Judicial reforms of Emperor Nicholas II

PHOTO: Portrait of Nicholas II hangs in the District Court Hall.
Tver province, Kashinsky district. 1909-1911

As noted by Russian historian Sergei Viktorovich Kulikov: “It fell to Nicholas II to complete, as in the case of the agrarian reform, the judicial reforms of Alexander II.”

Indeed, judicial reform was the most liberal of all the great reforms of Emperor Alexander II. However, its implementation stretched over 35 years, during which the judicial statutes were adapted to the existing state and political system of the Russian Empire. Siberia was one of the last regions to which the judicial statutes of 1864 were extended. In December 1895, noted in a report of the Minister of Justice Nikolai Valerianovich Muravyov (1850-1908) Nicholas II wrote: “God grant that Siberia in two years will receive much-needed justice, on a par with the rest of Russia.”

By the middle of 1899, the Tsar’s wish was fulfilled: Judicial regulations were introduced in the Arkhangelsk and Vologda provinces, in the Steppe and Trans-Caspian regions, in Siberia and Turkestan. Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century. The judicial reforms were firmly established throughout the Empire. On 1st July, 1899, in a rescript addressed to Muravyov, the Sovereign pointed out: “Upon my accession to the throne, I paid special attention to the need to expand the scope of the Judicial Charters of Emperor Alexander II, so that in all, even the most remote areas of Russia, there would be speedy and impartial justice for all people. Today, within the Russian Empire there is no longer a locality which does not enjoy the benefits of the eternal principles of truth, mercy and equality of all before the law inherent in these Statutes.”

Nicholas II also contributed to the gradual humanization of the penitentiary system. In 1895 he transferred the Main Prison Administration from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. The Emperor especially thanked the Head of the Main Prison Administration Alexander Petrovich Salomon (1855-1908) “for the humane treatment” to students who participated in student riots in St. Petersburg and subsequently arrested. On 10th June, 1900, the Tsar abolished exile to Siberia, and between 1903-04, he abolished corporal punishment.

On 22nd March, 1903, the Tsar approved a new Criminal Code, which was considered one of the most advanced in the world. The new Criminal Code had been spearheaded by the outstanding Russian lawyer, criminologist and statesman Nikolai Stepanovich Tagantsev (1843-1923), who had been appointed a member of the Commission for the development of a new Criminal Code under the Ministry of Justice.

The Code provided a definition of a criminal act, a classification of the severity of a crime; for the first time in Russian legislation, the concept of age-related insanity, necessary defence, and attempt to commit a crime was introduced. The death penalty could not be applied to persons under 21 years of age or over 70 years of age. Also, the legislator introduced a ban on holding public office for persons sentenced to hard labour, exile or imprisonment in a correctional house. Juvenile convicts, from 14 to 17 years old, were held in general prisons, but separately from adults. Criminal punishment was introduced not only for a woman who had an abortion, but also for the doctor who performed it. Crimes against the Faith and the Church (blasphemy, sacrilege, being in dangerous heretical sects, etc.) were especially distinguished.

The implementation of the Criminal Code was put into effect gradually, and was interrupted for a year during the revolution of 1905-1907. In the personalized Supreme Decree of 22nd March, 1903, it stated the following: “We are firmly convinced that this law, delimiting the area of ​​what is forbidden and what is permitted and counteracting criminal encroachments, will serve to maintain civil order and to strengthen the sense of legality among the people, which should be the permanent leader of everyone both in the circle of his personal activities, and in the aggregate composition of estates and societies.”

© Paul Gilbert. 22 September 2020

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