Vasilyevich Sukhovo-Kobylin (Russian:
Александр Васильевич Сухово-Кобылин) (September 29
[O.S. September 17]
1817, Moscow - September 24 [O.S.
September 11] 1903, Beaulieu,
France), was a Russian nobleman, chiefly known for his
activity as an amateur playwright.
A rich aristocrat who often travelled,
Sukhovo-Kobylin was arrested, prosecuted and tried for
seven years in Russia for the murder of his French
mistress Louise-Simone Dimanche, a crime of which he is
nowadays generally believed to have been innocent.
He only managed to achieve acquittal
by means of giving enormous bribes to court officials
and by using all of his contacts in the Russian elite.
According to his own version as well as the generally
accepted view today, he was targetted precisely because
he had the financial capabilities to give such bribes.
Based on his personal experiences,
Sukhovo-Kobylin wrote a trilogy of satirical plays about
the prevalence of bribery and other corrupt practices in
the Russian judicial system of the time - "Krechinsky's
Wedding" (Russian: Сватьба Кречинского)
(1850-1854, begun in prison), "The Trial" (Russian:
Дело) (1869), and "Tarelkin's Death" (alternatively
titled "Rasplyuyev's merry days" (Russian: Смерть
Тарелкина, Расплюевские веселые дни) (1869).
The first work had immediate success
and became one of Russia's most frequently performed
plays. It is also considered Sukhovo-Kobylin's best. The
trilogy in its entirety was published in 1869 under the
title "Scenes from the Past" (Russian Картины
Attempts to stage the last two plays
ran into difficulties with censorship; in particular, "Tarelkin's
Death" was only staged in 1899. While popular, the two
sequels failed to achieve the same success as the first
The Eternal Suspect:
The Ordeal of
Moscow police chief Luzhin particularly resented was having to talk
business at his club. He was therefore far from pleased when fellow
member Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin approached him in the late evening of
November 8, 1850 to ask, in carefully guarded terms, whether the chief
had received any news of a "traffic mishap involving a woman in a blue
cloak." Luzhin curtly said no, and returned his full attention to his
cigar and brandy.
In any event, he
had never much liked Sukhovo-Kobylin, though his family was beyond
reproach. The 32-year old man was the son of a veteran of the Napoleonic
Wars, Vasily Alexandrovich, who had lost an eye at Austerlitz and
retired as a colonel in the artillery; the family proudly claimed common
ancestry with the Romanovs.
Young Alexander had been a brilliant student
at Moscow University, where he won a gold medal for a paper on the
application of certain principles of physics to the construction of
suspension bridges. After graduation he studied philosophy in Heidelberg
and Berlin, becoming, like many of his generation, a devotee of Hegel.
In 1842, Sukhovo-Kobylin enrolled in the Moscow civil service, rising to
the rank of titular councillor, a position that he held at the time of
his retirement from the administration in the summer of 1850. His role
in the bureaucracy was more formal than active, a fact to which he
proudly referred in suggesting that his tomb bear the inscription, "He
Sukhovo-Kobylin's true calling was not government but
business; following the practical bent he had already shown in his
university career, he organized wide-ranging enterprises, including
forestry, livestock and horse breeding, textiles, sugar, vodka, and
Russia's first champagne cellars. At the same time he was a passionate
sportsman, carrying off first prizes in horse races.
There was much to admire in the young
man, but the police chief was not alone in disliking him.
Sukhovo-Kobylin was a triumphant womanizer and an acid-tongued gossip,
of whom memoirist E.K. Feoktistov has left a predominantly unflattering
There is no doubt that he was a very intelligent man. He completed a
course at Moscow University and even won a gold medal on graduation; he:
traveled widely, loved serious reading, everything evidently combined in
his favor. But meantime, hardly anybody aroused such general ill-will.
The reason was his nature -- coarse, impudent, by no means softened by
his education; this man, speaking excellent French, having acquired
gentlemanly manners, trying to appear a real Parisian, was actually a
cruel savage who did not stick at any abuses of feudal rights; his
servants were afraid of him. I have had occasion more than once to note
that such people, distinguished in masculine beauty, self-assured to the
point of insolence, brilliantly witty but at the same time completely
heartless, produce an enchanting impression on women. Alexander Kobylin
could congratulate himself on a whole series of amatory adventures, but
they also destroyed him.
