"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 13, 2022

The Playwright's Murdered Mistress: A Mystery From Tsarist Russia

If you want true crime that reads like something out of a Tolstoy novel, you can do no better than look at a murder case from Tolstoy-era Russia.

Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin (1817-1903) was a wealthy, handsome Moscow aristocrat.  He was highly intelligent, well-educated, sophisticated, witty, and an author and philosopher of some renown.  Unfortunately, he balanced out all these admirable qualities by also being a double-barreled bastard.  He treated his servants with a brutality which left them in terror of him.  He was a serial womanizer.  He had a violent temper he either wouldn’t or couldn’t control.  (Suffice to say this was a man who would smash dishes at the dinner table if the food did not please him, which you have to admit would be enough for anyone to start singing “The Worker's Marseillaise.”)  His arrogant personality and fondness for spreading particularly waspish gossip ensured that even among his peers, there were few people who wished him well.

Sukhovo-Kobylin, 1850

Since 1842, Sukhovo-Kobylin had kept a mistress, a beautiful Frenchwoman named Louise-Simone Dimanche.  He had met her on one of his frequent visits to Paris, and so liked what he saw that he invited her to live in Moscow under what was in those days quaintly called his “protection.”  Dimanche saw no reason to refuse, so before long she was ensconced in a luxurious five-room apartment Sukhovo-Koblyin bought for her.  He assigned four of his serfs to staff the household.  Louise got along well with her lover's family, particularly his domineering, cigar-smoking mother.

Portrait allegedly of Louise Dimanche

Although Sukhovo-Kobylin continued his relationship with Louise, by 1850 he was having another liaison, with a married high-society woman named Natalya Naryshkina.  Naryshkina was not considered a beauty, but she was a vibrant, assertive woman who was an excellent conversationalist.  Her social skills won her many admirers.  It was said that these two women in Sukhovo-Kobylin’s life resented each other, which would hardly be surprising.  It was said that Dimanche told friends that she was planning to return to France, where she would live on the pension Sukhovo-Kobylin promised her.

Natalya Naryshkina

November 7, 1850, was, as far as we know, a busy, but unremarkable day for Dimanche.  At 9 a.m., her coachman drove her to pick up a friend, Ernestine Liandert, after which the two women did some shopping.  Afterwards, Dimanche spent about an hour at Liandert’s apartment.  Dimanche then returned to her own home.  An hour later, she again went out in her sleigh, visiting a bookstore, a business office, and her dressmaker.  After returning home to change clothes, she had dinner at Liandert’s apartment, along with Ernestine’s lover Lieutenant Sushkov and another man whom Dimanche’s coachman did not recognize.  After dinner, the four friends went out for a ride along the boulevard, stopping to eat ices at a confectioner’s shop.  Dimanche returned home at 9 p.m.  At 10 p.m. her cook, Efim Egorov, asked her what food he should prepare on the following day.  Before he left, Dimanche gave him a note to deliver to Sukhovo-Kobylin.  As Sukhovo-Kobylin was out, Egorov left the note with Alexander’s valet.  (The valet, a man named Lukyanov, later said that the note asked Sukhovo-Kobylin if he planned to dine with her on the following evening.)

Louise's apartment building

Dimanche’s housemaid, Pelageya Alekseeva, later stated that her mistress waited a half hour for a response to her note.  Then Dimanche left the apartment.  She did not tell her servants where she was going, only that she would return soon.

She never came back.  At around 8 a.m. on the following morning, a man came to Dimanche’s apartment.  When the maids told him that Louise had not come home, the stranger said, “That’s a bad business,” and left.  Soon afterward, Sukhovo-Kobylin arrived, and was also told of Dimanche’s disappearance.

Late that evening, Sukhovo-Kobylin approached the Moscow police chief, a man named Luzhin, who was relaxing in his club.  The aristocrat had a curious question for him:  Had he heard anything about a “traffic mishap involving a woman in a blue cloak?”  

Luzhin was one of the innumerable people who wished to chat with Sukhovo-Kobylin as little as possible.  Instead of asking any of the obvious follow-up questions, he simply said “No,” and went back to his cigar and brandy.

