On October 2, 1768, Empress Catherine the Great convicted landlady Darya Saltykova of brutality to her serfs – the recorded number of her victims alone amounted to 139 people.
Although serfdom existed in Russia for centuries, generally known for the arbitrariness of the landlords and displays of unprecedented violence of the masters towards their slaves, Darya Saltykova – often referred to as Saltychikha – was one to go beyond any possible boundary in her cruelty.
Darya Saltykova was not prone to sadism in her early years. She came from a common family, and only entered aristocratic circles by successfully marrying an officer, Gleb Saltykov, of a very high descent. Unfortunately, Saltykova’s married life was ended abruptly by the tragic death of her husband when she was only 26. Becoming one of the richest landowners in Russia with over 600 serfs, she simultaneously hardened and started to display outbreaks of incredible violence toward her subjects, chiefly the women. This fact is accounted for by her unrequited love for a land surveyor, who had an affair with her, but later married another woman. An infuriated Saltykova decided to kill her unfaithful lover and his sweetheart with a bomb, specially designed for that purpose. Only an anonymous letter warning the unfortunate lover about the impending assault saved him from the inevitable death.
Saltychikha was particularly intolerant towards young girls, seeing them as the major threat to herself and a plague of humankind. In most cases she tortured her maids with her own hands and for no particular reason. She would hit them on the head with rolling pins, logs, steamers, sometimes hot. She would burn their hair or pull it out; she dipped her victims in boiling water and tore their ears off. Some victims were starved to death or kept outside in the cold until they froze. When she got tired of torturing them, she ordered her footmen to carry on in her stead.
Though normally not in the position to complain, her serfs still filed 21 complaints against their sadistic mistress regardless. Saltykova, having vast connections among the law enforcement agencies, still didn’t escape the law. Yermolay Ilyin, a serf whose three wives had been tortured to death by Saltychikha, managed to pass a note to Empress Catherine the Great, asking her to bring the hand of justice down upon the monster. Reluctant to openly condemn an aristocrat, but very eager to be “a mother for the Russian people” as she had promised, the Empress finally decided to open a lawsuit against Slatykova. This decision solidified as she was dismayed to hear witnesses talking about Saltykova’s brutality and violence. As many had witnessed against her, Saltykova was finally found guilty.
Condemning her as a “monster of humankind”, the Empress didn’t dare violate the abolishment of the death penalty decree of 1754 by putting Slatykova to death. Instead, she convicted her to a life sentence. Saltykova was stripped of her aristocracy rank and put on display on Red Square, tied up to the pillory with the tablet “tormenter and murderer” on her chest. Then she was placed into the convent dungeon, her cell so small no light could get through, confining the prisoner to a life of eternal darkness. The only candle was lit up when she had meals. Legend has it that in prison, Saltykova had an affair with her security guard and even had a child with him. In the summer people came to see Saltychikha as if she had been some sort of a hideous wonder. Saltychikha spit at them and tried to hit them with a stick. In 1779, she was relocated to a tiny cell, adjacent to the convent, where she spent the rest of her life, dying in 1801.