic logic in the presentation of popular conceptions must be undertaken with extreme caution and that one must admit that even if this logic can be traced, then it comes from the outside, during interrogation, at the collision of “popular” and “scholarly” cultures.

At the end of the 1750s, when actions were taken against Petr Saltykov, the investigation could not include questions about apostasy and service to the devil due to Enlightenment ideas and the fact that such questions were no longer under the purview of the Secret Chancellery, an organ for political investigation. Accordingly, the answers given by all of the “sorcerers” identified by Saltykov’s servants did not evince any admission of apostasy.

In frequently repeating Anna Ioannovna’s decree of 1731, which identified sorcerers only as “shammers,” the state succeeded in getting Russian

“sorcerers” to admit frequently to swindling and deceiving people as a way of diverting attention from charges of apostasy and heresy. Using every type of tactic for their defense, village healers Trofim Zherebets (a Russian) and Nastas’ia Ostafeva (a Ukrainian) assured their interrogators that they had healed their co-villagers without taking any money from them as payment. The St. Petersburg healers, on the other hand, were ready to acknowledge that their treatments brought in a specific income. All of the individuals involved with magic in Saltykov’s case likewise acknowledged that they had been deceitful, swindling those subordinated to the landowner, so as to avoid being indicted for maleficent magic and “religious crime.” For “a contract with the devil,” the penalty was death by burning at the stake (The 1715 Military Code, chapter 1). For example, serf Trofim Zherebets insisted that he gave the herb to Saltykov “tricking him [Saltykov - E.S.],” “not to kill anyone, but because I was scared of my owner’ (l. 100 ob.) [my emphasis - E.S.]. Vlas Maimist affirmed that he agreed to recite a magic formula in the bathhouse, “to trick that person and wishing to get money from this lord” (F87 ob.).

Free peasant Nastas’ia Ostafeva, who, according to her own words, performed folk healing typically “without being paid, perhaps only accepting some bread,” was better than the others at getting paid for her “labors.” At her first meeting with Saltykov’s emissary she answered evasively, performing the complex etiquette of negotiations with a “client” and in doing so inflating her worth substantially.

And Nastas’ia, in response, said to him, Antonov, that she could take a look (what exactly she could look for Nastas’ia did not say and he, Antonov, didn’t ask questions about it) as to why his lord and his lady were not living in harmony, only that Nastas’ia could not do anything without the presence of his lord himself in the village and that his lord should come visit her in the village, and that she would question him in detail, and also he (Antonov) should write to his lord that his lord should give her, Nastas’ia, something for her work (za trudy). Nastas’ia told him, Antonov, that she had done [similar work] for Roman Lukianovich Strutinskii ... (Here Nastas’ia hints that Strutinskii had paid her for her work. L144; everywhere my emphasis - E.S.).

At their next meeting, Nastas’ia raised the question of payment directly, “I have worked hard, and have gotten nothing for my labors.” And he, Antonov, gave Nastas’ia a sheepskin coat and a mare from the horses he arrived with at the village of Vasilkovo for Saltykov’s request and his letter and then asked Nastas’ia what he should tell his master when he returns, (l.146). And she answered: “Tell him, that she will not go anywhere or do anything without payment” (l.146).

There was not the slightest bit of mystery to the negotiations of the Petersburg “wizards.” They typically earned 10 kopecks (like Ignatii Nikitin) or 25 kopecks (Vlas Maimist for fortunetelling (за ворожбу) in Saltykov’s bathhouse), or 30 kopecks (Gavril Sarychev’s curing Kozlovskii of stomach pains); Saltykov encouraged them with promises of 30 roubles in case of success, but never paid anybody anything.

Thus the authorities’ wishful thinking that sorcery could be eliminated, having identified it as swindling the intellectually challenged (decree of 1731), or “laughable superstition” (Spiritual Regulations), led performers of magical acts themselves to declaratively label their practices “fraudulent” or, what was also not uncommon, worthy of a “childish mind.” However, it seems that belief in magic not only among the accused and witnesses, but also among those in law enforcement, both detectives and spiritual advisors, was very slow to give way to a rationalistic view of magic as “deception and fraud.” The Enlightenment interpretation of magic as superstition, worthy of ridicule was a view shared by very few; the Empress Elizabeth was not among them.[18] Only Catherine the Great would cardinally change the practice of persecuting witchcraft.

