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The tradition of duels came to Russia from Western Europe in the middle of the 17th-century, when two foreign officers had a duel in Moscow. However, the Russian duel had some differences from its Western analog. It duel was way tougher and fatal than the French duel, for example. If the French duelists often ended their dispute without bloodshed, Russians took more risk and sometimes pistol duels were held when the opponents took shots being just 10 steps away from each other. There were even cases when they stood face to face within a few step distance. It is easy to imagine what was the result in such cases…
The peak of duels in Russia was reached in the 19th-century when there were held several notable duels, including the one where the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was fatally wounded by Georges-Charles d’Anthes. Duels were highly popular among the officers and in 1894, there was another rise in the number of duels due to its legalization. Until that year, the Russian monarchy saw duels as something highly disturbing and for centuries there were created various laws and punishments to decrease their numbers. However, the need to protect the honor became strongly embodied in the hearts of Russian nobility and military class that often ignored all the prohibitions and took the risk to participate in duels.
One of the popular ways to punish the officers, who took part in duels was to exile them to continue their service in the Caucasus and also demote them in the ranking. Nevertheless, well-qualified officers usually got their rankings back after some time and they could enjoy all their hard-earned privileges without any restrictions. Within a time, punishments became softer as the army always had an important role in the Empire and monarchy had no need to create extra tensions among the loyal officers. The need to keep the honor had to be respected.
The popularity of duels quickly decreased after The October Revolution when the Russian Empire ended its existence together with the nobility. Russians faced a difficult period of major changes and all the duel romanticism of the previous century quickly dissolved.
Unwritten rules of the duel
Usually, duels were held in the morning when the duelists, their seconds and a doctor arrived at the arranged location. Duelists could be late no more than 15 minutes, otherwise, it counted as avoidance of the duel. When both sides arrived, they greeted each other with a bow and duel started within the next 10 minutes. Before it started, there was the last chance for both sides to agree to a reconciliation. After the refusal, the steward told the rules to duelists and seconds had to set the barriers and load the guns of duelists.
If duelists agreed to saber/sword fight, then they had to duel in their shirts. They were obliged to take everything out of their pockets. After that, everyone took their place. Seconds stood in a parallel of the line of the duel and the doctor stood behind them. The duel continued until one of the duelists was no more able to continue to fight i.e., he was seriously wounded or dead. If one of the opponents fell, dropped or broke his saber – the other duelist was obliged to stop the fight after the command of steward until his opponent would be able to continue the duel.
The duel also had a break every time, when one of the duelists got wounded, so the doctor could look on the wound and give a verdict about the severity of the injury. In case, if one of the duelists stepped out of the borders of the duel, it counted as avoidance or refusal of a fair fight. The honor was lost.
Here are few variations of the pistol duel
1 – The most popular one was the duel when the opponents stood 30 steps from each other and after a command, they went towards the barriers that had at least a 10 step distance between them. In the process of walking, after a command, the first shot was made. Usually, it took about 30-60 seconds until the opponent shot back. It was forbidden to cross the line of barriers and misfire also counted as a shot. If one of the opponents fell after he got shot, he could continue the duel and make his shot while lying down. If in the course of such duel nobody from the opponents got injured, after four shots the duel had to end.
2 – The opponents stood in 15-40 feet distance from each other and without any movement alternately made their shots after the command. The gap between the command and the shot had to be no less than 3 seconds and no longer than 1 minute. If the insult was serious, the side that was the offended one could make the shot first from a distance no less than 40 steps. Otherwise, the right to shoot first was decided by a draw.
3 – In very rare cases opponents stood back to back 25 steps from each other and without any extra movement, they made shots over their shoulders.
4 – The duelists stood 25-35 steps from each other in a parallel line, so their opponent was on the right side. They moved by this line towards the barriers that had a distance of 15 steps between them and after a command, duelists stopped and made their shots.
5 – This was the most dangerous version of the duel and fatal outcomes were common because the opponents stood 25-35 steps from each other and after command shots were made simultaneously. After the end of the duel, opponents shook hands.
«Soul – to the God, heart – to a woman, duty – to the fatherland, honor – to nobody!» – Russian general Lavr Kornilov
Sources | Востриков А. Книга о русской дуэли (2004) | Гордин Я. Русская дуэль СПб (1993) | Дурасов В. Дуэльный кодекс (1912)