Police chief Luzhin and just about everybody in Moscow high society knew
about Sukhovo-Kobylin's current romantic entanglements. Since 1842 he
had maintained an open liaison with Louise Simon-Dimanche, a fashionable
red-haired milliner whom he had met in Paris; following her arrival in
Moscow (perhaps at his summons), he had appointed her manager of his
wine and provisions store and installed her in separate apartments where
his serfs attended to her housekeeping and he regularly shared her
His domineering mother, the cigar-smoking saloniste Marya
Ivanovna, accepted Louise warmly and treated her like a trusted relative
(but not quite a daughter-in-law). The couple's relationship survived
periodic storms over Sukhovo-Kobylin's chronic infidelities, never more
scandalous than his current intrigue with a captivating married woman,
In November 1850 Louise lived in the house of Count Gudovich in Tverskaya Street (renamed Gorky Street by the Soviets);
Sukhovo-Kobylin early in the month had vacated the principal rooms of
his family's house at 9 Strastnoy Boulevard to make room for his sister
and her husband, and moved into a wing of the same building.
The police chief
may have wondered momentarily about the identity of the mysterious
"woman in the blue cloak," but the next morning, November 9,
Sukhovo-Kobylin visited Luzhin again and was more forthright in
disclosing his worries. He now made an official request that the police
search for Louise Simon-Dimanche, who had disappeared two nights before.
He indicated two possible directions for police inquiries, the
Petersburg Chaussee to the northwest of the city (a highway that he had
spent much of the day exploring himself without success) and the western
road that led to the village of Choroshevo and the Silver Pine Forest.
By the evening
of November 9, police efforts remained fruitless but from an apparently
independent quarter came the grim news of the discovery of a female
corpse. Beyond the Presnenski gate in the western perimeter of Moscow,
the body, arms folded beneath, lay prone in a snow-covered ravine near
the wall surrounding the Vagankovsky cemetery.
The beautiful woman,
still young, was elegantly attired in a green checked dress, blouse of
Dutch linen, sky-blue jacket and veiled silk cap. She wore gold earrings
set with brilliants, and rings adorned fingers of both hands. On her
feet were velvet half-boots, a strange choice for a wintry night's
excursion. Beneath the woman's dress were three petticoats but the
corset that fashion mandated was absent; her drawers were rucked up to
When the police
looked more closely at the woman, horror overwhelmed their admiration of
her beauty; a loosened tress of her luxuriant red hair trailed around
her neck, but failed to cover a yawning wound in her throat, from which
some blood, but surprisingly little, had escaped to stain the snow. Near
the corpse there were tracks of a sleigh and horses' hooves; everything
seemed to proclaim that the body had been carried out of Moscow and
deposited in fitting proximity to the cemetery, which lay not far from
the Choroshevo road which Sukhovo-Kobylin had mentioned to the police
After the body
was brought to Moscow, house serfs of Sukhovo-Kobylin identified the
dead woman as the missing Louise Simon-Dimanche. Doctor Tichomirov made
an external examination of the body, followed on November 11 by an
autopsy in which he participated.
The body was of rather strong build
and medium height. On the front of the neck, below the larynx, was a
five-inch diagonal wound apparently inflicted with an even-edged
instrument; the windpipe, carotid arteries and both jugular veins were
completely severed. A groove with the dimension of "a little finger" was
noticeable all around the upper portion of the neck.
The doctors also
observed a large dark purple swelling, about the size of the palm of a
hand, around the left eye. The entire left side of the body was bloody;
on the left arm, from the shoulder to the elbow, was found a large dark
stain with bruising and an obliquely indented groove ending in a
triangular excoriation. Three left ribs were fractured and another
smashed. There was nothing pathological or abnormal found in the mouth,
alimentary canal or windpipe, and the internal organs showed no sign of
bleeding and were otherwise in normal condition.
Only in late January 1851 did the police make a detailed examination of
the victim's clothing. The green dress was covered with thick streams of
blood from the top to the waist, the first petticoat of white calico was
also heavily stained, but there were barely noticeable stains on the
exterior of the second petticoat and none closer to the body.
doctors performing the autopsy concluded that the death of Louise Simon-Dimanche
was caused by extraordinary force resulting in the injuries they had
observed and especially by "the unquestionably mortal wound" at the
front of the neck.
The report of
the murder spread rapidly through Moscow, and, long before the police
had a chance to complete an investigation, the public had confidently
promulgated its own theory. According to the "public version," as
adopted and elaborated by literary critic Leonid Grossman in The
Crime of Sukhovo-Kobylin [Prestuplenie Sukhovo-Kobylina]
(1928), Sukhovo-Kobylin murdered his French mistress in a fury over her
disruption of an amorous rendezvous with Natalya Naryshkina. Simon-Dimanche,
the theory went, tracked her rival in the early hours of November 8 to
the wing of Sukhovo-Kobylin's house on Strastnoy Boulevard and surprised
the two lovers when her presence was least needed.
