Both Western and, sometimes more grudgingly, Soviet historians have praised certain aspects of the Russian judicial reforms of 1864 and their effects. Judicial transformation of the law proved to be an important means both of adapting traditional law to the social and economic changes occurring in Russia after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and of fostering and facilitating further change. Moreover, the effects and implications of some of the reforms of civil law introduced by the new courts inevitably drew these institutions into many of the political controversies besetting Russia at this time. These issues surprisingly, however, have attracted little scholarly attention.
This paper seeks to assess the significance of the new courts’ reforming activities and to relate these activities to broader social and political issues by examining the development of property and inheritance law by the Civil Cassation Department of the Senate. As the highest court of appeal for civil actions in the new judicial structure, the Civil Cassation Department rendered definitive interpretations of civil law and exercised tremendous influence over the decisions of lower courts. An examination of its practice therefore would not only reveal the policy of the highest court in the land, but would also provide a fairly accurate picture of the way particular civil laws were interpreted and enforced throughout the empire. While the Civil Cassation Department affected all areas of civil law more or less extensively, a study of its development of property and inheritance law would be especially useful in assessing the extent, nature, and significance of its reformist activity both because of the crucial, multifarious functions of these branches of law in any society and because of particular controversies surrounding them in Russia.