Vasilii Prasolov skulked into a Moscow restaurant where his estranged wife Zina was drinking brandy with male companions. He asked her to step outside, but she refused. He pulled out a gun and shot her dead. Waiters rushed to the scene as Vasilii cried, “Don’t hit me! I’ll turn myself in!”

If only Court TV had been around in 1911 to film what happened next.

Louise McReynolds has loved tsarist Russian society ever since reading Anton Chekhov’s short stories in high school. She related more to nineteenth-century Russia than to twentieth-century America. Later, as a historian, she wrote books on Russian newspapers and leisure activities. While researching these books she was drawn to the outlandish crimes and court trials that Russia’s middle class went gaga over, especially the sensationalistic murder cases.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith; ©2008 Endeavors.

McReynolds says that well-to-do women would flock to courthouses. They’d jeer defendants and cheer verdicts, affecting juries and giving reporters a feel for public sentiment. “These court ladies, as they were called, sometimes brought food for defendants and collected money for the accused,” she says. “They were participants in the whole court drama.”

McReynolds, who found reams of court documents and newspaper articles while digging through archives in a library in St. Petersburg, says that the Prasolov trial is a good example of how tradition and pop culture intermingle and produce the sort of justice that today we might not find all that just.

Vasilii’s defense was simple. Zina’s promiscuous behavior crushed his spirit and he snapped. Vasilii’s lawyer painted the picture for the jury: he was an anonymous factory manager working for his beloved family. She was a social butterfly, hardly a proper wife and mother. Never mind that the couple hadn’t lived together for a year. He still loved her, the defense said, and continually tried to reconcile with her. Zina had cavorted with Nikolai Riabushinksii, who’d been present at the murder.

“Nikolai was the equivalent of one of the Rockefeller boys,” McReynolds says, “the black sheep of a famous merchant clan.”

Zina had cozied up to opera star Dmitrii Smirnov at a Crimean resort. Vasilii, who happened to be vacationing there at the same time, confronted her. Zina told him that she needed help from Smirnov to launch a singing career. Vasilii didn’t believe her, and his lawyer made sure the jury got an earful of innuendo.

Forced to play the same game, lawyers for the prosecution — essentially the Russian state — found out that Vasilii had been shacking up with a famous nightclub singer named Frumson. One night, Frumson exploded in a rage at Vasilii because, witnesses said, he had been leeching off of her for months, and she couldn’t take it anymore. Police had to calm her down.

Even uglier, Vasilii objected to Zina’s pregnancy because it spoiled her figure; he wound up soliciting Zina’s younger sister.

The defense retorted: While the couple’s baby underwent surgery, Zina went to the theater. The baby died.

Then the prosecution pointed out that Vasilii didn’t bother attending the funeral.

The press reported every wretched detail, and Muscovites ate it up.

Judges typically issued tickets to people who wanted to see a trial, but McReynolds says that the Prasolov trial was so popular that people would scalp their tickets outside the courthouse for a tidy profit.

Click to read photo caption. Image courtesy of Louise McReynolds; ©2008 Endeavors.

Publishers sold a booklet of trial transcripts. The cover read “The Prasolov Affair” and had a portrait of the Prasolovs during happier times. Almost immediately, their story was made into a film called In Moscow’s Golden Spiderweb. McReynolds says that the word “golden” referred to Moscow’s overindulged youth. Even before the film was made, theaters put promotional photos of the Prasolovs in the coming attractions, though Vasilii’s parents put a stop to that with a court injunction.

Meanwhile, other films told similar stories. In the 1913 film Children of the Age, the heroine was married to a banker and was mother to a young child. But she caroused with older men at chic restaurants. Unlike Vasilii, the husband did not kill his wife; he killed himself.

In the 1914 film Child of the Big City, the husband married a simple seamstress who fell prey to urban decadence. In the end, the husband killed himself in front of his wife who then, without remorse, stepped over his corpse to hail a cab to a fancy club.

To courtgoers, Vasilii was a sympathetic character like the men in those films, a victim of a fast-changing culture that saw young women flout convention and leave hapless men in their wake.

McReynolds doesn’t say that these films, or others, directly influenced the jury. But she does say that jury trials were part of pop-culture entertainment, and that trials, movies, and culture all influenced each other.

Exhibit A: lawyers often treated courtrooms like theater stages, writing their own scripts and acting them out, McReynolds says.

Here’s a line from the Prasolov defense: “When Vasilii asked her to go outside, and she refused, it was not his hand which shook, or even his heart, but the ground upon which he stood! It opened up before him, and a shot rang out!”

McReynolds says that Vasilii’s lawyer ingeniously victimized Zina to serve his client’s cause: “Now, I’m not going to criticize Zinaida Ivanovna because that would only upset the defendant, who loved her so. The path of a beautiful woman can be difficult because of the people who take advantage of her. I’m not a hypocritical moralist; I know that a woman can slip without falling.”

The prosecution relied on sarcasm, trusting the jury to use common sense: “We have an anecdote in our courts — why did you kill your wife? Because I loved her, of course!”

The prosecution also lamented, “Yesterday, Vasilii was known only to waiters, but today all of Russia knows him. Unfortunately, people know more about his biography than they do those of the inventors of the telegraph and steam engine.”

Vasilii’s lawyer, meanwhile, continued to refer to pop culture. He alluded to the celebrated book Keys to Happiness by Anastasia Verbitskaia when he blamed outsiders for “stealing the keys to someone else’s happiness.” In other words, the lawyer blamed rich and powerful men for corrupting Zina and ruining Vasilii’s life.

Defense witnesses testified about Vasilii’s emotional frailty, painting him as a dispirited, sympathetic man-child.

“His mother testified about his cocaine use and what a weak mama’s boy he had always been,” McReynolds says. Hearing this, Vasilii burst into tears and had to be escorted out of the courtroom. In fact, Vasilii cried throughout the trial, sitting there alone in a cage opposite the jury as was customary in Russia at the time.

Despite all the clear-cut evidence, the jury saw Vasilii as a wronged man who went temporarily berserk, and when the verdict was not guilty, the courtroom crowd cheered.

“People believed that Vasilii was genuinely sorry,” McReynolds says. “They were sympathetic — he’s weak. He’s sorry. They believed that. And in one sense, it’s enough that the prosecution is the tsarist state, and finding him not guilty was one way to get back at it.”

Another reason is orthodoxy — Zina was not a proper wife and mother. She drove her husband mad. This defense would never fly in a modern jury trial. But it did in tsarist Russia, as well as in pre-War America. (Search online for “girl in the red velvet swing,” an American equivalent to the Prasolov trial.)

Vasilii was released into the care of his father, a character witness who impressed newspaper reporters so much that they compared him to a movie star. “A lively witness in the case, a rarity on this particular stage,” one reporter wrote. “He’s a veritable Max Linder.” Linder, McReynolds says, was a wildly popular movie star in Europe. He often played a comical but charming character, a “man-about-town” in the lingo of the day.

The defense made it clear that Vasilii, if found not guilty, would be placed in the care of his upstanding father. And so he was.

The prosecution appealed the verdict, there was a second trial, and Vasilii was found not guilty once more before fading quickly into anonymity whence he came.

“If you’re looking for the logical explanation for the verdict — don’t,” McReynolds says. “You’ll just waste your time. This is just the way it was.”

Louise McReynolds is a professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences. She published a book in 2003 called Russia at Play, and she is now writing a book on sensationalistic murder in tsarist Russia.