Angered at the
intrusion and her abuse of Naryshkina, Sukhovo-Kobylin struck Louise
with a candlestick and cut her throat. He then ordered his servants,
whom Leonid Grossman hypothetically identifies as his valet Makar
Lukyanov and cook Efim Egorov, to carry the body to the cemetery where
it was found.
The police were
not as hasty as the public in pronouncing the case solved. Instead, they
questioned a large array of witnesses, including Sukhovo-Kobylin and his
valet Lukyanov, and the house serfs he had delegated to serve Simon-Dimanche
in her apartment on Tverskaya Street.
The assigned servants included
four who were to be centrally involved in the investigation, two maids Pelageya Alekseeva, 15, and Agrafena Ivanova Kashkina, 27; the cook
Egorov, who lived in Sukhovo-Kobylin's house but worked in Louise's
kitchen; and a boy from the wineshop, Galaktion Kozmin, who was serving
as coachman at the time of the tragedy, because of the illness of the
Incriminating evidence was found on Egorov's person when
he was questioned: under the lining of his vest pocket he had concealed
100 rubles, a sum corresponding to Simon-Dimanche's household funds.
Later police recovered Louise's gold watch in the attic occupied by
Egorov in Sukhovo-Kobylin's house; it was wrapped in a letter addressed
to the valet Lukyanov. The police placed Egorov, Lukyanov and Louise's
three other household servants under arrest.
of the young substitute coachman Kozmin and other witnesses the police
were able to reconstruct many of the details of Louise's busy last day.
Her schedule did not suggest that she was a woman brooding about her
lover's infidelity or plotting a melodramatic intervention. Kozmin had
driven the Frenchwoman around Moscow on a twelve-hour excursion
beginning at 9:00 a.m.
The first stop was at Gazetny Lane to pick up
Louise's close friend, Mme. Ernestine Liandert, with whom she proceeded
to Ochotny Row (renamed Marx Prospekt) to shop for provisions. Louise
spent an hour chatting at Ernestine's apartment and afterwards returned
home alone for about an hour. Then she was back in her sleigh, ordering
Kozmin to drive her successively to a bookstore, a business office and
her dressmaker's. Stopping at home to change for the evening, she was
off again for dinner at Ernestine's with her friend's lover Lieutenant
Sushkov and another tall man with a mustache whom Kozmin didn't know.
Then the four left in a pair of sleighs for an evening's ride around the
boulevards, ending with a drive across the Kuznetsky Bridge to eat ices
at a popular confectioners' shop. When Kozmin brought her home at 9:00
p.m., Louise ordered that the horse, understandably tired, be
Much of Louise's
next hour (the last time she was seen before the murder) was devoted to
household matters. Efim Egorov told the police that he had come to see
her around 10:00 p.m. "to ask her what food to prepare for the following
day; when he left Dimanche's place, she gave him a note for his master,
which he delivered to the valet [because Sukhovo-Kobylin was away]."
After Egorov's departure, a clerk Fyodor Fedotov arrived "with expense
accounts for the table, and Dimanche ordered him to tell his master to
send an answer to the note she had dispatched to him through the cook
Efim, but [Fedotov] did not give the message to his master, because he
didn't see him; when he returned from Dimanche's his master wasn't at
Louise's note was sealed, the valet Lukyanov stated that she had written
to inquire whether Sukhovo-Kobylin planned to dine with her on the
following evening (November 8). According to Lukyanov, his master, on
his return home early in the morning of November 8, told him to inform
Simon-Dimanche that he had an engagement for the evening so that only
breakfast should be prepared for him.
The housemaid Pelageya Alekseeva stated that, after sending her letter
to Sukhovo-Kobylin, Simon-Dimanche waited about a half hour for a
response. Then the other maid, Agrafena Kashkina, saw her mistress leave
the apartment, wearing a warm cloak and the same apparel in which she
had been dressed for the evening.
Louise did not tell any of her
servants where she was going; she said only that she would soon return
and did not even order them to extinguish the candles. Alekseeva added
that about 8:00 a.m. the next morning, a tall gentleman with a small
mustache called and introduced himself as a friend of Mme. Ernestine. He
asked after Simon-Dimanche and, when the maids told him she had not yet
come home, he said: "That's a bad business."
Only after the
stranger left did Sukhovo-Kolbylin arrive to find that Louise was
On November 16 Moscow society (despite its own suspicions) was shocked
by the news that Sukhovo-Kobylin had also been placed under arrest.
