Medieval Russian Law


In the early 11th century, during the reign of Iaroslav the Wise (1015-1054), the first Russian code of law was compiled.[1]  The codified laws were known as the Short Pravda, a word meaning law, justice, and truth.[2]  Throughout the 12th and 15th centuries, the code was developed and enlarged, and became known as the Expended Pravda.[3]  During the 14th and the 15th centuries, more elaborate versions of the code, known as “charters,” were adopted by individual city-republics such as Pskov and Novgorod.[4]  By the turn of the 15th century, most of Russia was controlled by the Grand Duke of Moscow, and in 1497 the Pravda and the individual city “charters” were replaced by a new codified set of laws known as the Sudebnik.[5]

The Pravda was not just a static, single set of rules that governed all of Russia.[6]  It was a dynamic code of law that adapted to meet the needs of different cities, at different times.[7]  The various versions of the code illustrate the main trends in Russian legal history, and reflect the social and economic conditions that prevailed at certain regions of medieval Russia.[8] For example, the original Pravda of Iaroslav dealt with basic administration of princely domains in the eleventh century, and provided the blueprints for basic tort law.[9]  The code reflects a horizontal legal structure in which the prince was the main authority figure, but the administration of justice and punishment was primarily reserved for the people.[10]  By the turn of the twelfth century, the Expended Pravda moved away from the basic horizontal approach, and towards a more vertical structure in which the prince retained some of the power to administer justice.[11]  This change reveals the deep social inequality that began to develop between the nobility, i.e. the prince’s servitors, and the working and common classes.[12]  The charters of the city republics of Pskov and Novgorod were slightly different in that they focused less on delegating power to the prince and more on trade and economic development.[13]  Their codes reflect a more democratic society, a powerful merchant class, a concern for securing fair protection to labor, and the basic concept of justice and equality for all before the law.[14]

The three main factors in the development of Russian law were the people, the prince, and the church.[15]  As previously mentioned, in the earlier versions of the Pravda the people had the power to punish for crimes.[16]  In later versions, that power was more or less delegated to the prince.[17]  As Christianity began to spread throughout Russia in the thirteen through fifteenth century, the church also began to play a sizeable role in the administration of justice.[18]     

The conquest of Russia by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and their domination for almost 250 years did little to change the main provisions of the Pravda.[19]  The Russian civil law as it existed during the period of Mongol domination had almost nothing in common with the civil law by which the Mongols governed their own internal personal and property relations.[20]  In the Russia public law system, however, Mongol influence was great.[21]  The legal relations between the Russian government and its people began to greatly resemble the autocratic system of its occupiers.[22]  The main impact of the Mongol rule was on the princes, who effectively served as chief tax-gatherers for the Mongol overlord.[23]  This role led to an increasingly more centralized government structure, whereby the prince was able to consolidate more power from his principalities and subjects.[24]  Ironically, by increasing the prince’s power, the Mongols may have led to their own demise by essentially allowing the prince to unify his subjects and overthrow the occupiers.[25]  Russia was once more an independent municipality, but one in which centralism and autocracy became the dominant features.[26] 

The increased power of the prince became evident in later versions of the Pravda.  In the earlier versions (Short Pravda), the perpetrator of a wrongdoing had to pay monetary damages directly to the aggrieved party.[27]  That payment was called wergeld, and just like our modern day tort systems, it was intended to make the victim whole again.[28]  In the expended version, crimes were often punished by a monetary fine called Vira, which was paid directly to the prince.[29]  The latter system delegated more of the power to the prince, and began to resemble our modern day criminal law system where the state punishes the criminal.[30] 

The evolution of Russian law in the medieval ages can be summarized as a progressive shift away from a complete tort system and towards a hybrid tort/criminal law system that centralized a lot of its judiciary power with prince.[31]  Monetary sanctions first came into play as a means to compensate an aggrieved party, but later served to protect princely interests.[32]  Notwithstanding the increased centralized structure, most of the major provisions in the Short Pravda survived the test of time, and remained largely the same in the expended version.


