Archives: Law Codes of the Kievan Rus’

This article was written in 1993.  Reading through it made me want to revisit the topic, but for Novgorod.  Perhaps something to pursue in the future…

A scene from the Radzivill Chronicle

Kievan Rus’ was the first large-scale state to dominate the lands which are today part of Russia, Byelorus, and Ukraine.  The history of this state began with the semi-legendary occupation of the city of Kiev by Oleg, a man of Scandinavian origins, in 882.  A small number of such men, or “Varangians”, attracted by the lucrative Volga trade routes, apparently migrated to the land of the Rus and gradually married into the largely Slavic population in the area, giving the area a culture which was initially Slavic with Scandinavian overtones.  (There is, in fact, still a fairly heated debate among scholars as to just how pervasive and influential Scandinavian culture was on the Kievan state). In the next century, the princes of Kiev gradually came to dominate an area that reached from the Viking lands in the north down south to the edges of the Byzantine Empire, eastwards into the great steppes, and as far west as the Balkans.

After the initial period of expansion, which brought Kiev into contact with the Byzantines to their south, the state then consolidated its successes into a stable and prosperous union.  Kievan society was one dominated by towns and trade, as one might expect, given its position along the eastern trade routes;  but agriculture formed the backbone of the state. Contact with Byzantium greatly influenced Kiev’s culture, and probably led in part to its conversion to Christianity under Vladimir in about 988.  Upon Vladimir’s death in 1015, a short civil war ensued as his sons jockeyed for power, but one son, Iaroslav, won the upper hand by 1019 and divided the kingdom between himself and his one remaining brother;  upon his brother’s death in 1036, he ruled all of the Kievan state until his death in 1054.

Iaroslav’s reign is usually considered the pinnacle of Kievan civilization, and history has granted to Iaroslav the epithet “the Wise”. One of Iaroslav’s achievements was to codify the customary law of the Kievan Rus.  This law code, or pravda (a Russian word whose meaning is variously translated as “law”, “justice”, or “truth”, depending on the context) was later expanded by Iaroslav’s sons.  The original code is quite short — consisting of only 18 articles, it would easily fit onto two pages..

Before I discuss the codes themselves, a word about early medieval law codes in general.  There is much contention about whether these codes were meant for practical use or not.  One argument says that early law codes (such as those made by the Germanic successor states of Rome, which were essentially a mix of Germanic and Roman law)  were meant not for practical use, but to legitimize the rule of the Germanic kings by putting their kingdoms on a legal basis.  Written laws were thus a matter of prestige, something every kingdom worth its salt would have.  This thesis goes on to argue that the legislation of kings was, at best, only a mirror of the customary law practiced in their lands;  at worst, these laws were little more than empty scribblings.  Against this it has been argued that the large number of existing copies of some of these law codes, some with signs of obvious wear, are by themselves evidence of the practical intent of the law codes.  The reality of the situation seems to be that both arguments are in some way valid and that the situation varied considerably from region to region, depending on, among other things, education level of the judges, population density, and stability of the state itself.

The simplicity of the earliest Russian law code makes it likely that its codification was probably an attempt by Iaroslav to claim the prestige of being the “Father of Russian Law”.  His father Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity had strengthened the ties to Byzantium that had been building for some time; Kiev also had begun to cultivate ties with Western Europe as well.  Byzantium, of course, had a long tradition of law codification, starting back with Justinian in the sixth century and continuing with novels, or additions to the code, right down to Iaroslav’s own time.  Unlike the Byzantines, however, few of Iaroslav’s subjects had ever lived under Roman law.  It is not surprising, thus, to discover that these early laws show little classical influence.

Anyone who has examined other early law codes will be on familiar ground with these.  Like most early law codes, the Pravda  provides a system of monetary fines for all offenses, from murder to the cutting off of beards or moustaches.  Unlike many other early codes, however,  there is no system of graded wergelds for various levels of society in Iaroslav’s codification– all free men (nothing is said of women) have a wergeld of 40 grivna  (probably silver _grivna _ are meant, which were equivalent to one troy pound of silver).  Iaroslav’s code also permits certain relatives to avenge murders, but he sought to discourage this old custom by strictly delineating which relatives had the right of vengeance.

