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“I also see, however, certain faults in the modern woman…”

October 16, 2012

Kairova’s lawyer Evgenii Isakovich Utin (1843-1894)

In the 1870s, in his Diary of a Writer, Dostoevskii wrote about notorious trials taking place under the reformed Russian judiciary. One was the trial of Nastasia Kairova, accused of attacking her lover’s wife with a razor (the relevant part is under May 1876). Ronald D. LeBlanc contrasts this case to the Kornilova case, in which a woman throws her stepdaughter out a fourth-story window, to show that Dostoevskii adores motherly feeling but sees uncontrolled sexual passion in women as selfish, sinful, and, after Kairova’s crime, an obstacle to redemption.

Kairova’s lawyer, on the other hand, made her “jealous, passionate love” into “something inherently appealing, ennobling, and highly moral” (634). Worse, he annoyed Dostoevskii by comparing Kairova to both “a lioness whose cub is being taken away” and the adulteress in the New Testament who “loved much, and therefore much is forgiven her” (635-36). To Dostoevskii, this Biblical reference is no more than a pun, since in the mainstream reading of the Gospel passage, it is spiritual, not carnal love that led to forgiveness. The lioness metaphor again conflates different kinds of love and tramples on something precious to Dostoevskii (maternal love) by comparing it to Kairova’s selfish and destructive passion (635).

When it came to the Kornilova case, Dostoevskii was at first critical of the defendant. But when he learned that she had been four months pregnant at the time (and, unlike Kairova, instantly admitted guilt), he started to defend her himself and even claimed that pregnancy could cause a sort of temporary insanity, a concept he had mocked when it was applied to Kairova. His personal efforts led to her being retried and acquitted (647-49).

Dostoevskii also juxtaposes an account of a visit to an orphanage with his commentary on the Kairova case, rather directly contrasting maternal and carnal love (642-44).

I know Dostoevskii’s writings about court cases mainly through Dostoevskii scholars, and LeBlanc’s article made me appreciate how porous the borders were between Diary of a Writer and his fiction, beyond the fact that several of his late short stories originated in the Diary. For example, as we learn in a footnote, Fedor Karamazov repeats, and insists on, Kairova’s defense lawyer’s misreading of the New Testament: “Yes, it was for such [carnal] love, for that very kind of love, monks, it was!” (636n12).

See Ronald D. LeBlanc, “Dostoevsky and the Trial of Nastasia Kairova: Carnal Love, Crimes of Passion, and Spiritual Redemption,” The Russian Review 71.4 (2012): 630-54 (abstract). This is the same LeBlanc who recently wrote that Lev Tolstoi considered castration as a means of escaping sexual desire to be cheating. The title of this post is taken from later in the May 1876 issue of Diary of a Writer, but the sentence doesn’t end like the context of the post might lead you to expect: “…and chief among them is her extreme dependence on certain properly male ideas, her ability to take them at their word and believe in them without restraint.”

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