Public Meaning of the Zasulich Trial 1878: Law, Politics and Gender
The article aims to demonstrate that while jurors' acquittal of the famous terrorist Vera Zasulich has often been interpreted in terms of sympathy for 'a desperate girl', previously underestimated legal and political claims also played an important role in the trial. The key legal experts at the trial – her defense attorney Aleksandrov and the president of the court Koni – interpreted Zasulich’s attempt on Trepov’s life as an act of societal self-defense: Zasulich was presented as a victim of a society which could no longer tolerate arbitrariness by authorities. The flogging of political prisoner Bogolyubov following Trepov's illegal order made Zasulich desperate to take revenge in order to alert Russian society of the humiliating arbitrariness and the unfairness of thepolitical and legal structures of late Imperial Russia.
Her victimization highlighted her “moral right” to act as a defendant of true law and legality in Russia. This idea of “moral right”, which empowered Zasulich to act in defense of society, was supported by Koni's conceptualization of law and state power as an embodiment of the people's will and responsibility. This conceptualization was elaborated in detail in his scholarly legal writings scholarship on the right to self-defense. The article brings together Koni's theory and his practical role in Zasulich's acquittal and demonstrates tensions between the Great Reforms and their political and social limitations.