Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

The Lawgiver of Russia

The Russia of the year 1000 lay deep in the age of barbarism. Vladimir had made it Christian in name, but it was far from Christian in thought or deed. It was a land without fixed laws, without settled government, without schools, without civilized customs, but with abundance of ignorance, cruelty, and superstition.

It was strangely made up. In the north lay the great commercial city of Novgorod, which, though governed by princes of the house of Rurik, was a republic in form and in fact. It possessed its popular assembly, of which every citizen was a member with full right to vote, and at whose meetings the prince was not permitted to appear. The sound of a famous bell, the Vetchevoy, called the people together, to decide on questions of peace and war, or to elect magistrates, and sometimes the bishop, or even the prince. The prince had to swear to carry out the ancient laws of the republic and not attempt to lay taxes on the citizens or to interfere with their trade. They made him gifts, but paid him no taxes. They decided how many hours he should give to pleasure and how many to business; and they expelled some of their princes who thought themselves beyond the power of the laws.

It seems strange that the absolute Russia of to-day should then have possessed one of the freest of the cities of Europe. Novgorod was not only a city, it was a state. The provinces far and wide around were subject to it, and governed by its prince, who had in them an authority much greater than he possessed over the proud civic merchants and money lords.

In the south, on the contrary, lay the great imperial city of Kief, the capital of the realm, and the seat of a government as arbitrary as that of Novgorod was free. Here dwelt the grand prince as an irresponsible autocrat, making his will the law, and forcing all the provinces, even haughty Novgorod, to pay a tax which bore the slavish title of tribute. Here none could vote, no assembly of citizens ever met, and the only restraint on the prince was that of his warlike and turbulent nobles, who often forced him to yield to their wishes. The government was a drifting rather than a settled one. It had no anchors out, but was moved about at the whim of the prince and his unruly lords.

Under these two forms of government lay still a third. Rural Russia was organized on a democratic principle which still prevails throughout that broad land. This is the principle of the Mir, or village community, which most of the people of the earth once possessed, but which has everywhere passed away except in Russia and India. It is the principle of the commune, of public instead of private property. The land of a Russian village belongs to the people as a whole, not to individuals. It is divided up among them for tillage, but no man can claim the fields he tills as his own, and for thousands of years what is known as communism has prevailed on Russian soil.

The government of the village is purely democratic. All the people meet and vote for their village magistrate, who decides, with the aid of a council of the elders, all the questions which arise within its confines, one of them being the division of the land. Thus at bottom Russia is a field sown thick with little communistic republics, though at top it is a despotism. The government of Novgorod doubtless grew out of that of the village. The republican city has long since passed away, but the seed of democracy remains planted deeply in the village community.

All this is preliminary to the story of the Russian lawgiver and his laws, which we have set out to tell. This famous person was no other than that Yaroslaf, prince of Novgorod, and son of Vladimir the Great, whose refusal to pay tribute had caused his father to die of grief.

Yaroslaf was the fifth able ruler of the dynasty of Rurik. The story of his young life resembles that of his father. He found his brother strong and threatening, and designed to fly from Novgorod and join the Varangians as a viking lord, as his father had done before him. But the Novgorodians proved his friends, destroyed the ships that were to carry him away, and provided him with money to raise a new army. With this he defeated his base brother, who had already killed or driven into exile all their other brothers. The result was that Yaroslof, like his father, became sovereign of all Russia.

But though this new grand prince extended his dominions by the sword, it was not as a soldier, but as a legislator, that he won fame. His genius was not shown on the field of battle, but in the legislative council, and Russia reveres Yaroslaf the Wise as its first maker of laws.

The free institutions of Novgorod, of which we have spoken, were by him sustained and strengthened. Many new cities were founded under his beneficent rule. Schools were widely established, in one of which three hundred of the youth of Novgorod were educated. A throng of Greek priests were invited into the land, since there were none of Russian birth to whom he could confide the duty of teaching the young. He gave toleration to the idolaters who still existed, and when the people of Suzdal were about to massacre some hapless women whom they accused of having brought on a famine by sorcery, he stayed their hands and saved the poor victims from death. The Russian Church owed its first national foundation to him, for he declared that the bishops of the land should no longer depend for appointment on the Patriarch of Constantinople.

There are no startling or dramatic stories to be told about Yaroslaf. The heroes of peace are not the men who make the world's dramas. But it is pleasant, after a season spent with princes who lived for war and revenge, and who even made war to obtain baptism, to rest awhile under the green boughs and beside the pleasant waters of a reign that became famous for the triumphs of peace.

