The empire and bloody libels against subalterns
Once a population has been conquered, it is common for colonizers to try and attribute all sorts of oddities to the conquered—atypical smells, physical features (often bizarre, including tails, horns, and hooves), wild habits, jobs, and religious attributes. Thus, the conquerors make the extermination and displacement of indigenous populations seem legitimate.
At the same time, according to Victor Turner, a researcher of religions, the conquered continue to have significant magical authority in the eyes of colonialists.1 This was also the case for indigenous populations of lands conquered by the Moscow principality, Moscow's kingdom, and the Russian empire. Accusations of witchcraft, ritual murders, and appeals to dark forces have become tools in these territories. For example, in the 17th century, the appropriation of the Erzya lands in the vicinity of Nizhny Novgorod and the expulsion of the Finno-Ugric peoples into the steppe2 became possible largely thanks to Russian peasants who accused them of witchcraft.
Stories of blood libel, where representatives of a specific group extract human blood for religious purposes, are typical folk tales about neighboring ethnic groups. In the Roman Empire, their subjects were Christians. However, Christians blamed ethnic minorities in the Middle Ages, primarily Jews, for this. A wave of trials on such charges began in the courts of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires in the 19th century. Although the courts often gave no unequivocal verdict, the very fact of such trials was beneficial to the imperial authorities in supporting the existence of “primitive” groups among “civilized” Christians—pagans, Jews, Old Believers, and other religious minorities. Libels also became a pretext for actual violence—.
In the Russian Empire, accusations of ritual murders, based on rumors of blood libel, became more frequent after the conquest of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where Jews lived as well.3 The disappearance of a boy in 1852 (and a year later, another one) gave rise to the 4 The investigation was joined by metropolitan officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. A string of criminal cases in which investigators tried to accuse ethnic “others” of the murders ensued. They were directed not only at Jews but also at local Germans and Ukrainians. The last notorious trials on accusations of ritual murders took place in the Uzbek and Georgian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics in the 60s. Researchers consider them to be the result of a surge of . Incitement to ritual murder was also a part of charges in the Moscow-region “anti-sectarian” case against a group of Pentecostals at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s.5 It is better known as the “Fedorov case”.
Soon after the Soviet Union was formed, the ethnographer Nikolai Luppov started analyzing legal proceedings in the Kazan and Vyatka provinces.6 As a result of the analysis of 670 court cases, it turned out that accusations of ritual murder in these regions first appeared in the middle of the 19th century. In 1832, Udmurt converted to Orthodoxy and accused his fellow villagers of intending to sacrifice him to stop the cholera epidemic. In 1853, a Russian peasant from the Malmyzhsky district declared that the from Mamakova village wanted to sacrifice two of his children “when performing a prayer in accordance with the pagan rite.”7 In addition to the desire to endow “others” with unusual properties, common for ethnic majorities, there were also rather private reasons for accusations—personal feuds, land conflicts, and drunken squabbles.
In the spring of 1885, in the Sarapul district of the Vyatka province, the priest Bazilevsky complained that the Udmurts tried to stab and sacrifice him. The medical examiner did not find any traces of ritual punctures described by the priest on the body. Instead, he found out that “Father Bazilevsky suffers from delirium tremens (commonly known as delirium).”
Ten years later, in the Yelabuga district, a peasant Yusup Saifullin accused Udmurts from a neighboring village of attempted ritual murder. During the trial, it turned out that the complainant got drunk and molested the wives of the Udmurts, for which they beat him.8 Personal motives also became the foundation of the famous Multan case. According to the version generally recognized today, two Russian peasants expected to receive land plots by accusing Udmurt men—after the convicts would be sent to katorga (penal servitude).
The plot of the “Multan case”
In the spring of 1892, a headless body of a peasant named Konon Matyunin was found in a forest between the Russian and Udmurt villages in the Vyatka province. Peasants from the Russian village blamed their neighbors for the murder. They claimed that the Udmurts killed the man while performing a pagan ritual. Twelve people were accused in the case initiated by the local police.