Before the passage of Pravda, blood revenge was the main remedy in cases involving homicide.[33]  It was common practice for the family or friend of the deceased to avenge their fallen mate by killing the murder.[34]  Several problems arose from this system.  First, the killer had little incentive to come forth because it would ultimately lead to his demise.[35]  Second, the system fostered a never-ending chain of homicide because once one party was avenged, the other side would in turn seek revenge, and the process would continue until one side gave up or died out.[36]  Third, anyone could avenge anyone, so families and friends would often find themselves pinned against each other.[37]     

In an attempt to abolish the traditional blood feud, the Pravda created a more sustainable system of law in cases of homicide.[38]  Both the short and expended versions of Pravda still permitted revenge, (indicating that revenge was still deeply rooted in the Russian culture) but with some limitations.[39]  First, revenge was strictly reserved for blood relatives of the deceased.[40]  Article 1 of the Short Pravda specifically limits blood revenge to the following relatives: “the brother is to avenge his brother; the son, his father; or the father, his son; and the son of the brother of the murdered man, or the son of his sister, their respective uncle.”[41]  Friends were no longer allowed to seek revenge on behalf of each other.[42]  This had the effect of significantly reducing the number of people who could use this remedy.[43] 

The second and most significant change to the traditional homicide law was the introduction of composition as a form of remedy.[44]  Instead of revenge, the aggrieved party could seek monetary damages from the murderer.[45]  The payment of money to the family of the deceased was called wergeld.[46]  Article 1 of the Short Pravda provides that “If there is no avenger, the murderer pays forty-grivna wergeld.”[47]  The expended version added another dimension to this law by increasing the wergeld to “80 grivna in case the murdered man was a prince’s councilor or a prince’s steward.”[48]  Several schools of thought tried to explain the reasoning behind this rule.[49]  One belief, is that the prince’s began to have stronger control over his people, allowing him to create a dichotomy between the common people and the “prince’s people.”[50] The second school of thought offers a more equitable explanation for the fee increase.[51] A prince’s servant was believed to not only hold a value for his family, but to the prince himself.[52]  Therefore, when he died the family would get 40 grivna for the loss of a kin, and the prince would get 40 grivna for losing an important servant.[53] 

The later versions of the Pravda also addressed the problem of an unidentified murderer, or a murderer that would not come forth to admit his crime.[54]  The law provides that “If anyone kills a man …and the local people do not search for the murderer, the community within the territory where the body lies has to pay the vira.”[55]  Communities were encouraged to actively seek, identify and apprehend murderers, or otherwise pay the fine.[56]  The Expended Pravda provides for a vira of 80 for a prince’s servant, a vira of 40 grivna for men, and a vira of 20 for women.[57]  The code does not specifically define what a “community” is, but one source explains that it is “a free association of neighbors who agree to pay their share in the community’s liabilities.”[58] 

If the murder returns to his home after the community paid his fine, the murderer is obligated to pay back the community the 40 grivna that they paid on his behalf.[59]  The murderer also has to pay an additional wergeld of 40 grivna to the family of the deceased.[60]  The result is that a fleeing murderer has to pay double the fine if he returns or if he is caught.[61]  Lastly, in the case of murder without cause, the community is not required to pay vira as long as the offender was surrendered to the prince.[62]  In those cases, the criminal and his family are banished and their property is confiscated.[63]         

An important linguistic distinction to note is that the expended version refers to the fine paid by the community as vira instead of wergeld.[64]  Vira is type of fine that was typically paid directly to the prince.[65]  The addition of this form of payment reflects the prince’s ongoing involvement in punishing homicide through his own form of financial sanctions.[66]  This might suggest that in cases of unsolved homicide, the prince was solely entitled to compensation.[67]  However, this type of scheme is inconsistent with the other statutes involving compensation to the deceased’s family.[68]  Therefore, a more likely explanation is that the fine was split evenly between the prince and the family, since it was unlikely that the prince would deprive the family of their rightful share of the damages.[69]