Under Yaroslaf Russia united itself by ties of blood to Western Europe. His sons married Greek, German, and English princesses; his sister became queen of Poland; his three daughters were queens of Norway, Hungary, and France. Scandinavian in origin, the dynasty of Rurik was reaching out hands of brotherhood towards its kinsmen in the West.

But it is as a law-maker that Yaroslaf is chiefly known. Before his time the empire had no fixed code of laws. To say that it was without law would not be correct. Every people, however ignorant, has its laws of custom, unwritten edicts, the birth of the ages, which have grown up stage by stage, and which are only slowly outgrown as the tribe develops into the nation.

Russia had, besides Novgorod, other commercial cities, with republican institutions. Kief was certainly not without law. And the many tribes of hunters, shepherds, and farmers must have had their legal customs. But with all this there was no code for the empire, no body of written laws. The first of these was prepared about 1018 by Yaroslaf, for Novgorod alone, but in time became the law of all the land. This early code of Russian law is a remarkable one, and goes farther than history at large in teaching us the degree of civilization of Russia at that date.

In connection with it the chronicles tell a curious story. In 1018, we are told, Novgorod, having grown weary of the insults and oppression of its Varangian lords and warriors, killed them all. Angry at this, Yaroslaf enticed the leading Novgorodians into his palace and slaughtered them in reprisal. But at this critical interval, when his guards were slain and his subjects in rebellion, he found himself threatened by his ambitious brother. In despair he turned to the Novgorodians and begged with tears for pardon and assistance. They forgave and aided him, and by their help made him sovereign of the empire.

How far this is true it is impossible to say, but the code of Yaroslaf was promulgated at that date, and the rights given to Novgorod showed that its people held the reins of power. It confirmed the city in the ancient liberties of which we have already spoken, giving it a freedom which no other city of its time surpassed. And it laid down a series of laws for the people at large which seem very curious in this enlightened age. It must suffice to give the leading features of this ancient code.

It began by sustaining the right of private vengeance. The law was for the weak alone, the strong being left to avenge their own wrongs. The punishment of crime was provided for by judicial combats, which the law did not even regulate. Every strong man was a law unto himself.

Where no avengers of crime appeared, murder was to be settled by fines. For the murder of a boyar eighty grivnas were to be paid, and forty for the murder of a free Russian, but only half as much if the victim was a woman. Here we have a standard of value for the women of that age.

Nothing was paid into the treasury for the murder of a slave, but his master had to be paid his value, unless he had been slain for insulting a freeman. His value was reckoned according to his occupation, and ranged from twelve to five grivnas.

If it be asked what was the value of a grivna, it may be said that at that time there was little coined money, perhaps none at all, in Russia. Gold and silver were circulated by weight, and the common currency was composed of pieces of skin, called kuni. A grivna was a certain number of kunis equal in value to half a pound of silver, but the kuni often varied in value.

All prisoners of war and all persons bought from foreigners were condemned to perpetual slavery. Others became slaves for limited periods,—freemen who married slaves, insolvent debtors, servants out of employment, and various other classes. As the legal interest of money was forty percent, the enslavement of debtors must have been very common, and Russia was even then largely a land of slaves.

The loss of a limb was fined almost as severely as that of a life. To pluck out part of the beard cost four times as much as to cut off a finger, and insults in general were fined four times as heavily as wounds. Horse-stealing was punished by slavery. In discovering the guilty the ordeals of red-hot iron and boiling water were in use, as in the countries of the West.

There were three classes in the nation,—slaves, freemen, and boyars, or nobles, the last being probably the descendants of Rurik's warriors. The prince was the heir of all citizens who died without male children, except of boyars and the officers of his guard.

These laws, which were little more primitive than those of Western Europe at the same period, seem never to have imposed corporal punishment for crime. Injury was made good by cash, except in the case of the combat. The fines went to the lord or prince, and were one of his means of support, the other being tribute from his estates. No provision for taxation was made. The mark of dependence on the prince was military service, the lord, as in the feudal West, being obliged to provide his own arms, provisions, and mounted followers.

Judges there were, who travelled on circuits, and who impanelled twelve respectable jurors, sworn to give just verdicts. There are several laws extending protection to property, fixed and movable, which seem specially framed for the merchants of Novgorod.

Such are the leading features of the code of Yaroslaf. The franchises granted the Novgorodians, which for four centuries gave them the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," form part of it, Crude as are many of its provisions, it forms a vital starting-point, that in which Russia first came under definite in place of indefinite law. And the bringing about of this important change is the glory of Yaroslaf the Wise.