The Lawful Empire. Legal Change and Cultural Diversity in Late Tsarist Russia

Kirmse, Stefan B.
XIV, 341 S.
£ 75.00
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Michel Tissier, Université Rennes 2

Stefan B. Kirmse’s monograph The Lawful Empire focuses on two apparently peripheral regions of the Russian Empire, Crimea and Kazan Province, in the period from the mid-1860s to the 1880s/early 1890s. The “lawful empire” is how the author describes the new order of things resulting from the Great Reforms undertaken by Emperor Alexander II in the late 1850s and 1860s. Following the interpretation advanced by the Russian historian Boris Mironov, the author defines this “lawful empire” as “a state in which the law became the sole determinant of ‘crime’ and a state in which all the rights that had been granted to the populace were vigilantly protected in ever more sophisticated state institutions” (p. 29). For Kirmse, the main reform at stake is the judicial reform of 1864, which proclaimed new principles for the execution of justice, such as public trials, separation of the courts from the administration, independent judges, and equality of all subjects before the new courts. The new circuit courts and judicial chambers (appellate courts) were at first instituted mainly in the empire’s core regions but were later extended to less central territories. These new courts were established quickly in both Crimea (1869) and Kazan Province (1870), where the majority of the local population were non-Russians and/or non-Christians, groups often deemed to be living on the fringes of Russian society. Both regions were peopled by Muslim Tatars as well as Tatars converted to Orthodoxy, together with not only Orthodox Russians but also other populations of diverse ethnic origins and faiths.

By integrating the history of groups defined by Kirmse as “minorities” (pp. 15–16) into the study of the reformed legal system, the book substantially adds to the literature on the reform, its implementation, and its consequences.1 Through the lens of “legal culture” (in reality subsuming a plurality of coexisting legal cultures), the author intends to show “the way in which the law was conceived and lived” (p. 66) by ordinary subjects in the post-reform era. Thanks to his careful presentation of primary sources, including both judicial materials and other sources such as the local press, readers understand that a fair evaluation of the new courts’ performance must consider the multiplicity of cases they were dealing with, both criminal and civil, and the diversity of “citizens” litigating before them. As a rule, “state courts” and “state law” were not the only resources available to Muslim Tatars. Although the options were narrower in Crimea and Kazan Province than in many other regions which were more recently incorporated into the empire, Muslim Tatars could bring many of the legal cases in which they were involved before specific bodies and dignitaries associated with their communities. Kirmse shows, however, that the new state courts became a resource that Muslim subjects were keen to use in defending their rights and interests, including in cases where they were litigating against one another (pp. 205–210).

Thus, the book questions the notion that the imperial legal order was fundamentally oriented to the management and maintenance of the empire’s ethnic and confessional diversity, a notion summed up under the concept of “legal pluralism.” Without denying the validity of this concept, while still insisting on the banality of the phenomenon it refers to, the author puts forward something more interesting: legal pluralism must be contextualized and qualified. The challenge is to clarify how legal pluralism worked in the 19th century Russian Empire and how it evolved following the 1864 judicial reform. The introduction and first chapter present the author’s general perspective on this issue in dialogue with the historiography on the Russian Empire as well as with the field of comparative legal studies. Chapter 2 describes the situation in Crimea and Kazan Province in the mid-19th century, explaining the method of rule in these regions, the characteristics of the Muslim Tatar population by comparison with other groups, and the economic and demographic trajectories in both regions. Chapters 3-7 then present the mass of historical material gathered by the author concerning the implementation of the justice reform, the functioning of the new courts, and the Muslim Tatar population’s reliance upon the courts.

The author explains how the justice reform was discussed and dealt with by diverse groups and actors. He shows how provincial society, with its tsarist officials and local elites, contributed to the new order of things in ways quite similar to the central provinces. The book is nonetheless very precise in its presentation of local characteristics. Unsurprisingly, the sources over-represent the “Russian” (and often official) point of view. Kirmse uses them with care, aware of the biases that they may introduce. Central to his approach is the notion of “accommodation,” a way of describing, “beyond dichotomies of collaboration and resistance” (p. 292), the widespread behaviors of very different groups and actors, be they officials, “educated” Russians, or members of the Muslim Tatar “masses.” Regarding the Russian imperial governance, the book demonstrates multiple coexisting and contrasting tendencies. It “highlights ambiguity throughout” (p. 73), not taking for granted the 1864 statement proclaiming the “equality” of the empire’s subjects before the courts.

