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Russian National Legal Tradition: Svod versus Ulozhenie in Nineteenth-century Russia

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For more content, see Review of Socialist Law.

The article describes and analyses the competing approaches to codification in Russia during the first decades of the nineteenth century following Napoleon (and his Code Civil) and its evaluation in the late nineteenth century. Based on recent methodology—the history of notions (Begriffsgeschichte)—this article presents the history of codification through the perspective of the emergence and development of the Russian legal terms 'svod' (compilation/digest) and 'ulozhenie' (system/code). These terms represented the 'battle flags' of the two parties: on one hand, those whom one might characterize as rationalist, universalist, Enlightenment-oriented, based on the French Revolution and inspired by the Code Napoleon; and, on the other, those who might better be described as history-oriented, traditionalist, romantic, nationalist.

Speranskii, initially the prime representative of the first tendency, was ultimately successful as the leader of a Russian codification movement by claiming an original national approach to codification, while in practice combining the two elements.

The article seeks to demonstrate that the categories of 'national', 'traditional', 'original'—as well as their opposites, 'universalistic', 'rationalist'—which were used in the political and academic discourse on codification in nineteenth-century Russia, may be analyzed as a rhetorical means of argument skillfully applied by the ambitious drafters of new codes (as well as by their opponents). Contextual analysis of both the Russian and European political background of codification discussions are applied in this work, which leads to conclusions on the construction (and deconstruction) of a national mythology of legal traditions.

My view of the creation of a new code of laws (ulozhenie)—during the first three decades of the nineteenth century—is one of the completion of a Russian national project. It became such rather suddenly in the spring of 1812 as a result of both major forces and of chance circumstances, the movement of armies, global ideas and the passions of historical figures. The combination of a number of factors resulted in a situation whereby the political struggle over the new code was conducted through the language of nationalism by contrasting the 'national spirit of the law' with 'foreign principles'. In the struggle for a new code, the opposing sides not only used 'national rhetoric' introduced from outside but, also, changed the Russian language, inventing new 'national' meanings for legal concepts.


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