Police cited "inconsistencies" in his statements. The smooth-talking
aristocrat was convinced that robbery must have been the motive and that
the murderer was likely either an unidentified hackney coachman whom
Louise had engaged for her mysterious nocturnal errand, or Efim Egorov,
who had been found in possession of her money and watch.
But if it was
robbery that had inspired the crime, why had the killer overlooked the jewelry with which the ears and fingers of the corpse were adorned? The
Muscovite gossips had a ready explanation: Sukhovo-Kobylin's accomplice,
through stupidity or haste, had neglected to support the robbery "red
herring" by removing the jewelry.
Sukhovo-Kobylin stoutly asserted an alibi for the murder night: he had
been a dinner guest of the Naryshkins and returned home very late. Some
of the Naryshkins' servants supported the story, but the police
strangely failed to question either the Naryshkins or their other
It was not only on Sukhovo-Kobylin's
depositions that the police based their arrest warrant but also on
discoveries made in the search of the wing he had recently begun to
occupy at the family house on Strastnoy Boulevard. The finds that the
police trumpeted were a letter to Simon-Dimanche which they believed
established Sukhovo-Kobylin's premeditation of the crime; a pair of
daggers; and a number of apparent bloodstains.
By contrast with these
intriguing clues, searches of Simon-Dimanche's apartment on Tverskaya
Street revealed no signs of violence, and neither Prince Radziwill, a
student who lodged in a flat above, nor any of the servants in the house
had heard any outcries or other suspicious sounds on the night of the
The evidence that the police identified in Sukhovo-Kobylin's rooms was a
remarkably weak foundation for a murder charge against him. The
supposedly incriminating letter that the arrested man had sent to Louise
was written in a playful tone:
Chère Maman. It happens that I will stay for several days in Moscow.
Knowing that you have remained in the countryside only to play out your
farces and to listen to a passion that (alas!) doesn't tell you my name
but that of another, I prefer to call you back to my side so as to have
an ungrateful and treacherous woman in my sight and within reach of my
Castilian dagger. Return and trrrr * * * blez [perhaps, tremblez,
The investigators were not expert in the literary analysis of love
letters nor were they able to elucidate such an obvious phallic symbol
as a "Castilian dagger". Instead, the police seized two ornamental
daggers as possible instruments of the crime.
Clearly the police felt more at home with bloodstains, and they thought
they had found quite a few at Strastnoy Boulevard, but by no means in
the copious amount they should have expected to encounter if the throat
of a living woman had been cut in the apartment. Still, they carefully
catalogued what they had observed.
On the wall plaster of a
variously-described antechamber, in the direction of the hallway, two
small stains appeared, one in the shape of a spreading oblong drop about
two inches long and the other a spatter of the size of a five-kopek
In the hall near a storeroom a seven-inch semicircular
spot could be seen on the dirty floor near the baseboard and nearby
blood-colored streams and splotches partly cleaned. Apparent bloodstains
of various sizes were also visible on the back stairs. Floors in all the
rooms were painted yellow and recently washed.
found innocent explanations for all these stains. Many people had lived
in the wing before him and he had only recently moved there; he had not
yet had occasion to give attention to cleaning or refurbishing his
He told the police that poultry and game from the country were
often brought up the back stairs for slaughtering there and in the
hallway, where a slop bucket was kept to catch the blood. He was less
certain of the origin of the wall stains, but he recalled that one of
his manservants was inclined to nosebleeds; in view of Sukhovo-Kobylin's
admittedly violent treatment of his serfs, it was small wonder.
The police cut
away pieces of the wall plaster and floor, for some reason neglecting to
sample the stains on the back stairs, and submitted the evidence for
forensic analysis. The Moscow Medical Office ruled that the stains on
the floor were dried blood but that the determination whether it was of
human or animal origin was beyond available scientific means. Its
appraisal of the wall stains was even less conclusive: because of the
insignificant size of the sample and the impossibility of separating the
stain from the plaster without substantial admixture, the composition of
the stains could not be determined.
On November 20,
the case took a dramatic turn when the cook Egorov, after being
sequestered for intensive questioning, confessed to the murder with the
participation of Simon-Dimanche's three other servants, who in order
confirmed his story in all significant particulars.
The servants' motive
was revenge for their mistress's cruel treatment, and the theft of the
household funds and other valuable objects not kept under lock and key
was pretty much an afterthought. One of the main sources of the
servants' miseries with their late employer was that Louise had never
acquired a sure command of the Russian language.
