Darya Saltykova: Cruel Russian Aristocrat with a Taste for Murder
In 1768, Darya Nokolayevna Ivanova Saltykova, better known as Saltychikha, was found guilty for the murder of 139 serfs under her care. Of that number, only 38 were confirmed due to the immense fear she instilled in witnesses who could have testified against her. She killed many women, several children, a few men, and even attempted to kill a nobleman. The Russian imperial court imposed a life sentence, and as a display of public justice, Saltykova was taken to the Red Square in Moscow and publicly beaten for over an hour wearing a sign that read: “This woman tortured and murdered.” She then her remaining years chained up in the basement of a monastery, before dying on November 2, 1801, mentally broken and alone.
Though her incarceration experience was horrific, Darya was indeed a monster who inspired fear, particularly for young women. During an extensive six-year investigation, the serfs who lived on or near her vast estate were terrified of incurring her wrath. An abusive unchecked aristocrat, she inflicted cruelty to those around her. Since her death, her legend has grown to a point whereby it is based more on fiction than on reality, which makes it hard to truly understand her motives, if any existed. With the little information that remains about her viciousness and cruelty, can we still call her a serial killer, or was she an abusive Russian landowner, like many of her era?
Darya Saltykova was a Russian aristocratic who attained fame as a serial killer after being found guilty for the death of 139 serfs under her care. ( Public domain )
Opulence and Glamor: Early Life of Darya Saltykova
On November 3rd 1730, Darya Nikolayevna Ivanova was born to Nikolai Avtonomovich Ivanov and Anna Ivanovna Davydova. As with most aristocrats of the time, Darya's life was one of opulence and glamor. Her family enjoyed connections to an elite circle of wealth, including the Tolstoy's, Davidov's, and Musin-Pushkins. Though little is known about her early childhood, she grew up during a time when wealthy Russians were in a hurry to adopt customs and material goods from Western Europe. As a result of this westernization of Russian culture, Darya may have grown up wearing ostentatious French and Italian dresses, not to mention eating pastries made by imported European chefs. These extravagances would only be available to the wealthiest of Russians, who still owned large tracts of land and presided over the poorest of serfs.
Darya Saltykova’s life was one of opulence and glamor. ( Public domain )
Darya didn’t show signs of cruelty or malevolence, and appeared to be a completely normal Russian noblewoman. Sometime in the 1750's, at the age of 20, Darya married the Imperial officer Gleb Alexeyevich Saltykov and found herself holding immense power within the Russian Royal court. The Saltykov family was no stranger to the Imperial Romanovs: Gleb's brother, Sergei Saltykov, was rumored to be the lover of Catherine the Great , as well as the true father of Paul I of Russia. Meanwhile, Gleb's nephew, Nikolai Saltykov, was the royal tutor for Catherine's children.
Darya gave birth to two sons by Gleb, Theodore and Nicholas, with whom she spent little time. They were sent away for their schooling, leaving Darya alone on her estate. When Gleb died of unknown causes in 1755, Darya was left a wealthy widow at the age of 25. In charge of the Troitskoe estate, as well as several other properties, she was responsible for over 600 serfs. As if a character from a tragic Russian fairytale, Darya rapidly transformed from being a wealthy 25-year-old widower into the vile Saltychikha. While no evidence has been found to explain this dramatic metamorphosis, legend has it that the change was triggered by the actions of an unfaithful lover.
Becoming Saltychikha: What Triggered the Beast?
Shortly after the death of her husband, Darya was courted by the land surveyor Nikolay Tyutchev, grandfather of future poet Fydor Tyutchev. Whether their affair began before or after the death of her husband, we’ll never know, but it appears that Nikolay had no intention of marrying Darya. Instead, he rejected her and eloped with a younger, red-haired woman . Shortly after Saltykova got word of the elopement, she ordered her serfs to burn Tyutchev’s house to the ground, and then proceeded to send assassins to kill them both. Luckily, Nikolay and his bride received word of the assassination attempt and fled to Moscow.
