Who was Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova?
Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova, otherwise known as Saltichikha, was a Russian noblewoman, landowner, sadist, and serial killer who was successfully convicted and imprisoned for murdering 38 people, mostly girls and women. She has come to be regarded as the epitome of boyar abuse of serfs in pre-reformation Russia. Raised in an affluent and noble family, she was married young to Gleb Alexeyevich Saltykov and had two children with him. After her husband’s death when she was 26 years old, she inherited his large estate and became the richest widow in Moscow. Soon enough, she gained considerable power and influence in the imperial administration. She was a pious woman and regularly donated considerable amounts of money to churches and monasteries. Sometime during the early years of her widowhood, she began an affair with a young man named Nikolay Tyutchev. However, it ended abruptly, leaving her angry and bitter. She took out all that anger and bitterness on her serfs, especially on women and girls. She tortured them by progressively cruel means. While her crimes were often reported by the families of her victims, they were either ignored or the complainants themselves punished by the authorities. Eventually, her serfs went directly to Empress Catherine II, who ordered her arrest and subsequent investigation and trial. She was found guilty of murdering 38 serfs when actually she had killed about a 100 more. She was sentenced to life in prison and ultimately died in 1801.
Childhood & Early Life
Darya Nikolayevna Ivanova was born on November 3, 1730, in the Russian Empire. Her parents, Nikolai Avtonomovich Ivanov and Anna Ivanovna Davydova, had connections with Davidovs, Musin-Pushkins, and Tolstoy’s family. Little is known about her early life. Russian aristocracy was undergoing rapid westernisation during this period with the changes Peter the Great brought about. Darya Nikolayevna Ivanova most probably grew up wearing clothes of contemporary European fashion and reading European texts.
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Marriage & Subsequent Widowhood
Darya Nikolayevna Ivanova got married quite early by contemporary standards, to the noble Gleb Alexeyevich Saltykov, who was the uncle of Nikolay Ivanovich Saltykov, a count, Russian Field Marshal and imperial courtier, and eventually prince of the Russian Empire. The Saltykovs were one of the most powerful and influential families in Russia. They had land, wealth, and a direct connection to the Russian throne.
The union produced two sons: Theodore (1750–1801) and Nicholas (d. 1775). Darya Saltykova lost her husband at the age of 26. She subsequently became the richest widow in Moscow. Following her husband’s death, she became the owner of the beautiful estate near Moscow called Troitskoe. She lived there with Theodore and Nicholas and also had about 600 serfs living in the property.
During her marriage, no one gave her any special attention beyond what the money and power of her husband’s family could garner. She appeared gloomy and reserved to most. A pious woman, she gave money to monasteries and churches on a regular basis
It was during this period that she became acquainted with a young and handsome man, Nikolay Tyutchev, who would eventually become the grandfather of the renowned Russian poet, Fyodor Tyutchev. She was progressively getting older and lonely, and the affair boosted her spirits significantly. It was driven by both desperation and passion.
The relationship came to a jarring halt after she discovered that Nikolay was also in a relationship with a young girl and had secretly married her in a church. It infuriated her beyond bearing. She tried to kill her unfaithful lover and nearly succeeded. Nikolay and his wife decided to run to his relatives’ estate in Moscow, and from there, they quickly journeyed out of the region. Darya Saltykova wanted to kill them both but opportunity was lost.
Torture and Killings of the Serfs
Following her lover’s escape, she poured out all her anger, fury, and bitterness in the treatment of her serfs. While the historians argue that there was no definite cause behind Darya Saltykova’s sudden turn to cruelty, it did start occurring after her erstwhile lover made his successful escape.
It began with incidents, which, in that world, were quite normal. She abused the serf girls and no one took any notice of that. Soon, she began hurling logs at them for various reasons, for instance, if they had failed to perform something like cleaning the house to her satisfaction.
The condition of the serfs soon further deteriorated. It was mostly the young girls and women who faced her wrath. She despised them all. For her, the younger the victims were, the better it was. All the serf women living in her property reminded her of the young woman for whom Nikolay had left her. She considered them her rivals. She tortured children and pregnant women by beating them, breaking their bones, and ordering them to be left out in the forest, naked. She was also known to pour boiling water over the bodies of her victims.
While she did kill men, those deaths were infrequent. Among the victims, only three were men. She sought to punish them by killing their loved ones: wives, mothers, and daughters. A sadist of the worst kind, she gained pleasure from the misery of her victims.
The serfs did not endure the violence silently. They reported the crimes diligently but to no effect. She used her connections in the royal court and the complaints were either ignored or the people who were reporting it suffered horrible consequences.
Arrest, Trial & Imprisonment
In the summer of 1762, two serfs named Ermolay Ilyin and Sakhvely Martynov ran away from her property. Ermolay’s three wives had been beaten to death by Darya Saltykova’s men acting on her orders. They went to St Petersburg, where they were eventually granted an audience with Empress Catherine II. After hearing their petition, she instructed the Collegium of Justice to start an investigation regarding the accusations of torture and murder. Her intent was to try Darya Saltykova publicly, which she believed would promote her lawfulness initiative effectively.
Darya Saltykova was arrested soon after and was kept in jail for the next six years as the imperial authorities conducted their investigation. The majority of the victims who had survived were reluctant to provide evidence, predominantly out of fear. Darya Saltykova was not designated as mad or mentally ill. She remained vehemently unrepentant, believing she would escape punishment. For all her piousness, even the priest who came for her confession failed to make her repentant.
The investigation revealed that she had caused the deaths of about 138 people over the course of six to seven years. The Collegium of Justice interrogated every witness and went through all the records of the estate. Eventually, she was found guilty of torturing and murdering 38 people but Empress Catherine II was undecided on how to punish her. In 1754, the death penalty had been abolished in the Russian Empire and the new empress, who ascended the throne in 1762, desperately needed the support of the nobility.
In 1768, Darya Saltykova was sentenced to life imprisonment and was chained on a platform in Red Square for an hour with a sign around her neck, reading, “This woman has tortured and murdered."
Later Years & Death
In accordance with her sentencing, Darya Saltykova was put in a monastery dungeon in chains and in darkness. She was incarcerated in a windowless wooden room for 11 years in a Moscow cloister, built specifically for her. Kept under 24-hour surveillance, a nun was designated to deliver her food as well as candles to eat under. They would be taken after she was done with her meal. There was another instruction in her judgement that read, “From this reclusion take her out in such a place during church services where she would be able to hear one, without entering the church proper”.
In 1779, she was shifted to one of the monastery buildings. This time, her cell had a window with shutters. According to one of her contemporaries there, Darya Saltykova would often curse and spit at curious spectators. She would brandish a stick, shoving it out at them. She gradually lost her mental sanity. Whether it was caused by imprisonment and solitary confinement or was simply aggravated by it, is a matter of scholarly debate.
On November 27, 1801, Darya Saltykova passed away in her cell at the age of 71. She had been incarcerated for 33 years and was laid to rest next to her relatives in the Donskoy Monastery necropolis.