The aforementioned laws only apply to princely personnel, free men, and free women.[70]  The Pravda imposes much lower fines for killing socially inferior people.  For example: the fine for murdering a farm steward is 12 grivna, for contract laborers the fine is 5 grivna fine, for peasants or slaves the fine is also 5 grivna, and for a female slave the fine is 6 grivna.[71]

Both the Short and Expanded Pravda provide special provisions for the homicide of a thief.[72]  Article 38 of the Short Pravda provides that “if they kill a thief in their own yard, or at the barn, or at the stable, his is rightly killed.”[73]  The term “rightly killed” means that the thief’s kin is not entitled to avenge the killer or receive restitution.[74]  The code further provides that “if they hold him until daylight… and then kill him, and people have seen him bound, they have to pay for him.”[75]  In other words, once the thief is captured and is no longer a threat, the capturer cannot kill him without sustaining a penalty.[76]  The unlawful killing of a thief imposes a reduced 12 grivna fine on the killers, as opposed to the 40 grivna fine of killing a freeman.[77]  This indicates a reduced sympathy for thieves even if they were killed under bad pretenses.[78]  In summary, killing a thief, if done in the heat of the moment was permissible, while killing a thief who was bound and harmless was punishable by a reduced fine.[79]

In conclusion, in medieval Russia, blood revenge was still the primary remedy for the family of the deceased, and composition served as secondary remedy.[80]  Communities were encouraged to help find murderers or else incur fees.[81]  The fees were generally paid directly to the family of the deceased, but as time progressed, the prince became more heavily involved in crime enforcement, which allowed him to extract fees directly from criminals, and impose bigger fees for murdering his servitors.[82]


The Pravda developed a similar system of remedies in cases of assault.[83]  Just like homicide, the victim of assault was given the right to seek revenge with the option of restitution.[84]  Most assault statutes follow this general sequence: if the offender assaults, and the victim does not avenge, then the victim is entitled to restitution.[85]  Under the rules of the Short Pravda, if the victim chooses restitution, the offender pays the fee directly to the victim and the matter is quashed.[86]  Under the expanded Pravda, the prince was entitled to some of the proceeds from assault.[87]  Once again, there appears to be a trend of subordinating the interest of the victim for the benefit of the prince.[88]  The change also appears to indicate a movement away from the original pure tort system, and towards a more hybrid system, wherein crimes are sanctioned by both a fine payable to the prince, and restitution to the victim.[89]

The amount that the victim was entitled to depended on the type of assault that was committed.[90]  The harsher the assault, the more the offender had to pay.[91] For example: unsheathing a sword without striking was a 1 grivna fee, simple assault, such as striking without a weapon or pushing was a 3 grivna fine, while assault with a weapon, such as rod, club, unsheathed sword, or sword hilt was a 12 grivna fine.[92]  

Restitution also depended on the type of harm that was caused.[93]  Cutting off a finger was a 3 grivna fine, while cutting off a body part such as an arm or a leg was a 40 grivna fine, the same as committing homicide.[94]  The expanded version also provides for a 12 grivna composition for knocking out someone’s teeth, with an additional 1 grivna fee for every tooth that was knocked out.[95]

Another distinction in the expended version is that when someone cuts off another’s leg, arm, eye or nose, the offender has to pays the prince a vira of 20 grivna, and the victim a wergeld 10 grivna.[96]  This is the only time that the expended version specifically mentions compensation for the victim of an assault crime.[97]  It is not clear whether other fines for assault were strictly reserved for the prince or whether they were split with the aggrieved party.[98]  The code is not clear on this, but based on the underlining principles behind the Pravda of compensating the injured party, the indication is that the latter scenario is more likely.[99] 