Portrait of Countess Darya Petrovna Saltykova. ( Public domain )
Though this historic rumor adds an intriguing twist to her murderous rampage, and conveniently ties her story to the destiny of future poet Fydor Tyutchev, there isn’t enough historic evidence to verify its veracity. Some versions claim Nikolay simply lost interest and stopped visiting Darya, while others contend that he grew tired of her violent treatment of her servants and left without Darya noticing. Regardless of the events leading to Darya’s emergence as a ravenous murderer, scholars and storytellers alike believe the transformation began five to ten years after the death of her husband.
Darya the Tormentor: The Serial Killer and Her Methods
Darya’s preferred choice of victim, young servant women, may explain why the legend of her unrequited love found its way into the history books. All in all, she is supposed to have murdered 137 women and three men. The male deaths, apparently, were accidental. Several accounts maintain that Darya's violent mood swings were to blame for most of her servant's deaths. It seems she never intended to kill them, merely discipline them so they wouldn’t repeat their mistakes.
There was a variable range to her violent temper and abuse. At the slightest offense, she would begin with throwing objects at serfs and servants she felt were lazy or incompetent. On the other end of the scale, she is said to have stepped on the belly of a pregnant woman, killed the wife of a hated male serf, and in some accounts, performed acts of cannibalism. The other cruelties, for which Darya became infamous, were the burning of hair, throwing servant girls outside, naked, in the dead of Russian winter, the pouring of boiling water from head to toe, the severing of ears with hot pokers, and whipping her female servants until the bones of their backs were exposed.
Saltytchikha was known for her enraged fits of cruelty, usually enacted against women. ( V. Pletchine )
In another testament to her cruelty, she is said to have become enraged with one male serf she deemed ungrateful and plotted to kill his wife. On succeeding in this endeavor, she continued to torment the serf: When he remarried, she proceeded to kill his second wife, and then his third. Darya's plan was to break the spirit of the man who failed at showing her respect, and watch him suffer. Given her wealth and her family connections to the Russian royal family, her abusive crimes on her estate were able to continue for almost ten years before anyone brought this to the attention of the Imperial court. So, why did this continue for so long? Did it have to do with her wealth alone, or was there a cultural aspect that is often overlooked, such as the treatment of Russian serfs?
Serfdom and the Russian Elite
During 17 th century Imperial Russia, serfdom was a form of feudal slavery whereby people were tied to the land in which they dwelled. Serfs were the legal property of whichever landowning noblemen owned the land. Serfs had few rights and were subject to whatever rules noblemen saw fit. Though it was technically illegal to sell serfs without their land, many noblemen continued the practice quietly, changing the terminology from "peasant and land" to "hiring servants."
Most noblemen had complete ownership and dominance over the lives of their serfs. Before the Great Emancipation of 1861 , it was estimated that over 20 million privately owned serfs were being traded, bought, sold, and exploited. With such a notorious culture of human slavery , with people being owned and traded as commonplace, could Darya Saltykova’s treatment of her serfs have been commonplace among the upper elites of Imperial Russia?
Peasants Reading the Emancipation Manifesto, a painting by Grigory Myasoyedov from 1873. Before the Great Emancipation of 1861, which effectively abolished serfdom, over 20 million privately owned serfs were being traded, bought, sold, and exploited. ( Public domain )
Because of Darya's immense wealth and her intimate connections with the Romanov family , most Russian authorities ignored the rumors regarding abuse and murder taking place on her land. In some cases, those who were brave enough to bring attention to her activities were punished. It wasn't until 1762 that relatives of some of the victims were able to escape to St. Petersburg and bring a petition to Catherine the Great herself. The serf who had lost three wives to Darya's wrath, was one of them.
The petition pleaded with the Empress to save the serfs from Saltykova's horrors and provide justice for the young female serfs murdered on her land. Catherine had no choice but to try Darya Saltykova publicly and have the Collegium of Justice investigate the crimes conducted within her estate.
After six years of analysis and examination based on eyewitness accounts, and excavations throughout her estate, in 1768 Darya was found guilty of 38 murders and 139 deaths under mysterious circumstances. Catherine the Great dictated life in prison for Darya Saltykova at the Ivanovski Convent in Moscow. The life sentence came with its own cruel and unusual punishments, all of which were rightfully deserved.
Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796) dictated life in prison for Darya Saltykova at the Ivanovski Convent in Moscow. ( Public domain )
Dark Solitary Confinement for Darya Saltykova
For the next 33 years, Darya Saltykova was kept chained to the wall of the dungeon with no access to luxury comforts, including candlelight. She sat in dark solitary confinement for the duration of her natural life. By the time of her death, at the age of 71 on November 27 th 1801, Darya Nokolayevna Ivanova Saltykova was a broken woman who suffered from severe mental illness, cursing, swearing and spitting at whoever walked past the barred window that served as her only connection with the outside world. Her remains were buried at the Donskoy Monastery Necropolis.
Darya's story is one of both intrigue and justice served, but given the history of human serfdom and the disconnection between the wealthy and the poor of 18 th century Imperial Russia, would Darya Saltykova be considered a serial killer by modern standards?
Darya Saltykova was sentenced to life in prison at the Ivanovski Convent, known as the St. John the Baptist Convent, in Moscow, which had long served as a prison for ladies of royal and noble blood. She sat in dark solitary confinement for the duration of her natural life. ( Public domain )
Applying Psychological Analysis of Serial Killers to the Saltychikha Case
To paraphrase the works of both Peter Vronsky and former FBI agent John Douglas, a few traits must be explored regarding profile, method, and execution in the Saltychikha case. From their modern analysis of several cases going back 30 years, the drive of most female serial killers differs greatly from that of male serial killers. Firstly, most female killers kill for socioeconomic gain. Secondly, if there are any sexual components, there is a 44% chance that the female serial killer is partnered by a dominant male accomplice. Thirdly, a majority of female serial killers are often from working-class families in which violence and abuse are commonplace, therefore making their killings an effect of survival. Finally, most female serial killers that come from a higher socioeconomic status will suffer from some kind of psychological disorder.
Some discrepancies arise when comparing this analysis of serial killers to the case of Darya Saltykova. First of all, she didn’t kill her husband. Secondly, she was accused of sexually torturing her servants. Vronsky claims that sexual deviance murders usually include a male accomplice, but Darya acted alone. Thanks to the authority given by her title, she did so in the open, without fear of reprisals. The only possible alternative would be that she suffered from a psychological disorder.
There are several types of serial killers . The most recognizable are the organized serial killers and the unorganized ones. An organized serial killer typically follows seven psychological phases during their hunt, while an unorganized serial killer may only facilitate three to five of the seven phases. These phases consist in fantasy, hunting or stalking, seduction or luring, trap or capture, the murder, the trophy totem, and finally, post homicidal depression or satisfaction. Most organized serial killers follow an obsessive pattern of slaughter, which will be almost the same in every kill. Unorganized killers will often kill quickly without a significant pattern or type. Both groups will take some form of a trophy as a reminder of their kill.
Though analysis of Darya Saltykova demonstrates significant signs of mental illness, she never revealed any form of sexual fantasy, nor did she keep trophies from any of the girls she killed. If the legends are true, her actions were a demonstration of dominance and power over the 600 serfs she owned. There is also no record of her savoring or taking a break after every kill. Her brutish abuse and cruelty appeared to be continuous. Darya Nikolayevna Ivanova Saltykova was responsible for the torture and death of 139 of her serfs. However, is it correct to conclude that she was a serial killer? After all, could it be possible that Catherine the Great made an example of her cruelty in order to scare the many other cruel Russian landowners who treated their serfs just as badly?
Portrait of Countess Darya Petrovna Saltykova. ( Public domain )
Could it be that the Darya Saltykova case has not been fully explored? Shanna Freeman argues that evidence contained in various accounts points to Saltykova having suffered from an antisocial personality disorder (APD): she disregarded and violated the rights of others, in many ways she did not conform to social norms, and she demonstrated immense irritability and aggressiveness. These three aspects to her personality are indeed textbook definitions of APD. Perhaps Darya Saltykova was not a serial murderer, but merely an individual suffering from severe mental disorder, with tragic consequences.
Top image: Darya Saltykova, aka Saltychikha, was an abusive and unchecked aristocrat, known for murdering 139 serfs on Yroitskoe estate near Moscow in Russia. Adapted from Portrait of Countess Darya Petrovna Saltykova by François-Hubert Drouais. Source: Public domain
By B. B. Wagner
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