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  • Medicine, Law and the State in Imperial Russia by Elisa M. Becker
  • Daniel Beer
Medicine, Law and the State in Imperial Russia. By Elisa M. Becker (Budapest, Central European University Press, 2011) 399pp. $50.00

In recent years, law and medicine in Russia have attracted a great deal of critical scrutiny from historians pursuing a range of topics in the imperial period. Powered by the mounting prestige of science, medical and legal experts made influential interventions into the functioning of the imperial judiciary and were influential in shaping the popular understanding of pressing contemporary concerns—crime, sexuality, political extremism, suicide, and bio-psychological decline. Setting aside these broader questions and the historians who pursue them, Becker offers a conventional institutional history of the discipline of forensic medicine, told from the perspective of disciplinary elites.

Becker argues that in contrast to Western Europe, which saw an incremental development of separate guilds, the Russian medical occupation was an eighteenth-century creation of the state. Becker shows how in Russia “all medical functions (forensic, police, and therapeutic) were combined in one and the same state physician who was legally obliged to perform them all.” Thus, forensic medicine in particular “reflected the autocracy’s approach to the social and material realities it faced: the effort to structure and manage society through legal-administrative categories” (269).

Medicine, Law and the State is centrally concerned with how the medical and legal professions shaped, and were in turned shaped by, the Great Reforms. In a field that too often treats the reform era as if it were a frontier demarcating two completely different periods, Becker’s spanning of the nineteenth century is welcome. She shows how medical experts, [End Page 392] supported by military statutes dating back to the reign of Peter the Great, participated in the pre-reform legal system as powerful administrative officials whose evidence served the inquisitorial needs of the courts and was largely beyond contestation. When this established system began to erode in the wake of legal reforms, the medical experts found their evidence subject to critical scrutiny in the combative arena of the jury trial. Their response was struggle for wider recognition of their authority as both empirical and analytical experts in the field of jurisprudence.

Given the dynamism in the field of social, cultural, and intellectual history of the late imperial period, Becker’s reluctance to engage seriously with the work of historians of psychiatry, criminology, and the legal profession is regrettable. She repeatedly sets up straw men before proceding to knock them down. Her claim that “historians have generally associated the ideology of science, and its philosophical offshoot scientific materialism, with the so-called alienated intelligentsia of the 1860s” shows scant regard for a range of publications during the last two decades (12). She argues that her “study shows that reformers operating within the government . . . sought to employ the empirical methods of science in order to improve and transform the state system, rather than undermine or topple it.” Yet the argument that not all members of the professions were sworn enemies of the autocracy has been long advanced by a number of historians, including Hutchinson, Solomon, Frieden, and Adams.1

These scholars have also stressed the close dependence of the medical professions on the state for financing and support and explored how liberals within the medical and legal professions offered a series of prescriptions for managed reform of the state. Given the proximity of these arguments to her own, Becker might usefully have engaged explicitly with their work rather than consigning it to a few brief references in her notes.

The greatest flaw in Becker’s study—a central argument of the book—is a failure to examine in any detail how forensic medicine actually worked in the courtroom. She mentions influential trials, such as that of the attempted regicide Dmitrii Karakozov or that involving the young murder victim Sara Bekker, in passing but provides no sustained analysis of how medical experts operated in trials. Becker’s material is overwhelmingly drawn from the articles that appeared in journals published by the legal and medical elite. In the absence of a close examination of how medical expertise interacted with...


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