Rare Books Blog

March 12, 2012

Blackstone, Sir William (1723-1780). Istolkovaniia angliiskikh zahonov [Commentary on English Laws of Mr. Blackstone]. Moscow, 1780-82. 3 vols. Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library

Catherine II became aware of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69) through the French translation. It became her bedside book, replacing Montesquieu, and greatly influenced her ideas on law and administration. Only volume I of Blackstone was translated into Russian, at her behest by S.E. Desnitskii (c. 1740-1789), the Glasgow-educated first Russian professor of law, and A.M. Briantsev (1749-1821). While Catherine had a special need for the book, it was part of her larger commitment to translations expressed in the establishment of a Society for the Translation of Foreign Books, which survived until 1783 and which she subsidized handsomely.

Among the 700 pages of notes which Catherine II took while reading Blackstone were drafts for a High Court of Justice. On her trip to the Crimea in 1787 Catherine II took her notes on Blackstone and her Nakaz with her to compare the two texts and work on further plans for constitutional reform. Her scheme for a High Court of Justice drawn from Blackstone seemed to combine legislative features of Parliament in England with judicial elements. Her contemplated High Court would have chambers consisting of appointed councilors and assessors elected by the local nobility, urban dwellers, and State peasants.

Blackstone wrote approvingly of Catherinian reforms in penal law:

“Was the vast territory of all the Russias worse regulated under the late Empress Elizabeth, than under her more sanguinary predecessors? Is it now under Catherine II less civilized, less social, less secure? And yet we are assured, that neither of these illustrious princesses have, throughout their whole administration, inflicted the penalty of death; and the latter has, upon full persuasion of its being useless, nay, even pernicious, given orders for abolishing it entirely throughout her extensive dominions.” – William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. 4, p. 10.

See: I. de Madariaga, Catherine the Great: A Short History (1990).

“Monuments of Imperial Russian Law,” curated by William E. Butler and Mike Widener, is on display Mar. 1 - May 25, 2012, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.


March 12, 2012

 Bentham, Jeremy (1748-1832). Izbrannyie sochinieniia Ieremii Bentama. Tom Pervyi. [Selected Works of Jeremy Bentham. Volume One. Introduction to the Bases of Morality and Legislation. Basic Principles of a Civil Code. Basic Principles of a Criminal Code], transl. A.N. Pypin & A.N. Nevedomskii. Preface by Iu. G. Zhukovskii. St. Petersburg, 1867. Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library

Jeremy Bentham, the noted jurist and legal philosopher, spent nearly all of 1786 in Russia, visiting his younger brother Samuel (1757-1831), who was in Russian service for more than two decades. The two brothers were unusually close, Jeremy supporting Samuel financially, morally, and intellectually. Samuel made important contributions to Russian industry, shipping, naval victories, and commerce. The two brothers corresponded frequently.

While in residence at the estate of Prince G.A. Potemkin (1739-1791) at Krichev in modern Belarus, Jeremy Bentham composed and sent back to London for printing his celebrated Defence of Usury (1787) and commenced work on his ideas for a modern penal institution, eventually published as his Panopticon (an outline of which appeared in 1790). The Benthams were close to the Russian Ambassador in London, S.R. Vorontsov (1744-1832), and the family of Admiral N.S. Mordvinov (1754-1845).

M.M. Speranskii and Emperor Alexander I were attracted by Bentham’s early writings in French on codification and invited Bentham’s secretary, Etienne Dumont (1759-1829), to St. Petersburg to supervise a translation of Bentham’s writings on codification into the Russian language (published in three volumes, 1805-1810, omitting only Bentham’s strictures on press censorship). Every major law reform in Russia through the end of the Imperial Period was attended, in one fashion or another, by a translation and publication of one of Bentham’s works.

The present volume contains Bentham’s classic treatise on codification. First published in 1803, the edition shown here appeared soon after the celebrated Russian judicial reforms of 1864, in a fresh translation and with additional materials added from the Collected Works of Bentham edited by Sir John Bowring (1792-1872) and the French versions of Dumont. Only volume one appeared.


See: Ian Christie, The Benthams in Russia: 1780-1791 (1993).

“Monuments of Imperial Russian Law,” curated by William E. Butler and Mike Widener, is on display Mar. 1 - May 25, 2012, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.


March 12, 2012

The post-Soviet era of Russian history has made the legacy of the pre-1917 era newly relevant in ways unimaginable. It is not merely a country recovering historical experience suppressed or distorted for ideological reasons during the Soviet regime, but a country seeking to modernize partly on the basis of its earlier legal legacy. A transition to the legal foundations of a market economy is happening before our eyes in Russia, partly an adaptation of foreign legal experience and institutions, partly the preservation and re-adaptation of those elements of Russian legal experience that are essential in the twenty-first century, partly the pioneering of new legal approaches to achieve a transition that is without precedent in human experience.

This exhibition contains principal landmarks of the pre-1917 era, drawing upon the riches of Yale University and augmented by a loans from the Harvard Law School Library and a private collection. So far as we can determine, this is the first occasion in the United States that an exhibition has been mounted on this topic. Wonderful exhibitions devoted to Russian relations with the west or to elements of Russian history generally have omitted law and the legal system.