The following morning, Sukhovo-Kobylin again visited the police chief.  He said that Louise Dimanche had not been seen for two days, and demanded that an official search be made.  He suggested two areas in particular should be examined: the Petersburg Chaussee, northwest of Moscow, and the road which led to the village of Choroshevo.

The search for the missing woman was fruitless until the evening of November 9, when a woman’s corpse was found near a cemetery in the western area of Moscow, near the Choroshevo road. She was young, beautiful, expensively dressed, with gold earrings and rings on both hands.  She was--very unusually for that period--not wearing a corset and her drawers were pulled up to her knees.  A closer look showed a large wound across her throat.  There was very little blood on the ground around her, suggesting that she had been murdered elsewhere.  The tracks of a sleigh and hoofprints of horses were nearby, which seemed to confirm that the corpse had been carried to this remote spot.  When the dead woman was brought to Moscow, Sukhovo-Kobylin’s servants quickly identified her as Louise Dimanche.

The autopsy found other damage to the body.  A groove was noticeable around the upper portion of her neck.  There was a large bruise around the left eye.  The entire left side of her body was bloody, and the left arm was heavily bruised.  Four ribs were broken.  In short, the doctors found that she had been quite brutally injured aside from the “unquestionably mortal wound” to her throat.

There is nothing like a scandalous murder in high places to grab people’s attention.  Dimanche’s violent and mysterious end quickly became the talk of Moscow.  And few people had any trouble coming up with a chief suspect.  The popular theory was that in the early hours of November 8, Dimanche went to Sukhovo-Kobylin’s house, where she caught him in flagrante delicto with Natalya Naryshkina.  The infuriated Sukhovo-Kobylin impulsively beat Dimanche with a candlestick and slit her throat.  He then ordered two of his servants to bring the body to the cemetery where it was eventually found.

The police, however, turned their initial interest to the serfs Sukhovo-Kobylin had assigned to be Dimanche’s servants:  the maids Pelageya Alekseeva and Agrafena Kashkina, the cook Egorov, and the coachman, Glalktion Kozmin.  This interest heightened when police found 100 rubles in the lining of Egorov’s vest.  When Dimanche’s gold watch was found in Sukhovo-Kobylin’s attic, where Egorov slept after performing his duties, her servants were all arrested.  Sukhovo-Kobylin insisted that the discovery of the rubles and the watch proved that robbery was the motive for Dimanche’s murder.  However, if such was the case, why was Louise’s expensive jewelry still on her body?

Although the common opinion was that Sukhovo-Kobylin was the guilty party, Muscovites were still shocked when, on November 16, the police arrested him as well, citing “inconsistencies” in his statements.  They claimed to have other evidence against him:  in the wing of the Sukhovo-Kobylin family home which he occupied, they found a letter to Dimanche which they claimed proved he had premeditated the murder, a pair of daggers, and a number of tiny bloodstains.

However, this evidence proved to be far, far weaker than initially seemed the case.  The letter, which had been written at a time when Dimanche was away from Moscow, was a clearly amorous note playfully telling her to return where she would be “within reach of my Castilian dagger.”  (Moscow police clearly were unfamiliar with double entendres.)  Sukhovo-Kobylin had a ready explanation for the bloodstains: he said that poultry and game were often brought up the back stairs and in the hallway.  As for any stains found on the wall, well, one of his servants was prone to nosebleeds.  (Doctors confirmed that the stains were of blood, but they were unable to say if it was animal or human.)  Sukhovo-Kobylin insisted that on the night Dimanche vanished, he was having a late dinner with Natalya Naryshkina and her husband.  (Some of Natalya’s servants confirmed this, although, for whatever reason, police did not interview Natalya and her husband.)

