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  • The Duel
  • Yuri Lotman
    Translated by Laura E. Christians

A duel is a form of combat between two people that occurs according to established rules with the goal of restoring honor and removing from the offended party the stain of shame inflicted by an insult. Thus the role of the duel is socially symbolic. It represents a specific procedure for the restoration of honor and cannot be understood without clearly contextualizing the concept of “honor” in the broader ethical system of the Russian Europeanized post-Petrine nobility. Of course, when seen from a principled position that rejects this understanding of honor, the duel loses its meaning and becomes ritualized murder.

The Russian nobleman of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries lived and operated under the influence of two contradictory regulators of social behavior. As a loyal subject and servant of the state, he abided by the tsars’ commands. Fear of the punishment awaiting the disobedient served as a psychological motivation for submission. Simultaneously, as a member of the nobility and part of the social estate that was both a socially dominant corporation and the cultural elite, he abided by a code of honor. The psychological motivation for submission here was shame. The ideal that noble culture created for itself demanded a total rejection of fear and regarded honor as the primary determinant of conduct. Hence activities demonstrating fearlessness gained social significance. So, if the “regulated state” of Peter I viewed noblemen’s conduct at war as a service benefitting the state and noblemen’s bravery only as a means for achieving this goal, then from the perspective of honor, bravery turned into an end in itself. This became particularly evident in duels: danger and coming face to face with death became the purifying means for removing an offense. The offended party needed to decide for himself—in accordance with his knowledge of the laws of honor—whether the dishonor was insignificant enough that a demonstration of fearlessness would suffice for its removal. This could occur through his showing a readiness for battle (reconciliation was possible after the challenge and its acceptance: by accepting the challenge, the offender shows that he considers his opponent to be [End Page 41] equal to himself, and consequently, rehabilitates his opponent’s honor) or through a symbolic representation of battle (reconciliation occurs after an exchange of shots or a clash of swords without any intention for blood from either side). If the offense was more serious, the type that needed to be redeemed with blood, the duel could end with the first wound (whose was immaterial, insofar as honor was restored not by inflicting harm on the offender or taking revenge on him, but by the very fact of bloodshed, even if it was one’s own). Finally, the offended party could qualify the offense as fatal, requiring the death of one of the participants in the conflict for the removal of the offense. It was essential that his assessment of the degree of insult and the method for restoring honor—whether it was insignificant or required bloodshed or death—correlated to that of the social environment (for example, the public opinion of the regiment). A person who too quickly sought reconciliation would be regarded as a coward, and similarly, if he was disproportionately bloodthirsty, he would be seen as a bretteur.1

The duel as an institution of corporate honor met opposition from two sides. On one side, the government consistently regarded duels negatively. As prescribed in the “Order about Duels and the Initiation of Fights” that constituted chapter 49 of the Petrine “Military Codex” (1716), “Should it happen that two people set out for an appointed place, and one draws a sword against the other, We order that, even if neither of them is wounded or killed, they shall receive no mercy, and also, if there prove to be seconds or witnesses, they shall be executed, and their possessions confiscated […] However, should they begin to fight, and in that battle inflict deaths or wounds, then the living as well as the dead shall be hung.”2 K. A. Sofronenko asserts that this “Order” was directed “against the old feudal nobility.”3...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2165-0683
Print ISSN
1526-1476
Pages
pp. 41-53
Launched on MUSE
2019-02-26
Open Access
No
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