Russian Law

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During the early modern period, Russian law was modernized, that is, it became more predictable, rational, and ascertainable. There was considerable codification and ever increasing proliferation and sophistication of judicial officials. As of 1450 Russia had largely completed its transition from an archaic or dyadic legal system, characterized by no judicial officials, composition (blood-wite, or penalty for bloodshed), and irrational modes of proof, to a triadic legal system, characterized by judges, criminal law, and rational modes of proof. The judicial officials, however, were not specialists and there were no real standing courts. Judges for particular cases were appointed on an ad hoc basis from the ranks of the service class and probably decided civil cases based on their own sense of rough justice or fairness. Perhaps the most advanced aspect of Russian law at the time was that detailed records of trials, judgments, and land transactions were maintained. Most of the early trial records involve trials over the ownership of land. Written deeds were also used and maintained to record transfers of land.

Existing alongside the grand prince's courts were ecclesiastical courts. Each of approximately thirteen bishops had his own court. The church courts had jurisdiction over the clergy in all matters and over laymen in such matters as marriage, family, inheritance, sexual crimes, heresy, and witchcraft. Monasteries also exercised judicial power over those who resided on their vast landholdings.

In 1497 Ivan III of Moscow promulgated Russia's first national law code, consisting of sixty-eight articles. It was primarily a procedural guide, with numerous provisions regulating the fees that judicial officials could charge. It provided penalties for only a few crimes, such as murder. The code also provided for central courts with judges from the two highest ranks of the service class and with judicial records, to be maintained by clerks. Starting in the sixteenth century, certain permanent chancelleries, staffed primarily by clerks, became the standing central law courts. They also performed administrative functions. The chancelleries proliferated, so that by the end of the seventeenth century there were as many as 150. The jurisdiction of the chancellery courts was therefore highly fragmented. The clerks began to develop judicial expertise and kept detailed records. They also developed internal procedure manuals for judicial business. One of the chancelleries also became the repository for deeds to land.

A somewhat more comprehensive codification of civil law was issued in 1550, but this codification, like the 1497 code, was largely procedural. The 1550 code also contained further specifications of crimes and criminal penalties. But while civil trials were adversarial in nature (the two competing parties presented their evidence to a judge), criminal trials were inquisitorial; in other words, the same official was the judge and prosecutor. Criminal procedure would remain inquisitorial through the remainder of the early modern period. The clerical courts became more sophisticated as well, and in 1551 a vast codification of canon law was compiled, the so-called Hundred Chapters. As the tsar's power and bureaucracy increased, however, the independent power of the church courts was gradually circumscribed.

Legal modernization stagnated in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as the result of political turmoil, dynastic instability, and civil war. After the installation of the Romanov dynasty in 1613, the legal system and bureaucracy of the late sixteenth century was restored. The legal system, however, became the target of popular suspicion. It was perceived as subject to favoritism and corruption, particularly with respect to lawsuits over escaped serfs. In 1648 demands that the chancellery rulebooks be published became the focus of widespread civil disturbances, which culminated in the calling of an assembly to codify the laws. A vast codification was soon produced, based mainly on the chancellery rule books. The law code of 1649 was one of the most advanced codifications of its time. Its 967 articles fill over two hundred pages in a modern printed edition. For the first time the substantive law relating to landed property, serfs, slaves, and numerous other subjects was codified, along with lengthy codes of civil procedure and criminal procedure. Everyone, even slaves, had access to the courts, and legal rules were published to regulate most important relationships. The code proclaimed that it was to be applied in all cases, and it was indeed extensively cited in subsequent judgments and trial records. Among the most important, but dubious, achievements of the law code was the completion of the enserfment of the peasantry. The 1649 code was to remain Russia's basic law throughout the remainder of the early modern period.

It is important to note that this legal modernization was accomplished without lawyers or law schools and without any Western models or influences. The clerks in the chancelleries developed considerable practical expertise, but the Russian legal system and Russian law as a whole lacked the theoretical consistency of Western legal systems developed by professional lawyers.

Peter I the Great (ruled 16821725) substantially reformed the machinery of justice, replacing the chancelleries with nine colleges, which, like the chancelleries, performed both judicial and administrative functions. He also created the Senate, which among its other functions, served as a supreme court. These institutions remained in place throughout the remainder of the century. Peter also used law as an instrument of reform: his reforms of the civil service, armed forces, and central bureaucracy were accomplished by means of lengthy decrees and regulations. Under Peter the church courts largely lost their independence. Peter also unsuccessfully attempted to transform the law of inheritance by requiring primogeniture.

Under the influence of the Enlightenment, the idea of legal rights, particularly for the nobility, began to gain ground in the eighteenth century, culminating in the Charter to the Nobility in 1785. Throughout the early modern period, law played an important role in controlling crime and protecting the property and status of the service class. Although there were few legal rights, Russia became a state governed by elaborate published laws.

See also Alexis I (Russia) ; Autocracy ; Peter I (Russia) ; Russia .


Primary Sources

Dewey, H. W., trans. and ed. Muscovite Judicial Texts, 14881556. Michigan Slavic Materials, no. 7. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1966. Contains translations of the 1495 and 1550 codes.

Hellie, Richard. The Muscovite Law Code (Ulozhenie) of 1649. Irvine, Calif., and Pullman, Mich., 1988. A dual-language edition.

Secondary Sources

Weickhardt, George G. "Due Process and Equal Justice in the Muscovite Codes." The Russian Review 51, no. 4 (October 1992): 463480.

. "The Pre-Petrine Law of Property." Slavic Review 52, no. 4 (Winter 1993): 663679.

George G. Weickhardt