Multifaceted Perceptions of the Murderess in 19th Century Russia   

Krystel von Kumberg

History often depicts women as victims rather than as perpetrators of violence. The stereotype of criminals as inherently masculine has dominated the literature. Warped crime data, societal perceptions of women’s domestic roles and theories regarding women’s sexuality have taken their toll in downplaying the significance of female crime. Stephen Frank, Sharon Kowalsky and Ronald LeBlanc’s articles from The Russian Review and Louise McReynolds’ book Murder Most Russian highlight how the multifaceted perception of the murderess in 19th century Russia enhanced female stereotypes rather than explaining why some women committed murder. Violent crime, as a socially constructed phenomenon, ended up reinforcing traditional images of a woman’s place in society, even if this was being constantly challenged and redefined by the women themselves. 

Frank’s article “Narratives within Numbers” seeks to rectify the “scientific confirmation” of the mythically multifaceted portrait of the murderess, which relied on warped statistical data. Frank examines primary documents used by Russian criminologists and jurists to depict female criminality and uphold stereotypes. He argues that judicial statistics from 1834 to 1913 that confirmed gender stereotypes were greatly misleading and shed light on the unchanging conceptions of gender rather than the evolving court structures, shifting jurisdictions and how crime was constructed over time. In fact, Frank shows that notwithstanding the tiny portion of women within the criminal population, growth for crimes committed by women (invisibly) exceeded those of men in the pre- and post-reform eras. Additionally, in the years 1874-1878, murderess convictions averaged 18.4% (in contrast to 5.3% for murderers). Women’s class also inevitably affected the data, as peasants were “grossly undercounted,” especially because data from peace and volost’ courts were largely ignored. This perpetuated the notion that women in northern Russia made up a significantly higher portion of crime than in the central and southern regions, confirming the assumption that urban life broke down familial values and desecrated women’s “natural” domestic role. Ironically, these incomplete statistics fueled the need to explain low female crime rates. Judicial statistics were used to “sustain the belief that the criminal woman represented not only a social and cultural deviant, but also a moral, psychological or biological aberration.” Frank highlights how women committing crimes were cast as “unnatural” and “masculine,” and extends this to include the sober, religious and modest woman’s physical weakness inevitably explaining why female crime was so low. 

Indeed, Kowalsky shares similar insights by tracing these notions to the schools of 19th century anthropological and sociological criminology. In “Who’s Responsible for Female Crime?” she highlights how the sociological school was most prominent in Russia. Focusing on the social environment, Jurist Foinitskii claimed that education, employment, and marital status were factors that could explain women’s criminal pursuits. His approach also relied on “individual, psychological explanations, noting…that disparities between male and female criminality could be explained by the differences in the physical and psychological strengths of each sex.” Kowalsky highlights that for women, unlike for their male counterparts, the environment was not always the predominant factor. 

While environmental factors such as poverty and dissatisfaction with autocracy were largely used to explain crime, biological attributes, despite being widely rejected in Russia, contributed to the perception of female crime. Supporters of the school of criminal anthropology closely followed Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), drawing on his theory of the “born criminal.” In his study of female criminals, Lombroso found that “deviant” women were very “similar to normal ones.” He believed this meant that women were “less developed” and thus more closely affiliated with their innate “born criminal.” Ironically, the low female criminality rates did not support his argument, so he pivoted towards women’s criminal nature being caused by “sexual deviance.” Kowalsky highlights how criminologists relied on female sexuality to emphasize that physiology defined the boundaries of female criminality. Attributes such as maternal instinct “gone wrong,” errant sexuality or reproductive cycles were all used to explain criminality. Contrastingly, Frank’s more quantitative approach highlights how “sexual perversion” in the form of “lesbianism…explain[ed] why women killed their husbands.”  Both sources suggest that overall segments of society including criminologists, journalists and governmental agencies used various sexual innuendos to explain the existence of murderesses. 

