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Courtrooms most Russian?

Louise McReynolds, Murder Most Russian: True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia. 275 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. ISBN-13 978-0801451454. $35.00.

Every scholar of Russian history knows Raskol'nikov well, but the history of crime in late imperial Russia is still a relatively uncharted territory. Dostoevskii s Crime and Punishment seduced many of us into studying Russian history. Nevertheless, we find ourselves all too often invoking Dostoevskii's fictional hero Raskol'nikov as the ultimate symbol of a murderer "most Russian," whereas the names of "real" murderers like Andrei Gilevich, Ol'ga Palem, or Mavra Volokhova remain obscure for many students of late 19th-century Russia. While Raskol'nikov did serve as a role model in the courts as well as in the accompanying writings of criminologists and psychologists in the late imperial era, the names of Palem or Gilevich were no less familiar to contemporary readers. Louise McReynolds's book raises the question: what is to be gained analytically when Raskol'nikov is joined by other partners in crime?

McReynolds concentrates exclusively on murder and follows eminent cases from the 1860s through the revolutionary era. By tracing sensational murder cases and their multiple dimensions, McReynolds explores how "Russians engaged with the modern world that they witnessed unfolding around them" (3). Each of the chronologically organized chapters closely examines a single case, beginning with Mavra Volokhova--accused of having murdered her husband in 1868--and ending with a robbery-homicide in 1913. McReynolds uses her cases to demonstrate crucial features of perceptions and notions of murder in particular, crime in general, the judicial system, gender and, to a lesser extent, the question of liberalism in Russia. She by no means intends to feed the narrative of doomed autocracy but rather to read each killing as a juncture "in a historical road that pointed in several directions" (11). In a manner reminiscent of Jane Burbank's study of peasant courts and Barbara Alpern Engel's investigation of divorce, she aims to offer a kaleidoscopic view of late imperial Russia, one that stresses the many options and possibilities rather than the failures and dead ends. (1) Yet in the end, she subscribes to the narrative of the failure of the rule of law in Russia and thus contributes to the thesis of the Russian Sonderweg. McReynolds attributes this failure to a mixture of distinct Russian cultural features (e.g., fatalism) and structural problems, most notably those created by autocracy.

The notion that autocracy staged itself in the figures of state attorneys and judges is a constant undercurrent in McReynolds's study. While lawyers and juries are said to represent the people, juries constitute "the most democratic institution in tsarist Russia" (8). Thus the courtroom is transformed to a site where autocracy and the people meet. Yet these seemingly clear-cut notions of "autocratic" and "democratic" become blurry in the course of McReynolds's book. How do we deal with the fact that the autocracy itself introduced the judicial reform of 1864, based on Western ideas of law and striving for zakonnost' (legality) as the goal of the judicial process? What did "autocratic" actually mean, considering that the judges in this study, too, could press for legality, as did the long-time presiding judge of the Moscow Circuit Court P. N. Obninskii, who argued repeatedly for better implementation of zakonnost ' and for a larger role for the individual (lichnost') in Russian law? (2) Obninskii was not alone among the many judges and state attorneys who displayed decidedly liberal views of law and order. (3) They imagined themselves as representing the rule of law, and in their view, this was tantamount neither to submitting to autocratic rule nor to openly defying autocracy.

No doubt, McReynolds knows the immanent contradictions autocratic rule faced when introducing an independent court system. But it was precisely this independence that makes it problematic to attribute autocratic function to judges and state attorneys. Barbara Alpern Engel recently demonstrated the considerable amount of pluralism found in autocratic institutions such as the Imperial Chancellery for Receipt of Petitions and demonstrated that in such sensitive issues as family law, the chancellery was flexible and progressive. (4) Russian legal consciousness was pluralistic per se. If there was a juxtaposition between autocracy and the rule of law, the question of who embodied autocracy in the courtroom has to be tackled in greater detail, exploring the immanent contradictions. Instead, the book concentrates almost exclusively on those who supposedly represented the people--that is, the defense lawyers and the juries.

