On July 15, 1738, in the royal Russian capital of St. Petersburg, two Jews, Alexander Voznitzin and Barukh Leibov, were burned at the stake, a rare punishment at the time.
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The unusual punishment, so reminiscent of the autos-da-fe then taking place with regularity in both Spain and Portugal, has a long back story.
Telltale offense: Building a synagogue
Barukh Leibov was a prominent Jew living in the village of Zverovich, not far from Smolensk, who was a collector of taxes in his region. But the merchants of Smolensk were unhappy that such such lucrative concessions were awarded to Jews.
In the case of Leibov, they brought to church authorities the charge that he had had the temerity to build a synagogue in Zverovich. That act in turn elicited the anxiety of the local Greek Orthodox priest, who feared the Jewish institution would draw converts. He and other colleagues, noting the threat of “Judaizing heresy,” petitioned the empress, Catherine I. She, in 1727, ordered the demolition of Barukh's synagogue, and also called for him to lose the privilege of customs and tax farming – and be deported from Russia.
That imperial order (called a ukase), and another, directing the banishment of all Jews from the Ukraine and Russia, was largely ignored, in part because of the economic damage that losing the Jews would do to Russian society. Barukh Leibov thus remained in Zverovich, and kept his job as a tax farmer.
Meanwhile, during a visit to Moscow, the same Leibov met and befriended a retired naval officer named Alexander Voznitzin. Voznitizin was fascinated by Leibov’s description of Jewish theology, and the two began to study Bible together.
Voznitzin came to the conclusion that the Orthodox Christian conception of God, and in particular its use of icons depicting a divine Jesus, was not compatible with the teachings of the Bible. He subsequently traveled to Dubrovna, where Leibov’s son lived, and there he underwent circumcision.
Betrayed by his wife
Voznitzin’s wife began to notice his strange behavior, including the fact that he had started praying by facing the wall, rather than by praying in the direction of his icons. On one occasion, he threw some of his icons in the nearby river. And he had become very picky about what foods he would eat.
She denounced her husband to the authorities, who took the charges seriously. Both Voznitzin and Leibov were arrested, brought to St. Petersburg, and, on the personal orders of Empress Anna Ioannovna, were interrogated under harsh torture by the Chancellery for Secret Inquisitorial Affairs. Similarly, colleagues and acquaintances of theirs were also questioned under torture.
Both men confessed, Voznitzin that he had embraced “the Jewish law” and blasphemed the Church, and Leibov that he had “seduced” his friend, along with other offenses to the Church.
Not surprisingly, both defendants were found guilty.
Their sentence was determined by the empress herself, who ordered that they both “shall be executed and burned, in order that other ignorant and godless people, witnessing this, shall not turn away from the Christian law” (as translated by Michael Sherbouren, in "The Jews of St. Petersburg," by Mikhail Belzer).
The immolation of the two was carried out on July 1738 in the public square in St. Petersburg.
That, however, wasn’t the end of the affair, as the case had the effect of reigniting the more general fear and suspicion of Jews. Now, it became known that despite the 1727 ukase, there were still Jews working on Russian estates as tax farmers, and who were at trade fairs as visitors, and then quietly settling in areas they had supposedly been banished from.
The Russian senate passed a resolution calling for the expulsion – again – of the Jews. At the request of the military, the implementation of the decision was postponed until the completion of the Turkish War. That happened in 1740. Then it was executed.