sjhstrangetales

DARYA SALTYKOVA – THE SHE-MONSTER OF RUSSIA

Posted on: January 14, 2013

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The unsavoury life of Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova (nee Ivanova) bears similarities to that of the equally bizarre and sadistic Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the woman who has arguably gone down as the most prolific female serial-killer in history. Darya is lesser known, (largely I suspect because of the absence of any vampiric links) but her crimes were no less detestable, and she shared a similar fate to her Hungarian counterpart.

Darya was born on 3 November 1730, and was married off young into the rich and powerful Saltykova family. She was widowed by the age of 26, and inherited a great estate, where she lived with her three sons, and over 600 serfs. Little seems to have been known about Darya’s earlier life, other than that she got a reputation for piety during her short marriage, and was known to have made many donations to churches and monasteries. She was said to have been a “gloomy” woman, and after her widowhood her miserable attitude manifested itself in acts of untold sadism against the women of her household.

It is fair to say that Darya hated women, and if they were younger than her, even more so. Her mindless acts of savagery were particularly escalated towards pregnant women. She was reputed to have submitted them to such beatings that all their bones were broken, turned them out into the bitterly cold Russian winters with no clothes on, gouged out eyes, and even – rumour has it – to have resorted to cannibalism.

Her acts of sadism were largely against women, but if any man crossed her her wrath could be equally terrifying. During her widowhood she was said to have had an affair with a much-younger man, Nickolay Tyvtchev. When Darya heard that he had secretly married a girl of his own age, her rage was so frightening that the young couple fled to his father’s house in Moscow for safety.

For a long time Darya eluded justice, simply because of her powerful connections. Eventually though her terrible deeds were brought to the attention of the Empress Catherine II. After a six-year investigation, Darya was found guilty of killing 38 women by beating and torturing them to death. The Empress had abolished the death penalty a few years before, but she came up with an ingenious punishment for this proud and sadistic woman. She publicly humiliated her by making her sit, chained to a chair, on a public platform, with a sign round her neck saying “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”.

Once the public spectacle was over, Darya was incarcerated in a cell beneath the Ivanovsky Convent in Moscow. Like her Hungarian counterpart, she was to live out her days in a dark, windowless room, only allowed a candle at mealtimes. After 11 years of this living death, she was transferred to a room with a window, from which it was said she would hurl insults at passers-by and attempt to poke them with a stick. After over 30 years of imprisonment, she died in November 1801.

ADDENDUM 5/5/2018: There is a chapter about the dreadful Darya in Tori Telfer’s book Lady Killers – Deadly Women Throughout History.  She includes some interesting insights into the bizarre world of 18th century Russian aristocrats and their serfs.   These nobs really were a law unto themselves, and could do whatever they wanted.  For instance, one noblewoman kept her personal hairdresser confined to an iron cage in her bedroom, simply because she didn’t want to run the risk of the hairdresser letting it slip publicly that she used false hair to pad out her own!

Reading again about Saltykova’s 11-year stint in solitary confinement, I wondered how on earth she occupied her thoughts during this time.  Apart from meals (the only time she was allowed a candle), and on Sundays, when she was allowed to stand under an air-vent and listen in to a church service, Saltykova was completely unoccupied.  That’s a lot of time to sit in the dark with only your own thoughts for company.   It was a living death, and probably far worse than any execution.

It’s interesting how little known Saltykova is these days.  Her crimes are every bit as bad as that of the Countess Bathory, if not more so, as there is little doubt about Saltykova’s guilt.  (Although as Tori Telfer points out there are still some people who try to find excuses for her, as they do for Bathory as well).   Both were given gothic punishments.  Bathory was walled up alive in her own castle, and spent the last 4 years of her life in isolation.   But the Hungarian countess is the one everybody remembers.  As Tori points out, this may be down to the way she has been reinvented as some kind of alternative heroine to the goth/heavy metal scene.  And all those Hammer-esque tales of the sadistic countess beating and torturing young girls titivates some people, let alone the legend that she bathed in their blood, which brings in the vampire element to it.

There is no vampiric element to Saltykova’s story, although there are grotesque rumours she engaged in cannibalism.   Both women were feral, inhuman, and extreme examples of female sadism.   Both horrifically abused their power over other people, akin to the female Nazi officers such as Irma Grese, nicknamed the Hyena Of Auschwitz, and Ilsa Koch, the Bitch of Buchenwald.   The likes of Grese and Koch pose another conundrum for the armchair psychologist.  Were they born cruel sadists, or did the Nazi system turn them that way?  In another era would they have quietly lived out their lives, with this dark side to their personalities only manifesting in the odd bit of domestic/workplace bullying perhaps?  Would they never have shown a sadistic side at all?   Were they normal women completely brutalised by an evil, inhuman system, one based on fanaticism and fear?   Or did the Nazi regime manage to weed out these monstrous personalities and put them into the jobs that they required them to do?

Both Bathory and Saltykova hated their own sex, particularly if the women were younger than them.   If they had been men they would quite rightly be regarded as monsters (although some misguided people might still admire them), but because they were women people try and find excuses.  Sort of “oh Bathory was framed by men jealous of her wealth”, or “Saltykova was wronged in love” (absolute tosh and piffle).   Even the lovely Ingrid Pitt, who played Bathory so flamboyantly well in Countess Dracula, tried to excuse Bathory by describing her as “a bit of a sexpot”.  And yet, as Tori points out in her book, sex didn’t actually play that big a part with Bathory.   Some try to find lesbian links between Bathory and her Aunt Klara, but all too often it feels vastly overplayed.  I suspect her sadism was fuelled by intense bitterness, resentment, anger and jealousy, and a pathological fear of getting older, not because she got off on it, sexually.   All of this fuelled by a lifetime of being exposed to violence in a brutal era, where such things were commonplace, and where aristocrats – exactly as they were in Russia two centuries later – were considered above the law.

But ultimately both women were really sad losers.  With their power and money, they could have done so much with their lives, had adventures, helped people worse off, all whilst living in comfort, and probably been much respected as “a good old gal” at the end.  But instead they descended into a grim, ugly world of sadism and cruelty, fuelled by their own bitterness and jealousy.  Both ended up incarcerated for years in darkened rooms, alone.   You would have to be insane yourself to envy that fate.

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