Languages of the Lash: Corporal Punishment and Identity in Imperial Russia

By Smith-Peter, Susan | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2003 | Go to article overview

Languages of the Lash: Corporal Punishment and Identity in Imperial Russia


Smith-Peter, Susan, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Abby M. Schrader. Languages of the Lash: Corporal Punishment and Identity in Imperial Russia. DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002. xii, 258 pp. Bibliography. Index. $40.00, cloth.

A fine example of cutting-edge social history, this book presents the first full account of the development of corporal punishment up to the Great Reforms. Abby Schrader's work should be of interest to all those dealing with questions of the state, society, gender, and ethnicity in nineteenth-century Russia. Using an impressive range of archival materials, along with primary and secondary printed sources, Schrader shows how corporal punishment was used to "produce, represent, and redefine social order" (p. 190). By taking a longer view, Schrader is able to challenge the dominant historiographical understanding of the Great Reforms as a moment of radical change in corporal punishment. Instead, she details how the reforms marked a refining of punishment practices, not of fundamental redefinition.

Focusing on the period between 1785 and 1863, when the reform of corporal punishment took place, Schrader begins by "uncoupling the implicit association of reform with Whiggish interpretations of modernization and progress" (p. 7). This allows her to see the origins of innovation and change not only in Western ideas and the rise of capitalism, but also official political culture. Punishment and exemption from it were central to the state's attempt to clearly define a social order in which the privileged and the unprivileged were separated by what could or could not be done to their bodies. Nobles, first and second guild merchants, and the clergy, among others, were spared the humiliation of the birch, the lash, the knout, and the gauntlet. The peasantry and exiles were the main groups subject to such punishment, which graphically embodied their lower or even outcast status within the body politic. From the time of Peter the Great, the Russian state had been concerned with making the punishment seem clear and necessary to the surrounding crowd, thus integrating them into the imperial system and preventing any subversive identification with the punished one. One of the most impressive aspects of the work is Schrader's attention to the multiple and overlapping differences of ethnicity (from Baltic Gentians to Chechens), religion, social status, and gender. …

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