At the end of the reign of Elizabeth Petrovna in 1758 almost all of these healers and luckless “magicians” faced Petr Vasilievich Saltykov and his attendants at the Secret Chancellery. The investigation lasted until the end of 1758. The imperial verdict meant corporal punishment and forced conscription in the army for Saltykov’s accomplices, remote exile for the “magicians,” and perpetual monastic servitude for the “witch.” Only Trofm Vasilievich Zherebets and Vlas Efimov Maimist, who died in the Secret Chancellery in mid-December 1758, escaped punishment.

Thanks to the intervention of Empress Elizabeth, Peter Saltykov escaped corporal punishment, but his sentence was harsh all the same: “Exile to Solovetskii Monastery to live without ever being allowed to leave,” “under guard to repent of crimes against God.” He was stripped of all rank and all his property, minus debts, was transferred to his wife Mariia Fedorovna and underage son Vasilii (l.108-108 ob.).

With delivery of the verdict, the long story of Petr Vasilievich Saltykov does not end. Upon the death of Elizabeth Petrovna, Peter III remembered his former court chamberlain and decided to ease his hardship. In December 1761 an edict was issued in the Emperor’s name “to take this Saltykov from the Solovetskii Monastery and send him to the smallest of his villages able to maintain him and to keep him, Saltykov, in that village, under heavy guard, not ever allowing him to leave that village, nor letting any outsiders visit him, nor letting him write any letters” (part 2, l. 5 ob.-6), “let him live in this village decently, never leaving it nor bringing the peasants to ruin” (l.258 ob.).

However, Saltykov’s ordeals and isolation in Solovetskii Monastery did nothing to lessen his belief in magic and sorcery. The former chamberlain kept his hope of influencing the Empress, this time Catherine the Great, with magic. And thus on June 26th, 1764, the new steward of the village of Viazsovoe, Petr Chertorylskii reported, “Saltykov, through his peasant woman Agrafena Varfolomeyeva, is committing heresy in attempting to gain the favor of Her IMPERIAL MAJESTY... .”

An investigation was launched in the Secret Expedition of the Senate about the new Ukrainian sorceress’s magic. Certain very interesting details were revealed:

In the year [i]762 in the first days of October. the above-cited Agrafena stood outside totally naked with her hair down with unknown herbs and with a pot of water on the ground opposite her; standing there she stared at the stars and at the water whispering spells. and in that same month of October Saltykov sent the husband of this woman to Moscow,.. and when about two weeks later this woman was asked by Chertorylskii while walking through the yard of the manor house if her husband would be returning soon from Moscow, she answered that he would be back soon from Moscow with a decree releasing her lord from house arrest, and that she knew this from her magic, by which Saltykov would gain the favor of HER IMPERIAL MAJESTY, and with which magic her husband had been sent to Moscow by Saltykov (l.i7 ob.).

Steward Petr Chertorylskii’s testimony, obviously, was immediately reported to the Empress. When in 1765 Saltykov’s relatives of the same name, Field Marshal Petr Vasilievich Saltykov and Cavalier Count Petr Semenovich Saltykov, interceded on his behalf, Catherine wrote the following sentence in her own hand:

1) Not to punish the informer Pert Chertorylskii in anyway, but to draft him into the army if he is fit, if he is unfit, transfer him along with his family and all his possessions to Orenburg for resettlement having equipped him with as much money for the road and for his resettlement as you see fit, for his information was, as the case demonstrates, on the whole, was correct.

  • 3) Have sorceress peasant woman Agrafena and her husband interrogated, as far as possible, by the Military and the Belgopolskaia State Chancelleries, and upon interrogation punish her severely so that from that point on she will not tempt simple folk with impossible delusions and not terrify them with absurdfables;
  • 4) Inform prisoner Petr Saltykov of our decree, that he, experiencing pangs of conscience for his crimes, will live quietly and peacefully, asking God absolution of his sins and seeking no more to find impious and ineffectual methods like that woman’s dissolute magic. If going forward there is any information against him, then he will once again, having been subjected to our displeasure, be of course exiled to a monastery in the most remote corner of our empire.[19]
  • 5) [send a new guard detail]... they should watch him more closely, keeping him from committing frantic deeds.” (l.24 ob.-25; everywhere my emphasis. Е.С. ).

