State Fear, or The Case of Major Apukhtin




social history; 18th-century Russia; suicide, state; torture


This article is part of a project studying the phenomenon of suicide in eighteenthcentury Russia. It is based on the investigation of Major Vasily Apukhtin’s death in 1731. The investigation materials demonstrate that the major committed suicide by drowning himself in his own well. According to the testimonies of his servants, relatives, and acquaintances, Apukhtin was insane: the reason for his insanity (or, rather, the circumstance that aggravated his mental illness) was fear of being taken to court as a result of a pending lawsuit. An ordinary property trial, inadequately perceived by the suicide, made him terrified of being declared unreliable, which could therefore mean torture as part of the criminal proceedings. This circumstance allows the author to consider Apukhtin’s case within the framework of the concept of “state fear”, first introduced into historiography by Evgeny Anisimov. Analysis of the causes of the mental agony which the unfortunate major was experiencing through the prism of this concept seems helpful when considering many other cases that led numerous Russians of the eighteenth century to do the same. What is meant by “state fear”? A wide range of documents suggests that it was a fear of the inevitable physical torment that accompanied the criminal procedure of the time, together with fear of a collision with a soulless retaliatory state machine that did not give the accused any opportunity to justify themselves; it was a feeling of complete hopelessness. This fear was inherent in everyone without exception, regardless of class status or place of residence, although more often its suicidal consequences affected the least protected, the lower strata of the population. It is noteworthy that for serfs, the state’s punitive power was personified by their masters. The conclusion that state fear is a phenomenon which formed because of changes in ideas about the state looks crucial. The Moscow monarchy with its patrimonial way of life and the identification of the state with the sovereign was more beneficial for the psyche of its subjects. The changes that took place in Russia during Peter the Great’s transformations created a new image of the state as an abstract and invisible entity which was nevertheless constantly present in the life of every private person, a hostile reality. The very idea of facing this force as an accused often led people to commit suicide.

Author Biography

Alexander Kamenskii

Dr. Hab. (History), Professor, National Research University Higher School of Economics.

20, Myasnitskaya Str., 101000, Moscow, Russia.

ORCID 0000-0003-3715-4401


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How to Cite

Kamenskii, A. (2019). State Fear, or The Case of Major Apukhtin. Quaestio Rossica, 7(2), 630–647.