The Poet with a Briefcase: Literature and Legal Consciousness in Late Imperial Russia
Reverence for literature and disregard for law have been often seen as persistent attributes of Russian cultural identity. In this talk, I will suggest that there is a connection between these attitudes, and that the outsize role of literature and the tremendous authority of the Russian writer in the late imperial period hindered the development of a strong legal consciousness. In the literature-centric courtroom of the day, lawyers sought to project the image of the writer’s surrogate; questions of law were displaced by concerns with psychology, morality, verbal artistry, and civic-mindedness; and a relaxed attitude toward facts found legitimacy behind appeals to “higher reality,” “inner meaning” and other categories imported from literature. While literature no longer enjoys the same prestige and influence, aspects of these attitudes endure to this day, underwriting some of the worst abuses of law committed in and by Russia in recent years.