Catherine’s sentence concerning Saltykov differed noticeably from the sentence dating from the time of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, but this sentence also showed that the authorities’ attitudes to “superstitions” and belief in magic were still not clearly defined in the 1760s. In the spirit of the ideas of the Enlightenment, magic was described in the sentence as “ineffectual,” “frivolous,” “impossible delusions,” the temptation of “simple people,” and “absurd fables.” However, just like her predecessors, Catherine called the practice of magic “impious” requiring “absolution of sins” and in this way maintaining traditional church teachings. Finally, the sentence rendered in the “spirit of the Enlightenment” did not curtail the practice of persecuting witchcraft: participation in “impossible delusions,” was punished by knouting, flogging, exile or impressment, and in

Saltykov’s case, the reinforcement of his guard with “a detachment of soldiers.”[20]

There is no reason to see the Enlightenment-inspired measures against “superstition” in Russia in the second half of the 18th century as a great success. The case of Saltykov’s “sorcery” brought the diametrically opposed cultures of the court elite and the masses into confrontation. But even opposites can come together. As it turned out, the magic beliefs of the masses and medical practices of archaic traditional culture continued to attract adherents at court, getting along just fine in a high-culture, “Europeanized” environment. The chasm that lay between the culture of the aristocratic court elite and popular culture in the 18th century was not unbridgeable, although possible meetings/clashes between these two cultures sometimes took on rather strange configurations.

Nonetheless, the case of Petr Vasilievich Saltykov was one of the last major “witchcraft trials” conducted by the central investigative bodies of the Russian Empire. Investigations of witchcraft cases, which legislation of the 1780s brought into the jurisdiction of the collegiate police organs (upravy blagochiniia), gradually became rarer and less celebrated in the period of Catherine the Great.

Translation by John Wesley Hill and Christine Worobec.