Often the serfs did not
fully understand her oral instructions and when as a consequence they
did not perform to her satisfaction, she beat them or denounced them to Sukhovo-Kobylin, who had a much heavier hand. When Egorov entered her
household he already had a personal grievance against Louise; his sister
Vasilisa had previously served her as chambermaid and left after only
three months because of her tyranny.
confession (as supplemented by the statements of his confederates),
Egorov said that in the days before her death Simon-Dimanche had become
even nastier and more capricious, and he often talked with the other
servants about getting rid of her.
About 8:00 p.m. on November 7, he
came to Tverskaya Street to obtain his mistress's instructions about
food. She wasn't home yet, so he sat with the maids and they renewed
their conversation about how to finish the business they had been
discussing; they decided to kill her early the next morning, and he
instructed them to pass the word to Kozmin when he came back. He was
about to leave when the sleigh returned, so he sought out the young
driver in the stable where he was putting away the horse and announced
the murder plan directly.
Having made his
arrangements for the crime, Egorov calmly presented himself to Simon-Dimanche
to discuss his cooking duties. When he arrived home at Strastnoy
Boulevard later that evening, he gave Simon-Dimanche's note to the valet
Lukyanov and went to sleep in the servants' quarters. At 1:30 in the
morning Lukyanov woke him up with their master's response: Egorov was to
tell Simon-Dimanche to prepare only breakfast, for his excellency would
be busy for dinner.
Egorov had quite
a different errand in mind. He went back to the Tverskaya Street
apartment at about 2:00 a.m. and aroused his accomplices. Kozmin took a
flatiron from the kitchen and the two men proceeded to Louise's bedroom
door, which the maids by prearrangement had kept unlocked.
mistress was sleeping. Egorov, walking right up to the bed, pressed a
pillow over her face. When she woke up, and cried out twice, Egorov
gagged her with a handkerchief, seized her throat and began to strangle
her, using a towel as a noose; he struck her once with his fist in her
left eye, and Kozmin meantime beat her sides with the flatiron.
When the woman
was dead, the maids dressed her. Kozmin harnessed the horse and the two
men, unobserved, placed the body downward in the sleigh under a fur
cover. When they arrived at the cemetery Egorov, in sudden panic,
thought he heard Simon-Dimanche utter a feeble sound so he cut her
throat with Kozmin's folding-knife and threw the weapon somewhere
While the men were disposing of the body, the two housemaids put
the murdered woman's apartment in order; when Egorov and Kozmin returned
from the cemetery, the maids burned Louise's cloak in a Dutch oven.
Kozmin located two bottles of wine in the back room and drank with
Egorov until 6:00 in the morning, when they capped their revels with a
visit to a local tavern.
After Egorov's confession,
Sukhovo-Kobylin was released but the investigation of his complicity
lumbered on in spite of the disappointing results of the bloodstain
On December 8, 1850 Natalya Naryshkina (pregnant with
Sukhovo-Kobylin's child) obtained permission to leave for France, where
she later became the mistress and then wife of Alexandre Dumas fils.
The authorities' apparent belief in Naryshkina's innocence was not
shared by Leo Tolstoy, who on December 7 wrote to his relative Tatyana
Ergolskaya a garbled account of the case:
Since you are keen on tragic stories, I'll tell you one which has
created a stir in Moscow. A certain Mr. Kobylin was keeping a certain
Madame Simon, and he supplied her the services of two men and a
maidservant. Now, Mr. Kobylin, before [sic] keeping this Madame Simon,
formed a liaison with Madame Naryshkina, nee Knorring, a lady from the
best Moscow society and a lady very much in vogue, and he had not
stopped corresponding with her, although he was keeping Madame Simon.
top of all this, one fine morning Simon is found murdered, and certain
evidence indicates that she was killed by her own servants. This might
not have amounted to anything much, were it not for the fact that the
police, when arresting Kobylin, found among his papers some letters from
Madame Naryshkina, in which she reproaches him for abandoning her and
threatens Madame Simon, which only adds to the many other reasons for
concluding that the murderers were but the instruments of Madame
Naryshkina (emphasis added).
On September 13, 1850, the Moscow Aulic Court (Nadvorny Sud), rendering
the first judgment in the case, convicted the four servants and declared
Sukhovo-Kobylin not guilty. Egorov, Kozmin and the two maids were
sentenced to deprivation of all civil rights, public flogging (together
with branding for the men), and hard labor in prison, mine or workhouse
for terms ranging from 22 1/2 to 15 years. Though Egorov was identified
as the ringleader and sent to a prison camp, Kashkina drew the longest
sentence. The judgment was affirmed by the Moscow Criminal Tribunal (Ugolovnaya
Despite the outward appearance that the trial proceedings were
being resolved in Sukhovo-Kobylin's favor, the case against the servants
was in fact beginning to unravel. In May and June 1851 the two maids
recanted their confessions, claiming that their depositions had been
manufactured by their interrogators.
