From Russia with [illicit] love
February 15, 2012 2:41 PM   Subscribe

LateImperialRussianHistoryFilter: What penalties under the law might a Russian man or woman in 1890 face for adultery?

From my limited reading on the subject, I know that adultery was legal grounds for divorce by a husband or wife. But in 1890, was it also a criminal offence? If someone were accused and convicted of adultery in a Russian court of law, would they be facing a fine, prison time, or worse?

Just curious... and also putting together some program notes for a Chekhov play.
posted by Pallas Athena to Law & Government (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I had a book on turn-of-the-century sex in Russia, but it has disappeared. It had exactly what you're looking for. It had 'fin-de-cicle' in the title if you want to look for it.

But other tidbits that I pulled out:

From Eric Naiman's Sex in Public:

Late 19th Century/Early 20th Century Russian philosophers like Solovev, Berdiaev, and Fedorov (their ideas were not dissimilar from medical thinking at the time) believed that procreating was man surrendering to nature and that since men needed to differ from animals, sex without an intent to reproduce was okay as long as it was done in the name of love to bind individuals together. (I have some quotes if you want.)

For the late 19th c./early 20th c. Russian intelligentsia, sexual relations were a source of discomfort because they seemed anti-commual and even individualistic.

Russian writing at the time discusses sex as a theme with a digusting tone. There is even 1905 survey data on this!

Sex and Russian Society covers this era too.

From Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture argues that the 1861 reforms changed everything in Russia, including sexuality. People were getting really anxious in the latter 19th c. about women overall and women taking charge of their own sexuality. Prostitution was growing, for example.
posted by k8t at 3:37 PM on February 15, 2012

Best answer: I think the book mentioned by k8t must be Laura Engelstein's The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siècle Russia (1992). Engelstein's book has a brief discussion of the law on adultery (pp 51-3) which answers your question. The following is my summary of Engelstein's rather convoluted explanation:

Adultery was both a religious and a criminal offence in Russian law, so the penalties (in theory, anyway) could be heavy. Under the 1845 criminal code, the guilty parties could be sentenced to imprisonment or seclusion in a monastery. After 1864, however, anyone who wanted to charge their spouse with adultery had to make a choice: either to bring a charge of adultery in the criminal courts, or to sue for divorce in the ecclesiastical courts. Most people opted for divorce, so the number of prosecutions for adultery declined.

In the 1880s a party of reformers, led by Alexander II's minister of justice Dmitrii Nabokov, set up a commission to try and modernise the criminal law. The commission debated the option of decriminalising adultery altogether, but ultimately decided to leave it in the criminal code. However, the draft revision of the adultery law that was proposed in 1895, and eventually adopted in 1903, removed the penalty of imprisonment, so that convicted adulterers no longer risked any serious punishment.

Engelstein's book is available on Google Books, so you can read the full version for yourself. Shorter version: yes, you could still be sent to prison for adultery in 1890, but divorce would have been a more likely outcome.
posted by verstegan at 9:23 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Excellent response from verstegan (I can't resist mentioning that Alexander II's minister of justice Dmitrii Nabokov was the novelist's grandfather, and VV says of him in the third chapter of Speak, Memory that he "did what he could to protect, if not to strengthen, the liberal reforms of the sixties (trial by jury, for instance) against ferocious reactionary attacks"). If you want more detail and know somebody who reads Russian, there's a discussion of the law on pp. 542 ff. of the Очерки курса русскаго уголовнаго права (1896), beginning from "a) Любодѣяніе простое или блудъ въ тѣсномъ смыслѣ (stuprum)."
posted by languagehat at 11:13 AM on February 16, 2012

Response by poster: Many thanks, all. (and a tip of the chapeau to languagehat for the Nabokov connection-- that's fascinating!)
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:25 PM on February 16, 2012

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