Another interesting statute in the Expended Pravda is the law regarding beards.  The code provides that the unlawful shaving of one’s beard or moustache is punishable by a 12 grivna fine, almost four times as much as severing a finger.[100] One explanation for this unusual fine is the notion that the original character of wergeld was not compensatory for material losses, but reparation of honor and status, and in medieval Russia facial hair was viewed as a symbol for high status.[101]  As the short Pravda indicates many of the imposed sanctions were intended to compensate the harmed party za obidu (for the insult).[102]  Therefore, displays of public humiliation such as shaving someone’s beard or hitting him with the hilt of the sword carried much higher penalties then other instances of assault.[103]

Theft and Robbery

Both the Short and the Expended Pravda provide that in cases of theft robbery, it is the original owner’s duty to carry out the investigation and recover his property, making the process generally a private matter devoid of state interaction.[104]  The general rule is that once a person identifies his property in the hands of another, he is not supposed to accuse him of theft, but rather invite him to partake in a procedure called svod (Confrontment).[105]  Svod is the process in which the person who is in possession of the property has to justify its origin by identifying the person from whom he acquired the property.[106]  By going back through the chain of ownership one should, ideally, reach the point at which the property was deprived from the original owner, thereby identifying the thief.[107]    

At all times, the true owner was specifically enjoined from seizing his property outright, and was dependent upon the possessor to help him identify the thief, given that he himself was not the thief.[108]  Once the culprit has been identified, the true owner could collect his property, plus a 3 grivna fine from the thief (fines were later payable to the prince).[109]  If the property was no longer owned by the thief, the current possessor was required to submit the property to the true owner, and in turn, collect the amount he paid to the thief.[110]

In cases where the property is located in another town, the Pravda relieves some of the burden placed on the true owner of stolen property by allowing him to only go as far as the third conformant in order to collect damages.[111]  That is, once the owner reaches the third person in the chain of ownership, he is entitled to full monetary compensation from the third person, who will in turn take over the investigation.[112]  Once the thief is found, the owner gets his property back, the third owner gets his money back from the original owner, and the thief pays damages and the fine.[113]  The same method applies to theft involving a slave, except that the fine is increased to 12 grivna.[114]

This scheme produced an efficient way of dealing with theft in several aspects: first, it prevented the original owner from taking back his property from an otherwise innocent individual; second, it encouraged society to collaborate in order to discover the identity of the thief; and third, it deterred theft by imposing a monetary sanction on the culprit.[115]    

A series of articles in the Expended Pravda specifically addresses the theft of horses, an especially serious offense in Medieval Russia.[116]  Simply riding someone horse without permission was punishable by a 3 grivna fine.[117]  Stealing a horse was punishable by banishment.[118]  The exact reason for the severity of such crimes is not entirely clear, but one explanation is that, “princes regarded horses as a kind of state resource mobilized for military campaigns,” and by stealing a horse the thief is essentially depriving the prince of military power.[119]

Another unusually severe penalty followed the theft of a beaver, which was punished by a 12 grivna fine.[120]  Scholars have not opined as to the reasoning behind this unusually high fine.   


In medieval Russia slaves were not regarding as independent human beings, but rather as property belonging to their masters.[121]  The slaver’s master had absolute control over the slave’s life, and it was his right to beat, torture, kill, or sell the slave whenever he pleased.[122]  The master, however, was vicariously liable for the slave’s actions in the eyes of the law.[123]  If a slave violated the law, the master incurred the fine.[124]  The Pravda provides a series of laws regarding slaves, and imposes different fines depending on what crime the slave committed.[125]  If a slave assaults or batters a freeman, the master has to pay the freeman 12 grivna, and allow the freeman to beat the slave whenever he pleases.[126]  If the slave steals a horse, the master must return the horse and pay a 2 grivna fine.[127] If the slave steals any other property, the master must pay the damages for that property.[128]

The expended Pravda recognizes slavery in three specific instances.[129] First, voluntary slavery when a person is willing sell him or herself for at least half a grivna, and in the presence of a witness.[130] Second, if a person marries a slave without her master’s permission, he becomes that master’s slave.[131] Third, if a person accepts the position of overseer or steward of an estate without a recorded stipulation that one remained a freeman, he becomes a slave of the person owning the estate.[132]

