12 Angry Peasants: Trial by Jury: November 1864

Russian Life, November-December 2009 | Go to article overview

12 Angry Peasants: Trial by Jury: November 1864


UNSCRUPULOUS JUDGES, arbitrary rulings, bribery-all this was part of daily reality in 19th century Russia, if we believe what we read in our literature, which abounds with images of a corrupt judicial system.

Early in the 19th century, when Ivan Pushchin (friend to Alexander Pushkin, member of the Union of Prosperity, and a future conspirator, Decembrist, and convict) decided to abandon a promising career as a officer in the Imperial Guard to become a judge--an honest and fair judge. His move was seen as an act of madness. Years passed, one tsar died and another took his place. Pushchin and his friends carried out their failed rebellion on Senate Square, placing them on the wrong side of the law, and were sent to Siberia. Those who lived to see their amnesty 30 years later found that the system of justice had not changed in their absence.

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There was always plenty of talk about the need to fundamentally change the judicial system, but no one knew how to achieve such reform. How could a just, legal system be instituted in a country populated largely by serfs who had no legal rights and who lived at the mercy of their landowners?

Then came 1861: serfdom was abolished and the peasants were given freedom. Clearly now that one component of Russian life had been changed, all the others would have to be changed as well. So began the era of the Great Reforms. Self-government was instituted at the provincial, district, and municipal level, censorship was virtually eliminated, there were changes in the military, and something completely novel appeared--trial by jury.

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In November 1864, when Alexander II signed the order to introduce new courts, few understood how these courts would work. For the first time in Russian history, trials would be public--and the public came in swarms to witness the boisterous criminal and political trials the new system produced. The new courts featured contention between two opposing sides, with the prosecution and defense vying for the hearts and minds of twelve jurors selected from lists of the province's property owners.

"How can this be?" exclaimed opponents of judicial reform. "Is it right to place justice in the hands of people with no legal education or even no education at all? Jurors will be manipulated, their prejudices or sense of compassion will be exploited!" Jurors, indeed, did not always conduct themselves as well as they might have. They almost always acquitted those accused of vagrancy--after all, what if someone just doesn't want to stay in one place, if he doesn't want to or can't settle down to life with a home and a job and put down roots? That sort of thing was seen as forgivable, deserving of understanding.

Juries also tended to be merciful when it came to violations of a woman's honor. Jurors, of course, were all men, and they were apparently always ready to take pity on someone who had "succumbed" or was "tempted"--maybe the woman intentionally tempted him? On the other hand, they did not go easy on horse thieves, especially if there were a lot of peasants on the jury. Stealing a horse was a much more serious crime than violating a woman's honor. And if a trial fell during Great Lent or right before a major religious holiday, then the number of "not guilty" verdicts would surge--surely in the eyes of God it was better to be charitable at such times.

Was this a good thing or a bad thing? How are we to judge? The fact that people were meting out justice less according to the letter and spirit of the law than to the dictates of their conscience is testament to the fact that, for most Russians in the late 19th century (and not only then), the law and their conscience dictated two different things. But perhaps it was not such a bad thing if there were a lot of acquittals?

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