The notes which follow situate each book in the fabric of Russian legal history. As a general observation, it may be observed that the systematization of legislation is among the larger contributions that Russian law has made to civilization. The story of that contribution is well told by the materials here.

In accordance with normal Russian practice, the relevant titles and other data are provided in Library of Congress transliteration, short form.

“Monuments of Imperial Russian Law,” curated by William E. Butler and Mike Widener, is on display Mar. 1 - May 25, 2012, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

March 12, 2012

Iaroslav I (c. 978-1054), Russkaia Pravda. [Bound with:] Ivan IV, the Terrible (1530-1584), Note on the Sudebnik of Tsar Ivan Vasil’evich. Russia, 18th century manuscript. Private Collection

Virtually all surviving documents from the Kievan period of early Russian and Ukrainian history are legal texts of one kind or another. The earliest are peace treaties concluded between Kievan Rus and Byzantium in or about 907, 911, 944, and 971. The supposition is compelling that the Slavic peoples inhabiting the lands of what became Kievan Rus had rules for interpersonal and interclan or intertribal behavior long before Kievan princes consolidated their authority.

The Russkaia Pravda (also known as Lex Russica) is the earliest surviving compilation of Russian laws. Whether it is a creative codification or a reduction of customary law to written form continues to be debated. So too does the extent to which the substance of the Russkaia Pravda, which contains striking parallels with aspects of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon law, was the result of mutual influence or an independent development.

No contemporary versions of the Russkaia Pravda survive; there are only three texts prior to the fifteenth century and ninety-two texts dating from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The traditional approach is to consider that there exist three versions of a single law (Russkaia Pravda, Expanded Pravda Russkaia, and Short Pravda Russkaia), but it is conceivable that each version may comprise an autonomous enactment. The initial version, believed to date from the reign of Iaroslav the Wise, began with the rules of blood feud, which the Expanded version relates was abolished by Iaroslav’s sons and replaced by a system of monetary compositions. Matters addressed were stealing, interest, custody of property, suits for money, shipwreck, beekeeping, succession, oaths, slavery, and ownership. The versions suggest that the Prince’s court played a minor role in prosecution and litigation. The system relied upon party initiative; there were no permanent judges, merely officials who presided over proceedings. There was no appeal, no systems of courts, no legal profession, no legal commentaries. Nor can we be certain of the territorial jurisdiction of the Russkaia Pravda.

In the manuscript exhibited here the Russkaia Pravda is accompanied by commentary on what has been called the first national Russian law code, the Sudebnik of 1497, here represented by an expanded and polished version from 1550. The Sudebniks are essentially manuals of procedure and to some extent of criminal law. The few articles devoted to civil law may reflect the inability of the compilers to consolidate satisfactorily the diversity of local rules. The extent to which the Sudebniks created new rules of procedure or embodied pre-existing patterns is much debated. The evidence of judgment charters prior to 1497 suggests that the transition to a vertical system of justice with a hierarchy of courts and judges was a gradual process rather than an innovation in 1497. The 1550 Sudebnik is known only through forty later copies, of which thirteen are of the sixteenth century. The text was adopted with the participation of the Boyar Duma in 1550 and confirmed by the Stoglav Assembly in 1551. Consisting of 99 or 100 articles, depending upon which copy is consulted, this document had no official title. The 1550 Sudebnik lay the foundations of a Russian administrative system at the central and local levels, reflecting the enhanced stature of the Tsar and the further centralization of power in Russia.

On exhibition is a previously unrecorded 18th-century manuscript of the short version of the Russkaia Pravda and the 1550 Sudebnik, with notes by V.N. Tatishchev (1686-1750), regarded by some as the first proper historian in Russia. He began editing the Russkaia Pravda in 1738, but it was published for the first time in Russia only in 1786, long after his death. Five other manuscript versions of the short version of the Russkaia Pravda are known with Tatishchev notes, all from the eighteenth century and all held by St. Petersburg institutions. The version exhibited here differs from the printed authoritative text in the numbering of clauses and in the precise text of the Tatishchev notes.

See: W.E. Butler, Russian Law (3d ed. 2009), Chapter 2; D.H. Kaiser, The Growth of Law in Medieval Russia (1980); D.H. Kaiser, The Laws of Rus’: Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries (1992).

“Monuments of Imperial Russian Law,” curated by William E. Butler and Mike Widener, is on display Mar. 1 - May 25, 2012, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

March 12, 2012

[Sobornoe ulozhenie]. [Moscow], 1649. Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library

Throughout Europe the period 1648 to 1650 was a watershed. During those years in Russia, two major law codes, unprecedented in scope and size, became the first printed law books in Russian history. Following the 1497 and 1550 Sudebniks, there were hundreds of supplemental enactments that circulated in manuscript, as did the Sudebniks themselves. Tsar Aleksei Mikkhailovich (1629-1676) summoned a Land Assembly in late 1648 and gave the delegates two months to prepare the Sobornoe ulozhenie, the most substantial and important achievement of medieval Russian law. The book has no title page; its name is acquired from the Assembly which produced it. The text is in Church Slavonic, the literary language of the time, later to be simplified in 1708 by Peter the Great, who introduced a civil script.

