Knout is the English transliteration of the the Russian word кнут (knut), which means "whip".
The knout in RussiaEdit
Knouts were used in Russia for flogging as formal corporal punishment of criminals and political offenders, at least since the rule of Ivan III in the fifteenth century. The victim was tied to a whipping post or a triangle of wood and stripped, receiving the specified number of strokes on the back. A sentence of 100 or 120 lashes was equivalent to a death sentence, but with heavier types of knout, already twenty blows could kill.
Peter the Great is traditionally accused of knouting his son Alexis to death; whoever the executioner may have been, there is little doubt that he was beaten until he died.
In 1845, during the reign of the Emperor Nicholas, the knout was abolished and was replaced by a triple-thonged whip called pleti (a.k.a pletu, plet, or plitt), a somewhat less lethal instrument of punishment. One stroke of the knout (before 1845) was considered equal to 2-2.5 strokes of the pleti (after 1845). For example, 100 strokes of the pleti were considered equal to 40-50 strokes of the knout. Belinsky, in a letter to Gogol from 1847, called it "the comical substitution of the single-lash knout by a cat-o-three tails".
Elsewhere and metaphoric useEdit
The dreaded instrument became synonymous in Western European languages with what was seen as the tyrannical cruelty of the autocratic government of Russia, much as the sjambok brought to mind the Apartheid government of South Africa or lynching was associated with the period of Jim Crow laws in America.
The expression "under the knout" is used to designate any harsh totalitarianism, and by extension its equivalent in a private context, e.g., a grim patriarch ruling his household 'with an iron rod'.
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