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August 18, 2011

Theodore Dalrymple on what Chekhov can teach us about the London riots

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

There is no disguising the fact that those who call for the sterner punishment of criminals, though they might be right to do so, are often an unpleasant lot. Even disregarding the out-and-out sadists among them, who enjoy vicariously inflicting suffering on others, we feel that there is something not quite decent in demanding an increase in retribution. The acceptance that there but for the grace of God go I is much more generous-minded; and as I entered the prison in which I worked, as I did about five times a week for fiteen years, I could not help but feel that if there were any justice in the world I should be retained there not as a member of the staff, but as an inmate. So, of course, should everyone else.

But while my heart is with softness, my head is with hardness. Maybe we should alll go there but for the grace of God, but the fact is that God dooes sometimes extend his grace to us, and therefore we don't actuallly go there. And who are we that we should forgive what people do to others? That kind of forgiveness is for God, and in us partakes of the sin of pride. We are not God: we are earthbound creatures, condemned to do merely our best, which includes, or ought to include, our best to suppress and prevent the crime that causes so much human suffering.

Chekhov has an interesting little story on the matter of crime and punishment. It is called A Problem. In it, a young man of ancient and distinguished lineage has forged a promissory note and is about to face trial for it. The family meets in council to decide what to do about it: to let the young man take his punishment or to pay the promissory note? Which is the best way to save the family honour?

With the precision of a surgeon wielding the knife, Chekhov captures the arguments and feelings (so intimately and inextricably related) that have hardly changed in the century and more since he wrote. The young man, Sasha Uskov, is a good-for-nothing student, for whom pleasure in the form of wine, women and song is all. He lives constantly above his means and is always in debt. Here is how he explains his crime to himself:

He had discounted a forged note. But all the young men he knew did the same. It is true that the use of another's signature was considered reprehensible; but still, it was not a crime but a generally accepted dodge, an ugly formality which injured no one, and was quite harmless… Sasha had no intention of causing anyone damage or loss.
I have heard many convicts say precisely this: nobody was injured (or injured much) by what I did, everyone does it anyway, I meant no harm. Did Chekhov ever hear these arguments in person, or did he merely read them or intuit them?

The three main participants in the family discussion are two paternal uncles, one of whom is a colonel and the other a civil servant, and a maternal uncle. Sasha, the subject of the discussion, hears them from behind closed doors.

The colonel, a most unattractive character, is for taking a hard ine, as they do in such cases (he says) in the army. He argues against saving the family honour by paying the amount due:

How can you say that I don' believe in family honour? I repea nce more: fa-mil-y hon-our fal-sely un-der-stood is a prejudice! Falsely understood! That's what I say: whatever may be the motives for screening a scoundrel, whoever he may be, and helping him to escape punishment, it is contrary to law and unworthy of a gentleman.
One can hear in one's mind's ear the tone in which this is all said.

The civil servant uncle is in favour of hushing the whole thing up, but only on the narrowest of grounds, namely to keep it out of the newspapers. But the maternal uncle, Ivan Markovitch, who is a relative of Sasha's only by marriage, founds his arguments on those to be found in the Guardian:

He began by saying that youth had its rights and its peculiar temptations. Which of us has not been young, and who has not been led astray? To say nothing of ordinary mortals, even great men have not escaped errors and mistakes in their youth. Take, for instance, the biography of great writers. Did not every one of them gamble, drink, and draw down upon himself the anger of right-thinking people in his young days?
Then there is the story of Sasha in particular: They must remember that Sasha had received practically no education:
he had lost his parents in early childhood, and so had been left at the tenderest age without guidance and good, benevolent influences.
In short, to put it in modern psychobabble, he had no role models. Therefore:
Even if he were guilty, he deserved indulgence and the sympathy of all compassionate souls. He ought, of course, to be punished, but he was punished as it was by his conscience and the agonies he was enduring…
Who has not heard these things said of wrongdoers? Ivan Markovitch rises to a rhetorical crescendo:
Shall we be false to civic duty if instead of punising an erring boy we hold out to him a helping hand?
Nor is that all:
Crime is an immoral act founded upon ill-will. But is the will of man free? The latest school [of thought] denies the freedom of the will, and considers every crime as the product of purely anatomical peculiarities of the individual.
Again, this has an all too familiar ring.

There is no denying that Ivan Markovitch is a much more sympathetic personage than the colonel, and is described by Chekhov as "kind-hearted". His views prevail: Sasha's debt is paid on condition that he goes with his uncle to his farm to do work there of some kind or other.