Two of them—elderly spouses Moisei Dmitriev and Vasilisa Gordeeva—died before they reached trial. The first jury sentenced seven defendants to katorga (penal servitude). But next autumn, the case was reviewed—as a result, nine defendants were sent to katorga this time, and another one, the oldest—80-year-old Andrei Grigoriev—was sentenced to exile in Siberia. This trial, full of injustices, began to be covered not only in the local press but also in the main publications of the Russian Empire.
This was a case not just against the Udmurts of Stary Multan village of Vyatka province but also against all groups of the foreign (“alien”) origin of the empire (so-called ), since the prosecution branded them as barbarians and . Accustomed to such cliches, the language of the empire turned management of cultural diversity into a hierarchy, in which there were “proper” Russian Christians and “completely improper,” “required for correction” inorodtsy. In this context, the Multan case is notable for the authorities' flirting with ethnography and their attempts to draw it to “scientifically based” recognition of human sacrifices by a separate ethnic group (which, however, ).
After 130 years, the amount of violations and falsifications still astonishes. The investigation collected materials of the criminal case from May 1892 to December 1894. Even before the trial started, the accused Moisei Dmitriev died in a prison cell, where he was held together with Yakov Golov, convicted of murder and robbery. His name also appears in the case file as a witness for the prosecution. At the second trial, Golov told how, before dying, Dmitriev allegedly confessed to the murder and named his accomplices. The investigation tried to conceal the fact that shortly before the death of the accused Udmurt, bailiff Shmelev had a long conversation with his cellmate, offering him assistance in exchange for a testimony. Golov's testimony led to three other residents of Stary Multan becoming defendants.
When pronouncing the first guilty verdict in the small county town of Malmyzh, the judge of the Sarapul District Court made no attempt to investigate the details and listened to the accusers. The lawyer appealed the decision in all instances. After the verdict was canceled on a cassation appeal, local journalists Alexander Baranov and Osip Zhirnov, confident the case was falsified, turned to the famous writer and human rights activist Vladimir Korolenko. At the end of September 1895, he went to the second trial, which was taking place in the larger county town of Yelabuga this time. Having familiarized himself with the materials of the case on the way from Nizhny Novgorod, Korolenko concurred with his colleagues. The writer, who had repeatedly encountered blood libels in other regions, drew attention to their appeal for spreading horrific rumors.
The role of journalists and evidence of torture
Working with colleagues, Korolenko outlined in detail the entire course of the second trial and later published the materials in the capital's press. When the second sentence was overturned, and the case was sent for a new trial to the Kazan District Court, the press published the results of a joint investigation of journalists. It showed that the confessions were obtained under torture.
Outraged by the course of the investigation, lawyer Anatoly Koni joined the case, who claimed that through this “judicial investigation <...> a trial is being carried out on an entire nation or an entire social stratum, and a precedent is being created, which for the future may mean judicially fixing the guilt of one or another population groups.”9 “Only dark rumors exist about human sacrifices, while as for the methods of interrogation—facts, precisely established by the court, are produced almost every week,”10 Korolenko stated during the trial.
Upon arrival at Stary Multan, the writer learned that during the interrogation, the villagers were repeatedly searched, they were forbidden to gather outside in groups of more than two people and discuss anything, and the violators were immediately taken away for interrogations. Three decades later, ethnographer Mikhail Khudyakov recorded memories of this: “Whoever was scared—was taken away, whoever was a priest—was taken away.”11
Marya Petrovna, the main suspect's wife, the butcher Kuzma Samsonov, who had recently had a baby, was kept under arrest for a whole day. The district police officers locked her in a shed, where they beat her and demanded to slander her husband—to testify that after he had been arrested, he confessed to her what he had done. Another resident of the village, Marya Ivanovna, saw how an hurriedly poured water on the suspect Mikhail Titov for an hour and a half. Prior to that, he had been “smoked in a bathhouse” and hung up so that he foamed at the mouth. She also heard another detainee, Dmitry Stepanov, being whipped.
Bailiff Shmelev, who turned the cellmate of the accused Dmitriev into a witness for the prosecution, was another “skilled torturer” in Korolenko's notes. By the third trial, it was found that Shmelev had beaten the suspects with sticks and shot a revolver just over their ears. The so-called was believed to be Shmelev's invention. Probably, it was supposed to become an analog of an oath on the Bible, which was officially in force at that moment in the Russian Empire, for the “inorodtsy”.
