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The practice of compensation for a humiliating insult or dishonor.

Beschestie meant "dishonor" in early modern Russia and referred both to humiliating insult and to the amount of compensation awarded to victims of insult. There is ample evidence in law codes in other East Slavic societies (Kievan Rus, Novgorod, Pskov) before the fifteenth century for the principle of compensation for humiliating insult, but this term and legal norms for defense of honor were first systematized in the Grand Principality of Muscovy. The major Muscovite law codes of 1550, 1589, and 1649 cite beschestie specifically and provide schedules of compensation for dishonor.

Beschestie was socially inclusive (applying to all social ranks) but also socially hierarchical (the amount of compensation was determined by social status). In the most detailed account in the Law Code of 1649, compensation for insult between individuals in the lowest social ranks was a simple, paltry fine. As the social rank of litigants rose, fines rose; and for the very highly placed, physical punishment was levied on the offender in addition to a high fine. At the same time, dishonor litigation provided protection for all social ranks, from the highest secular and clerical ranks to slaves, serfs, and (in the 1589 sudebnik ) witches and minstrels.

Muscovite laws do not define honor; its content has to be reconstructed from complaints in litigations. Insult to honor in practice was primarily verbal; most physical assault was litigated separately. But those forms of physical assault considered humiliating (such as pulling a man's beard, or uncovering a woman's hair by knocking off her headdress) were deemed dishonor. Dishonoring verbal insults included accusations of criminal behavior or of disloyalty to the tsar, aspersions on sexual probity or religious faith, insults to an individual's station in life, no matter how lowly, and insults to their heritage and kinsmen. Women played a pivotal role in this code of social values: Their behavior reflected on family honor, and thus their dishonor compensation was reckoned higher than men's. A wife, for example, received twice her husband's dishonor compensation, while an un-married daughter received four times.

Litigations show that men and women in all social ranks litigated for dishonor, even non-Russians and non-Orthodox. Judges took dishonor suits seriously, and were concerned primarily not with the truth of an allegation, but whether an insulting phrase was uttered or a humiliating assault carried out. People could use dishonor litigation to pursue quarrels and vendettas, but overall the practice of defense of honor probably worked to enhance social stability by protecting individual and family dignity. Most broadly, the consciousness of honor constituted a form of social integration across the empire, although limited by the ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity of Muscovy.

Case law on dishonor litigations survives only sparsely from the late sixteenth century, but the number of recorded suits rose steadily in the seventeenth century, even accounting for accidents of document survival. In the eighteenth century, terminology changed (obida and oskorblenie came to replace beschestie for "insult"), but the consciousness of personal honor and the right to litigate to defend it endured into the Imperial period.

See also: boyar; law code of 1649; mestnichestvo; okolnichy


Dewey, Horace W. (1968). "Old Muscovite Concepts of Injured Honor (Beschestie )." Slavic Review 27(4): 594603.

Kollmann, Nancy Shields. (1999). By Honor Bound. State and Society in Early Modern Russia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Nancy Shields Kollmann

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