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The Stranglers





A sect no less extraordinary than the last was that of the Stranglers
(_douchiteli_). It originated towards the end of 1874, and profited by
a series of law cases, nearly all of which ended in acquittal. The
Stranglers flourished especially in the Tzarevokokschaisk district, and
first attained notoriety under the following circumstances.

A large number of deaths by strangling had been recorded, and their
frequency began to arouse suspicion. Whether they were due to some
criminal organisation, or to a series of suicidal impulses, the local
police were long unable to decide, but in the end the culprits were
discovered.

Were they, however, in reality culpable?

The unfortunate peasants, after much reflection, had come to the
conclusion that death is not terrible, but that what is indubitably to
be feared is the last agony--the difficult departure from terrestrial
life. They decided, therefore, to come to the assistance of the Death
Angel, and, when any sufferer approached the final struggle, his
neighbours or relatives would carry him off to some isolated spot, tie
up his head firmly but kindly in a cushion--and soon all was over.

Before, however, they had recourse to such drastic measures, they would
inquire from the wizards (or _znachar_) of the district, doctors being
almost unknown, whether the invalid still had any chance of recovery,
and it was only after receiving a negative reply that the pious
ceremony took place. We say "pious" because there is something
strangely pathetic in this "crowning of the martyrs," as the peasants
called it. Arising in the first place from compassion, the motive for
the deed was, after all, a belief in the need for human sacrifice. The
invalid who consents to give up his life for the honour of heaven
accomplishes thereby an act of sublime piety; but what merit has he who
dies only from necessity?

The corpses were buried in the forest and covered with plants and
leaves, but no sign was left that might betray them to the suspicious
authorities. When a member of the community disappeared, and the
police made inquiries, they always had the greatest possible difficulty
in finding his remains. Sometimes even his nearest relations did not
know where the "saviours of his soul" had hidden him.

But there was one thing that marked the discovery of a dead Strangler.
His body never bore any trace of violence, and as dissection always
proved, in addition, the existence of some more or less serious
disease, the sham "murderers" were eventually left in peace. A small
local paper, the _Volgar_ (April, 1895), from which these facts are
taken, reports that several actions brought against them ended in their
acquittal.

Lord Avebury recounts that certain cannibal tribes kill those of their
members who have reached the stage of senile decay, and make them the
substance of a more or less succulent repast. These savages act, no
doubt, whether consciously or unconsciously, from some perception of
the misery and uselessness of old age, but the Russian peasants cannot
be compared to them. The Stranglers are not moved by any unconscious
sentiment. Their belief is the logical application of a doctrine of
pessimism, whose terrible consequences they have adopted, although they
know not its terminology. What is the life of a _moujik_ worth?
Nothing, or nearly nothing. Is it not well, then, to accelerate the
coming of deliverance? Let us end the life, and, snapping the chains
that bind us to mortals, offer it as a sacrifice to heaven! So reason
these simple creatures, inexorable in their logic, and weighed down by
untold misery.





Next: The Fugitives

Previous: The White-robed Believers



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