ContractsProf Blog

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University of South Dakota School of Law

Monday, April 8, 2013

Svidrigailov's Contract with Marfa Petrovna

DosteovskyIn Part VI, Chapter 4 of Fyodor Dosteovsky's Crime & Punishment (beginning on page 834 in this version), Svidrigailov, the unrepentant libertine whose attentions nearly ruined the life of Raskolnikov's sister, Avdotya (Dunya) Romanovna, describes to Raskolnikov the nature of what Svidrigailov characterizes as his "contract" with his (now decesased) wife, Marfa Petrovna.

According to Svidrigailov (and he is by no means a reliable narrator), the agreement, which he specifies was unwritten, had the following terms:

1. Svidrigailov would never leave Marfa Petrovna and would always be her husband;

2. He would never absent himself from her without her permission;

3. That he would never take on a "permanent mistress";

4. In return, Marfa Petrovna would give Svidrigailov "a free hand with the maidservants, but only with her secret knowledge";

5. Svidrigailov was expressly forbidden to faill in love with a woman of his own station;

6. But should 5 occur, Svidrigailov must reveal that fact to Marfa Petrovna.  

So this sounds like a prenuptial agreement that would not be enforceable because not reduced to writing.  Anybody out there know the 19th-century Russian rule on such matters?  Moreoever, without a remedial provision, it is not clear what this contract accomplishes.  


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It didn't actually matter was it written or not as relevant norms were imperative. Empire's civil code limited divorce. But it stated that in case (s)he breached sanctity of marriage (i.e. mistress) and there were evidence of that (testimonies of the one who breached didn't matter) marriage could be terminated. Obviously it was not what Marfa (not Marta) Petrova wanted. Another point is that would Svidrigailov enter new marriage without terminating the previous one, new, faulty marriage, was void and Svidrigailov could be disqualified to enter any new marriage for the rest of his life.

Posted by: Khukharev Stepan | Apr 10, 2013 5:12:54 AM

Thanks for the correction (which I have addressed) and for the background on the law. But it seems to me that you are describing statutory law that would apply regardless of any contract between the parties. It's not surprising, as I don't think Svidrigailov described a binding legal agreement, but based on what you've said, the "contract" would be equally meaningless whether written or oral as far as the law is concerned.

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Apr 10, 2013 8:27:06 AM

>the "contract" would be equally meaningless whether written or oral as far as the law is concerned.
That's exactly what I meant.
>It didn't actually matter was it written or not as relevant norms were imperative.
That contract was more of promise in non-legal sense than a real contract.

PS I'm trial lawyer in Russia, so don't hesitate to ask would there be any questions connected to Russian law - khoukharev at
PPS And thanks for your blogging. Sometimes it's really refreshing to compare Russian law to foreign one.

Posted by: Khoukharev Stepan | Apr 11, 2013 12:44:20 PM

Well, I am disappointed in Svidrigailov for calling something a contract when it is really just a promise. I'm disappointed in Marfa Petrovna for giving any credence to such a promise from a known rascal and sensualist like Svidrigailov. And I'm disappointed in Raskolnikov, the law student, for failing to correct Svidrigailov on his usage of the term "contract." Such pedantry is certainly not beyond him (or me). Of course, Raskolnikov might have had other things on his mind that day, and it seems like he was more interested in criminal law than in civil.

The more I think about Svidrigailov, the more interesting a character I find him. He really is Raskolnikov's dionysian doppelgaenger. The parallels are striking, and that makes the Dunya/Svidrigailov relationship and the Dunya/Raskolnikov relationship all the more interesting. Literary critical careers have no doubt been made on these subjects.

Posted by: Jeremy Telman | Apr 12, 2013 7:30:03 AM

Well, there really is no point in dissappointment. Just the usual thing of general language v. legalese. It's still the same nowadays. Word 'contract' is still used as a synonim to promise and 'contracting' is a complete synonim to 'making a promise' in general Russian language.

Posted by: Khukharev Stepan | Apr 15, 2013 1:23:31 AM

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