On hearing the news of his reprieve, Sasha, who had been until then "sick of life", immediately perks up and remembers that it is the name-day of his friend, Von Burst, who wil be having a party at the Bear. He wants to join him there, but to do so he needs money. He asks Ivan Markovitch for the loan of a hundred roubles. His uncle is taken aback and appears not to understand, which Sasha interprets as a refusal. He says:

Listen. If you don't, I'll give myself up tomorrow! I won't let you pay the IOU. I'll present another false note tomorrow!
And Ivan Markovitch hands over the hundred roubles.

In the compass of a few pages, Chekhov depicts our dilemma: to feel like Ivan Markovitch, yet think like the colonel.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. Most recently, he is the author of Mr Clarke's Modest Proposal: Supportive Evidence from Yeovil, also available as a Kindle download from and from

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Chekhovskaya Pravda!

Thank you for this, it expresses the dilemma so well.

I wonder if ‘nutshell’ carries the same connotation in Russian as it does in English?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at August 25, 2011 10:05 AM

"Chekhov depicts our dilemma: to feel like Ivan Markovitch, yet think like the colonel"

Our dilemma? Speak for yourself.

I'm with the colonel.

Posted by: W. Smith at August 25, 2011 02:43 PM

There is no disguising the fact that those who call for the sterner punishment of criminals, though they might be right to do so, are often an unpleasant lot.

Perhaps that is the problem, not recognising that the good is sometimes unpleasant. In Handel's coronation anthems, the piece "let justice and judgement", captures with music, the sorrow and terribleness of justice more perfectly than words can express.

The just hanging of a murderer should be no cause of joy, since it is ultimately a potentially good life that has been destroyed, but not hanging the murderer is a tragedy as well, since it fails to justly account for the death of the victim. It's a lose-lose situation.

The leniency we extend to criminals today isn't really mercy, but the recognition of diminished culpability for the crime, i.e the criminal wasn't fully responsible and hence not fully deserving of punishment. Our current judiciary is attempting to be just. Our young Russian friend could be forgiven his debt because he was immature or an idiot, and hence not fully responsible for it.

Mercy is a different thing as it can only be given by the victim. It's basically a renunciation of just settlement and hence an unjust act, still it is morally permitted by the principle of double effect, aiming to produce greater good by its application at the expense of a personal evil. Third party mercy is an abomination and extending mercy to men who wish to remain evil, is in fact , evil. Therefore an element of prudence is required in its administration. On my assessment, our young Russian friend seems quite the tool: I'm with the colonel.

Posted by: Slumlord at September 12, 2011 06:07 AM

I once knew a man who was sent to prison for attacking another, in the context of monies that remained owed. In other words, an underworld spat. The ex con was a good host, and surprisingly charming; you did not feel unsafe in his company. You felt very much looked after. He was frequently described as a big softie. He explained something that has stayed with me. Though he remarked that some people are capable of violent conduct at the drop of a hat, he said that "professionals" are mostly keen to avoid physical violence. "It's not easy to beat someone up with a bat you know". But now and again his work called for it, and the job had to be done. And the job was done. The squeamishness he admitted to, made me think of the squeamishness we experience when attempting to administer justice. The slap on the legs that led to much crying and bawling. The parent who agonises that they may have gone too far in banning the Xbox for a month. The boss who ponders, frets and then chooses to discipline his staff where other managers turn a blind eye. The faint of heart might not be cut out for it. That would be most of us. "My parents were really strict with me" someone announces. "Poor bastard" thinks the audience. Chekhov is of course on the money here. And it is very easy to insist that others administer (harsh) justice. "I'd stone them to death". No you probably would not. You'd delegate that task. You wouldn't have the stomach for it. Is justice the art of doing what must be done, however much the heart complains?

Posted by: cybn at September 13, 2011 01:52 PM

The fatherly impetus is to train and develop the child; the motherly is to understand and protect.

Current politics embraced the image of Carol Gilligan's Mommy-At-The-Breakfast-Table: that the benevolent and omnipotent Mommy must do whatever she decides is best to get the squalling tykes through the meal, cajoling or rewarding or punishing forthwith as she sees fit.

This image, interesting as it is, constitutes no basis for a system of Western government or politics; Citizens viewed as squalling and helpless tykes are not going to be competent to function as The People. And certainly in the American Framing vision, if there is no People there is no need for a Constitution; only for the Great Mommy.

Politicians' subtle scheme to create a reliably dependent 'client' class, beholden to their elite patrons, cannot but lead to the wrack that we see in later Imperial Rome, especially in the Urbs herself.

This Nanny State approach is not progress but rather a lethal regression.

Posted by: Publion at September 13, 2011 05:19 PM

The balance of opinion appears to be with the colonel, and probably rightly so.

Nevertheless, there needs to be a rein kept on those who would, as the Chinese say, 打落水狗 “beat a dog that’s fallen in the water”, a common expression for treating condemned criminals harshly.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 24, 2011 08:26 AM
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