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As the Crimean War drew to a close in 1856, two things were clear: the combined forces of the British, French and Ottoman empires had routed the Russian military and that this defeat marked the end of imperial Russian strength and the beginning of grand changes in the political arena. Financially weakened and trailing the West both socially and industrially, Russia demanded change. This change was shaped by the sweeping arm of the Great Reforms spanning from 1861-1864. It marked Russia’s most extensive regime changes since the Petrine Reforms as it aimed to solve the backwards nature of Imperial Russia. These changes included the emancipation of serfs, the creation of Zemstvo, or smaller provinces that could be governed more easily, and a new judicial system.
The antiquated courts of Russia were one of the most pressing areas of concern because they allowed for semiliterate judges to administer justice in a tribunal which was heavily overexerted and under-officiated.[i] In 1864, the Judicial Reform had been adopted by the Russian government and allowed for juries, instead of high officials, to adjudicate trials. At the same time this reform occurred, prominent journalist and novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, had become impassioned with the new form of Russian justice. One may track Dostoevsky’s view on the reform through his work A Writers’ Diary, and his subsequent paradigm shift in the novel The Brothers Karamazov. His interest in the jury trial can be measured by the frequency in which he utilized the courts in his works and the closeness with which he followed landmark cases such as the trials of Kairova, Kroneberg, and Kornilova.
It is through these trials that one can begin to understand the complexity of Dostoevsky’s belief in the new system, how those beliefs impacted his writing, and the broader popular reaction to the Judicial Reform. Once a supporter of the Western-style jury trial, Dostoevsky’s Slavophile inclinations hardened and he became opposed to Western theories of thought. He felt that the reform had undermined what law was truly supposed to represent. It became a forum for political debate, a catalyst for lawyers who simply wanted to see their social status rise, and a mockery of justice as he felt that men and women were sentenced incorrectly. The Brothers Karamazov illustrated Dostoevsky’s degenerative thoughts on the new court system as the protagonists, Dmitry Karamazov, is put on trial of the murder of his father. By creating a novel Dostoevsky is able to create a perfect scenario for the mishandling of the case and a platform for his personal beliefs on the matter.
[i] W. Bruce Lincoln, The Great Reforms: Autocracy Bureaucracy, and the Politics of Change in Imperial Russia (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1990), 38.
Beck, Michael, "Russian Justice on Trial: A Slavophile's Perspective on Judicial Reform in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov" (2016). Honors Theses. 2671.
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