Theses Doctoral

Reading and Judging: Russian Literature on Trial

Drennan, Erica Stone

This dissertation explores the ethical and aesthetic stakes of readers’ judgments by analyzing mock trials of literary characters that were performed in Soviet Russia and abroad in the 1920s and 1930s. Literary trials were part of a larger craze for public mock trials in the decades after the Russian Revolution. Mock trials functioned as a participatory and educational form of entertainment. Fictional defendants included Lenin, invented characters accused of drunkenness and hooliganism, and the Bible. At the same time as increasingly propagandistic mock trials were being performed, intellectuals staged trials of characters from nineteenth-century and contemporary Russian literature. In émigré communities such as Berlin, Paris, and Prague, literary trials were popular as entertainment and fundraisers through the 1920s and 1930s.

My analysis focuses on mock trials of characters from works by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, whose novels proved especially popular for mock trial adaptations in the 1920 and 1930s. I also consider Nabokov’s participation in a mock trial based on The Kreutzer Sonata as a bridge between Tolstoy’s novella and Nabokov’s later novel Lolita. I read back and forth between the literary works and their mock trial adaptations in order to explore both how trial participants interpreted the texts and how the texts respond to the kinds of judgment at work in the trials. The challenges that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy’s fiction pose to readers became the central questions of mock trial adaptations: What is the relationship between interpretation and truth? Do we have the right to judge others? Does narrative have the power to redeem?

I argue that while Soviet and émigré literary trials offer selective, politically motivated readings of the original works, they also enter into dialogue with the works’ major ethical questions and offer new ways of thinking about how truth, judgment, and redemption operate in them. As a result, the mock trials bring together two approaches to literature: a reader-centric approach that interprets the text in order to reveal something about the reader’s current reality, and a text-centric approach that aims to uncover the original meaning. While some of the literary trial interpretations and judgments appear to be misreadings, or bad readings, of the original works, I argue that this kind of reading, which closely attends to textual details while asking the text to speak to the readers’ present, offers a model for an ethically engaged approach to literature.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Reyfman, Irina
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 15, 2021