On November 20, the case took another wild turn when the cook Egorov, after what was probably less-than-gentle questioning by police, suddenly confessed that he and Dimanche’s three other servants had committed the murder.  The motive, he said, was not mere robbery, but revenge for Louise’s cruel treatment of them.  Egorov explained that Dimanche had never become fluent in Russian, with the result that the serfs often misunderstood her spoken instructions.  When they failed to perform tasks to her satisfaction, she would beat them, or worse, turn them over to Sukhovo-Kobylin for punishment.  Feeling they couldn’t take any more of such an existence, on November 7 the servants resolved to kill their mistress.  Early on the morning of November 8, the murder squad creeped into Dimanche’s bedroom, where they beat and smothered her.  When they believed she was dead, the maids dressed her.  Then, the two men harnessed her sleigh and put the body inside.  When they arrived at the site where the corpse was later found, Egorov thought he heard Dimanche groan.  In a panic, he cut her throat with a folding knife and tossed the weapon somewhere nearby.  After Egorov’s confession, Sukhovo-Kobylin was released, but the police still held him under suspicion.

On December 8, Natalya Naryshkina, who was by then pregnant with Sukhovo-Kobylin’s child, obtained permission to leave for France.  She eventually gave birth to a daughter, whom she and Sukhovo-Kobylin named after Louise Dimanche.  (A rather peculiar act, no matter what their guilt or innocence may have been.  To give Alexander his due, he became a doting father to his only child.). As a little literary side note, Naryshkina later married Alexandre Dumas fils.

Not everyone felt it was a good idea to leave Naryshkina as free as a bird.  On December 7, Leo Tolstoy wrote to a relative:  

“Since you are keen on tragic stories, I'll tell you one which has created a stir in Moscow. A certain Mr. Kobylin was keeping a certain Madame Simon, and he supplied her the services of two men and a maidservant. Now, Mr. Kobylin, before keeping this Madame Simon, formed a liaison with Madame Naryshkina, nee Knorring, a lady from the best Moscow society and a lady very much in vogue, and he had not stopped corresponding with her, although he was keeping Madame Simon.

“On top of all this, one fine morning Simon is found murdered, and certain evidence indicates that she was killed by her own servants. This might not have amounted to anything much, were it not for the fact that the police, when arresting Kobylin, found among his papers some letters from Madame Naryshkina, in which she reproaches him for abandoning her and threatens Madame Simon, which only adds to the many other reasons for concluding that the murderers were but the instruments of Madame Naryshkina.”

On September 13, 1851, the Moscow Aulic Court convicted the four servants and acquitted Sukhovo-Kobylin.  The serfs were sentenced to public flogging (the men were branded as well,) and long terms of prison with hard labor.  However, in the spring of 1852, the servants recanted their confessions, claiming that their interrogators had invented their accounts of the murder.  They stated that they had been shown letters from Sukhovo-Kobylin promising the servants and their families financial rewards and freedom from serfdom if they cooperated.  Egorov added that he had been tortured in prison until he confessed.

In December 1852, the Senate held a hearing about the matter.  Three members of the panel voted to affirm the convictions, but one Senator disagreed, arguing that Sukhovo-Kobylin was likely guilty.  He did not believe the maids would have had time to dress the corpse so elaborately, and he thought the neck wound must have been made by a larger weapon than a mere folding knife.

The case went to the general assembly of the Moscow departments of the Senate.  When they failed to come to a consensus, the matter was passed on to the Minister of Justice, V.N. Panin.  He concluded that thanks to the “obvious incompleteness and evident shortcomings of the investigation,” the confessions of the servants were legally invalid.  Also, as none of the other residents of the apartment building heard any cries or other unusual noises on the night of the murder, Panin believed she had been killed elsewhere.  The minister noted the sinister fact that on the morning after the murder, Sukhovo-Kobylin--who had never shown much concern over Dimanche’s comings and goings--visited her apartment no less than six times, and that when he returned home that night, he remarked to his valet that “Dimanche must surely have been murdered.”

Panin recommended that a new investigation into the case was necessary.  In February 1854, a commission was put together to look into the mystery.  Sukhovo-Kobylin was again arrested and jailed from May to November 1854.  As was probably inevitable after such a long period of time, this commission was unable to come to any solid conclusions.  As a result, the Moscow Criminal Tribunal reconfirmed the original verdicts.  In June 1855, the Moscow military governor general approved this judgment and referred the case to the senate.  

