G – Patterns of integration and transregional dynamics in and across empires

Inclusion and exclusion in the Russian law

Event Details

  • Date

    Thursday, 25 June - 13:00 – 15:00

  • Venue
  • Theme
    G – Patterns of integration and transregional dynamics in and across empires
  • Jane Burbank (New York University)
  • Ira Janis-Isokangas (University of Helsinki)
  • Stefan Kirmse (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient)
  • Nancy Kollmann (Stanford University)
  • Michel Tissier (University of Rennes 2)
  • Jane Burbank (New York University)


  • Nancy Kollmann
    "Inclusion in an “empire of difference”: peasants in Muscovite criminal law"

    "Inclusion in an “empire of difference”: peasants in Muscovite criminal law"

    Russian legal codes before the 1866 reforms – neither the most comprehensive relevant law, the 1649 Conciliar Law Code, nor the myriad decrees and codes that supplemented it through the eighteenth century -- did not consciously address exclusion and inclusion of specific groups. In fact, the Conciliar Law Code boldly declares that the law should be practiced equally for all subjects of the tsar. But in practice the “peasantry” in pre-reform Russia had no single identity nor legal treatment. As an “empire of difference,” Russia allowed its many subject peoples to maintain traditional legal institutions and practices below the high criminal law. Russian peasants were subject to the justice of the commune, Kazan Tatars to Muslim courts, Siberian natives to tribal tradition, Estonian peasants to Junker courts, and so on. These separate lower venues did not result from a conscious decision to exclude social groups from the body politic. Such a concept or even such terminology did not exist until at least the late eighteenth century and only weakly thereafter. This paper explores the degree to which the Ulozhenie’s claim to treat all equally in the law was fulfilled in legal practice, given the ethnic diversity of the realm. It explores criminal cases throughout the realm, as source records for local courts do not survive. It details the participation of peasants of many different ethnicities and legal statuses (landlord peasants, state peasants, etc.) as defendants, plaintiffs and witnesses in criminal trials into the eighteenth century. We conclude with consideration of Catherine II’s judicial reforms of 1775, which accorded space in lower courts for local traditions, languages and representatives, again a step towards inclusivity.
  • Michel Tissier
    Serfdom, property and legal thinking in the Russian empire: the emancipation of the 1860s and the compensation issue in a global context

    Serfdom, property and legal thinking in the Russian empire: the emancipation of the 1860s and the compensation issue in a global context

    In both British and French colonies, the abolition of slavery in the 19th century was implemented through a compensation of former slave-owners for the loss of their purported “property” over their former slaves. In rural Russia, the emancipation of the so-called “serfs” was apparently dealt with differently. The compensation issue was addressed mostly with regard to the tenure of the land. Yet there has been a controversy among scholars who study the “abolition of serfdom” in the Russian empire. Some consider, against the others, that the Russian serf-owners were in fact compensated for having lost the property over the person of “their” serfs. Here we show that the preparation of the 1861 act of emancipation and its aftermath already included such a conflict of interpretations, with relationship to other “colonial” or “continental” experiences and ways of seeing the persons of slaves and serfs. Consequently, we relate this conflict to the contested and elusive notion of “property” that characterized Russian legal discourse from the beginning of the 19th century to the 1860s, and to the conditions under which this legal discourse was then produced.
  • Jane Burbank
    The majority as other: the formulation of "peasant" courts in imperial Russia

    The majority as other: the formulation of "peasant" courts in imperial Russia

    The establishment of the "township" courts of imperial Russia in 1861 was de facto a legalization of a separate judicial instance for Russia's enormous peasant population. The new "peasant" courts were a byproduct of the "emancipation" of 1861: something had to replace the many functions performed by noble landlords for "their" peasants. There was a precedent for this reform – the judicial institutions established in the 1830s for Russia's "state" peasants, whose landlord was not a noble but the state itself. And after 1861 the township courts were reformed again, most conspicuously in 1889. These remakes of the law "for" the peasants illuminate issues of exclusion/exclusion, minority/majority in the Russian empire. Viewed quantitatively on the basis of their legal status (estate), peasants were the "majority" – the vast majority – of the empire's population. Yet Russia's elites, themselves mostly of (minority) noble status, conceived of peasants as "others," who required distinctive legal treatment. This paper examines the legislation on the "peasant" courts – the kinds of violations that could be adjudicated, the limits set on sums sued for in civil cases, the punishments that could be assigned in criminal cases, the procedures to be followed, the qualifications of judges – in an effort to uncover the conceptualization of "otherness" expressed and enacted in Russian law.


The Russian state has always addressed a composite population; defining groups (minorities or majorities) and assigning them differentiated rights has been a fundament of Russian law for centuries. This panel considers, in different case settings, how rights – to justice, to property, to power – have been conceived and allocated in Russia from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Among our concerns is the question of how Russia's rulers regarded the people they governed. Did a notion of minority develop in an imperial polity where no majority ruled? Or were there other ways of thinking about differences in the population? To address this question, the panel will take up the issue of the peasantry – a "majority" in the numerical sense, but some would argue, treated as an "other" by the empire's rulers. We will consider two examples of inclusion/exclusion of the interests and needs of peasants: the "emancipation" of 1861 and the laws applied to the separate local ("peasant") courts over the subsequent fifty years. A third paper puts these major reforms into a long term context, looking back at the legal condition of Muscovite subjects.