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Classification: Murderer?
Characteristics: The Eternal Suspect - Russian nobleman, chiefly known for his activity as an amateur playwright
Number of victims: 1 ?
Date of murder: November 9, 1850
Date of birth: September 29, 1817
Victim profile: Louise-Simone Dimanche (his French mistress)
Method of murder: Struck Louise with a candlestick and cut her throat
Location: Moscow, Russia
Status: Found not guilty on September 13, 1852. Died in France on September 24, 1903

Alexander 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 прошлого).

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 play.


The Eternal Suspect

The Ordeal of Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin

One annoyance 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 never served."

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 portrait:

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 table.

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, Natalya Naryshkina.

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 the knees.

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 chief.

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.

The two 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 regular driver.

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.

From depositions 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 unharnessed.

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 home."

Although 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 missing.

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 guests.

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 crime.

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, i.e., "tremble!"]

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 silver piece.

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.

Sukhovo-Kobylin 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 rooms.

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.

In his 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.

Their 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 nearby.

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 analysis.

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.

On 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 Palata).

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 families.

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 been murdered."

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.

The 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.

Ultimately, 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 be terminated.

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.

While attacking 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 truest life."

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 years.

Muromsky, 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 and Moscow.

Unsurprisingly, 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.

Popov rejected 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 lover.

After 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)

Collected Essays of Albert Borowitz 


Portrait of Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin



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