According to McReynolds, one of those features "most Russian" is the figure of the defense lawyer. In chapter 1 she elaborates on the decisive role of defense lawyers in murder cases; they seemed to be the ones to convince juries to acquit likely murderers. The eminent Prince A. I. Urusov was a prime example whose defense of Mavra Volokhova in 1868 became notorious. The peasant woman Volokhova was accused of having murdered her husband, cut his torso in two, and hidden the corpse rather negligently in the cellar of her own house. McReynolds stresses Urusov's great efforts to portray Volokhova as a deeply religious, young (and beautiful) woman who suffered from her abusive and drunken husband most of the time. Urusov established her personality as one incapable of murder, although she had every reason to commit the crime. According to McReynolds, the lawyers performance in court mattered immensely. Although the written law had objectivity in mind, the subjective elements in murders drew contemporaries' attention, as in Urusov's defense of Volokhova. Not only did Urusov's theatrical staging of Volokhova's fate result in her acquittal, but his final speech served as a prototype for future defense lawyers who offered deeply psychological analyses to explain the defendant's reasons for committing a crime. As McReynolds argues, the written law had ceded power to "lawyerly immorality" (41). Belles lettres and psychology aided defense lawyers such as Urusov and S. A. Andreevskii who sought success and popular acclaim. McReynolds rarely resists criticizing popular lawyers for being morally corrupt and bending the rule of law by successfully defending acknowledged murderers. The reader cannot help but notice her disappointment when she blames the "iniquity of individual lawyers" (45). Those lawyers removed themselves from the written law and thus contributed to its failure.

The Moscow judge Obninskii repeatedly argued that the entire criminal subject ought to be considered when it came to crime--so, for example, a person who stole something was to be considered a thief rather than simply a person who had stolen. (5) He thereby relied on arguments that fed into modern notions of individuality, a topic highly contested and discussed at that time. (6) In late imperial Russia's courtrooms, an ironic situation emerged: state attorneys and judges were defenders of voluntarism and free will, whereas defense lawyers increasingly bought into newly emerging determinist theories that oscillated between antiliberalism and liberalism. In such a reading, state attorneys as representatives of the autocratic state become harbingers of modernity, of liberal notions of the subject and criminality; by contrast, seemingly democratic lawyers and juries stand for potentially anti-individualistic ideas about the subject. This intriguing interplay of the various actors within the courtroom, however, remains largely unexplored in McReynolds's otherwise vivid portrait. The courtroom as the site of shifting notions of autocracy and free will, law and crime would have provided a more nuanced understanding of fin-de-siecle Russia.

McReynolds addresses the extent to which juries threatened the system of law and order in her third chapter. Examining the case of Ol'ga Palem, who shot her ex-lover in 1894, McReynolds follows the discussions about the impact of juries from the time of their celebrated introduction in 1864. The acquittal of Palem, who never denied having committed murder, allowed the Russian reading public to indulge in the biggest scandal in the Russian crime scene of the 1890s. This cause celebre fed into existing notions of an excessively lenient jury, which too often acquitted murderers and thus defied Enlightenment notions of law and order. By acquitting not only Palem but probably hundreds of others who confessed to having killed, juries ultimately challenged their very reason for existing. Late imperial Russia knew many fierce critics of the Russian jury system, and every acquittal provided another reason to argue for the abolition of this institution. Yet, juries survived even the public outcry following Palem's case.

While discussing juries, McReynolds introduces the notion of the neschastnye, the unfortunate ones, put forward in fin-de-siecle Russia to explain juries' lax attitudes toward the accused. Stemming from underlying notions of determinism rather than voluntarism, this idea of the "unfortunate" implicitly defines crime not so much as a deliberate act of violence but rather as something that happened due to circumstance, something beyond the power of an individual. McReynolds links the frequency of acquittals to juries' eagerness to understand the reasons for a crime--a pattern rooted in another "most Russian" cultural phenomenon: crime fiction. McReynolds detects a proclivity in Russian literature to center the plot around the whydunnit rather than the whodunnit. Dostoevskii's narrative of Raskol'nikov as the "quintessential neschastnyi" is exemplary of this kind of fiction (117). In Russian crime fiction it is not necessarily the victim who suffers most--if, as in the case of a pawnbroker, the victim suffers at all. It is rather the depiction of the motives for the crime that are explored in detail. Another characteristic of Russian crime fiction entails not apprehending the culprit. Authors present mysterious murders with many potential perpetrators. In the end, nobody is sentenced, but the crime itself is better understood. According to Louise McReynolds, law and order are achieved neither in fiction nor in fact. The exploitation of literary sources in at least two chapters is one of the many merits of McReynolds's book. It allows her to trace traditions, which she links to popular notions of justice. Yet as convincing as this idea of the dominance of whydunnit may be for cases in which juries acquitted the accused, it fails to explain those cases in which the juries found defendants guilty. Cathy Frierson has shown, for instance, that leniency toward horse thieves or arsonists was not widespread at all. (7)

