Murder Most Russian: True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia

Author(s): Louise McReynolds

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How a society defines crimes and prosecutes criminals illuminates its cultural values, social norms, and political expectations. In Murder Most Russian, Louise McReynolds uses a fascinating series of murders and subsequent trials that took place in the wake of the 1864 legal reforms enacted by Tsar Alexander II to understand the impact of these reforms on Russian society before the Revolution of 1917. For the first time in Russian history, the accused were placed in the hands of juries of common citizens in courtrooms that were open to the press. Drawing on a wide array of sources, McReynolds reconstructs murders that gripped Russian society, from the case of Andrei Gilevich, who advertised for a personal secretary and beheaded the respondent as a way of perpetrating insurance fraud, to the beating death of Marianna Time at the hands of two young aristocrats who hoped to steal her diamond earrings. As McReynolds shows, newspapers covered such trials extensively, transforming the courtroom into the most public site in Russia for deliberation about legality and justice. To understand the cultural and social consequences of murder in late imperial Russia, she analyzes the discussions that arose among the emergent professional criminologists, defense attorneys, and expert forensic witnesses about what made a defendant's behavior "criminal." She also deftly connects real criminal trials to the burgeoning literary genre of crime fiction and fruitfully compares the Russian case to examples of crimes both from Western Europe and the United States in this period. Murder Most Russian will appeal not only to readers interested in Russian culture and true crime but also to historians who study criminology, urbanization, the role of the social sciences in forging the modern state, evolving notions of the self and the psyche, the instability of gender norms, and sensationalism in the modern media.


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"Murder defined the Russian fin de siecle. From Dostoevsky's homicidal literary creations, through the 1881 assassination of Alexander II, to a host of killings impelled by greed and lust, the Empire seemed to be plotting its path to modernity in blood. Murder Most Russian is a superb study of the jury trials for homicide ushered in by the legal reforms of the 1860s... Each trial yields a portrait of a fiercely contested public realm in which ideas about gender, morality, science, the state, and individual sovereignty were all up for grabs... With this subtle and imaginative book, Louise McReynolds allows readers to peer not only inside the trials themselves but beyond them, into the wider courtroom of Russian public opinion."-Daniel Beer, Times Literary Supplement (19 July 2013) "Louise McReynold's latest work reinforces her position as an important voice in scholarship on late imperial Russian culture and society... Murder Most Russian makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the development of the Russian legal system, the intersection of crime and culture, and the transition to modernity in late imperial Russia."-Sharon A. Kowalsky, Slavic Review (Spring 2014) "This topic is not only luridly intriguing, but also gives great insight into the Russian cultural consciousness as the empire adapted itself to modern life. McReynolds's compelling book offers a homage to lively detective fiction and gruesome true-crime writing, while also providing an engaging history of crime's role in shaping Russian ways of seeing the world in the late imperial period."-Eugenia Kapsomera Amditis, Slavic and East European Journal (Vol. 58.1, 2014) "Murder Most Russian is a most compelling book. The narrative richness of detail, built on extensive research, combined with the author's panache as a storyteller, will keep readers interested. Louise McReynolds walks observantly through a bloody terrain of murders and the worlds of those who judged murder-ranging from professional experts, to juries, to newspapers, to fictionalized murders in print and on stage and screen. McReynolds recognizes that murder stories are most valuable for what they reveal about the society in which they unfold."-Mark D. Steinberg, University of Illinois, author of Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity, and the Sacred in Russia and Petersburg Fin de Siecle "Murder Most Russian is a marvelous book: erudite, entertaining, and always thought-provoking. Taking murder in its many and varied incarnations-from the evolving legal framework of jury trials and expert witnesses to the highly public world of 'true crime' and cinematic melodrama-Louise McReynolds casts new light onto the history of legality and justice, gender, class, and subjectivity, celebrity and sensationalism, and the broader politics of autocracy. A particular strength is McReynolds's assured comparative approach, teasing out both the common and the distinctive strands of Russian murder-and modernity."-Susan Morrissey, University College London, author of Suicide and the Body Politic in Imperial Russia "McReynolds' iconoclastic and path-breaking scholarship over the years has led to a serious reconsideration of Russian history and politics in the pre-revolutionary era, and we believe that her present work will engender much debate and discussion in the academy."-Citation by the 2013 Heldt Prize for the Best Book in Slavic/Eastern European/Eurasian Women's Studies Award Committee

Louise McReynolds is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of Russia at Play: Leisure Activities at the End of the Tsarist Era, Murder Most Russian: True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia, and The News under Russia's Old Regime.

General Fields

  • : 9780801451454
  • : Cornell University Press
  • : Cornell University Press
  • : November 2012
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Louise McReynolds
  • : Hardback
  • : 288