In connection with their appeals to
the Senate, Egorov and Kozmin followed suit; the cook claimed that his
confession had been coerced by torture and both men claimed that the
police had held out enticements in the form of letters from
Sukhovo-Kobylin offering rewards and freedom for them and their
After a hearing before the Senate in December, 1852 three
members of the hearing panel voted to affirm the decision of the
Criminal Tribunal, but Senator I.N. Chotyaintsev dissented, concluding
that Sukhovo-Kobylin's guilt was probable and that the servants were
innocent. He thought it impossible that the dead woman's maids would
have had time after the murder to dress her in the elegant apparel and
adornments found on her body in the cemetery, and he doubted that the
neck wounds could have been inflicted with a small knife.
After the panel's decision was announced, the case was brought before
the general assembly of the Moscow departments of the Senate. However,
because views of the senators were divided, the matter was referred to
the Minister of Justice, V.N. Panin.
The minister, in his report to the
Senate, opined that the confessions of the serfs, because of the
"obvious incompleteness and evident shortcomings of the investigation",
did not satisfy legal requirements and that the statements, in light of
their contradictions, were very doubtful and even incredible. Panin also
firmly rejected Sukhovo-Kobylin's claim that robbery was the motive.
Since neither Prince Radziwill nor the other residents of the victim's
house had heard any cries on the murder night, the minister was
persuaded that the crime had not been committed there.
Focusing on Sukhovo-Kobylin's actions on November 8, Panin noted that the nobleman,
who had not previously worried about Louise's absences, visited his dead
mistress's apartment six times beginning at 9:00 a.m., and that when he
returned home that night he told his valet, "Dimanche must surely have
In the light of
his doubts about the judgments of the courts below, minister Panin
decided that a new thoroughgoing investigation was necessary. This
conclusion was confirmed by the State Council on December 17, 1853 and
the Tsar's approval followed the next month. By February a new
extraordinary investigative commission was ready to begin work.
reinvestigation brought more sufferings to the beleaguered
Sukhovo-Kobylin, who was again imprisoned, from May to November 1854.
With the passage of time, there was no new light to be cast on the
mystery. The commission questioned again three of the servants (Pelageya
having died in the course of the proceedings) but, though they now spoke
with more vivid memories as witnesses rather than prime defendants, they
had little to contribute to the cause of truth.
All the old evidence and
issues were reexamined -- Sukhovo-Kobylin's alibi, the condition of the
dead woman's clothing, the bloodstains in the house in Strastnoy
Boulevard, the ability of Prince Radziwill, the Tverskaya Street tenant,
to hear sounds from the floor below where Louise had lived and perhaps
died. All the commission's inquiries proved inconclusive, and the case
meandered once again through the court system.
The Moscow Criminal
Tribunal issued a new judgment reconfirming Sukhovo-Kobylin's innocence
and upholding prison sentences for the three surviving servants; on June
30, 1855 Moscow military governor general A. A. Zakrevsky approved this
judgment and referred the case to the Senate. Once again, however, the
senators derailed the case, finding the servants' confessions incredible
and the circumstances such as to cast suspicion on Sukhovo-Kobylin of at
least indirect involvement in the crime.
In view of these
considerations, the Senate reached a bizarre decision: (1) to "leave Sukhovo-Kobylin under suspicion for participation in the murder" and (2)
to free the servants from responsibility for the crime but to exile them
to Siberia for perjury and obstruction of justice.
Sukhovo-Kobylin's mother successfully petitioned the empress to
intervene in behalf of her son, who was now running the risk of becoming
an eternal suspect. Even with imperial favor the path to freedom was far
from smooth. In a personal interview with Sukhovo-Kobylin in St.
Petersburg in May, 1856 Minister Panin informed him that the case would
It was only on October 25, 1857, however, that the State
Council, after previous maneuvering in the Senate, approved a judgment
freeing the serfs from responsibility for the murder and entrusting them
to the protection of local authorities against any reprisals from their
master; and relieving Sukhovo-Kobylin as well from the murder charge,
but ordering him "for his illicit love affair to submit himself to
ecclesiastical penitence for the cleansing of his conscience." The Tsar
approved the decree on December 3, 1857, finally bringing
Sukhovo-Kobylin's travail to an end.
