The rule of law and workable paradoxes

Balding, but with a fantastical beard, Sergei Zarudnyi was one of the leading Russian lawyers of the nineteenth century, though he was a mathematics graduate with a taste for literature. He fell into employment at the Ministry of Justice by accident, thanks to a family connection, starting work in November 1842.

The Tsar was Nicholas I, an enthusiast for discipline and censorship. Paradoxically, his Ministry of Justice was full of clever and open-minded reformers. Zarudnyi worked alongside distinguished colleagues such as Nikolai Milyutin. They analysed the legal system and its possible futures from first principles, assuming, for instance, that legal proceedings should be conducted in public. They committed themselves to an idea of ‘lawfulness’. The prototypes they developed under reactionary Nicholas I became law under his reformist son, Alexander II. His judicial reform of 1864 created trial by jury and independent judges, while later reforms established sturdy rural courts in which peasants displayed a modern legal consciousness.

Zarudnyi’s mentality and achievements point towards a wider question. He was part of a group of substantial legal scholars and policymakers who created a version of the rule of law in nineteenth-century Russia. One historian calls this ‘Russia’s first constitution’. But how could the rule of law really exist inside the Tsarist autocracy? Did the imperfections of the reforms outweigh their advantages? And what about the retrograde steps taken during the later reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II?

The country’s history of law reminds us of a truism: Russians have often found flexible resolutions to apparently rigid paradoxes. This might or might not have been a good thing. It might or might not have contemporary resonance. Historians are in no position to judge.

Observers have often overestimated patterns in Russian history. But workable paradoxes have been one of the dynamos of Russia’s politics and culture. After all, Sergei Zarudnyi was just one figure who found ways to reconcile law and autocracy in nineteenth-century Russia, at least for a time.