In order to foster an ongoing slave-master relationship, the Pravda provides a number of rules that deter slaves from running away by encouraging the community to actively help capture runaway slaves.[133]  If a freeman helps a slave escape or gives him food, he must pay the master 5 grivna for a male slave and 6 grivna for a female slave.[134]  If anyone captures a slave and returns him to the owner, he receives a 1 grivna reward.[135]  However, if the slave is captured, but manages to escape again, the freeman must pay the master 4 grivna for a male slave and 5 for a female slave.[136]  The penalty for allowing a slave to escape is almost the same as aiding a slave escape, except that the fine is offset by 1 grivna for the attempted capture.[137]  If anyone is caught stealing a slave, he must return it and pay a vira of 12 grivna.[138]  A person who unknowingly buys a stolen slave, and is confronted by the true owner, must enter into the same process of confrontment as he would for regular theft, and help the true owner find the original thief.[139]

Even when dealing with slaves, the Pravda provides us with a series of reoccurring themes that are consistent throughout the entire code.  First, the idea that every crime should be punishable by a Vira is demonstrated by the master’s duty to pay for the crimes of his slave.[140]  Second, the notion that the community should actively engage in remedying a crime is evident from the imposition of penalties imposed on the malfeasance of otherwise innocent people.[141]  Lastly, the process of confrontment in cases of theft is extended to slaves as well.[142]

Collecting Vira

As Russia continued to move towards a more vertical legal structure, the prince needed personnel to administer justice and collect fines.[143]  The Short Pravda first alludes to the existence of such personnel in articles 41 and 42 of the code, but only offers a brief and confusing explanation of duties of the Virnik (fine collector).[144]  In addition to a regular salary, the code awards an extraordinary sum of 60 grivna, larger than the wergeld of any freeman, to the virnik for collecting fines.[145]  This amount seems excessive, leading some to believe that the figure might have represented a particular collection whose amount was mistakenly left in the text.[146]  The Expended Pravda fixed the Virnik’s portion to 20% of the collected amount, which is significantly less than the Short Pravda.[147]

Article 42 provides that “when a Vira collector and his assistants are on the journey of collecting fines, they receive provisions from the population according to custom.”[148] Since vira collectors often had to travel from city to city and across wide distances, the Pravda delegated the task of feeding and supplying them to the local populace.[149]  Article 41 deals with the distribution of the collected fines between the prince, his officials, and the church.[150]  “From 12 grivna, the sheriff receives 70 kuna, the church, 2 grivna, and the prince 10 grivna.”[151]  A Kuna is a smaller Russian monetary unit.[152]  Based on a pure reading of the statute, it seems like the distribution of the funds exceeds the amount collected, so it is not entirely clear who received what.  However, going off of percentages it seem like the prince was entitled to roughly 80%-85% of the proceeds, the church received somewhere around 15%-17% and the sheriff received the remainder of about 1%-2%.[153] 

Not only do these figures not add up properly, but they fail to take into account that the 20% that the Virnik was entitled to.[154]  One possible explanation is that the Vrinik takes his percentage out first, and then rest is split pursuant to article 42, but neither the short Pravda nor the expanded are clear on this.  Furthermore, both codes seem to contradict each other.  The only thing that is somewhat clear is that when the Virnik and his assistants travel to collect fines, the local populace has a duty to feed them and provide them with the necessary supplies.[155]    


For almost a half a century, Russian law was governed by the provisions of the Pravda.  What began as a pure tort system eventually developed into a hybrid criminal/tort law system in which centralism became a dominant feature.  Despite these developments, the most important aspects of the Pravda code survived the test of time and remained largely unchanged.  Monetary fines remained the primary form of punishment, communities were encouraged to assist in remedying crimes, and confrontment continued to serve as the equivalent of our modern day judicial proceedings.

