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Response to Review of Murder Most Russian: True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia

James Ryan’s very thoughtful review of my Murder Most Russian notes that I raise two important points, on violence and emotion, which I do not adequately develop. I cannot disagree with him, and would like to use this opportunity to explain myself more clearly. Acts of violence, by which I mean doing physical harm to the human body, are culturally inflected despite the reality that bodies themselves suffer trauma in the same way. I found violence intertwined with the emotion of fatalism in telling ways in the Russian context. Men savaging their women in drunken stupors were likely to be forgiven by juries not because of the social inferiority of women, but because of the incapacity of the men themselves to establish self-reliance and respectability in the public sphere. We westerners are too often too quick to accept Ira Gershwin’s clich√© of ‘more clouds of grey, than any Russian play could guarantee’ instead of trying to gage fatalism as a political philosophy as well as an emotion. Although I introduced this, I did not flesh it out; my thesis would have been better served had I developed this relationship throughout the book instead of dropping it in towards the end. Indeed, the first murder trial that I cover, of the peasant woman Mavra Volokhova charged with chopping up her abusive husband and burying the parts in the basement, differed in significant ways, which I did not address, from the savaging of Marianna Time in chapter eight. Fatalism can be functional.

I would also like to say more here about a few places where Ryan put my book in conversation with others, specifically, Laura Engelstein, Jane Burbank, and Daniel Beer. First, although there is much of value in Engelstein’s ‘Combined underdevelopment’,  I disagree with the extent to which she finds the autocracy unchanged by the legal reforms of 1864. She and I both use the words of legal scholar Bogdan Kistiakovskii, but we understand the significance of them very differently: for Engelstein, he was like other members of the intelligentsia behaving as a social conscience and she took his criticisms to heart; for me, he was out of touch with the reality of Russian legality because it did not match what he imagined to be an idealized culture of ‘letter of the law’ in the West. Burbank and I are assessing citizenship differently. She is correct that the tsarist state had very complex statutes that did not provide a basis of equality as under Western constitutions, but I am trying to get at a culturally infused understanding of citizenship; I see juries as real Russians exercising their rights vis-√†-vis the autocracy and thereby challenging its authority. Beer makes a much stronger connection between Russian liberalism and Soviet radicalism than I do, in that he sees liberals actively believing that people not only could, but should be reshaped by social sciences. His liberals lose faith in Russian humanity in ways that mine do not, which raises a series of other questions about post-revolutionary society that lie beyond the scope of my study. My argument suggests less cultural continuity than Beer’s. Yes, neuropsychologist Vladimir Bekhterev gets his own lab after 1917, but Pavel Kovalevskii emigrates. In sum, I think Ryan would agree with me that Russian liberalism remains inadequately understood in its own terms.