Introduction to the Russkaia Pravda and the Church Statutes

[Note:  Much of the material presented here is based on Daniel H. Kaiser, The Growth of the Law in Medieval Russia (Princeton, 1980), esp. Ch. 2.   Kaiser is the translator and editor of the texts to which you are linked via the Web; his translations have appeared, along with those of other legal texts, in The Laws of Rus'--Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries, tr. and ed. Daniel H. Kaiser; Foreword by Richard Hellie (Salt Lake City, 1992).  Hellie's foreword to the latter provides a good quick overview of Russian law down to the time of Peter the Great.]

Russkaia Pravda

We may best leave the Russian terms untranslated, but the title of the earliest "Russian" law codes might be rendered as the "Law of the Rus'."   However, this does not of itself answer to everyone's satisfaction a fundamental question:  Whose law is it?  As Kaiser points out, the Russkaia Pravda "has been described alternately as a concordance of Russian princely law or a collection of native customary law."    The title, and, I would argue, much of the contents would seem to point to the former.  While one might dispute the underlying basis for the codes, there can be little question but that they were written down at the behest or with the approval of the early Rus' princes and served to defend, in the first interest, their interests.  When this process of writing down the law started has also been debated, with some scholars insisting that there must have been some written laws prior to the eleventh century.  However, the evidence for much of any kind of writing in Rus' before the eleventh century is slim at best.   Although the earliest physical copies of any version of the Pravda date only from the late thirteenth century, as Kaiser suggests, there is no plausible reason to doubt that the Short Pravda was written down during the eleventh century.  The text would suggest we really should divide it into two parts, one connected with prince Iaroslav, and the revised and enlarged version with his sons.  The traditional date for the first stage is the early eleventh century (perhaps when Iaroslav was still prince in Novgorod) and the generally accepted date for the revised version is 1072.  In other words, the two parts of what is called the Short Pravda do give some sense of legal evolution over the course of the eleventh century.  The Expanded Pravda likely existed in its present form by the beginning of the thirteenth century (in other words, prior to the Mongol invasion).  It takes as its basis the Short Pravda and adds another 80 articles, some of  of which are presumed to reflect legislation by Kievan Prince Vladimir Monomakh in or soon after 1113, when he assumed the throne in already troubled time, and other parts of which date to later in the twelfth century.  While the subject is not of immediate concern for our study of Kievan Rus', it is worth noting that there are many copies of the Expanded Pravda from later centuries, and there is good reason to believe that at least some of its norms may have been followed even down to the end of the Muscovite period.

In reading the texts, one should keep in mind the fact that they seem to reflect at least three chronological stages in the evolution of the law.  Thus, the codes may tell us something about changes in the concerns of the prince and the problems of the society which he attempted to rule.  One should also pay close attention to the issue of what is covered, and what is not in the codes.  Clearly there were legal matters which were left to society at large, and, as an examination of the Church Statutes would suggest, there were very important matters specified as being under the jurisdiction of the Church.  Kaiser develops a strong argument for the idea that the role of princely legal "administration" may have been very limited in the Kievan period and for a substantial time thereafter.  It is only when we get to the fifteenth century that we can see much more complex legal institutions and procedures developing, enshrined (among other places) in the Law Code (Sudebnik) of 1497.  A problem to ponder is the question of the degree to which any written law code was either necessary or could have had much impact on "ordinary people" in the early centuries of the history of Rus'.  If it likely did not, then how were legal matters to be addressed in society?

The Church Statutes

Whether these laws in fact can be attributed to Princes Vladimir and his son, Iaroslav, is debatable.  Their earliest copies are even later than those of Russkaia Pravda, separated by a minimum of some three centuries from the time of the supposedly oldest statute, that of Vladimir.  It is clear that they were used and important beginning in the fourteenth century, in a period when the Church seems to have been trying consciously to buttress its legal rights.  We can be fairly certain that something like at least parts of these laws may have existed in the Kievan period, since Vladimir is said to have decreed measures providing for a tithe to support the church and there would logically have been some kind of regulation about church jurisdiction over clergy if not over larger segments of the population.  It would not be unreasonable to assume that the church even at an early time might have been given explicit power to deal with "morals offenses" and other matters pertaining to the family, although one then needs to ponder to what degree any of this likely could have influenced customary norms of the population at large.  The more detailed provisions on these matters contained in the statute attributed to Iaroslav in some cases seem to reflect an acquaintance with Byzantine norms; that fact too raises some interesting questions for us in regard to the impact of Byzantine culture in medieval Rus'.  Byzantium, after all, was the repository of Roman law as well as extensive legal definition of the powers of the Church.    The question of the degree to which Roman Law actually became known in Russia was one important topic in the nineteenth-century debates between the "Slavophiles" and "Westernizers" regarding Russia's cultural achievements and values.   The apparent minimal influence of Roman Law was to the former a virtue, whereas their Westernizer opponents saw this as one indication of Russia's "backwardness" vis-a-vis the West.