For a nineteenth-century Russian nobleman, honor was paramount. Any insult instantly led to a duel. They were so frequent in the era of Alexander Pushkin that the government began to fear for the number of young noblemen. Even the threat of exile to Siberia didn’t stop desperate duelists. Surprisingly, dueling wasn’t historical for Russia – it appeared only at the instigation of Europeans, in the 18th century. The first “duels of honor” were looked upon with surprise and even disdain by people.
The Duel with the Sword and Dagger, Jacques Callot, 1617.Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain
While in Europe, the heyday of dueling was in the 16th-17th centuries, in the Moscow tsardom of the same era, duels were perceived as savage, unruly acts. Jacques Margeret, a French mercenary who served in Russia under tsar Boris Godunov, noted: “Among Russians, there are no duels at all – firstly, because they always go unarmed, except for wartime or travel; secondly, because the person offended by words appeals to the court, which determines the punishment for ‘dishonoring’.” According to Margeret, this order is explained by the severity of the law: independent resolution of disputes by duels was not allowed, so that the Russians did not arrogate to themselves “the power of justice, which alone has the right to try and prosecute crimes”.
This state of affairs was maintained in Russia throughout the 17th century, while Europeans dueled relentlessly. Pyotr Tolstoy, a statesman who went to Europe in 1697 to study navigation, witnessed a duel between Polish nobles – and was shocked. “Poles… cannot do any business without a fight and for that they go out into the field to be killed,” Tolstoy wrote with disdain.
Did Tolstoy not understand that the duel was about honor? Of course he did – this is why he uses the word ‘field’. In Russian, ‘field’ (поле, polye) was the name for trial by combat that was declared if the plaintiff and the defendant could not come to an agreement and there were no witnesses who could confirm the rightness of one or the other side.
The tradition of “field” among the Russians was very old. As far back as the 10th century, the Arab historian Al-Maqdisi wrote: “When the tsar decides a dispute between two litigants and they are dissatisfied with his decision, then he tells them: settle it with swords.” And indeed, the Russians preferred to solve complex disputes "in the field" – they had to pay a fee for the trial, and they could either fight on their own or – if the inequality between opponents was obvious – hire a fighter. The fighters were allowed to be used by the old, crippled, underage, women or clergymen. But, if a woman fought against a woman, fighters were forbidden to be called upon.
An illustration from a fencing book by Francesco Fernando AlfieriPublic domain
The Russian “field” was, in essence, a trial by ordeal, a “judgment of God”. However, while in Europe, ordeals were held by fire and water, in Russia, it was believed that God would be on the side of the right one in a judicial duel. The practice of “field” peaked in the 16th century; however, in the 17th century the “field” began to disappear. The new Russian code of laws, the Sobornoye Ulozhenie (Council Code) of 1649, does not mention this opportunity to resolve disputes. At the same time, the first recorded duel in Russia took place in 1637, even before the adoption of the Council Code – and it was a fight between two foreigners.
The causes of the duel, according to historian Alexander Savinov, were money debt and alcohol intoxication. On June 6, 1637, Peter Falck, a German in Russian service, was visited by another foreigner, a sergeant named Thomas Grelles, who demanded the repayment of a two-ruble debt. Grelles was drunk and hit Falck on the head with the hilt of the sword – according to the European tradition of that time, hitting an adversary’s hand with a hilt meant a challenge to a duel.
As Falck’s wife Anna testified, they began “swearing and making noise and scolding and went out of the yard,” while frightened Anna ran away and hid in the bathhouse. There were no witnesses to the duel, but Grelles was later found dead in a pool of blood.
Rapier, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, late 17th centuryMoscow Kremlin Museums
According to the Russian laws of the time, killing someone in a duel was equal to plain murder. The investigation used to beat out a confession with torture in those days – but Falck stood firm: Grelles, according to Falck, himself “ran up”, “bumped into” the tip of his sword. The investigation lasted almost three years, and although Falck’s direct guilt was not proven, he still died in prison.
In the second half of the 17th century, duels between foreigners in Russian service became more frequent. In 1665, there was a duel between German captain Christopher Uhlmann and Scottish captain George Smith. The reason for the duel was, again, a debt for wine. Uhlmann, trying to portray the duel as self-defense, testified that Smith had “cut” himself on the point of his sword – but could not justify himself. On the late Smith’s side came the whole of Moscow's Scottish society, led by General Patrick Gordon, perhaps the most influential foreigner in Russian service. Uhlmann, at first condemned to be beheaded, was left alive – but without his legs and left arm. On May 30, 1666, General Patrick Gordon himself had a duel with an Englishman by the last name of Montgomery – however, it did not come to blood, the disputants were separated by their friends.
A pair of horse-pistols, Italy, Brescia, last quarter of the 17th centuryMoscow Kremlin Museums
What about the Russians? According to Margeret, the very essence of the duel was alien to them. “Russians do not like to pick on words: they are very simple in their attitude and say ‘you’ to everyone; and, before that, they were even simpler… But now that foreigners have appeared among them, Russians are weaning themselves off the rudeness that had been the custom for twenty or thirty years before that,” Margeret wrote.
The desire to imitate foreigners, imposed on the Russians by Peter the Great, bore its fruit: in 1702, the first duel between Russians happened. At a party, the sergeant of the Preobrazhensky regiment Ivan Schepotiev kicked the lieutenant of the same regiment Semen Izmailov “in his behind.” The latter responded in the same way, a fight ensued and a challenge to a duel. Both rivals survived, with minor wounds. But Tsar Peter, learning about the duel, was furious – he ordered “to beat them both with whips, so that others would not even dare to do the same” and to demote them to the rank of soldiers. The case was somehow hushed up and both officers remained in their ranks, only having served time in the brig.
General Patrick GordonPublic Domain
Unlike many other European habits, duels, according to Tsar Peter, should have not become habitual in Russia – in Peter’s logic, the life of a military man belongs first and foremost to his homeland, so he can’t just risk it in a duel. In 1715, Peter decreed in the ‘Military Code’: “No insult can diminish the honor of the offended in any way.” Further, the tsar ordered the execution of all duelists. However, the severity of the law was compensated by the optionality of its execution – no actual cases of the death penalty for dueling were ever recorded.
“European” duels in Russia began to take place only in the late 18th century, when it became fashionable for young noblemen to go to Europe to study, which meant that the notion of honor, in its European sense, became fashionable, as well. Nevertheless, public opinion about dueling remained ambiguous. “Prejudices, not received from ancestors, but adopted or imported, are alien [to Russians]” – this is what empress Catherine II wrote about duels. The empress, of course, was not interested in the self-destruction of the ruling class as a result of duels. In 1787, her ‘Manifesto on duels’ was published, according to which participants in bloodless duels (including doctors and seconds) were fined and the offender (instigator of the duel) was to be exiled to Siberia.
By the end of the 19th century, however, dueling became quite common in Russia, and numerous dueling codes were out in print. And the duel itself turned into a kind of exotic show with spectators and photographers.
You can learn more about the history of the duel in Russia at the exhibition ‘The Duel. From God’s judgment to the noble crime’, which runs in the Moscow Kremlin Museums from May 13, 2022, to Augusr 14, 2022. The exhibition features more than 140 unique exhibits, many of which will be exhibited for the first time.
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