Law Code of 1649

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The Russian/Muscovite law code of 1649, formally known as the sobornoye ulozhenie (or Ulozhenie, the name of the code, which will be used in the article), was one of the great legal monuments of all time. Historically, in Russia, it is probably the second most important literary monument composed between 882 and at least 1800, outranked only by the various redactions of the Russian chronicle.

Like some other major legal monuments in Russian history, the Law Code of 1649 was the product of civil disorder. Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich had come to the throne at age 16 in 1645. His former tutor, Boris Morozov, was ruling in his name. Morozov and his clique, at the pinnacle of corruption, aroused great popular discontent. A crowd formed in Moscow on June 2, 1648, and presented a petition to Tsar Alexei, whose accompanying bodyguards tore it up and flung it back into the faces of the petitioners, who, joined by others, then went on a looting and burning rampage. The rebellion soon spread to a dozen other Russian towns. Inter alia, the petitioners cited judicial abuses by the Morozov clique, mentioned that great rulers in Byzantium had compiled law codes, and demanded that Alexei follow suit.

To calm the mob, Alexei agreed that a new law code should be compiled and on July 16 appointed one of the leading figures of the seventeenth century, Nikita Odoyevsky, to head a commission of five to compile it. Three of them were experienced bureaucrats who together had decades of experience working in the Moscow central governmental chancellery system (the prikazy ). The Odoyevsky Commission set to work immediately, and the preamble to the Law Code explains how they worked. They asked the major chancelleries (about ten of the existing forty) for their statute books (ustavnye/ukaznye knigi ), the decisions of the chancelleries on scrolls. The scrolls summarized the cases and contained the resolutions for each case. The Odoyevsky Commission selected the most important resolutions and tried to generalize them by removing the particulars of each case as well as put them in logical order (on the scrolls they were in chronological order). Depending on how frequently the resolutions had been used and how old they were, the fact that many of the Law Code's articles were summaries from the statute books is more or less apparent. When seeking precedents to resolve a case, the chancelleries frequently wrote to each other asking for guidance, with the result that similar resolutions sometimes can be found in several statute books. Fires during the Time of Troubles had destroyed most of the chancellery records; the chancelleries restored some of these by writing to the provinces requesting legal materials sent from Moscow before 1613. The same approach was used after a fire in 1626 again had destroyed many of the chancellery records.

The chancelleries had other sources of precedents, some of which are mentioned in the Law Code itself (in the preamble and rather often in marginalia on the still-extant original scroll copy of the Law Code) and others that can be found by comparing the chancellery scrolls and other laws with the Law Code. Major sources were Byzantine law, which circulated in Russia in the Church Statute Book (the Kormchaya kniga, a Russian version of the Byzantine Nomocanon ) and the Lithuanian Statute of 1588 (which had been translated from West Russian into Muscovite Middle Russian around 1630). In addition to the chancellery records, the Sudebnik (Court Handbook) of 1550 was a source for the chancelleries and for the 1649 monument.

By October 3, 1648, the Odoyevsky Commission had prepared a preliminary draft of half of the new code. In response to the June riots, Tsar Alexei changed the personnel of his government and summoned an Assembly of the Land to consider the new law code. The Odoyevsky Commission draft was read to the delegates to the Assembly of the Land, who apparently voted up or down each article. In addition, the delegates brought their own demands, which were incorporated into the new code and comprised about eighty-three articles of all the 968 articles in the code. From 77 to 102 articles originated in Byzantium, 170 to 180 in the Lithuanian Statute of 1588. From 52 to 118 came from the Sudebnik of 1550, and 358 can be traced to post-1550 (primarily post-1613) practice.

The code's 968 articles are grouped into twenty-five chapters. The Sudebniki of 1497, 1550, and 1589 had been arranged one article after another, but the Composite Sudebnik of 1606 was grouped into chapters (twenty-five of them), as was the Lithuanian Statute of 1588. The architecture of the code is also interesting, from "the highest, the sublime" (the church, religion: chapter 1; the tsar and his court: chapters 2 and 3) to "the lowest, the gross" (musketeers: chapter 23; cossacks: chapter 24; and illicit taverns: chapter 25). Although there are a handful of codification defects in the code, they are few in number and trivial. The entire document was considered by the Assembly of the Land and signed by most of the delegates on January 29,1649. Those who withheld their signatures were primarily churchmen who objected to the code's semi-secularization of the church (see below). Almost immediately the scroll copy was sent to the printer, and twelve hundred copies were manufactured between April and May 20. The Ulozhenie was the second lay book published in Muscovy. (The first was Smotritsky's Grammar, published in 1619.) The price was high (one ruble; the median daily wage was four kopeks), but the book sold out almost immediately, and another twelve hundred copies were printed, with some minor changes, between August 27 and December 21, 1649. They also sold out quickly. The Ulozhenie was subsequently reprinted eight times as an active law code, and it served as the starting point for the famous forty-five-volume Speransky codification of the laws in 1830. It has been republished eight times after 1830 because of its enormous historical interest. In 1663 it was translated into Latin and subsequently into French, German, Danish, and English.