Comprising 967 articles divided haphazardly into 25 chapters, the Ulozhenie consolidated provisions drawn from the Russkaia Pravda, the Sudebniks, the Litovskii statut (Lithuanian Statute) of 1588, countless individual edicts, and introduced some new provisions. Representing the turning point in the transition from feudalism to absolutism in Russia, the Ulozhenie summarized the heritage of the medieval past and simultaneously became the point of departure for Imperial Russian codification. A Latin text was translated by Baron von Mayerburg and printed by him in 1661 (a manuscript Danish translation was prepared by Rasmus Ereboe in 1721 at Copenhagen).

Legal historians continue to debate the extent to which the Ulozhenie represented a reception of Polish-Lithuanian and even Byzantine law in Russia. It addresses sacrilege, deference to the Tsar, the Tsar’s household, forgery and counterfeiting, jewellers, goldsmiths, and coiners, legal procedure, trials of various classes of the population, oaths, land law, succession, land tax, serfdom, robbery, capital crimes, the Cossacks, and liquor licensing. Its severe criminal penalties attracted the attention of foreign observers. The gradual enserfment of the peasantry was confirmed and consolidated by the Ulozhenie, which prohibited peasants from leaving their landlords’ estates for any reason whatsoever.

Three states of the book exist. The print run was substantial, for all local offices and officials needed to be supplied. Printing enabled the Russian administrative apparatus, including the judges, to have for the first time a uniform official authoritative text in quantity of the Tsar’s commands.

See: Richard Hellie (transl. & ed.), The Muscovite Law Code (Ulozhenie) of 1649 (1988).

“Monuments of Imperial Russian Law,” curated by William E. Butler and Mike Widener, is on display Mar. 1 - May 25, 2012, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

March 12, 2012



Kormchaia Kniga [Book of the Pilot]. Moscow, 1650. Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library

Ecclesiastical jurisdiction remained intact under the 1649 Ulozhenie. The Russian Orthodox Church immediately set about producing a modern version of the Book of the Pilot. This was approved by an ecclesiastical council and printed in 1650 and, with revisions, again in 1653.

For the remainder of the Imperial era (and beyond in some territories where Russian Orthodoxy continued to prevail), this ecclesiastical “code” remained in force with minor modifications introduced in the late eighteenth century. Here were preserved tenets of Byzantine and medieval Russian law. In 1656 the Patriarch Nikon, acting through the Novgorod ecclesiastical court, ruled on the extent to which a widow’s dowry was liable for her late husband’s debts by applying the relevant provisions of the Ecloga preserved in the Book of the Pilot.


See: Ivan _u_ek, Korm?aja kniga: Studies on the Chief Code of Russian Canon Law (1964).


“Monuments of Imperial Russian Law,” curated by William E. Butler and Mike Widener, is on display Mar. 1 - May 25, 2012, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.


March 12, 2012

Zertsalo. Russia. ca. 1750-80. Russian Historical Museum, Moscow. Photograph by M. Kravtsova.

Peter the Great spent the majority of his years in power at war with his neighbors. His reforms were directed principally towards modernizing the structure of the Russian State, which had implications for Russian administrative law. He recognized the need for the continual systematization of legislation and appointed three commissions between 1700 and 1720 to attend to the matter. None progressed very far. Peter’s reforms of the State apparatus and of military and naval law gave him claim to the title of law reformer. The Russian government was reorganized with close account being taken of practices in Sweden and Prussia. In 1722 Peter established the Procuracy, which has endured to this day as a component of the Russian legal system. His Military Statute (1716) and Naval Statute (1720) both drew upon European models, including German, French, Swedish, Dutch, and English; these two statutes remained in force with minor modifications for more than a century and extended to certain civilian matters.

Peter’s enduring legacy to Russian law was a visual image of law and legal consciousness in the person of the Zertsalo, a trihedral object reproducing the text on each of its three sides of designated edicts issued between 1722 and 1724 on preserving civil rights, offenses in courts, and the importance of complying with State statutes. Atop the prism was placed a Russian crowned double-headed eagle, often removable.

The presence of the Zertsalo was required if a court was formally in session; in the presence of the Zertsalo, the court officials were considered to be performing their official duties. If the court moved on to unofficial matters or other events were held on court premises, the Zertsalo was to be taken from the room or the double-headed eagle was to be removed and carried out of the room. Penalties were established if these strictures were violated, the guilty official being subject to a fine and, after 1840, a reprimand. At least thirteen Zertsalos are known to survive today in Russian and Ukrainian museums – all different, often dramatically so.

See: W.E. Butler, “On the Formation of a Russian Legal Consciousness: the Zertsalo”, in Butler, Russia and the Law of Nations in Historical Perspective (2009).

“Monuments of Imperial Russian Law,” curated by William E. Butler and Mike Widener, is on display Mar. 1 - May 25, 2012, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.


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