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17 - Crime and Punishment in the Russian Empire

from Part IV - The State, Punishment and Justice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 March 2020

Robert Antony
Affiliation:
Guangzhou University
Stuart Carroll
Affiliation:
University of York
Caroline Dodds Pennock
Affiliation:
University of Sheffield
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Summary

The chapter explores how, as an ‘empire of difference’, Russia from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries tolerated local law for lesser crimes among the empire’s diverse peoples but insisted on the tsar’s law for high crimes (murder, recidivist robbery and theft, treason and heresy and the like). The bureaucracy established a remarkable uniformity of documentary form, judicial procedure and legal norms across the empire. In local courts knowledgeable scribes, in the absence of a professional bar, juridical faculties and notaries advised governors who were untrained amateurs. Lacking jurisprudential expertise, criminal codes were laconic, workaday compendia of fines and penalties primarily intended to police official corruption. Punishment was primarily corporal, but in local courts violence was mitigated by judges’ use of mercy to preserve community stability and by their reliance on locals to staff court and executioners’ roles. Violence, in torture and corporal and capital punishment, escalated in the prosecution of highest crime (treason, heresy), but Muscovy did not conduct European-style theatrical spectacles of suffering until Peter I witnessed them in the 1690s. Even so, from the late 1600s Russia relied increasingly on exile and abolished capital punishment for all crimes but treason by the end of the eighteenth century.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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