Saltykova, commonly known as Saltichikha made her infamous mark with the atrocious killings of her serfs, and enjoyed torturing and mutilating her victims. She was the epitome of boyar abuse of serfs in pre-reformation Russia, and ultimately pleaded guilty to the murder of at least 138 serfs at her estate, and the torture of many more.
Darya Saltykova was a Russian Countess who over a period of years turned from a noblewoman into a vicious serial killer. Her maiden name was Ivanova, and her family were relatively well-connected with Davidovs, Musin-Pushkins, and Tolstoy’s family.
She married young to Gleb Saltykov and had two sons, but was widowed in 1755 at the age of 26. With her husband’s death, she inherited a substantial estate, where she lived with her two young sons and a substantial number of serfs.
Many early complaints to authorities about the deaths at the Saltykova estate were ignored, or resulted in punishment to the complainants, because Saltykova was well connected with holders of power at the royal court.
After a failed romance, she started wreaking her anger on her serfs, mostly women. She hated them all. The younger they were, the more she hated them. She treated them as her rivals, giving her enemies no quarter.
She tortured children and pregnant women to death by beating them, breaking their bones, throwing them out of the house naked into the frost, pouring boiling water on their bodies and many other vicious and bloody tortures. She didn’t make a habit of killing men – only three accidentally – although she tortured them in a different way. She killed the ones they loved. One of her serfs lost, one by one, three of his wives.
In the summer of 1762 peasant serfs Sakhvely Martynov and Ermolay Ilyin (the latter had lost three of his wives, beaten to death on orders of Saltychikha) fled from the estate to St. Petersburg, where they eventually brought a petition before Empress Catherine II.
The empress ordered the College of Justice to begin an investigation regarding torture and murder. Catherine decided to try Saltykova publicly, in order to further the empress’s lawfulness initiative.
Saltychikha was arrested in 1762. She was held for six years while the authorities conducted a thorough investigation. Most surviving victims and witnesses were too afraid to give evidence, in case she was acquitted and released. She was totally unrepentant of her terrible deeds. Even the priest whose mission it was to make her confess to her killings failed to make her talk. She was absolutely sure she would escape punishment.
According to investigators, over the period of six to seven years Darya Saltykova murdered by various methods 138 people, mainly women (only three of her victims were men), including young girls of 10-12. Catherine’s Collegium of Justice questioned many witnesses and examined the records of the Saltykova estate.
The investigating official counted as many as 138 suspicious deaths, of which the vast majority was attributed to Saltykova. She was found guilty of having killed 38 female serfs by beating and torturing them to death. But the Empress was still unsure about how to punish her, as the death penalty had been abolished in Russia in 1754, and the new empress needed the support of the nobility.
Finally, on 2 October 1768, a sentence of life imprisonment in the Ivanovsky Cloister was handed down to Saltykova, preceded by a “civil execution” ceremony on Red Square in Moscow. At a public beating in Red Square, she was chained on a platform for an hour in front of the crowd, with a sign around her neck with the text: “This woman has tortured and murdered.”
People filed past during the hour of Darya’s public humiliation to get a look at this appalling woman. One onlooker described Darya’s eyes as “looking not of this world”. She was then hauled off to live out her remaining years in the basement of a convent. Her sentence required her to be incarcerated in a monastery dungeon in chains and in darkness.
A windowless wooden room was built for her, so for a long time she lived in complete darkness. She was under 24-hour guard. A nun would bring food and a candle. After meals the candle would be taken away.
In the Imperial verdict was also the prescription: “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 her cell, totally in the dark, Saltykova turned her back on the world for 11 long years.
After 11 years, in 1779, Saltykova was transferred to one of the monastery buildings. This room contained a window with shutters. One of her contemporaries recorded her conduct here.
Saltikova would spit at curious spectators, would revile them, and shove a stick at them through the window. Whether her mental illness was a result of her solitary confinement or was merely aggravated by it is unclear.
She died in her cell on November 27, 1801, at the age of 71 after 33 years of incarceration. She was buried next to her relatives in the Donskoy Monastery necropolis.