Less convincing, however, is the author’s reliance on the notion of “legal unification” (pp. 2, 58–59, 73, 290-291, 293) to describe how legal “pluralism evolve[d] over time” (p. 66) in the Russian Empire. Kirmse acknowledges that “legal unification was never completed in the Russian Empire,” but contends that “it made substantial headway after the 1860s” (p. 73). His study suggests all that such a path would have entailed for the imperial regime, if in fact such a goal had been contemplated. There were indeed attempts at furthering the integration of particular legal subsystems existing in the empire2 and at centralizing their supervision (for instance, through codification, conceived of as a sort of rationalization, or at least compilation, of rulings: see pp. 23, 67, 73). Yet there was no plan for achieving “legal unification,” nor even an official consistent approach for dealing with the empire’s legal diversity. In many legal matters, particularly in matters of private law regarding family and succession, the regime was far less able and willing to intervene than in other aspects of local life, such as regulation of the press or supervision over educational institutions. Nor can it be said that legal unification was the unintended result of late imperial policies. The empire’s continued expansion and the particular legal challenges it faced in incorporating newly conquered territories and populations (from Poland and Finland, to the Caucasus, to Central and Eastern Asia), along with its internal political and cultural dynamics (particularistic movements were more assertive than ever during the 1905 revolution3 and the Great War), retained its legal heterogeneity.

Kirmse argues that we must consider the “power struggles” in which legal pluralism was entangled in the Russian Empire (p. 68). Throughout the book, he gives examples of conflicts over how local courts worked, how justice was rendered, and how local authorities performed their duties (see Chapters 3 and 7 in particular). These conflicts were themselves superimposed on others over issues of property demarcation, land acquisition, and Orthodox missionary activity (see Chapter 6). Chapter 7 explores how the different levels of power struggles interacted in the case of the 1878 “Tatar riots” in Kazan Province. All the more surprising, therefore, is the author’s choice to deal only with the period just after the 1864 judicial reform was implemented, with little discussion of the early 20th century, the 1905 revolution and the imperial regime’s downfall in 1917. The “three decades after the Great Reforms,” a period of “relative political stability,”4 certainly deserve study in their own right. Questionable, however, is Kirmse’s contention that the revolution should be interpreted as “something that skillful actors brought about in parts of the empire after 1900 despite the relative stability of the previous decades” (p. 29, reminiscent of Mironov’s view of the revolution). In this case, it would also be appropriate to ask why imperial Russia’s leadership had not been skillful enough to prevent revolution from happening.

While there is still room for debate over the interpretation of major trends in the political, legal, and judicial history of the Russian Empire, especially during its last decades of existence, Kirmse’s monograph will constitute a landmark contribution to the field. It will also be valuable to anyone interested in comparative legal history. The book contains everything needed to acquaint the reader with its content, including maps, detailed lists of primary sources and secondary literature, and a remarkably well-crafted and useful index. Moreover, it provides new insight amidst the ever-growing literature on the regional history of both Crimea and Kazan Province, and on their Muslim communities in particular. Our understanding of these communities’ long-run relationships with Russian rulers will benefit greatly from this original study of an important and lesser-known stage in their joint history.

1 See in particular Jörg Baberowski, Autokratie und Justiz. Zum Verhältnis von Rechtsstaatlichkeit und Rückständigkeit im ausgehenden Zarenreich, 1864–1914, Frankfurt am Main 1996.
2 See, for an example in the very late imperial period, Stolypin’s attempts at legal integration of the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1908–1911, with mixed results: Edward C. Thaden (ed.), Russification in the Baltic Provinces and Finland, 1855–1914, Princeton 1981; Manfred Hagen, Edinenie und Obnovlenie. Traditionale und Modernistische Züge in Stolypins Staatsnationalismus gegenüber Finnland, in: Journal of Baltic Studies 15 (1984), pp. 148–170.
3 For a recent study of such movements in Kazan Province, see Danielle Ross, Tatar Empire: Kazan’s Muslims and the Making of Imperial Russia, Bloomington 2020.
4 Kirmse borrows that particular phrase (p. 29) from Corinne Gaudin, Ruling Peasants. Village and State in Late Imperial Russia, DeKalb 2007, p. 7.

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