Book #59

Seven Hanged by Leonid Andreyev

This astonishing novella from 1908, newly translated for Little Black Classics by War and Peace translator Anthony Briggs, probes the emotions and experiences of seven people condemned to death in Tsarist Russia. With a powerful and subtle exploration of the morality of capital punishment, it was a best-seller at the time, and, in a strange quirk of history, influenced the conspirators in the cataclysmic assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. 

This is a horrific, heart-rending novella. Andreyev tells the tale of seven prisoners sentenced to hang, without telling a tale at all. Nothing happens except his exploration of their psychological states in such close proximity to death; it’s harrowing, and it’s perfect.

Each of the seven approach their fate in different ways - with fear, with pride, with apathy, with scorn. They begin to appreciate the smallest of life’s offerings, such as a breath of spring air, as they try to become accustomed to what lies ahead for them.

His underlying commentary on capital punishment is exquisite. Where is the punishment? Is it within death itself, or is it purely in the time between, waiting for something you have no power to delay, the worst fate, decided by someone else. After all, once death comes, surely, we are free?

Ultimately, Andreyev is asking which of them we’d be when staring death in the face. All were terrified, but displayed this differently. How would you do it? Bravely? Or would you resist? Who can say until the time comes, but the thought is somehow wonderfully provoking and equally uncomfortable.