Witch trials in Russia

The Witch trials in Ortodox Russia were different in character than the witch trials in Roman Catholic and Protestant Europe, in the sense that they were not focused on the demonology of a witch who made a pact with Satan and attended a Witches' Sabbath, but only on the practice of magic as such. [1]


In Russia, magician were called vedun (wizard) or vedman (witch), and sorcery as koldovstvo or charodeivstvo.[1] Sorcery or witchcraft was defined similarly as in Europe and defined as weather magic, fortune telling, dream interpretation, herbal medicine and chants, but the form of magic which was normally the focus of witch trials were magic which had been used to cause harm and were referred to as porcha, a Russian eqvivalent of the European concept of maleficium.[1]

The was a belief that some people had the ability to use the mystic powers of nature to perform magic, which could be used for both good and evil purposes, but there was no connection made between sorcery and the Devil.[1] Similar to the churches of Europe, the Russian Ortodox church strongly condemned sorcery and wished to exterminate it, but the motivation differed. The Russian Ortodox church viewed sorcery as a form of Paganism and viewed the eradication of it as a form of Christianization against traces of pre-Christian religion, and not as persecutions of people who had made a pact with Satan, and there was no belief in witches who made a pact with the Devil and attended a Witches' Sabbath, only in people - men and women - who caused harm by use of Pagan magic, who must be eradicated for the sake of their fellow citizens.[1]

Legal situationEdit

In the church council of 1551, the Russian Ortodox church asked Czar Ivan the Terrible to persecute Paganism and introduce the death penalty for pagans such as the sorcerers, astrologers and fortune tellers, and allow for the church to banish them and the secular courts to execute them.[1] Ivan the Terrible did not introduce the death penalty for sorcery, but he did ban the use of magic and authorize secular courts to persecute the crime.[1] In a Decree of 1648, the Tsar introduced the death penalty for all form of Paganism such as sorcery, and a new Decree in 1653 specified that the penalty was to be death by burning.[1]


Between 1622 and 1700, 99 cases of witchcraft from 47 witch trials were referred to the national central court (doklad) in Moscow from the local courts (voevod); of these 99, six were from Moscow, four from Belgorod and two from Kostrona, Voronezh, Lukh and Novgorod.[1] The majority of cases were small trials with only one accused sorcerer, but there were bigger trials, such as three with over one hundred wittnesses.[1] Of the 99 cases 59 were men and 40 women, and when the verdict is known (the documentation is only partially preserved) 21 were freed, ten were burned at the stake, five were bannished, one escaped and one priest was turned over to the clerical authorities.[1] About half of the accused were from the peasantry, but there were people from the nobility among their accusers. This is not a complete number of those accused of sorcery in Russia, since not all cases were referred by the local courts to the central court.[1]

The endEdit

Tsar Peter the Great kept the death penalty for sorcery in the law of 1716.[1] In 1731, empress Anna of Russia legally redefined sorcery as a form of fraud, but did not remove the death penalty as the punishment for this type of fraud.[1] Empress Catherine the Great made it clear after her accession to the throne that the death penalty should no longer be used against people convicted of the fraud of sorcery, and from 1775 formally transferred the crime to be handled only by a so-called trial of conscience, sovestnye sudy, which dealt with insignificant crimes such as superstition.[1]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Zguta, Russell. “Witchcraft Trials in Seventeenth-Century Russia.” The American Historical Review, vol. 82, no. 5, 1977, pp. 1187–1207. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1856344. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.