Sensational! Reynolds speaks on Russian imperial murder trials

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

To what extent does fact bleed into fiction and fiction into fact? According to Louise Reynolds, a professor at Chapel Hill North Carolina and author of many books on Tsarist Russia, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Russian murder trials were marked by a blurred “intertextuality” of fact and fiction. The Russian courtroom became a stage, with the accused and their lawyers doubling as actors. In her lecture, entitled “True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia,” Ms. Reynolds, although small in stature, forcefully illustrated the pop-culture sensation that was the Russian murder trial.

“One day, people will say that I wrote history.” Thus Ms. Reynolds began from behind the Kohlberg’s Scheuer Room podium, aptly quoting from one of history’s most enigmatic murderers, Jack the Ripper. Although far removed from a Russian court-room, the Jack the Ripper introduced the concept of the murderer as a fictional character. In the nineteenth century, Russia experienced great political and industrial development in its search for modernity. As Ms. Reynolds suggests, this unstable atmosphere engendered an environment in which Jack the Ripper’s Russian counterparts could thrive and be embraced by the public.

Ms. Reynolds discussed three particular murders, which occurred between the Russian revolution of 1905 and the beginning of World War Two in 1914. The first was discovered on October 5, 1909, when a man was found disfigured beyond recognition. The man had been decapitated and pierced through the heart with a knife. The torso and unattached head were subsequently placed on public display in order to aid with the murder investigation. Therefore, the public was immediately drawn to the case as the result of the murder could be directly viewed.

Public interest was further piqued by woodcuttings and cheap booklets, which illustrated the scene of the crime. Ultimately, it was discovered that the murder had been in fact an insurance scam to collect the deceased’s money. Russians were forced to question the direction in which their society was moving so as to facilitate such a crime. Was the murderer himself a victim of the path to modernity as if he were a character in Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”? The Russian public could never fully answer their questions, as Ms. Reynolds stressed, because “crime and punishment are not unambiguous matters.”

The second murder occurred not in Russia, but in Venice. Maria Tarnovskaya was implicated with her lover in urging another Russian man, also Maria’s lover, to kill a fourth Russian, believed to be Maria’s lover as well. Tarnovskaya quickly became the center of attention at the trial and took on two distinct personas in the eyes of Italians and of Russians. To the Italians, Tarnovskaya was seen as amoral, a “cunning, alienated, femme fatale.” She was primitive, sadistic, and cruel, able to bear suffering. Thus, the Italian press “equated [Tarnovskaya] with Russia herself.”

This personification of Russia through Tarnovskaya led to the image of Russia as a “degenerate female.” However, after confessing and revealing the sexual hardships she was forced to bear early in life, Tarnovskaya endeared herself to the Russian public. Again, woodcuttings and cheap booklets appeared, arguing that Tarnovskaya should be clinically treated and not send to an Italian jail. Thus, Tarnovskaya became an actress, pandering her life’s sad story as a justification for her crime.

The third murder was truly ripped from the popular films and novels of the early twentieth century. On October 9, 1911, a discontented Vasily Prasalovsky met his estranged wife, Zina, in a restaurant. Upset that she was cavorting with other men, he dragged her outside and shot her at point blank. Although spectacular, this crime was not original. Indeed, it had been previously enacted in two major Russian films, “Children of the Age” and “Child in the Big City.”

Both of these films illustrated the debauchery and decadence characteristic of Russia’s urban youth. Zina and Vasily lived as if their life were a play filled with tawdry affairs and cheap night clubs– their drama reaching its peak when, in a rage, Zina doused Vasily with acid. Vasily’s trial followed suit: lawyers delivered monologues and Vasily was described as a “veritable Max Linder [a famous movie star at the time]. Murder thus became “a medium through which to convey culture.”

Ms. Reynold’s concluded her lecture by returning to the theme of “intertextuality” between fact and fiction. Each of the three murders reflected the social malaise ever present in Russia’s desire to modernize. In a society in flux it is difficult for one to firmly root one’s life. Sensationalized murder trials were yet another manifestation of the uncertain transience of modern life. Russia was not only changing internally but also was shaping its identity in the international community, as the Maria Tarnovskaya trial highlighted.

After stepping out from behind the podium, Ms. Reynolds approached her audience and candidly answered a few questions. Many in the audience were struck by Russian juries tendency to acquit defendants. The statistic presented– forty percent of defendants were acquitted by Russian juries–was staggering. Ms. Reynolds elaborated that it was widely felt in Russia that “the criminal is always redeemable through confession and repentance.” For Russians, there was a linguistic as well as ethical difference between being guilty and being morally culpable. All were encouraged to contemplate the interrelationship of fact and fiction because, as Ms. Reynolds asserted, “the facts…have never spoken for themselves.”

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