The senators were not happy about the Tribunal’s decision.  To be blunt, a good many of them were convinced Sukhovo-Kobylin was guilty as hell.  This dissension resulted in one of the odder verdicts in true-crime history.  The Senate announced that Sukhovo-Kobylin would be left “under suspicion for participation in the murder.”  The servants were absolved of the crime, but they were to be exiled to Siberia for perjury and obstruction of justice!

Sukhovo-Kobylin’s mother successfully petitioned the Empress to use her influence to clear Alexander’s name.  In May 1856, Panin informed Sukhovo-Kobylin that the investigation into the mystery was officially over.  However, it was not until October 1857 that the State Council issued a judgment absolving the servants and Sukhovo-Kobylin from the murder charges.  (Although they added that because of Sukhovo-Kobylin’s “illicit love affair,” he was to “submit himself to ecclesiastical penance for the cleansing of his conscience.”)  The Tsar approved this decree on December 3, 1857.  Over seven years after Dimanche died, her case, while still unsolved, was finally well and truly closed.

Sukhovo-Kobylin expressed his bitterness at his long legal ordeal through his writings.  He wrote a series of tragi-comic plays satirizing aristocratic corruption and the Russian judicial system, which he depicted as a hopelessly corrupt nightmare.  (He referred to these plays as “my revenge.”)  Although he often ran afoul of the government censors, his plays were wildly popular, and are still considered among the greatest works of 19th century Russian theater.  In his later years, he abandoned the theater in favor of writing Hegelian philosophical works.  Shortly before his death in 1903, Sukhovo-Kobylin was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences.  His works enjoyed a revival during the Soviet period, where his savage indictments of Tsarist Russia were understandably welcomed.

Sukhovo-Kobylin always maintained that he had been accused of Dimanche’s murder solely because, as a very wealthy man, officials could wring enormous bribes out of him to ensure his acquittal.  (His family was nearly bankrupted by the efforts to clear his name.)  Of course, it is equally possible that these officials blackmailed him because they knew he was guilty.  (For what it's worth, Sukhovo-Kobylin's diary entries expressed his conviction that the serfs had indeed murdered Louise, although there is the strong suggestion that he somehow felt morally responsible for her death.)

To the end of his days, Sukhovo-Kobylin kept a large portrait of Louise in his home, which he would often point out to visitors.  Was this the act of an innocent man showing the sense of grief and regret he depicted in his diary?  Or could it have been a murderer’s private penance?

[Note:  It is hard for me to make up my mind about this strange case.  Despite the serious injuries on Louise's body, her clothes were undamaged.  That, plus the fact that she wasn't wearing a corset and had small velvet shoes on her feet--hardly the footwear for a Russian winter--corroborates the serf's confession.  It has also been suggested that the wound on her neck was made after her death.  On the other hand, Sukhovo-Kobylin's odd behavior after Louise vanished seems to indicate that he already knew she was dead, and where her body would be discovered.  Despite that, I find it hard to believe he was the murderer.  He may have been an unpleasant man in many ways, but he was not a small one.  I can picture him killing someone while in a rage.  However, what I can't picture is him lying about it to himself in his diary.

Then there is the version of events related by Tolstoy--that Natalya Naryshkina arranged her rival's murder.  That would explain why she left Russia for good soon afterwards.  That would explain Sukhovo-Kobylin's sense of guilt about Louise's death.  That might even explain why he insisted on naming his daughter after his murdered mistress.

Perhaps that was his way of punishing Natalya.]


  1. Very interesting. I think that Naryshkina was probably responsible for the killing, though that would mean the involvement of Dimanche's servants, which may be likely. Though in that case, why didn't they implicate her when they confessed? Anyway, I wonder that they may have regarded their exile to Siberia as a Heaven-sent chance to get the heck out of Moscow and all that came with it.

    1. That was one of my problems with the theory. To tell the truth, this is one of those cases where I have a hard time coming up with a completely satisfactory solution to the mystery.


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