LeBlanc similarly highlights how female sexuality was linked to crime in “Dostoevsky and the Trial of Nastasia Kairova.” The journalist-turned-actress Kairova violently attacked the estranged wife of her lover with a razor in a frenzy of jealousy and passion. LeBlanc focuses on Dostoevsky’s perception of the Kairova Trial (1876) through several historians’ points of view. He focuses on the writer’s views on female sexuality as “unruly” and in need of “disciplining.” In his somewhat sensationalist piece, flaunting the alluring sub-title “Carnal Love, Crimes of Passion and Spiritual Redemption,” he offers a more detailed perspective of one case study, unlike Frank and Kowalsky. Even if the article largely zooms into the perspective of one man, it provides insight on how female stereotypes overrode conceptions about female criminality. Writing about the scandalous judicial trial, he depicts the actress acquitted for the attempted murder of her lover’s estranged wife, and highlights how this gravely impacted Dostoevsky,  who expressed his “growing disappointment with jury trials,” which were failing to bring about the Russian society he “hoped” for. Dostoevsky believed that Kairova’s crime of passion was a direct result of “the unbridling of her carnal lusts” and “the unleashing of a dangerous and destructive appetite for power, aggression, and domination that he linked to human sexual desire.” Dostoevsky warns of the “flesh-eating, psycho-sexual appetite,” her lawyer praises, highlighting how multifaceted images of the murderess coexisted in society. He further highlights how the courtroom, by applauding her acquittal, destroyed the ideal female image that men like Dostoevsky himself cherished. LeBlanc contrasts Dostoevsky’s reaction to this trial with his response to the Kornilova case, involving a peasant who threw a child out of a window. At first, Dostoevsky finds this act unforgivable, but when he finds out she was pregnant, Kornilova becomes, according to LeBlanc, “the ideal of selfless motherhood.” The duality inherently present in attributing certain qualities to violent women highlights the complications inherent in distinguishing the feminine ideal from that which is “unnatural” in Russia. The fact that even Dostoevsky actively fought for Kornilova’s freedom highlights how ultimately a woman’s traditional place in society as a mother was upheld above all else, even attempted murder. 

McReynolds argues that the way a society defines crimes and prosecutes criminals sheds light on its values, cultural norms and political path. In Murder Most Russian, she draws on a series of trials that took place in the wake of the 1864 legal reforms executed by Tzar Alexander II. McReynolds, like LeBlanc, highlights how the 1864 judiciary reforms  discarded the historic “wooden law,” as juries provided a “fresh twist,” with social concerns prevailing. McReynolds provides several case studies that mirror LeBlanc’s, such as Mavra Volokhova’s trial in Moscow (February 1867), involving a peasant woman who hacked her husband to death in front of her five year-old son. When the issue of “reasonable doubt” was laid on the table, the public did not only applaud her acquittal, but money was raised to support her. Through several similar case studies, McReynolds outlines how emotional pleas to juries allowed women to get away with murder, especially as they were often considered either too ignorant to have committed murder or, as in the case above, the jury judged that “hard labor was not for someone like her.” In several cases, women lacked the agency to be proclaimed guilty. Similarly, Kowalsky mentions the importance of class, as criminologists focusing on peasant women asserted that “women’s ignorance prevented them from bearing responsibility for their crimes.” Indeed, criminologists blamed “male influence” for women’s criminal activities, particularly for the crime of infanticide. This further suggests that women did not even have the agency to be guilty for their own criminal pursuits, as crime as a socially constructed phenomenon relegated women to domestic life, even if this stereotype was constantly being challenged and redefined by murderesses.  Professional and public reactions to female crimes confirmed by inaccurate criminal statistics enhanced female stereotypes and overwhelmingly confirmed a woman’s “proper” place in society, rather than explaining why they committed murder in 19th century Russia. Each author within this historiography contributes to the multifaceted perceptions of the murderess by using different methods, yet all highlight overlapping trends. Frank’s statistical revisionism provides the most compelling data-driven argument as to how women’s nature and place in society were used to explain allegedly low crime rates. Kowalsky uses similar professional sources to explore the ways peasant women’s crimes were considered irrelevant, as well as bringing to the fore the ways sexual deviance was interlaced with female violence. Kowalsky and Frank reach similar conclusions, despite constructing the role of sexuality in different ways (sexual deviance and sexual perversion respectively). The nature of women’s dangerous sexuality is also present in LeBlanc’s work; his individual study of Dostoevsky paints a similar picture of how murderesses were perceived according to their perceived domesticity or lack thereof, rather than being judged for their crimes. Finally, McReynolds’ book brings to the fore the cultural backdrop, showcasing how judicial reforms and legal changes heightened public opinion of the multifaceted murderess in Imperial Russia as not guilty. The multifaceted murderess trope was such that these women not only lacked the agency to be proclaimed guilty for their crimes in the courtroom but also in people’s very minds, as theories about why women kill existed to explain the nature of the low female crime rates depicted by warped statistical data rather than stemming from real, concrete case studies.

Image from cover of McReynolds, Louise. Murder Most Russian True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013.

Krystel von Kumberg is studying Global, International, and Comparative History and graduated from the Security Studies Program at Georgetown in 2020. She specializes in the roles of non-state actors; militarized social movements, terrorists, and militias in Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. Her research focuses on the Cold War, the history of transnational terrorism, recruitment methods, and radicalization.

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