Russian Witch Trials: Bucking the European Trend?

Like the rest of early modern Europe, Russia witnessed outbreaks of witch trials. How did these trials and their victims differ from those of other societies?

Apr 2, 2023By Greg Pasciuto, BA History

russian witch trials


During the early modern era, countries across Europe became sporadically caught up in witch hunts. In Western Europe, this craze overwhelmingly targeted middle-aged women and had largely subsided by the eighteenth century. However, to the east, witch trials continued for decades longer. In Russia, people strongly believed in the power of magic well into the 1800s.


Men fell victim to these witch hunts more frequently than women by a factor of three to one. Different societal structures may have contributed to this difference, as did the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian people’s daily needs and wishes.


Accusations of witchcraft and the ensuing witch trials lasted much longer in Russia than in the rest of Europe. At the same time, Russian witch trials differed greatly from their Western European counterparts, both in terms of theology and the identity of their victims.


Witch Trials in Europe: A Brief Overview

germany witch trials burning
Pamphlet artwork depicting witches being burned at the stake in Derenburg, Germany, 1555, via National Geographic UK


The European fear of witchcraft dated back to the medieval period. Witch hunts really exploded, however, after the late fifteenth century. Reasons for these changes include socioeconomic hardship, conflicts in both Roman Catholic and Protestant lands, climate disasters, and a changing theology around the whole concept of witchcraft.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


By the sixteenth century, European clerics (both Protestant and Catholic) came to view witchcraft through a demonic lens. Witches were seen as having forged pacts with Satan; their mission was to spread sin on Earth. Pre-existing patriarchal attitudes in Christian Europe also meant that women primarily fell under suspicion for acts of dark magic. Church teachings at the time presented women as more corruptible than men, and thus more prone to surrendering to the Devil.


While witchcraft accusations did often have a religious motivation, it doesn’t seem that they were sectarian in nature. Protestants and Catholics largely did not accuse each other of witchcraft; instead, they targeted people within their own communities. In Western Europe, the German states occupied the epicenter of the early modern witch craze. Witch trials also took place in the British North American colonies, most notably in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692-93.


Witchcraft in the Russian Context

witch baba yaga
Baba Yaga Fights Crocodile, Lubok print, 18th century, via the Public Domain Review


Compared to the trials that took place in Western Europe, Russian witch trials were smaller in scope and scale. Trials typically involved only two accused individuals at most, with some rare exceptions (Kivelson and Worobec, 2020). Mass trials akin to the ones that plagued German cities were mostly unheard of. Still, Russians viewed witchcraft and sorcery as both a moral and worldly issue, similarly to their Western counterparts.


Most devout Russians believed in magic. In fact, this appears to have been true across all social classes, from the Tsar and his advisers to the lowest-ranking peasants and serfs. Russian Orthodox notions of witchcraft placed less emphasis on the role of the Devil than Western European attitudes. Some accusers did claim that the victims had been demonically possessed, but the idea of a widespread diabolical conspiracy did not dominate the Orthodox imagination. More often, witch trials tended to occur because someone was suspected of more mundane forms of magic.


russia witch trials wedding 1875
A Sorcerer Comes to a Peasant Wedding, by Vassily Maximov, 1875, via State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


Surviving documents illustrate the Russian people’s worldly concerns. Ordinary Russians might use grasses and roots to cure sickness. Those same substances might also be used to hurt someone perceived to have slighted the user. Others might use spells to achieve sexual success or to win the love of another person. Even further, women might use incantations to curse abusive husbands — the only real way for them to resist unhappy marriages.


Most notable are the identities of the accused; three out of every four Russians accused of witchcraft were men! This was the polar opposite of the situation further west, where female victims surpassed eighty percent of the total cases. Only a few other European countries followed the Russian model.


Why did men make up the majority of victims in the Russian witch trials? The answer likely has to do with the nature of early modern Russian culture. Although Russia was a highly patriarchal society, it was even more so, a hierarchical one. People from the lower classes had to defer in all matters to their social superiors, even in their own localities. Men were more likely to engage publicly with others, which may have contributed to their greater number among the accused.


The Lukh Trials: Russia’s Most Intense Witch Hunt

tsar aleksey russia witch trials
Portrait of Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich, 17th or 18th century, via the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


Between 1656 and 1660, fear gripped the Russian town of Lukh. Residents claimed that their wives had been possessed, and were “shrieking” and wailing. The concerned men of the town wrote petitions to the tsarist authorities, begging them to intervene. The ensuing trials in Lukh would mark the largest known witch hunt in seventeenth-century Russia.


