Monuments of Imperial Russian Law: 19th-Century Law Reform

Wortman, Richard S. The Development of a Russian Legal Consciousness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976). Lillian Goldman Law Library

The period 1864 to 1917 is widely known as “The Golden Age” of Russian law and the Russian legal profession. The reforms of the Russian judiciary and establishment of the “Advokatura” (the professional society of legal professionals who represented litigants) were perceived to be the principal reasons for this “Golden Age”.

Wortman’s study (recently translated into Russian) fundamentally altered our perception of these legal reforms. Doubting that a “Golden Age” could appear spontaneously and suddenly, he persuasively traced the reforms back to the professionalization of the Russian civil service under Alexander I, the foundation of law faculties in other urban centers besides Moscow (St. Petersburg, Kiev, Kazan, and others), the formation of a cadre of Russian jurists gradually appointed to administrative, judicial, and academic posts, the inclination of these jurists to regard law as an independent source of authority, the codification of Russian legislation, the publication of treatises and textbooks based on positive Russian law (rather than natural law), and the gradual emergence of an authentic Russian jurisprudence.

For Wortman the judicial reforms of 1864 were not the inexplicable commencement of a Golden Age, but the ultimate culmination of institutional modernization and the happy confluence of personalities. In due course these institutions, and the sense of legal consciousness which they encouraged, proved to be incompatible with the Russian brand of autocratic absolutism and contributed to the appearance of a constitutional monarchy in 1906.

“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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