Monuments of Imperial Russian Law: The Nakaz in English

Michael Widener

[Catherine II (1729-1796), Empress of Russia]. The Grand Instructions to the Commissioners Appointed to Frame a New Code of Laws for the Russian Empire. London: T. Jeffreys, 1768. Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library

The enduring contribution of Catherine II (1729-1796) to Russian law commenced in 1767, when Catherine herself composed a new law code, the Nakaz, mostly in the French language with extensive borrowings from leading Enlightenment thinkers, notably Beccaria, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. Although the Nakaz was never enacted, its translations into the major European tongues and issuance in more than twenty editions made the Nakaz the single piece of Russian legislative material best known abroad. It secured for Catherine the encomium “the Great”.

Two contemporary English translations are known of the Nakaz. Shown here is the version published at London in 1768 by Mikhail Tatishchev, of whom little is known except that he was attached to the Russian Embassy in London. The second is a manuscript held by the Library of Congress, acquired in 1942 from the Collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), one of the foremost bibliophiles of all time. The manuscript was originally owned and perhaps commissioned (or even translated) by Sir George Earl Macartney, Ambassador to the Court of St. Petersburg. Macartney returned to England two months before Catherine actually convened her Great Commission, but the text of her draft was circulating in Europe by early Spring 1767. Jeremy Bentham owned a copy of this edition.

See: Both the Tatishchev and Macartney/Phillipps versions are reprinted in W E. Butler & V. A. Tomsinov (eds.), The Nakaz of Catherine the Great: Collected Texts (2010).

“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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