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FORCE – Forensic Culture in Europe, 1930-2000

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Interview with dr. Volha Parfenchyk

The FORCE-project is now well underway and the team have started to work on their individual projects. For the first couple of blogs, a brief interview with each member of our team will introduce the different projects that make up “Forensic Cultures”. The second interview is with the Postdoc of our project, dr. Volha Parfenchyk, who investigates the forensic culture of Soviet Russia.

Could you briefly explain your research project within FORCE?

Broadly speaking, I am focusing on the history of forensic practices in Soviet Russia. The exact contours of my research within FORCE are yet to be determined. However, I am particularly interested in the problem of insanity in criminal law, namely, the ways in which insanity was conceptualized by ‘experts’ (legal scholars, psychiatrists, etc.), the role it played in legal proceedings, as well as the connections between the two. Much has been written about the use of psychiatry for political reasons in Soviet Russia. I think it is important to go beyond this obvious frame of analyzing Russian forensic psychiatry and discuss the role that this legal and scientific concept played in more mundane, non-political (if this word can be applied to Soviet Russia at all) cases, such as infanticide or sex crimes. In this way historians can get a more nuanced understanding of the workings of both psychiatry and law in Soviet Russia as well as the extent to which they were subjected to or resisted ideological pressure exercised by the Communist Party.

What did you do before you joined this project?

I am a lawyer by training, having studied international law first at the Belarusian State University and then at the University of Amsterdam. I also worked as attorney-at-law at several law firms practicing litigation. Afterwards I embarked on a PhD within the Joint Doctoral program on Law, Science and Technology. In my PhD thesis I explored the long and ethically charged public debate around an assisted reproductive technology – preimplantation genetic diagnosis – in Italy. I focused on how culturally embedded understandings of citizens’ fundamental rights shaped the position of the Italian Parliament, courts, the medical community and general public regarding PGD and what impact it had on governing human life in Italy.

What exactly fascinates you about the history of forensics?

My interest in the (history of) forensics is related to my general interest in how law, science and technology interact and how, via this interaction, they shape the world in which we live. Whereas in my PhD thesis, for example, I explored the interaction between science, technology and constitutional law, the studies of forensics involve looking into the ways in which technoscience shapes and itself is shaped by criminal law. Studying this interplay is fascinating because it allows us to see how science and criminal law – the two most powerful instruments of ‘discovering the truth’ – interact and ‘discover’ this ‘truth’. In addition, if we adopt a more Foucauldian outlook, it also allows us to see what kind of ‘truth’ they actually help ‘discover’, the social and political conditions allowing this particular version of truth to be produced, and its consequences. This, I think, is the most fascinating part of this study.

Can you tell us about a source, case or object that your find particularly fascinating?

I have recently discovered that in more than fifty percent of all infanticide cases adjudicated in the 1970s, Russian courts, often directly violating the Criminal Code, gave lower sentences to women committing infanticide, or gave them parole or released them under an amnesty. In most cases, courts took into account difficult material and social circumstances of the mother as well as her psychological state. Whether this was because judges were following not only the written law but also a ‘higher’ and more ‘just’ law than the one that the Supreme Soviet had enshrined, or for some other reason, I think this example is outstanding because it paints a picture of the degree of freedom that local judges enjoyed that is different from the one we would expect to see. I am now investigating the role that forensic medical experts and psychiatrists played in adjudicating these types of court cases.

Why do you think this project is important?

I think this project is important because it helps reveal the social parameters of forensic practices and problematize the facts that both forensic experts and lawyers/courts, that rely on experts’ advice, claim to discover. The possibility for this more nuanced study of forensics is possible owing both to the comparative approach that this project adopts and its theoretical framework; while all its members will be using different theoretical approaches, we all share the view that (forensic) science’s claims to objective truth should not be taken at face value. In addition, I am also curious about the ways in which Soviet courts functioned, particularly the ways in which they adjudicated non-political cases, as well as their actual relationships with the Communist Party, with experts and with ordinary citizens.