The “oath” went as follows: bailiffs brought a stuffed bear to the interrogations and put a loaf of bread on it, a harness arch was placed in front of the stuffed animal, and a wax candle was put on top of it. By order of Shmelev, each Udmurt was led to the stuffed animal and forced to kiss the bear's snout, then ordered to bite off the loaf and dragged under the arc. Needless to say, the Udmurts did not have a ritual with a bear oath: the colonialist, represented by Shmelev, staged his fantasies based on ideas about savagery and barbarism of the undesirable population.
The prosecution used fake hand-drawn maps to convince the public that there was a path leading from the Udmurt village to where the body was found. In addition, there were names of deities unfamiliar to anyone in the accusation. For example, “the god Keremet” was mentioned, although local Udmurts used this word to designate sacred places (special forest groves, ravines, and streams). When this factual error was pointed out to the prosecutor, he immediately replaced “Keremet” with “Kurbon”, continuing to consider him a deity. But “kurbon” is only a general term for a sacrificial animal, widespread among the Turkic and Finno-Ugric population of the Volga-Urals. Such absurd facts, generated by the colonial imagination of prosecutor Raevsky, were numerous.
A native of these places, ethnographer and historian Mikhail Khudyakov, who worked with the materials of the court case thirty years later, suggested that Raevsky wasn't just following the imperial logic of accusing the inorodtsy, but also had a personal interest. Having already attempted a blood libel case once in 1885, if the Multan case was a success, he could advance his career as an expert on ritual murders. According to Khudyakov, prosecutor Raevsky, who made his name in ritual murders, counted on rewards and the opportunity to leave for the Western Territory, which was full of rumors of blood libels against Jews—closer to Minsk, Riga, and Warsaw.
The third trial occurred between May 28 and June 4, 1896, and ended with the complete acquittal of the accused. In its course, one after another, the witnesses claimed to be under pressure from the interrogators. County doctor Minkevich, who had previously prepared the examination used by the prosecution as proof that practice of sacrifices existed among the Udmurts of Stary Multan, also went over to the side of the defense.
The only person who remained loyal to the accusation at this trial was professor Ivan Smirnov, the author of the ethnographic examination.
Ethnography at the Empire’s service
In modern Russian criminal law, the concept of “ethnographic expertise” does not exist. However, it can be put on a par with art criticism, linguistic and cultural examinations, so widespread nowadays. In essence, it all boils down to some authorized person appealing to his expert achievements and issuing a definition with answers to questions of investigation, which is then put on record and used as an argument in the trial.
In previous trials against Jews held in other regions of the empire in the 19th century, there was also a request for this procedure, but no suitable experts were found. As for the Multan case, Ivan Smirnov, a Kazan University professor and a specialist in the history of the South Slavs, acted as an expert for the prosecution. He began his expeditions at the dawn of ethnography, which was only starting to form as an academic discipline in Russian science. That was the time when travelers' journals and general descriptions of the population were replaced by an institutionalized scientific system of museums, departments, and training courses that considered “peoples” in their relation to the metropole. So, who was the professor whose expertise was supposed to convince the public that the human sacrifices were real?
In addition to his academic work at the university, Smirnov was involved with the university's society of archeology, history, and ethnography. In the summer of 1888, Smirnov, together with scientists Peter Traubenberg and Mihkel Veske, set out on their first joint trip to the local Finno-Ugric peoples. Traveling by river, they got from Kazan to Kozmodemyansk. From there, going in a carriage and changing horses at post-stations, they got to the Yaransky district and then to the Urzhumsky and Malmyzhsky counties. Then, by steamer along rivers Vyatka and Kama, they reached the Mari, who lived in the Ufa province. The researchers made several publications about the trip, including descriptions of the exhibits they had purchased for the Ethnographic Museum of Kazan University.
The journey was repeated the following year, which resulted in a sequence of descriptions of the Finno-Ugric peoples of the Volga-Urals, written by Smirnov: “Cheremis” (1889), “Votyaks“ (1890), “Permyaks” (1891) and “Mordva“ (1895) which are considered to be fundamental works for Finno-Ugric studies. However, upon a closer look, the structure of these works reveals their abstract character as examples of “armchair“ ethnography.