Commentators have marveled that the Odoyevsky Commission was able to produce such a remarkable monument at all, let alone in so short a time. Until 1830, other codification attempts were made, but they all failed. Certainly the success of the code can be attributed largely to the preparation on the part of the Odoyevsky Commission: They brought a nearly finished document to the Assembly of the Land for approval and amendment. In contrast, Catherine II's Legislative Commission of 1767 failed miserably because it had no draft to work from, but started instead from abstract principles and went nowhere. The speed of the Odoyevsky Commission is also easy to account for: Each chapter is based primarily on an extraction of the laws from a specific chancellery's statute book or demands made at the Assembly of the Land. The Odoyevsky Commission made no attempt to write law itself or to fill lacunae in existing legislation.

The Law Code of 1649 is a fairly detailed record of its times, practices, and major concerns. Most noteworthy are the additions insisted on by the delegates to the Assembly of the Land, amendments which the government was too weak and frightened to oppose. Three areas are especially significant: the completion of the enserfment of the peasantry (chapter 11), the completion of the legal stratification of the townsmen (chapter 19), and the semi-secularization of the church (chapters 13, 14, and 19).

While the peasants were enserfed primarily at the demands of others (the middle service class provincial cavalry), the townsmen were stratified into a caste at their own insistence. Urban stratification and enserfment proceeded in parallel from the early 1590s on, but the resolutions in the Ulozhenie were different. Serfs could be returned to any place of which there was record of their having lived in the past, but townsmen were enjoined to remain where they were in January 1649 and could be returned only if they moved after that time. Enserfment was motivated by provincial cavalry rent demands, while townsmen stratification was motivated by state demands for taxes, which were assessed collectively and were hard to collect when those registered in a census (taken most recently in 16461647) moved away. The townsmen got monopolies on trade and manufacturing, as well as on the ownership of urban property (this primarily dispossessed the church). Roughly the same rules applied to fugitive townsmen as fugitive serfs, especially when they married.

If one thinks in terms of victimization, the primary "victim" of the Law Code of 1649 (after the serfs) was the Orthodox Church. As mentioned, much of its urban property was secularized. Its capacity to engage in trade and manufacturing was compromised. The state laid down provisions for protecting the church in chapter 1, but this in and of itself states which party is superior and limits the "harmony" (from the Byzantine Greek Epanogoge ) of the two. Chapter 12 discusses the head of the church, the patriarch, thus obviously making him subordinate to the state. Worst of all for the church was chapter 13, which created the Monastery Chancellery, a state office which in theory ran all of the church except the patriarchate. This measure especially secularized much of the church, and though it was repealed on Alexei's death in 1676, it was revitalized with a vengeance by Peter the Great's creation of the Holy Synod in 1721, when all of the church became a department of the state. The Ulozhenie also forbade the church from acquiring additional landed property, the culmination of a process which had begun with the confiscation of all of Novgorod's church property after its annexation by Moscow in 1478.

The Law Code of 1649 is a comprehensive document, the product of an activist, interventionist, maximalist state that believed it could control many aspects of Russian life and the economy (especially the primary factors, land and labor). Chapters 2 and 3 protected the tsar and regulated life at his court. The longest chapter, 10, is quite detailed on procedure. The major forms of landholding, service lands (pomestye ) and hereditary estate lands, are discussed in chapters 16 and 17, respectively. Slavery is the subject of the code's second longest chapter, 20. Criminal law is covered in two chapters, 21 (mostly of Russian origin) and 22 (mostly of Lithuanian and Byzantine origin), which were combined in the 1669 Felony Statute and represented the peak of barbarous punishments in Russia. Other subjects covered are forgers and counterfeiters (chapters 4 and 5), travel abroad (typically forbidden, chapter 6), military service (chapter 7), the redemption of Russians from foreign military captivity (chapter 8), various travel fees (chapter 9) and seal fees (chapter 18), the oath (chapter 14), and the issue of reopening resolved cases (chapter 15). Codes as comprehensive and activist as this one did not appear in Austria, Prussia, or France until more than a century later.

See also: alexei mikhailovich; assembly of the land; kormchaya kniga; morozov, boris ivanovich; peasantry; serfdom; sudebnik of 1497; sudebnik of 1550; sudebnik of 1589


Hellie, Richard. (1965). "Muscovite Law and Society: The Ulozhenie of 1649 as a Reflection of the Political and Social Development of Russia since the Sudebnik of 1589." Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago.

Hellie, Richard. (1979). "The Stratification of Muscovite Society: The Townsmen." Russian History 6(2): 119175.

Hellie, Richard. (19881991). "Early Modern Russian Law: The Ulozhenie of 1649." Russian History 2(4): 115224.

Hellie, Richard. (19891990). "Patterns of Instability in Russian and Soviet History." Chicago Review of International Affairs, 1(3):334; 2(1):315.

Hellie, Richard. (1992). "Russian Law from Oleg to Peter the Great." Foreword to The Laws of Rus': Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries, tr. and ed. Daniel H. Kaiser. Salt Lake City, UT: Charles Schlacks.

Hellie, Richard, ed. and tr. (1967, 1970). Muscovite Society: Readings for Introduction to Russian Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Hellie, Richard, ed. and tr. (1988). The Muscovite Law Code (Ulozhenie) of 1649. Irvine, CA: Charles Schlacks.

Richard Hellie

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Law Code of 1649

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Law Code of 1649