Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

The Seven Who Were Hanged

The Seven Who Were Hanged
Leonid Nikolaievich Andreev
St. Petersburg

PLOT SUMMARY: The Seven Who Were Hanged opens with a foiled assassination attempt on a man referred to as the Minister. Upon learning about the attempt, he becomes preoccupied with death and orders that the conspirators be executed. They are swiftly arrested, tried, and sentenced to death, as the story shifts perspectives to relating the internal changes that occur in the five men and women, as well as two other common criminals condemned to death, as they all await their execution.

     The common criminals, Ivan Yanson and Mishka Tsiganok, are arrested first and spend a longer time waiting. Yanson seems to be a broken man, spending his time either in silence or asking repeatedly why he should be hanged. Tsiganok knows why he will be hanged, but is unremorseful until his hope of freedom is dashed. The five others only spend two nights in prison, but still undergo a transformation. First, the young, energetic Sergey becomes dejected and has an emotional meeting with his parents, during which they attempt to avoid emotion, but end up crying in the end. The fearful Vasily is also visited by his mother, who immediately weeps. One of the conspirators, Tanya, acts as another mother figure and is only ever concerned with her comrade’s pain, particularly that of the young woman of the group, Musya. She, in turn, reacts to the sentence by picturing herself as a martyr and immortal. The last of the seven, Werner, begins as a cynical misanthrope, but when faced with death, learns to love life and humanity. They are then brought back together to be transported to the gallows, and finally, as the last chapter title bluntly says, “They Are Hanged” (263).     

ANALYSIS: Seven Who Were Hanged has two main areas of significance: the philosophical and the political. In its examination of various reactions to death, the short story acts as a psychological study. What makes the analysis particularly compelling is that it delves into seven unique reactions that fit seven different characters. There is, however, a common feature in all reactions. All seven criminals – as well as the Minister – are in the same perverse situation of knowing the time and date of their death. This unnatural state is what causes their distress.    

     The undeniable effects of the sentence on the criminals’ psyche must lead the reader to the conclusion that a death sentence is absurd. By seeing various heart-wrenching and relatable reactions to the situation, both the political and the common criminals are humanized. Regardless of the crime, the reader sympathizes. In the context of the early 20th century, this message, combined with the revolutionary nature of the assassination attempt, creates a highly political work. It is no coincidence that “Seven Who Were Hanged” was well received upon publication and significantly diminished during the Soviet era.


“It is not death that is terrible, but the knowledge of it: it would be utterly impossible to live if a man could know exactly and definitely the day and hour of his death. And the fools cautioned me: ‘At one o’clock in the afternoon, your Excellency!’”  (203)

“This strange gayety of a man who was to be executed was an offence to the prison, as well as to the very executioner; it made them appear absurd. And suddenly, for the briefest instant, it appeared to the old warden, who had passed all his life in the prison, and who looked upon its laws as the laws of nature, that the prison and all the life within it was something like an insane asylum, in which he, the warden, was the chief lunatic.” (214) 

“The important thing, Werner, is that we ourselves are ready to die. Do you understand? What do those people think? That there is nothing more terrible than death. They themselves have invented Death, they are themselves afraid of it, and they try to frighten us with it. I would like to do this—I should like to go out alone before a whole regiment of soldiers and fire upon them with a revolver. It would not matter that I would be alone, while they would be thousands, or that I might not kill any of them. It is that which is important—that they are thousands. When thousands kill one, it means that the one has conquered.” (237)

BIOGRAPHY: Leonid Andreyev, author of The Seven Who Were Hanged and widely known as the father of Russian Expressionist writing, was born in 1871. Andreyev was born into a middle-class family in the Orel region of Central Russia. Contemptuous of discipline, he was not a good student, but progressed through school and earned a law degree at the University of Moscow in 1897. After trying and losing a single case though, Andreyev quit the law and took up work as a journalist. He began as a police reporter, then in part due to encouragement from Maxim Gorky, Soviet author and a founder of socialist realism, Andreyev transitioned to fiction and published pieces in various periodicals. As part of the “Silver Age” of Russian literature, Andreyev was known for his numerous short stories, though he also wrote many plays.

     Although Andreyev was well regarded and successful for a period, his life was generally marked by tragedy and despair. In his youth Andreyev attempted suicide three times, feeling that human life lacked purpose. While in law school he became poor, and after only four years with his first wife, she died in 1906. By 1908 Andreyev had become a well-known author and was again married and moved to Finland, but he was still dissatisfied with life. This dissatisfaction and a criticism of humanity are present in his writing, which was often politically inspired. Andreyev did not belong to any political group but was vocal about his opinions. Toward the end of his life – again marked by depression – Andreyev expressed a disdain for the Bolsheviks. Shortly before a trip to promote his anti-Bolshevik writings abroad, Andreyev died of cerebral hemorrhage in 1919. Andreyev’s reputation was downgraded to that of a second-rate author during the Soviet regime, despite the prominence of his writing during his life.


Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Leonid Andreyev.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 8 Sept. 2018,

Hamalian, Leo and Edmond Volpe. Afterword. “The Seven Who Were Hanged,” by Leonid Andreyev. Ten Modern Short Novels, G.P. Putnam’s
Sons, 1958, pp. 270-274.

Terras, Victor. A History of Russian Literature. New Haven, Yale University, 1991.


Bar-Yosef, Hamutal. “The Reception of Leonid Andreev in Hebrew and Yiddish Literature.” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures, vol. 58, no. 3, 2010, pp. 139-151.
This article describes the popularity of Russian authors such as Andreyev in the Jewish community, and relates how – and why – many of his stories and plays were translated into Yiddish and Hebrew.

Kaun, Alexander. “Maturity and Solitude.” Leonid Andreyev: A Critical Study. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1924, pp. 81-130.
Kaun, Alexander. “Collective Humanity.” Leonid Andreyev: A Critical Study. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1924, pp. 213-258.
These two chapters from Alexander Kaun’s book analyze “Seven” both in the context of Andreyev’s life as evident of a subdued but powerful quality of his later writing and independently as a poignant display of humanity.

Newcombe, Josephine. “War and Revolution.” Leonid Andreyev. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973, pp. 49-72.
In this chapter from her book about Andreyev, Josephine Newcombe situates the seven who were hanged in a historical context filled with violent political changes that both influenced and perhaps was influenced by Andreyev’s short story.

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