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December 6, 2012

Stanford scholar finds that Russia's most infamous tsars weren't so terrible after all

Drawing on untapped criminal records, Stanford's Nancy Kollmann reveals that 17th-century Russia was not as autocratic as Vladimir Putin would have you believe. The death penalty, for example, was abolished in 1754 (except for treason), long before European states followed suit.

By Ian Patrick Beacock

The Russian tsar abolished the death penalty except for treason in 1754. This image, 'Morning of Execution of Streltsy' by Vasily Surikov (1881), depicts an execution following an uprising of the garrison in 1698. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It's a common refrain among supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin: Unlike its European neighbors, Russia's rough and rugged country simply isn't cut out for democracy. Autocratic rule is a better fit, they suggest, pointing to tyrannical tsars like Peter the Great as evidence that only strong central rulers can expand Russian power.

Not so fast, says Stanford historian Nancy Kollmann.

"Putin thinks that central control is good and natural," she notes. "But his portrait of Russian autocracy is really a caricature. The early modern Russian state was actually dynamic, flexible and surprisingly responsive."

Kollmann says there was more to the country's criminal justice system between the 15th and 20th centuries than the whims of an autocratic tsar. Surprisingly, Russian law from Moscow to Siberia was predictable and often sensitive to public opinion.

"Ultimately, the system worked," Kollmann said. "This was not arbitrary rule or a pure despotism – early modern Russia did have an effective legal culture."

Kollmann, a scholar of early modern Russia, also says that the country was in sync with the rest of Europe when it came to punishing criminals. The land of the tsars, she says, needs to be considered alongside early modern European states and empires – it was not a world unto itself.

These are the major findings of Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia, Kollmann's new book from Cambridge University Press. Drawing upon previously unexamined criminal records from small towns and villages across Russia, it is the most sweeping account to date of Russian criminal justice in the 17th and early 18th centuries. It is also one of the first to explore how the system impacted the daily lives of ordinary Russians.

Although Kollmann sees great differences between 17th-century Russia and the present day, she suggests that modern-day Russian intellectuals, or intelligents, "will look at this book and realize that they have a rich legal heritage to work with."

A flexible system shaped by community opinion

Early modern Russia's functioning legal culture developed, Kollmann says, in part because it was needed to govern a sprawling empire. Much like the British or Ottoman empires, Russian territory included a dizzying array of ethnic and religious groups. To avoid revolt, legal practice accommodated local differences. Tsars throughout the early modern period presided over a criminal justice system – and an empire – that was flexible and therefore fostered stability.

Community opinion mattered a great deal in early modern Russian courtrooms. Punishments were considerably harsher for individuals deemed to be "professional criminals" – a designation conferred only after local residents were surveyed.

Local judges could (and did) adjust sentences in particular cases to reflect community pressure. In one case from 1648, a confessed murderer was given not the death sentence the law called for but merely a beating. The victim, it turned out, had raped a young girl, and when asked for its opinion, the community reported further that the man was a prior offender who deserved his fate. His murder, Kollmann says, was therefore seen to be a "legitimate and even necessary kind of vigilante justice." Responding to the community, the judge provided "mercy" in the name of the tsar.

Popular sentiment also mattered at the highest levels of the Russian legal system. The tsar was the highest source of justice and mercy for the entire realm, Kollmann says, but he needed to ensure that his subjects continued to see him that way. Perceptions that he was being unjust could undermine his legitimacy and pave the way for revolt.

"The tsar was no despot," she said. "If people thought he was failing to protect them, he would bend to their wishes."

In June 1648, for instance, the tsar faced a rebellion fuelled by high taxes and allegations of corruption. The crowd was baying for the blood of several top-ranking officials. Although the tsar wanted to protect his advisers, the angry mob gathering outside the Kremlin soon forced him to reconsider. Over the next three days, the tsar personally met with the protesters, symbolically bowing to the "moral economy" of the crowd by handing over two of his closest advisers.

Kollmann says that instances like these, when punishments differed from what the letter of the law demanded, do not indicate arbitrary government. Instead, they show a legal system working smoothly by taking community sentiment into account.

Although Russian law was not as formalized as its Western Europe equivalents, law codes did exist. Kollmann describes them as practical manuals of procedure, not expressions of grand legal or philosophical principles.

These pragmatic manuals gave governors plenty of latitude when enforcing the law. For example, some crimes were punishable by "merciless knouting" (a brutal beating) while others simply with regular knouting. How many lashes of the knout (a type of whip) made the punishment "merciless"? The codes did not say, leaving the decision in the hands of local judges.

Capital punishment and the inspiration of Europe

Such merciless beatings suggest that Russia's legal culture was brutal and violent, but Kollmann notes that the Russian criminal justice system was in some ways less gruesome than its Western European counterparts.

In Russian, beatings and whippings were doled out for most ordinary crimes, but capital punishment was reserved for the most heinous acts: premeditated murder, treason, rebellion and witchcraft. Repeat offenders also faced the prospect of execution.

In early modern Europe, however, the death penalty was used far more liberally, handed out for a wide range of petty crimes. Executions in Europe were forms of entertainment: public, theatrical and very popular. Western European rulers used these grim "spectacles of suffering" to terrify their subjects into obedience and remind viewers that defying the state brought horrific consequences.

Yet Russian tsars did not use these pageants of death until around 1700 – and when they did so, Kollmann says, the inspiration was "entirely European."

While touring Western Europe in 1697, Peter the Great witnessed a public execution in Amsterdam's town square. Deeply impressed by the pageant and the horror it generated among ordinary people, he brought the idea back to Russia, promptly dispatching hundreds of rebels with a series of mass public executions.

At the same time, Russian tsars from Peter onward gradually reduced the use of capital punishment, preferring to use criminals as free labor. In 1754, Russia abolished the death penalty for everything except treason, long before European states did away with capital punishment.

Although Vladimir Putin might wish it were otherwise, Kollmann says, Russian autocracy was complex and responsive. "In terms of criminal justice, the tsars were no more brutal or tyrannical than the kings and queens of Western Europe," she notes. "And the rule of law is not at all foreign to Russian soil."

Ian Patrick Beacock is a PhD candidate in history at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.



Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities: (650) 724-8156,

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