  • [1] Elena Smilianskaia is Professor of Russian History in the National Research University‘Higher School of Economics’ (Moscow). She is the author of Voishebniki. Bogokhulniki.Eretiki: narodnaia reiigioznost' i “dukhovnye prestupieniia” v Rossii XVIIIv. (Moscow: Indrik,2003), and of of several books and articles on the cultural history of eighteenth centuryRussia and on Russian Old Believers and their book culture. Her publications includeDvorianskaye Gnezdo v Rossii serediny XVIII veka (Moscow: Nauka, 1998), and, withco-authors, Rossiia v Sredizemnomor’e. Archipelagskaia expeditsiia Ekateriny Velikoi(Moscow: Indrik, 2011).
  • [2] Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts [RGADA], f 7, op. 1, d. 1852 (parts 1-3). Henceforthin the text references are to folia in the first part.
  • [3] About Bezobrazov’s case: A. Truvorov, “Volkhvy i vorozhei na Rusi v XVII v.,” Istoricheskiivestnik, no. 6 (1889): 701-715; about N.B. Pushkin’s case: A.S. Lavrov, Koldovstvo i religiia vRossii, 1700-1740gg. (Moscow: Drevlekhranilishche, 2000), 331, 332, 334, 336.
  • [4] The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, a new translation by Mark Cruse and HildeHoogenboom (New York : Modern Library, 2006), 92.
  • [5] Elena B. Smilianskaia, Volshebniki. Bogokhul’niki. Eretiki. Narodnaia religioznost i ‘du-khovniye prestupleniia’ v Rossii XVIII v.’ (Moscow: Indrik, 2003), 333-361 (list of the eighteenthcentury trial cases).
  • [6] The memoirs of Catherine the Great, 92.
  • [7] The estate archive of Petr Saltylov is preserved in part two of Secret Chancellery case(RGADA,f 7, op. 1, d. 1852. Part 2.).
  • [8] For other divorce cases in the Saltykov family see for instance: Mikhail Semevskii, Ocherkii razskazy iz russkoi istorii XVIII v. Tsaritsa Praskovia. 1664-1723 (St.Petersburg: tip.V.S.Balasheva, 1884), 62-76.
  • [9] The participation of two “witches” from Putivl’ and seven male Russian sorcerers in magical affairs having to do with Saltykov can provide additional evidence for the debate concerning the gender specificity of Eastern Slavic witchcraft, in which there is a tendency toview Ukrainian and Southern Russian witchcraft as mainly the domain of women and theNorthern Russian variety as primarily a male occupation. The gender division in this smallsample supports that general finding.
  • [10] RGADAf 7, op. 1, d 1852,part2, l. 298 (Register of expenditures of Petr Saltykov's clothes.).
  • [11] See, for instance, A. Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbours. The Social and CulturalContext of European Witchcraft (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996); William F. Ryan,The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia (UniversityPark, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999); Smilianskaia, Volshebniki.Bogokhul’niki. Eretiki, 78-118; Lavrov, Koldovstvo i religiia v Rossii, 89-132.
  • [12] Compare Samuel C. Ramer, “Traditional Healers and Peasant Culture in Russia, 18611917,” in Peasant Economy, Culture, and Politics of European Russia, 1800-1921, ed. EsterKingston-Mann and Timothy Mixer (Princeton University Press, 1991), 211-212.
  • [13] See, for instance, Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbours; William F. Ryan, The Bathhouseat Midnight.
  • [14] See, for instance, M.Yu. Lakhtin, “Starinnye pamiatniki meditsinskoi pis’mennosti”,Zapiski Moskovskogo arkheologicheskogo instituta XVII (1912); Vasilii M. Florinskii, Russkieprostonarodnye travniki i lechebniki (Kazan’: tipografiia Imperatorskogo universiteta, 1879);Nikolay Ya. Novombergskii, Vrachebnoe stroenie v do-petrovskoi Rusi (Tomsk: Sibirskoe tova-rishchestvo pechatnogo dela, 1907); Alexandra Ippolitova, Russkie rukopisnye travnikiXVII-XVUI vekov: issledovaniyefolklora i etnobotaniki (Moscow: Indrik, 2008); Andrey L. Toporkov,Zagovory v russkoi rukopisnoi traditsii XV - XIX vv.: istoriia, simvolika, poetika (Moscow:Indrik, 2005).
  • [15] Peasants Trofim Zherebets, Nazar and Alexei lived in the Kolomna uezd, Ignatii Nikitichwas from Velikie Luki, Vlas Maimist was “Russian and Orthodox” but his place of birth is notestablished, Gavrila Sarychev was descended from peasants from the Ruza river.
  • [16] Magic ritual preserves stable features even in cases when it is applied to innovationsforeign to traditional culture. For instance, in 1757 “the wizard” Sarychev slightly modifiedthe text of a spell to cure fever to make a spell for luck at cards games (ll. 81-81 b.).
  • [17] More about it: Elena B. Smilianskaia, “Witches, Blasphemers, and Heretics. PopularReligiosity and ‘Spiritual Crimes’ in Eighteenth-Century Russia,” Russian Studies in History45, no 4 (Spring 2007): 35-52. Compare: Richard Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials. 1300-1500(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).
  • [18] Smilianskaia, “Witches, Blasphemers, and Heretics”, 65.
  • [19] Petr Saltykov lived under house arrest until 1796. Upon ascending to the throne Paul I,on December 11th, 1796 signed permission for “former chamberlain Petr Saltykov to bereleased from house arrest due to his age and infirmity and release him to the care of his son,secret advisor and chamberlain Vasilii Petrovich Saltykov” (Part 2, l. 8). Was Paul perhapskind to Petr Vasilievich because he suspected his secret kinship with him? The cited description of Petr Vasilievich by Catherine, “large static eyes, a turned-up nose, and a perpetuallyopen mouth.” suggest that Paul took after his possible “uncle” Petr rather than the handsome Sergei. This supposition was articulated in Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age ofCatherine the Great (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1981), 11.
  • [20] As we know, the Russian power structure did not close the book on prosecutions for‘political sorcery’ until the 1860s, when an article was added to the Criminal Code [ Ugolovnoeulozhenie] to the effect that wizardly designs could be made against the monarch withimpunity, being an “attempt to assassinate by manifestly unfit means” (art. 49).
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