Concept of Public Dishonour in 18th Century Russia

Public dishonour (or shelmovaniye) as a punishment widespread in 18th century Russia, especially in its first half, presumed not a physical destruction of a person but rather destroying him as a member of society and dishonouring him. Military, navy, general regulations and several Imperial and Senate’s edicts connected public dishonour to “grave violation of honour.” A person received his shameful stigma of dishonour as a result of situations humiliating for personal and class dignity: torture, corporal punishment, being in executioner’s hands or public nudity; being named a thief (or a shelma), name nailed to gallows; sword broken by an executioner, slap in the face in front of witnesses, begging for mercy on one's knees etc.

In early 18th century, when such punishment as public dishonour came into practice, the attitude to convicts who were among “good discharged people” was strictly regulated. These poor people came to be beyond the law and society: they weren’t allowed to go and work for anyone, they couldn’t be on state or military service, they could be robbed and beaten without any consequences as they didn’t have a right to plea to the court. But the main punishment for the publicly dishonoured was, according to Peter, in isolation from people: under threat of a discharge and exile to the galley it was prohibited to visit him or invite into someone’s company as “if he saw his equality to the brothers he’d soon forget everything he had ever committed.”

After Peter's rule, the legislation in relation to both, convicted and those who came into contact with them became milder, or, better said, more pragmatic. In 1740, everyone who had been beaten by a whip was allowed to live in Saint Petersburg if they had a house or trade in the city. In other words, the capital and subsequently Moscow and other regional towns were closed only for so-called publicly punished passport-less bandits and thieves, suspicious or loitering people who are always suspected of evil-doing.

Surprisingly, during the reign of Catherine, the word “oshelmovaniye” in various decrees was completely replaced by the phrase publicly punished with a critical addition “at law.” Those, who were publicly whipped were now evicted to parishes where they would be demoted to working people. Peter’s demand to declare the oshelmovannye as outlaws and psychologically isolate them wasn’t reproduced in the legislation of the 2nd half of the 18th century.

Thus, Peter’s persistently implemented institution of shelmovaniye meant the expulsion of the convict from society and depriving him of any protection of the law. Regardless of the fact that this punitive measure wasn’t perpetuated as a judicial practice, it is noteworthy that it wasn’t the lack of monarch’s mercy that became this social curse; it was the deprivation of a chance to appeal to justice and support of public opinion which affected the establishment of legal awareness of their contemporaries.