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4. The Muscovite Sudebniki

Nothing is known about the origins of the Sudebnik of 1497. Civil disorders were a frequent reason for the compilation of law in Russia, but almost certainly not that time. A number of rulers liked to see themselves as latter-day Constantines or Justinians, but there is no evidence that the declining Ivan III could be included in those numbers. All we know is that the document is extant and that it initiated certain threads which were to be central in Middle Muscovite law, such as serfdom and the claim that officials could not make law: when the law did not give a precise solution to a precise problem, the case had to be sent to Moscow for resolution. We must also recall that there is only one copy extant of the 1497 Sudebnik, where as many pre-1550 copies of the Russkaia pravda are still available. The number of surviving texts is assumed to correspond to the use of the relative law codes.

The compiler (someone in the circle of Fedor Vasil’evich Kuritsyn) of the code borrowed eleven of its articles from the Pskov Judicial Charter, two from the Russkaia pravda, and a dozen of them from grand-princely orders to provincial governors working on three-year rotations in the ‘feeding’ system (kormlenie).

The 1550 Sudebnik (two-thirds of which originated in the 1497 code) does not have anyone’s signature on it, but the assumption is that it was one of the fruits of attempts to restore order after the chaos of Ivan IV’s minority, which included uprisings inMoscow.Around1550 Ivan’s inner kitchen cabinet (known in the literature as ‘the chosen council’) instituted a number of reforms, both military and judicial. The 100-article Sudebnik was one of the reforms. Another seventy-three supplemental articles were added between 1550 and 1607. These 173 articles were the basis of Russian law until the Ulozhenie (Law Code) of 1649, supplemented by the chancelleries’ scroll records of their own practices.

The Sudebniki were primarily court handbooks. Thus it is not surprising that fees which could be charged for judicial services were among their major concern, as well as who those officials were who were entitled to collect the fees. Procedures were prescribed, and almost incidentally the delicts which were subject to the prince’s jurisdiction.

The years 1497–1606 witnessed as much change in Russian local administration as any other period one can think of. In the fifteenth century the prince’s agent in any locale was his governor (voevoda, namestnik) to govern a precise area on rotation for periods of one to three years. The governor was expected to take in sufficient revenue (called ‘feeding’ – kormlenie) to allow him to support himself for another period in Moscow, where he probably served in the cavalry. Voevoda-justice was a dyadic process supreme. The governor went to his assignment and took his slaves with him. Depending on his personal energy level, each governor apportioned the duties between himself and his slaves. There are transcripts extant in which all the people in a trial were slaves: the judge, the plaintiff and the accused. To simplify, by 1556 the Moscow-sent governor was phased out, in favour of locally elected officials who were to manage criminal and civil cases. This was not total decentralisation because Moscow demanded that the elected officials report to the capital immediately upon election and then required them to submit records of their practice either annually or biannually. This was how the Poles found the situation when they arrived in 1606. The 1589 Sudebnik still mentioned the voevoda for reasons that no one comprehends.

Also for reasons no one comprehends, the Sudebniki prohibited bribe-taking.

Earlier that form of revenue raising was just regulated. The hordes of officials had their fees spelled out for almost anything imaginable – for holding of trials, for writing and sealing documents, for travelling on foot and on horseback to perform their missions (such as delivering summonses or bringing someone in for trial); for registering loans and slaves.

The Sudebniki also prescribed the percentage of suits to be turned over to the court as well as a host of other fees, all of which were to assure that those carrying out Middle Muscovite law would not go hungry.

As mentioned earlier,Russian law especially worried about ‘the law’s delay’.

Expeditious resolution of conflicts and payment of the required fees was almost always upper most in the oral society of 1497,66 which was becoming increasingly literate after 1550. Delaying the process, which by 1550 had become triadic, was something the state (at least in theory) would not tolerate.

The most elemental point of the Sudebniki was that judges in no way could make law, by interpretation, by analogy, by ‘flexibility’ or any other means.

The judge had to resolve the case in front of him on the basis of what was presented at trial. Any other case had to be sent to Moscow for resolution.

The degree of centralisation called for in 1550 is extraordinary: many cases had to be sent to Moscow for final resolution. The ‘Agapetus state’ (in which the sovereign believed he was God’s vicegerent on earth and most of his subjects concurred in that belief ) could not tolerate norms being established anywhere other than in Moscow. In the eighteenth century, this led to a clogging of the Russian courts, which was only undone by Alexander II’s famous Judicial Reform of 1864.

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