[1] Austin P. Evans Et Al., Medieval Russian Laws 4 (1947).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 5.

[4] Id.

[5] Evans, supra note 1, at 7.

[6] Id. at 5.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 8.

[9] Id.

[10] Evans, supra note 1, at 8.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Evans, supra note 1, at 9.

[16] Id. at 8.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 10.

[19] Harold J. Berman, Justice in Russia 128 (1950)

[20] Id. at 129.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. at 130.

[24] Berman, supra note 29, at 130.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Ferdinand Feldbrugge, Law in Medieval Russia 43 (2009).

[28] Id.

[29] Id. at 45.

[30] See id.

[31] Daniel H. Kaiser, The Growth of the Law in Medieval Russia 62 (1980).

[32] Id.

[33] Id. at 63.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 63.

[37] Id.

[38] Id. at 64.

[39] Id.

[40] Evans, supra note 1, at 26.

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 64.

[44] Id.

[45] Id.

[46] Feldbrugge, supra note 27, at 43.

[47] Evans, supra note 1, at 26.

[48] Id. at 35.

[49] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 64

[50] Id. at 69.

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] See Evans, supra note 1, at 36.

[55] Id.

[56] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 65.

[57] Evans, supra note 1, at 36.

[58] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 65.

[59] Id.

[60] Id.

[61] Id.

[62] Evans, supra note 1, at 36.

[63] Id.

[64] Id.

[65] Feldbrugge, supra note 27, at 45.

[66] Id. at 47.

[67] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 69.

[68] Id.

[69] Id.

[70] Id. at 69-70.

[71] Evans, supra note 1, at 51.


[72] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 71.

[73] Evans, supra note 1, at 33.

[74] See id.

[75] Id.

[76] See id.

[77] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 71.

[78] See id. at 72.

[79] Evans, supra note 1, at 33.

[80] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 63.

[81] Id. at 65.

[82] Id. at 69.

[83] Id. at 80.

[84] Evans, supra note 1, at 27.

[85] See id. at 27.

[86] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 80.

[87] Id.

[88] Id.

[89] Id.

[90] Id. at 81.

[91] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 81.

[92] Evans, supra note 1, at 27.

[93] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 81.

[94] Evans, supra note 1, at 27.

[95] Id. at 48.

[96] Id. at 39.

[97] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 81.

[98] Id.

[99] Id.

[100] Evans, supra note 1, at 48.

[101] Feldbrugge, supra note 27, at 45.

[102] Id. at 46.

[103] Id.

[104] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 83.

[105] Evans, supra note 1, at 28-29.

[106] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 83-84.

[107] Id. at 84.

[108] Id.

[109] Id. at 85.

[110] Id.

[111] Evans, supra note 1, at 40.

[112] Id.

[113] Id.

[114] Id. at 41.

[115] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 84.

[116] Id. at 86.

[117] Evans, supra note 1, at 40.

[118] Id.

[119] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 86.

[120] Evans, supra note 1, at 48.

[121] See id.

[122] Id. at 47.

[123] See id. at 55-56

[124] See Id.

[125] Evans, supra note 1, at 54-56

[126] Id. at 29.

[127] Id. at 47.

[128] Id. at 56.

[129] See id. at 54.

[130] Evans, supra note 1, at 54.

[131] Id.

[132] Id.

[133] See id. at 54-56.

[134] Id. at 55.

[135] Evans, supra note 1, at 55.

[136] Id.

[137] See id.

[138] Id.

[139] Id.

[140] See Evans, supra note 1, at 56.

[141] See id. at 55.

[142] Id.

[143] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 96.

[144] Id. at 74.

[145] Id.

[146] Id.

[147] Id.

[148] Evans, supra note 1, at 34.

[149] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 99.

[150] Evans, supra note 1, at 34.

[151] Id.

[152] Feldbrugge, supra note 27, at 331.

[153] See Evans, supra note 1, at 34

[154] Kaiser, supra note 31, at 100.

[155] Id.