Sukhovo-Kobylin's experiences in the toils of Tsarist justice inspired
him to create one of the monuments of nineteenth-century Russian theater,
the intricately linked trilogy to which he ultimately gave the name
Pictures of the Past [Kartiny Proshedshevo]. Weaving a tragicomic
theme that has similarities to the unifying idea of Wagner's Ring cycle,
Sukhovo-Kobylin recounts a series of struggles by conscienceless men to
gain control of the fortune of a wealthy provincial landowner Muromsky,
and the disasters that greed brings to everyone with the ironic
exception of the archvillain.
The first play, Krechinsky's Wedding
[Svadba Krechinskovo], of which Sukhovo-Kobylin wrote a large
part during his 1854 imprisonment, is a "well-made" comedy about the
nearly successful effort of an upper-class gambler Krechinsky, abetted
by a ridiculously unscrupulous henchman Rasplyuev, to acquire Muromsky's
riches by wedding his naive daughter Lida. Krechinsky's plans are
threatened by the pressures of his creditors but he averts disaster in
the nick of time by pledging a worthless copy of Lida's valuable ring.
When his fraud is exposed, Lida, though her eyes are now open to his
self-seeking courtship, nobly comes to his rescue by delivering the real
jewel to the pawnbroker.
sharply the degradation of aristocratic morality, Krechinsky's
Wedding did not directly target the Tsarist regime and was passed by
the censors, bringing its author great success on the stage at the same
time as he still remained under suspicion of murder. In a sequel,
however, Sukhovo-Kobylin proceeded to a bitter indictment of the Russian
court system. In this play, titled simply The Case [Delo]
(completed in 1861, four years after the end of his prosecution),
Sukhovo-Kobylin drew both on his own experiences and Gogol's
previous satires of soulless Russian bureaucracy.
In his 1862 preface,
the playwright took pains to advise his public that the work did not
represent the "fruit of leisure" or a literary exercise but was "in all
actuality a real case that has been ripped, dripping with blood, from
In The Case
the Muromskys are enmeshed in an endless criminal prosecution based in
part on the false testimony of a servant and designed for the sole
purpose of extorting bribes for the benefit of the bureaucrats
overseeing the criminal courts. The authorities have concocted the
fantastic charge that Lida Muromsky conspired with Krechinsky in his
plan to rob her father, asserting that she was motivated by a secret
love affair with her suitor.
Although the playwright drew a picture of
universal corruption, there seems little doubt that he was drawing a
parallel to his own prosecution, and that his audience was to regard Lida's alleged betrayal of her beloved father as no more incredible than
the allegation that Sukhovo-Kobylin had murdered his companion of many
desiring to bring his daughter's martyrdom to an end, is persuaded by
Tarelkin, a bribe-taking subordinate of corrupt State Councillor
Varravin, to meet with his boss. When Varravin proposes an extremely
high bribe to be paid for closing the case, Muromsky appeals to the
Prince, Varravin's superior.
The interview comes to a disastrous
conclusion, for the Prince, obsessed with his painful hemorrhoids,
quarrels with Muromsky and orders the entire case reviewed. Tarelkin and
Varravin are in mortal terror that reopening of the investigation will
hinder their extortion plans, so Tarelkin decides to bring matters to a
head by suggesting that Lida be subjected a medical examination to
supply evidence of her alleged love affair.
To save his daughter's honor,
Muromsky offers Varravin the huge sum he had demanded, but the crafty
minister, turning back only a small portion of the delivered money,
accuses Muromsky of attempted bribery. Muromsky dies of a stroke, but
the play ends with a show of dishonor among thieves: Tarelkin inveighs
against Varravin, who has kept all the bribe money for himself.
In the finale of
the trilogy, a black comedy called The Death of Tarelkin [Smert'
Tarelkina] (finished in 1868), the battle between Varravin and
Tarelkin over Muromsky's bribe money resumes, and the focus of
Sukhovo-Kobylin's attack shifts from the court administration to the
oppressive Russian police.
To escape his creditors, Tarelkin assumes the
identity of his neighbor Kopylov, who has just died; under his new name
he plans to blackmail Varravin from whom he has stolen incriminating
correspondence. Rasplyuev, Krechinsky's former henchman and newly
appointed police inspector, comes to believe that both Tarelkin and his
neighbor have died but have returned to life as a single vampire.
Glorying in his police authority to arrest and question people at will,
he seeks to extract testimony, however ludicrous, that may support his
theory of vampirism.
