Top Ten Murders in Russian Literature

This is the first in a new occasional series in which I’ll look at different aspects of Russian literature through a ‘Top Ten’, and hopefully give people a few reading ideas. My main rule is that writers may only have one entry in any given list. Which makes my first subject slightly trickier than it might otherwise have been…

10. Babel, ‘Salt’ (1924). I generally think Babel was fascinated with violence in a way I find hard to stomach, and murders are ten-a-penny in Red Cavalry, but ‘Salt’ is unusual. Taking the form of a letter to a newspaper, the writer Nikita Balmashev, a ‘soldier of the revolution’, describes a woman gaining protection from rape on a train during the civil war by disguising a bag of salt as a baby. When he discovers the deception, he throws her off the train and shoots her. The ambiguity lies in the narration; the Bolshevik slogans spouted by the semi-literate Balmashev seem to question the violence rather than endorse it. Russian text

9. Shalamov, ‘On Tick’ (1956). Kolyma Tales is full of violent death, but few are so shocking as the first murder we encounter, in the second story of the collection, made all the more striking by the apparently benign fashion in which the story begins, with its clear allusion to the opening line of Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’. The subsequent murder of a political convict by a criminal for the sweater he refuses to hand over immediately tells us we are in a different world, and the indifference of the narrator, whose only comment is, ‘Now I’d have to find a new partner for chopping wood’, emphasizes the cheapness of life and the pitiless brutality of the Gulag. Russian text

8. Pelevin, The Clay Machine Gun (also known in English as Buddha’s Little Finger; in Russian Chapaev i Pustota, 1996). In the part of the novel set in the immediate post-revolutionary period, Pyotr Pustota [Void], strangles the Chekist Von Erner, an old school friend who is trying to shoot him. The murder has strong echoes of Crime and Punishment that are emphasized in the following scene of the ‘literary cabaret’ featuring a ‘little tragedy’, titled Raskolnikov and Marmeladov. Pyotr, who has taken Von Erner’s Cheka identity, Fanerny, performs a revolutionary poem and ends it by shooting at a chandelier. It’s here that he meets Chapaev, and the rest, as they say, is history. The novel as a whole is patchy – Pelevin was a better short story writer than novelist in those days – but these scenes are absolute genius. Russian text

7. Chekhov, ‘The Murder’ (1895). Rival forms of religious fanaticism in a peasant family destroy all sense of empathy and compassion and finally lead to a brutal murder, although the motive is subsequently assumed to be financial. This is the only story Chekhov wrote that directly relates to his visit to Sakhalin Island in 1890 – the final scene, in which one of the main characters finally rethinks his faith, is set in the penal colony there. But the story is perhaps most memorable for the startling images of the bloodstains in the aftermath of the attack – on the perpetrator’s white neck scarf, on the potatoes. Russian text | English text

6. Zamyatin, ‘The Flood’ (1929). A childless couple take in an orphaned young girl, only for her to usurp the wife’s place in her husband’s bed, with murderous consequences. A tale of jealousy and revenge against the backdrop of post-revolutionary Petrograd and the catastrophic flood of 1924, with echoes of both Crime and Punishment and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Russian text

5. Pushkin, ‘The Queen of Spades’ (1833). This should perhaps be higher up my list, but in fact it’s not (quite) a murder; the countess dies when Hermann is trying to persuade her to reveal the secret of the cards, but whether she dies of fright or would have keeled over anyway is unclear. It’s here rather because it acts as the ‘mother’ of all Russian murder stories – at least three other entries on the list allude to it in one way or another. Russian text | English text

4. Kharms, ‘The Old Woman’ (1939). An old woman walks in on the narrator, and promptly dies. So it isn’t murder at all – or is it? Subequent events leave room for doubt, but there’s definitely a sense of guilt. In any case, this tale of communal housing and the hapless tenant’s attempts to deal with the body without being infected with ‘corpse juice’ deserves to be here for its surreal treatment of the aftermath of the crime/non-crime. Russian text | English text

3. Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata (1889). Whether you view this as a deranged misogynist diatribe or a proto-feminist critique of marriage as a form of socially-sanctioned prostitution, the narrator Pozdnyshev’s story of how he came to murder his wife because of his suspicion that she was having an affair is terrible and compelling. Is his compulsion to repeat the story, long after his release from prison, an attempt to repent, or to justify himself? Did Tolstoy really think he was presenting a moral argument? Russian text | English text

2. Leskov, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1865). A bored housewife has an affair with a handsome young peasant, who eggs her on as she disposes of her merchant father-in-law and husband, and the young nephew who arrives to inherit the estate. An extraordinary picture of provincial obsession intertwined with magical motifs from the Russian folk tradition, including a highly significant cat…  Russian text

1. Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866). What else could I pick? Although the deaths in The Idiot, Demons, or The Brothers Karamazov could all have a place on this list, Raskolnikov’s murder with an axe of the old money lender and her sister Lizaveta defines Dostoevsky’s reputation; it represents the moment when his art is transformed by bringing together the novel of ideas he first experimented with in Notes from Underground and the gothic melodrama of popular fiction. Russian text | English text

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2 Comments

  1. Dear Sarah
    I’m missing Smerdyakov

  2. Alas, my rules are a single entry for each author, and it had to be Raskolnikov for me.
    Thanks also for your lovely email, which I don’t think I ever got around to replying to – I’ve been having some health problems and barely keeping up with teaching, let alone anything else.

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