The shot that killed Old Russia

Today is the birthday of the revolutionary Vera Zasulich (1849-1919), whom a French magazine named “the most famous woman in Europe” in 1878 .

Raised in a provincial gentry family, Miss Zasulich was still in her teens when she got involved with a terrorist organisation People’s Reprisal led by Sergei Nechayev (its widely publicised trial inspired Dostoyevsky’s novel The Possessed).

Since Zasulich was only on the periphery of that gang, she spent a mere year in remand prison, followed by a short exile. In took her several more years to become an international star, but she got there in the end.

In 1878 Zasulich was tried for an attempt to murder Fyodor Trepov, Petersburg’s governor, and the case got a wide coverage throughout Europe.

Trepov was chosen for target practice because he had ordered that the prisoner Bogolyubov be flogged for insubordination (refusing to remove his cap when ordered to do so). This although the law banned corporal punishment for noblemen, which Bogolyubov was. That enraged the legally minded Miss Zasulich enough to pull the trigger. On second thoughts, perhaps she wasn’t as legally minded as all that.

More critically, neither was the court. The defence successfully turned the proceedings into a trial not of the terrorist but of Trepov, and the jury found Zasulich innocent on the grounds of her political, rather than simply criminal, motive.

That miscarriage of justice demonstrated the uselessness of jury trial in Russia, and from then on crimes with political implications were mostly tried by military tribunals. Those proved only marginally less lenient, at least until nihilist terror reached pandemic proportions in the early twentieth century.

Russian judges came to their senses then and, in return for the murders of 1,600 officials, including some members of the royal family, passed several thousand death sentences in 1905-1907. But by then it was too late. The country’s madness had flared up, and in a few years she’d go on a murderous rampage the likes of which the world had never seen.

That trial emphasised the brittleness of any political system that isn’t based on the rule of just law – something to which the Russians have been indifferent throughout their history. Characteristically, Nikolai Lossky’s The History of Russian Philosophy devotes 57 pages to the metaphysical thinker Vladimir Soloviov and only two to all the Russian philosophers of law combined.

Those with eyes to see will learn much about Russia from the concluding statement of Zasulich’s defence counsel. Here it is for your delectation (the emphases are mine):

“Gentlemen of the jury! It’s not for the first time that finding herself in this dock of agonising suffering is a woman tried for a bloody crime before the court of civic conscience. There has been many a woman here who punished her seducer by death; many a woman who spilled the blood of her unfaithful beloved or her lucky rival. Such women have left here acquitted. Those just verdicts echoed God’s judgement that takes into account not only the physical act, but also its inner meaning, the defendant’s underlying criminality.

“Yet by exacting bloody vengeance, those women fought for themselves only. Standing before you for the first time is a woman whose crime wasn’t motivated by personal interests, personal vengeance – a woman whose crime reflected her struggle for an idea, on behalf of someone who shared the misery of her young life.

“If the motive for this deed proves less weighty on the scales of civic truth, then her punishment will have to be considered just, a triumph of law, of society – and may your justice be done! Don’t think twice! Your verdict won’t add much suffering to this broken, smashed life. She will accept your decision without reproach, without bitter complaints, without offence, serene in the knowledge that her suffering, her sacrifice might have preempted the possibility that the incident causing her act will be repeated.

“However much one may decry her deed, it’s impossible to deny that it was motivated by an honest and noble impulse. Yes, she may leave here convicted, but she won’t leave shamed. One can only wish that there would be no more provocations causing such crimes, begetting such criminals.

That a country in which such a speech could produce an acquittal isn’t ruled by law is clear enough – moreover, such a country has no concept of what a law is. That makes her ripe for the advent of savage, unrestrained lawlessness, which duly arrived 37 years later and is still going strong.

Zasulich’s bullet fired into Trepov’s stomach didn’t kill him. But it did kill Old Russia, or at least proved she was moribund.

The failure of Russian courts to save the country from ideologically motivated outrages could have taught a useful lesson to posterity even in the West: institutions are only as good as the people who man them. Trial by jury, for example, can’t survive as an instrument of justice in the absence of a broadly based group of people who understand what justice means.

Today’s British criminals, expertly guided by their barristers, recite the mantra “it’s all society’s fault”, knowing that the twelve good men may well nod their assent. Yet no country can have real justice if such statements can be made, never mind accepted. Such a country has discarded individual responsibility – and therefore individual liberty.

Nevertheless, the argument that a criminal had an impoverished childhood has been known to produce mitigated sentences or even acquittals in British courts, race has been seen as an extenuating circumstance, and political motives have been viewed as being more noble than simple brutality.

As a result, courts are beginning to act as rubber stamps of egalitarianism, rather than agents of justice. Society predictably responds by a climbing crime rate that only statistical larceny can pass for anything other than a social catastrophe. One example: in 1954 there were 400 muggings in all of Britain; one month of 2001 produced the same number in Lambeth, a small South London borough.

So happy birthday, Vera. Thanks for the lesson. Shame it wasn’t heeded.


2 thoughts on “The shot that killed Old Russia”

  1. “One example: in 1954 there were 400 muggings in all of Britain; one month of 2001 produced the same number in Lambeth, a small South London borough.”

    That booklet as passed out to American military personnel passing through England during WW2 descried the English as the most law abiding people on the planet. This was in large measure as asserted “because the British legal system was the fairest you could find anywhere.”

  2. “in 1954 there were 400 muggings in all of Britain; one month of 2001 produced the same number in Lambeth, a small South London borough.”

    That statistic is so unbelievable I had to think about it for a while.

    By my quick and dirty calculations [someone tell me if I am wrong] the chances of you being mugged in 2001 Lambeth were about 2,500 times greater than your being mugged in 1954 Lambeth!!

    My calculations based on populations of England as a whole in 1954 and Lambeth in 2001.

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