Deviant Women: Female Crime and Criminology in Revolutionary Russia, 1880-1930

By Bernstein, Laurie | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2010 | Go to article overview
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Deviant Women: Female Crime and Criminology in Revolutionary Russia, 1880-1930


Bernstein, Laurie, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Sharon A. Kowalsky. Deviant Women: Female Crime and Criminology in Revolutionary Russia, 1880-1930. DeKaIb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009. xii, 3 14 pp. Tables. Bibliography. Index. $42.00, cloth.

In this insightful study, Sharon Kowalsky examines changing notions of female crime in the pre- and post- revolutionary eras. She begins with the story of young Nastia E., a former peasant living in Moscow who sliced off her husband's penis in 1923 and was acquitted on grounds of temporary insanity. Soviet criminologists attributed Nastia' s act to her rural backwardness, infertility, jealousy, and a flare-up of venereal disease. Indeed, views of female offenders were refracted through assumptions about women's "traditional isolation in the domestic sphere" (p. 79), reproductive cycles, maternal instinct distorted or gone wrong, and errant sexuality. Kowalsky traces these notions to the duelling schools of nineteenth-century anthropological and sociological criminology. Not surprisingly, explanations that emphasized social factors held more sway in the Imperial Russian context, given widespread poverty and dissatisfaction with the autocratic state. Yet despite a rejection of biology as a cause of criminal behaviour, essen tialist notions about female offenders persisted well into the 1920s. If, as in Nastia' s case, Soviet women could be driven to distraction by problems relating to their gender and class, then, as Kowalsky astutely points out, the revolutionary project as a whole remained in jeopardy.

Kowalsky maps a gendered "geography of crime" (p. 117), showing how Soviet criminologists distinguished between (male) urban offences marked by planning and sophistication, and (female) rural ones associated with backwardness and spontaneity. Kowalsky' s discussion of infanticide ascribed to female ignorance and biology, and remnants of "the 'old' way of life" (p. 163) illustrates this confluence of geography and gender. Even when women killed their newborns in the city, the crime was linked to their peasant roots; true proletaria would do no such thing. Observers had to face the fact that despite the law that ended illegitimacy and policies ostensibly providing women with education, child support, alimony, and access to abortion, some mothers still found reasons to kill their babies. Soviet jurists and criminologists approached this reality in good paternalistic mode, treating women accused of infanticide and many other female offenders with a compassion and leniency rarely extended to men. But there was a steep price to pay: female criminals in particular and women in general remained saddled with an image that left them as primitive creatures ill-suited to Bolshevik- style enlightenment and socialism.

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