Meantime, Varravin is perfectly aware of Tarelkin's
imposture and, when the moment is right, forces him to return the stolen
letters in exchange for the permission to keep his new identity forever
as a shield from creditors. By the end of the play vampirism has become
a symbol of all Russian society; Tarelkin admits that he is a vampire,
and that his accomplices include the entire population of St. Petersburg
The Case and The Death of Tarelkin did not please the
censors. The Case was first performed in a bowderlized version in
1882 under a title that purported to put its events at a safe distance,
Bygone Days; and The Death of Tarelkin was not presented
in its original form until 1917. Sukhovo-Kobylin's struggles with
censorship caused him to give up drama for philosophical writings, but
prior to his death in 1903 in Beaulieu, France he had the satisfaction
of election to the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Under the Soviet
regime, the Sukhovo-Kobylin trilogy has been given important theatrical
productions, and all three plays were filmed between 1953 and 1966.
Still the ghost of the murder case has proved difficult to appease. In
1928, the publication of Leonid Grossman's The Crime of
Sukhovo-Kobylin revived the old controversies by affirming the guilt
of the famous dramatist. Though valuable for its detailed presentation
of the legal proceedings, Grossman's work failed to examine in detail
either the servants' original confessions or the medical evidence.
Instead, Grossman relied heavily on nineteenth-century Russian public
opinion, strongly unfavorable to Sukhovo-Kobylin, and other instances of
violent behavior on the part of Sukhovo-Kobylin and his ancestors. He
particularly noted the writer's aggressive support of his mother in
opposing what they regarded as a misalliance between one of his sisters
and a Moscow university professor.
In 1936, a
powerful rebuttal was made by Viktor Grossman in The Case of
Sukhovo-Kobylin [Delo Sukhovo-Kobylina]. Viktor Grossman
believes that Louise Simon-Dimanche was murdered by the servants
substantially in the manner detailed by them in their confessions,
and that Sukhovo-Kobylin was innocent of the crime. He notes that
violent reprisals of Russian serfs against their abusive masters were
common, and argues that the sole purpose of Sukhovo-Kobylin's
prosecution was to extort bribes, which he regards as the very life's
blood of the Tsarist court system.
In the course of
his researches, Viktor Grossman submitted the evidence to a forensic
scientist, Professor N.V. Popov. The professor concluded that Louise had
died of strangulation (probably by a towel, as evidenced by the wide
furrow in her upper neck), and that the injuries to her body were
consistent with having been inflicted by an angular blunt instrument
such as a flatiron.
The lack of bleeding in the windpipe and esophagus
was strong proof that Louise's throat had been slit after she was dead;
and the blood found on the snow at the cemetery was consistent with the
postmortem throat-cutting confessed by Egorov, which, in Popov's view,
would have resulted in some blood flow, perhaps facilitated by the
constriction of blood vessels due to the cold weather.
the evidence of the so-called bloodstains in Sukhovo-Kobylin's apartment
as unreliable and opined that had the victim's throat been cut there
while she was alive blood would have spurted over a much greater area.
Viktor Grossman also scored heavily against Leonid Grossman's theory
that Louise had voluntarily left her apartment late at night without
changing any of her dinner apparel.
She would never have gone to dinner
with two gentlemen without wearing a corset, and her velvet halfboots
were not appropriate for a winter sleigh ride; the maids must therefore
have dressed her dead body, but they did not struggle to put on her
corset and left her drawers unfastened. Finally, there was no evidence
that Sukhovo-Kobylin, despite his new infatuation with Naryshkina, had
lost his regard for Simon-Dimanche, who in any event had told friends
she would soon be leaving for France, with a pension promised by her
departure from Russia, Naryshkina bore Sukhovo-Kobylin a daughter, whom
he named Louise after his murdered mistress and cherished during his
entire lifetime. Over his bed he hung a portrait of Simon-Dimanche and
proudly pointed it out to visitors. Leonid Grossman would have us
believe that, like the murderer in Browning's My Last Duchess,
Sukhovo-Kobylin was cynically showing off the picture of his victim and
that his unwavering protestations of persecuted innocence both in
private correspondence and his magisterial trilogy were hypocritical.
Despite the maddening contradictions of the evidence in the case,
however, it seems right for posterity to accept the Tsar's final decree
and to acquit Sukhovo-Kobylin of the murder charge.
This article was
previously published in Kent State University Libraries and Media
Services, Department of Special Collections and Archives, Occasional
Papers 2nd series no. 6 (Kent, Ohio, 1990) and in Jonathan Goodman,
Masterpieces of Murder 123-142 (New York: Caroll and Graf, 1992)
Essays of Albert Borowitz
Portrait of Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin