Civil Death, Radical Protest and the Theatre of Punishment in the Reign of Alexander II

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Downloads (Pure)


Civil executions in Imperial Russia were punitive ceremonies that were staged before crowds and presaged a sentence of penal labour and lifelong exile in Siberia. Intended to underline the absolute supremacy of the autocracy, they choreographed the public humiliation of the criminal and collective condemnation from the crowds who gathered to witness the stripping away of the rights and entitlements that gave civil life in the autocracy its meaning. Many took place without incident, and followed the ritual of debasement and expulsion endorsed by the state. Yet when at the civil executions of revolutionaries during the reign of Alexander II both convicts and spectators departed from the state’s script of public humiliation and orderly opprobrium, the performance of monarchical power and autocratic justice proved liable to subversion. Russian radicals sometimes succeeded in hijacking the ceremony to denounce despotism and proclaim an alternative vision of activism, solidarity, and revolution. In so doing, they contested the autocrat’s position as the source of status, rights and, ultimately, of sovereignty. Building on studies of law, punishment, performance, and the revolutionary movement, this article demonstrates how radicals and their supporters recast “scenarios of power” as “scenarios of rebellion”.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171-202
Number of pages32
JournalPast and Present
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 4 Feb 2020

Cite this