Town governor Nazarii Alekseev recounted the spread of the panic in a 1657 petition to Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich. Within a year, however, he was overwhelmed, and Moscow sent Ivan Romanchiukov to handle the crisis. Romanchiukov records the authorities’ frequent use of torture to obtain confessions — a common practice when dealing with witch trials. One of the accused, a healer named Tereshka Malakurov, claimed after three rounds of torture to have spread salt and used spells. His wife, Olenka, also broke under torture, claiming her husband had taught her magic. Having implicated other townsmen, Tereshka’s and Olenka’s testimonies led Romanchiukov to sentence four people — including the couple — to death in 1658 for witchcraft.


Having taken Lukh by storm, the craze subsided after 1660. Yet witch trials and accusations of dark magic would persist in the Russian imagination for some two hundred years to come.


Changes in Witchcraft Prosecution

peter i witch trials reforms
Portrait of Peter the Great, by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1717, via The State Hermitage Museum


Russian witch trials continued throughout the first half of the eighteenth century. At the same time, however, the Russian government’s approach to prosecuting witchcraft did undergo some changes.


Today, many remember Peter the Great as the tsar who Westernized Russia’s military and political administration. Peter may not have been especially religious, but he was concerned about people who claimed to be spiritually possessed. In Peter’s mind, the so-called “shriekers” (klikushi in Russian) could easily be fraudsters looking to frame others for witchcraft. In 1715, the Tsar issued a decree ordering local authorities to question shriekers (Kivelson and Worobec, 2020). The following year, he added a military statute forbidding magical practices within the army; soldiers found guilty would face severe punishment (up to death by burning).


Peter’s successors would continue to hold witch trials. In 1731, Empress Anna issued a new decree against both those possessed by witchcraft and those suspected to be perpetuating it. The Empress upheld her predecessors’ views about fraudulent magical claims. In 1737, she ordered Russian Orthodox bishops to report accusations to the church’s Holy Synod. This, however, would not become a pattern.


How Did the Russian Witch Craze End?

catherine the great russia
Portrait of Catherine II, by Dmitry Levitzky, 1782, via the Web Gallery of Art


It was during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796) when Russian authorities started to ease up on criminally prosecuting witchcraft. By this time, mass witch trials had ended in Western Europe decades ago. Enlightenment-era European elites were extremely skeptical of witchcraft accusations — a fact that Catherine’s Enlightenment-inspired regime seems to have taken to heart. The Russian Empire had more pressing geopolitical and social concerns to deal with than magical disputes.


While the witch trials themselves may have started to decline, Russians across social classes continued to believe in the power of magic. Small-scale witchcraft-related controversies continued through the first half of the nineteenth century. Russian lower courts actually took up magical cases for another hundred years after the start of Catherine’s rule. It wasn’t until the 1860s that these courts also stopped (Kivelson and Worobec, 2020). Still, ordinary Russians continued to hold fast to magical beliefs until the early twentieth century. In spite of the Soviet Union’s efforts to stamp out religion and “superstitions,” many Russians today continue to uphold mystical practices.


What Made the Russian Witch Trials Different?

nesterov love potion painting
For the Love Potion, by Mikhail Nesterov, 1888, via Wikimedia Commons


Among the witch crazes that plagued early modern Europe, Russia’s witch trials were outliers. Sources indicate that Russian men were predominantly the victims of witch hunts, as opposed to Western European nations, which overwhelmingly persecuted women. The number of people tried for sorcery and witchcraft in Russia was also smaller. Accusations of witchcraft in Russia focused more on the earthly ramifications of magic and challenges to existing power structures. In part due to theological differences, Russians did not adopt ideas about witches having made deals with the Devil, the way Catholics and Protestants did.


Russian witch trials did undoubtedly occur. Yet the fact that they differed from other European countries’ crazes is fascinating. Scholars and ordinary history buffs alike should look into Russia’s witch trials for more information about the global history of witchcraft.


Bibliography/Further reading


Kivelson, Valerie A., and Christine D. Worobec, eds. Witchcraft in Russia and Ukraine, 1000-1900: A Sourcebook. Ithaca: Northern Illinois University Press, 2020.


Levack, Brian P., ed. The Witchcraft Sourcebook, 1st ed. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Author Image

By Greg PasciutoBA HistoryGreg is a Stonehill College graduate and aspiring writer and editor from Boston, MA. When he isn’t working his full-time job, you might find him reading, completing creative word searches, or just looking to learn new skills for life. His historical interests are particularly centered on the history of religion and the interactions of different cultural groups. Not limited to a single geographic region, Greg enjoys uncovering the stories of cultures all around.