McReynolds tends to look for the thing that is "most Russian" in the acquittal of murderers, yet her arguments at times essentialize rather than contextualize. Another reason she gives for the preponderance of the whydunnit apart from the literary tradition, for instance, is the Orthodox belief system (100). However, the notion of neschastnye, which influenced juries' decisions, was not the sole component. Other factors--the impact of newly emerging sciences, such as criminology and psychology; questions of gender; the harshness of sentences; the context of the crime--these all had their impact on juries' decisions as well. (8)

The high rate of juries' acquittals was and is often read as an expression of the clash between autocracy and people. According to McReynolds, the autocratic regime tolerated the Russian juror's "antipathy toward the state, mollified by an empathy for its victims" (111). But the question remains: why? Was it necessarily an antipathy toward the state or the autocracy when juries acquitted likely murderers? As McReynolds stresses, the Russian court procedure tended to ask jurors if the accused committed the crime, in the first instance, and then if the accused was actually morally culpable. Thus juries were able to acquit murderers, since "to commit the act did not mean to be legally guilty of it" (111). In a manner similar to Jane Burbank's arguments on the volost' courts, McReynolds argues that Russian juries were relatively autonomous in their "legal values," but she glosses over the consequences of such legal values (111). (9)

McReynolds stresses assumed peculiarities of Russian understandings of law that once again feed into the narrative of the missing Rechtsstaat. This is especially noteworthy, as McReynolds uses considerable space in her chapters for comparisons with the Western (mostly French) legal system. The fruitfulness of such comparisons may be questioned, however, as may the manner in which these comparisons are deployed. In France as well as in Russia, laments over excessively lenient juries abounded. Juries in East and West found many reasons to deliver acquittals, reasons that were fused with notions of popular justice, of gender, or trends in human sciences that found their way into the courtrooms. McReynolds attributes leniency toward murderers to the paradigm of the neschastnyi. Then, somewhat surprisingly, she withdraws from her own explanation in her conclusion and instead stresses the "autocracy's potential for arbitrary treatment" (266). Ironically, the fact that the autocracy refused to guarantee personal inviolability seemed to enhance the importance of the personality in court. According to McReynolds, the autocratic disrespect for personal dignity led to an overemphasis on subjective factors among juries and defendants.

In cases of atrocious murder, McReynolds shows, the urge to understand and explain the crime in "courtrooms most Russian" did not diminish. Gilevich, christened "the greatest criminal of the twentieth century" (141) by a Petersburg boulevard newspaper, earned this title by cutting off the head of his victim and scalping it in 1909 St. Petersburg. The identity of the victim was as big a puzzle as the changing identities of the murderer. New methods of police work were tested: photography, police dogs, criminal anthropology; everything available was used in this case. Even hypnosis and communication with souls was considered by the public in order to identify the corpse and obtain clues about the identity of the murderer. Following McReynolds, Gilevich's crime was not read as premodern barbarism but rather as a sign of modernity. As McReynolds stresses, Gilevich had a migrant biography, had traveled in Europe, and fled to Paris to escape the law. By his actions, he thus actually endorsed the interpretation of his crime as modern rather than backward. McReynolds mentions that Gilevich was a "professional, not a peasant" (164), yet her argument would have benefited immensely from a more thorough exploration of class at this point. It would be interesting to trace the genealogy of his crime as modern more closely by reading even more cautiously through the press. To interpret his crime as modern makes sense knowing who the killer was and knowing of his route through Europe. Yet the first newspaper article McReynolds quotes alludes to rather traditional motives, such as "diabolical vengeance" and "revenge" (141)--that is, not necessarily to "modern" motives. McReynolds contextualizes Gilevich's crime by stressing the importance of the urban setting in interpretations of his crime as one of the "modern men." Yet there were many murders committed in Petersburg that did not earn this title. It would appear that being "modern" was reserved for a certain clientele, and the perpetrator much more than the actual deed defined its reading.

