Russian Justice

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The chief code of law in Kievan Rus, the Pravda Russkaya, or "Rus Justice," survives in about one hundred copies that may be grouped into three basic versions: Short, Expanded, and Abbreviated. The so-called Short version, usually thought to be the oldest, is attested in only two fifteenth-century copies and several from much later. Essentially a list of compensations to be paid for physical wrongs, the first section is sometimes linked with Grand Prince Yaroslav (10191054), whose name appears in the heading, but nowhere in the text. The second section attributes to several of Yaroslav's successors a codification of law, providing fees for the homicide of the prince's servitors as well as compensation for various property and criminal offenses. Separate articles establish provisions for the prince's "bloodwite" (wergild) collector, as well as a tithe for the church from the prince's fees. A final article somewhat incongruously establishes payments for bridge builders.

The Expanded version is much more detailed and survives in many more manuscripts; the oldest copies date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but numerous other copies originated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Whereas the Short version included no more than forty-three articles, the Expanded version includes at least 121 articles and betrays a much more consciously rational form of organization, highlighted in many copies with special headings. The first articles repeat many of the measures of the Short Pravda, but overall the Expanded version establishes a much more detailed inventory of offenses and their resolution. Separate groups of articles examine slavery, commercial transactions, and loans, as well as inheritance disputes.

The Abbreviated version, which survives in only a handful of copies, none older than the seventeenth century, seems to have been the result of a conscious reworking of the Expanded version, adapted to the circumstances of early modern Russia. Several traces of the Short Pravda remain, but the scarcity of copies along with the fact that Muscovite Rus generated its own legal codes has persuaded most scholars that this Abbreviated version had little practical importance.

The emphasis of the law in both the Short and Expanded versions is to entrust the process of conflict resolution mainly to the persons directly involved. The first article of the Short version, in fact, authorized blood vengeance by relatives of homicide victims and provided for monetary compensation only in the absence of kin. According to the second article of the Expanded version, the sons of Yaroslav outlawed vengeance justice when they met to revise the law sometime in the 1070s, after which homicides were redeemable by payment of compensation to the victim's kin, along with a fine payable to the prince. In general, compensation alone appears as a remedy in the Short Pravda, but both fines and compensation figure in the Expanded Pravdaan indication, some have argued, of a growing political apparatus that controlled litigation in later medieval Rus.

Both the Short and Expanded versions make scant reference to judicial process, however, and describe instead a self-help process that indicates the minimal role played by judicial personnel. In cases of theft, for example, the codes describe a process of confrontment, according to which the victim who recognized his stolen property was to announce his loss, and seek the help of the current owner in finding out from whom he had acquired it, and so on, all the way back to the original thief. The Expanded version articulates an identical process for slave theft, using the slave as a witness in tracing the transactions that separated the original thief from the present slaveowner.

The Pravda provides considerable information on the economy of Kievan Rus. Few articles examine farming, despite the obvious importance of agriculture to the economy. The code does establish, however, compensation for livestock either lost or stolen, and also protects some farming implements. By contrast, the Expanded version dwells at length on trading and commercial transactions, suggesting to some scholars that this law served a primarily urban and commercial society. The prominence of slavery in the law indicates that the economy and society of Kievan Rus depended upon various forms of involuntary labor, much of it probably provided by war captives. Inasmuch as the code mainly considers men rather than women, some students of Kievan society have questioned the status of women in Kievan Rus. One controversial provision seems to provide a penalty for killing a woman that is only half as large as the penalty that attached to the homicide of a man.

See also: kievan rus; novgorod judicial charter; pskov judicial charter


Kaiser, Daniel H. (1980). The Growth of the Law in Medieval Russia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kaiser, Daniel H. (1991). "The Economy of Kievan Rus': Evidence from the Pravda Rus'skaia." In Ukrainian Economic History: Interpretive Essays, ed. I. S. Koropeckyj. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kaiser, Daniel H., ed., tr. (1992). The Laws of Rus': Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries. Salt Lake City, UT: Charles Schlacks, Jr.

Shchapov, Yaroslav N. (1993). State and Church in Early Russia, TenthThirteenth Centuries, tr. Vic Shneierson. New Rochelle, NY: A. D. Caratzas.

Vernadsky, George. (1969). Medieval Russian Laws. New York: New York: Norton.

Daniel H. Kaiser