restricted access 4. Emotions on Trial II: The Defense
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167 4 Emotions on Trial II The Defense Dostoevsky was profoundly disturbed by the fact that lawyers served not their consciences, but their clients and their own agendas, and therefore were bound to use any means to achieve a verdict favorable to them.1 The most notorious example was the Kroneberg case, a case of horrific child abuse, in which the father was accused—and exonerated— of torture. Kroneberg’s defense attorney, the celebrated V. D. Spaso­ vich, who had defended the Nechaevtsy, insisted on a very legalistic understanding of torture, and, what was worse, impugned the moral character of the seven-year-old victim, and the well-intentioned witnesses who had come to her aid. Dostoevsky was so incensed by the acquittal of Kroneberg that he devoted one of his most impassioned entries in Diary of a Writer to the pillory of Spasovich, the evisceration of the law courts, and the harrowing of readers’ sensibilities with the torture of an innocent child. For this he drew liberally on his special expertise in corporal punishment and his own well-established authority as a former political convict in Siberia. I would like to inform Mr. Spasovich that in Siberia, in the convicts’ wards in the hospital, I chanced to see the backs of prison inmates 168 Part Three: “The Little Devil Sitting in Your Heart” immediately after they had been subjected to flogging with spitzrutens (driven through the ranks after five hundred, one thousand and two thousand blows inflicted at a time). This I saw several dozens of times. Would you believe me, Mr. Spasovich, that some backs literally swelled almost two inches thick, and yet think how little flesh there is on the back! These backs were of a dark purple color, with a few gashes from which blood would still be oozing. . . . Now I ask you, Mr. Defense-Lawyer, I will ask you this question: even though these sticks did not threaten her life and caused her not the slightest injury, isn’t such a punishment cruel and doesn’t it constitute torture? For heaven’s sake, didn’t the little girl suffer for a quarter of an hour under the dreadful rods, which lay on the table in court as an exhibit, screaming: “Papa! Papa!” Why then are you denying her her suffering, her torture?2 P. A. Alexandrov, however, served his conscience. Initially a rising star in the public prosecutor’s office, Alexandrov’s political sympathies led him to cross over to the defense, most recently of some of the accused in the Trial of the 193. Zasulich’s co-conspirator, Maria Kolenkina , was able to raise a subscription among St. Petersburg students in order to engage the brilliant attorney in the defense of Zasulich, and the unprepossessing Alexandrov undertook the mission with zest and what seemed like unfounded confidence in an acquittal for his obviously guilty client.3 As opposed to Kessel’s uninspired fifty minutes, Alexandrov ’s summation lasted two hours, was rehearsed to perfection, and was delivered in his customary off-the-cuff and intimate manner. While initially graciously conceding his agreement with his adversary on many points, he quickly and deftly made his client’s “feelings” the legitimate key to the case. “In order to completely judge the motives of our deeds, one needs to know how they were reflected in our understanding. In the same way, in my judgment about the events of July 13 there won’t be discussion about the actions of the officials, but only the illumination of how those events were reflected in the mind and convictions of Vera Zasulich.”4 With this move, Alexandrov frees himself to graphically portray the action of officials without, in fact, “discussing” them and to relocate the debate about Zasulich’s guilt from the territory of objective guilt and universally valid moral principles to the completely subjective realm of Zasulich’s inner life, as told by her lawyer, Alexandrov. Emotions on Trial II 169 Poor Vera Just as historical narratives may display the unmistakable features of literary genres, so too legal summations—especially where literature played such a prominent and authoritative role—may be consciously or unconsciously crafted according to literary conventions.5 In Zasulich ’s case, Alexandrov chose sentimentalism as best suited to Zasulich and her crime. While he claimed to dwell only on some of “the biographical data,” Alexandrov was intent on casting Zasulich as a modern-day “Poor Liza,” the heroine of Nikolai Karamzin’s iconic sentimental tale.6...


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Subject Headings

  • Russian literature -- Political aspects.
  • Terrorism -- Russia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Terrorism in literature.
  • Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, 1818-1881 -- Assassination.
  • Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 1821-1881 -- Political and social views.
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