Interestingly, women were the perpetrators in the majority of McReynolds's cases, while men often appeared as victims. Many of these women murderered their husbands and former lovers, as did Volokhova and Palem. In other cases, they were perpetrators insofar as they transgressed the boundaries of respectable female behavior and thus compelled jealous husbands to end their misery by shooting their unfaithful wives. McReynolds asserts that gender is crucial for historical analysis (11, 236), yet one sometimes wishes that gender analysis played an even greater role. As McReynolds almost exclusively relies on journals and newspaper clippings, her sensational murders transgress normality in every respect. Because of her sources, her cases are usually linked to romantic murders--as in the case of Tarnovskaia, in which jealousy was the motive. The tendency to sensationalize murder was certainly evident when the murder was especially atrocious or the perpetrator was a woman. The everyday murder of one man killing another, for instance, is not a topic in her book, as this was not a topic in newspapers, whereas in archival sources one would find a plethora of such cases. Although she analyzes gender in the cases of Tarnovskaia and Volokhova, among others, some general reflections on her sample and gender would have been in order. Reading McReynolds's cases across decades, one senses a shift, especially after the revolution of 1905, from emphasizing female perpetrators such as Volokhova to emphasizing the feminity of male murderers, driven by pathologies rather than reason or rationality. A broader discussion of the impact of gender and its changing notions would have helped here.

While throughout her book McReynolds carefully demonstrates the influences of the new sciences like psychology and forensics, the impact of gender, the conflicting notions of crime and law in murder cases, and how all this led to a certain notion of "popular justice" (266), she eventually seems to pick the autocracy as well as Orthodoxy as the decisive factors for Russia's failure. But if popular justice as displayed in the courtrooms and newspapers contradicted the autocratic notion of a rule of law, yet neither of these adhered to the rules of a Rechtsstaat, something McReynolds implicitly understands as desirable, then the question emerges: who exactly is to blame for the "failure of rule of law in Tsarist Russia" (268)?

Murder Most Russian may not succeed in convincing readers about those features presumed to be "most Russian." The extent to which some participants in court and among the public were trying to understand the delinquent may remain puzzling. Yet to declare it a Russian trait per se overlooks the fact that this trait changed according to the roles played in court and according to those who were accused. It may have been the juries' and defendants' privilege to try to understand the alleged murderer. Yet every acquittal earned an outcry in the press, was answered with musings about the maturity of Russian juries, and was followed with reminders that education would be the key to preventing such verdicts in the future. McReynolds's focus on those crimes that made headlines in her newspaper sources leads to an overemphasis on spectacular crimes and obliterates those nitty-gritty murders which indeed ended with quick convictions and life-long sentences. But McReynolds succeeds in delivering a fascinating picture of the fin-desiecle frenzy for crime and murder in particular. Raskol'nikov may still be the quintessential Russian murderer, but his comrades in crime are no less fascinating.

Forschungsstelle Osteuropa

Universitat Bremen

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28359 Bremen, Germany

(1) Jane Burbank, Russian Peasants Go to Court: Legal Culture in the Countryside, 1905-1917 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004); Barbara Alpern Engel, Breaking the Ties That Bound: The Politics of Marital Strife in Late Imperial Russia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).

(2) P. N. Obninskii, Zakon i byt: Ocherki i issledovaniia nashego reformiruemogoprava (Moscow: A. I. Snegirova, 1891).

(3) On legal figures and their enlightened ideas, see Richard Wortman, The Development of a Russian Legal Consciousness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

(4) Engel, Breaking the Ties That Bound.

(5) Obninskii, Zakon i byt.

(6) See esp. Daniel Beer, Renovating Russia: The Human Sciences and the Fate of Liberal Modernity, 1880-1930 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

(7) Cathy A. Frierson, All Russia Is Burning! A Cultural History of Fire and Arson in Late Imperial Russia (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003).

(8) McReynolds deals with the role of psychology and forensics in her second chapter. See also Elisa M. Becker, Medicine, Law, and the State in Imperial Russia (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2011).

(9) Burbank, Russian Peasants Go to Court.
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Author:Oberlander, Alexandra
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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