Necessity is the mother of invention.
Add a touch of the written word, a political crisis and voila! – a code of law is born to a new nation!
Here's how it happened.
The Russians (aka "skavs") were overrun by Viking invaders led by Rurik (also "Riurik") in about 862.
By the 900s, all Russian leaders were vikings themselves or descendants, and surrounded themselves with a core of Viking warriors, known as Varangian (Russian for Viking).
By the 900s, Russia was being forged from Kiev, under the rule of Vladimir I (980-1015) himself Viking and a descendant of Rurik. He managed a growing set of states in a loose Russian federation.
The law was a mess of custom, both Russian and Viking, with deadly family blood and clan feuds running rampant. Peace and order, even by Viking standards, was haphazard.
Just at this time, written language had arrived from the South and had taken hold within Russian society, firmly entrenched by an informal network of local monks (because of their writing prowess, they were called scribes). Vladimir had made Christianity the official religion of his Kiev kingdom in 988 and with it, came the monks.
To the oldest of Vladimir’s four sons, Iaroslav (also spelled "Yaroslav", who was partly crippled - pictured), went the important territory of Novgorod, to govern for his father.
By 1012, Iaroslav was concerned that he may have been usurped by his younger brother as the heir apparent to the Kiev throne. He seized upon a disagreement that came from the citizens of Novgorod and stopped their annual tribute to Kiev.
As Vladimir I proclaimed war against his son, Iaroslav did not think the Novgorod army was sufficient and he appealed to Scandanavia and enlisted Viking mercenaries.
The latter were, well, Vikings; violent and unruly. They did not mix well with the slightly more sophisticated Novgorods, who rioted and killed many of the foreign mercenaries. This did not sit well with Iaroslav, himself of Viking descent (he later married the daughter of the King of Sweden).
Just as Iaroslav retaliated by having several prominent Novgorods killed, he received the news not only of his father’s death, but also that his brother Sviatopolk had killed his two other brothers, and had ascended by force to Vladimir’s vacant throne.
Iaroslav knew he had to strike fast. Promising to sort out their dispute later, he rallied his army, Novgorods and Vikings alike, and they defeated Sviatopolk.
In 1016, in the aftermath of victory, Iaroslav responded to the still festering discord between Novgorods and Vikings – and now including the defeated Kievians - by contriving a code of law, which has become known as the Pravda.
According to the preamble of Iaroslav’s new Pravda Code:
"(Iaroslav) ... began to distribute pay to his troops ... and he dismissed them all to their homes; and he gave them a code and wrote down a law saying to them: live according to this charter, as I have written it for you and observe it."
The primary purpose of the Pravda was to re-establish peace and order and especially to stop blood feuds, to which were succumbing too many of the young and ablest warriors.
The Pravda was unique in two ways. First, it limited the degree of relative for a person to exercise vigilante justice and directly avenge a murder. This "innovation", coming almost 1,500 years after other law codes had addressed the anarchy created by blood feuds, merely shows the relative isolation of Kiev from other centers of civilization.
Secondly, it set out the financial compensation payable to the family of the victim, a wergeld.
According to the Pravda, the only persons entitled to avenge homicide were a brother, son, father or nephew of the victim.
If no such qualified avenger was available, the murderer had to pay a wergeld to the victim.
According to the Pravda, crimes such as pulling out or shaving a man’s beard or moustache, or hitting a man with the hilt or sheath of a sword required a compensation of 12 grivna. But cutting off another’s finger: only 3 grivnas.
The Pravda also instituted a jury of twelve men (izvod or svod) to be convened to resolve contract and debt disputes, or when assets went missing and were later discovered in the possession of another.
According to the Pravda, if the old owner came across his lost or stolen property within his clan or community, he could simply take it back. If the lost property was located in another community, he could not just take it but had to summons the new owner to attend the izvod to explain how he came about the property. The izbod would then hear both sides and decide as to who owns the disputed property, based on the facts or fairness.
Iaroslav’s ancestors later refined the Pravda by eliminating the right to vigilante justice altogether and replacing it with a scale of fines for murder, the highest fines for the killing of royal councilors, messengers, farm managers and nurses.
According to the Encyclopedia of the Ukraine, the "expanded" Pravda held that:
"If the criminal could not be identified, responsibility for murder was placed on the community in whose territory the crime occurred. Besides compensation to the victim, a state fine was imposed for assault and insult. Serious crimes, such as horse stealing, robbery, and arson, were punished by banishment and seizure.
The Russkaia Pravda also contained a number of very clear laws on civil issues, such as loans, interest, land disputes, and wills, and on procedural matters, such as witness testimony, oaths, and ordeal.
Many of the unwritten Russian or Kievian legal customs pre-1016 found their way into the Pravda, such as provisions setting out the punishment or compensation for hitting with a stick or a cup, hiding another’s slave, killing a thief, damaging a person’s spear or shield, and riding another’s horse without his permission.
Copies of the text of the 1016 Pravda – only some 850 words - was discovered by Russian historians in 1738 and now named the Russkaia Pravda. The original has never been found but a further hundred copies have since been uncovered. There seems to have been a further expanded version issued in about 1282, which includes the original but another 2,500 words.
It may not have been the first charter but it was set to writing for the first time. Widely distributed and followed throughout the emerging Russian empire, the Pravda gave the law a strong heartbeat long after Kiev had fallen from the top of the Russian political pedastal. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia says of the Pravda Russkaya that it:
"... was to serve Russian law-makers as a source and model for centuries to come."
As for Iaroslav, who delivered Pravda (which also means "truth"), history re-christianed him. He was no longer Iaroslav the Lame. He became Iaroslav the Wise.
In 1912, the term Pravda was taken by a then-fledging Bolshevik newspapr and later, the national newspaper of the communist Soviet Union.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING:
- Brown, A., and others, editors, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia (Cambridge: Cabridge University Press, 1994), page 73.
- Butler, W., Soviet Law (London: Butterworths, 1988), pp. 10-13.
- Duhaime, Lloyd, Duhaime's Timetable of World Legal History and the Law's Hall of Fame
- Duhaime, Lloyd, The Russian Ulozhenie (Civil Code) of 1649
- Feldbruge, F., The Law’s Beginnings (Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2003), pages 93-113
- Government of Russia, Russian Pravda, at russia.rin.ru/guide_e/2/1/2.html
- Iaroslav The Wise painting, painter unknown, published at pryahi.indeep.ru/history/elizaveta.html
- Millar, J., Encyclopedia of Russian History (London: Thomson-Gale, 2004), pages 1702-1703.
- Minnesota State University, Kievan Rus at mnsu.edu/emuseum/history/russia/kievanrus.html
- Nestor (monk), The Primary Chronicle, aka Tale of Bygone Years or Nestor’s Chronicle, 1113.
- The Russian Pravda, online at dur.ac.uk/a.k.harrington/russprav.html
- University of Alberta, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine at encyclopediaofukraine.com/info.asp