Contemporaries thought highly of these works. Among the advantages, they named primarily its systematic nature, organization of the material and the involvement of an extensive list of cited works. Smirnov lacked both time spent in the field and the linguistic knowledge necessary for a careful analysis of traditional culture. Each monograph begins with the history of an ethnic group, where the central axis is their contact with the Russian people. According to Smirnov, the “development” of each Finno-Ugric people was determined only by the civilizing mission of the Russians.
Ethnographer Smirnov showed the same armchair approach at the Multan process. His public opponents
were other specialists|tooltip:multan-specialists in the ethnography of the Volga-Urals. Not all of them were familiar with each other, but each was indignant at the involvement of ethnographic science in the accusation of a bloody sacrifice. All six intended to publicly refute Smirnov's words, but by the decision of the judge, only Grigory Vereshchagin was summoned to the trial. Both Smirnov and Vereshchagin were ethnographers who studied similar topics, read the same sources published in related journals, and were recognized representatives of “intellectual circles”. It is all the more surprising that in the Multan case, they found themselves on opposite sides of the trial.
Smirnov gave a speech at the second and third trials. While developing it, the ethnographer referred to British theorists of evolutionism, primarily Herbert Spencer and Edward Taylor. At the same time, he, for some reason, cited not Udmurt, but Mari tales as an example. In his peculiar understanding of evolutionism, he referred to the concept of “relics” and suggested that human sacrifice, preserved among the Udmurts, should be considered such a relic. In response to this argument in court, the writer Korolenko remembered Russian fairy tales and Baba Yaga, who devoured people.
Ethnographer Stepan Kuznetsov criticized Smirnov from Tomsk University, who was born and raised in the Malmyzh district and was well acquainted with the everyday life of the Udmurts. Later he wrote in his memoirs: “From the conclusions of the experts, it is clear that none of them were properly acquainted with the sacrificial rituals of the Votyaks. Smirnov saw the sacrifice only in the Birsk district, but since he obviously had not seen anything of such sort before, he, according to himself, ’did not notice the details’ (’That's some ethnographer!’ one might exclaim at this)12”,—the scientist wondered delicately. He was also struck by some descriptions of rituals in Smirnov's works: “This contradicts to such an extent the generally accepted methods of treating the remains of victims in honor of the main good gods by the Votyaks, that, in our opinion, is simply unbelievable and requires investigation.”
Smirnov himself can be studied as a product of imperial politics: the sources describe his long journey from a family of priests of Mari origin into the academic environment. As contemporary researcher Nafisa Gibadullina shows, his interest in the Finno-Ugric peoples was influenced by Nikolai Firsov and Mikhel Veske13, his senior colleagues involved in regional and Finno-Ugric history.
Another contemporary historian, Robert Gerasi, wonders if a process of such a scale as Multansky would even be possible without Smirnov's participation. Gerasi writes: “The entire ‘Multan case’ seems to have been born entirely out of his mind. Not only was he responsible for the key threads of argument of both the prosecution and the defense, but even the local authorities' and public opinion's susceptibility to such a case can be attributed to his influence. It would be tempting to speculate whether this case would have been initiated at all had Smirnov never been involved in ethnography. In any case, the further course of the case confirms that confusion in Smirnov's views was a reflection of a conflict of values that existed in Russian society even then.“14
After the Multan case, writer Korolenko used his experience in another high-profile blood libel case—the notorious case of the Kyivan Jew Beilis. However, upon his justification, the imperial machine, which continued to exist in the form of the Soviet state, did not stop working but instead became more inventive in attempts to construct the ideal uniformity of its subjects. Examples of tools of oppression used within the empire include references to non-existent rituals, descriptions of fictional phenomena, and accusations of sacrifice or crucifixion. All this was used to show the “filth” and “barbarism” of those who were to be punished, conquered or assimilated. Later, these tools would be used with might and mainly in trials against religious dissidents, in the brutal suppression of the Kazym uprising, and in state-initiated ethnicity-based repressions.
The Multan case remains a monument to the role solidarity can play in the fight against judicial arbitrariness. The publicity and broad discussion through the press aided in the revision of the trial results, completely justifying its participants and demonstrating that collective efforts can make a difference.