Also covered in the code are penalties for those who harbour runaway slaves (a fine of 3 grivna  plus the return of the slave) and penalties for slaves who strike freemen and then hide in their master’s house (12 grivna  if the master will not give up the slave, plus the freeman is allowed to beat up the slave).

In contrast with many other early codes, there are no mentions of the testimony of character witnesses in legal proceedings; however, eyewitnesses are called for in some cases of assault (though Varangians are allowed to swear an oath instead).  Trial by a jury of 12 men is also mentioned in connection with commercial disputes, when two business partners are in dispute about the profits. Commercial concerns clearly play a large part in Kievan society.

The Pravda  of Iaroslav’s sons adds a graded wergeld system, mostly in relation to royal officials (who have a wergeld of 80 grivna ) and persons of servile status (from 12 grivna for an overseer down to 5 grivna  for a peasant or herdsman.  The fine for killing a horse is 2-3 grivna, incidentally).  Fines for killing livestock are also listed, and the code ends with the fees which bridge builders receive for their work.The expanded version of the _Pravda _ (promulgated in the 13th century) delves much more deeply into actual legal procedure.  A graded system of ordeals and oaths is mentioned for the first time for cases of theft if the missing item cannot be found.  The revised Pravda  also shows much more reliance on eyewitnesses; character witnesses are also mentioned.

Once again, the great role of trade and commerce in Kievan society becomes apparent with laws regulating loans and interest (which is not  prohibited, unlike in other parts of Europe),  articles advising leniency towards merchants who have lost their goods in shipwrecks, and the procedure when a man defaults on loans or debts:  he is brought to the marketplace and all his goods sold;  the proceeds go to pay off first, the prince (if any of his money is involved), second, out-of-town merchants, and third, local creditors.  But agricultural matters play almost as big a role, particularly penalties for stealing beehives.  Penalties for arson are also detailed.

There are also more substantial sections on class interaction:  what happens when one peasant strikes another, whether slaves can testify (they can’t, except as a last resort, and only higher-ranking slaves even then).  Significantly, this code mentions for the first time that the wergeld of a free female is one half that of a free male.

Another significant addition concerns inheritance law.  The estates of nobles always go to the children, be they sons or daughters. If a wife survives, she receives a portion of the estate for her use during her lifetime (similar to English dower) and anything her husband specifically leaves her.  She is also allowed to stay on the homestead if she wishes to and manage it, but if she marries again, she must return it. The subject of wardship is also discussed;  the guardian is responsible for managing the minor’s estate and can keep the profits for his trouble, but if he loses anything, he must repay the heir. Finally, provisions are made for the fees the officials in the various courts are to receive.

One can make a much better case for this Pravda  as being intended for practical use.  But like English law, Kievan customary law (upon which these codes are based) was likely a much more complex and flexible system than these codes  reveal.  The codifications were a guide to the judges and established precedent, but were not an end in themselves, as there were always circumstances which were not covered.  In many ways Kievan law was as advanced as any in Europe (such as in its reliance on clearly-defined legal procedure and professional courts), but in other ways it lagged behind– Western Europe had gradually been moving away from the system of wergeld (money paid to the relatives of the injured party in serious cases) to a system in which murder and other “felonies” were an offense against the Crown, who thus was charged with dispensing justice and levying fines.  The ordeal had also nearly disappeared in Western Europe by the thirteenth century;  even judicial combat, to which the aristocracy clung as their prerogative, was becoming quite rare. The Kievan state did not survive the thirteenth century as a unified whole, though some of its towns continued to prosper through the years of Mongol domination.  The cities of Novgorod and then Moscow would succeed as Kiev’s heirs.  How the laws of the Russians evolved in that period must remain to be told some other day.


Nicholas L. Fr.-Chirovsky, An Introduction to Ukrainian History:  Ancient and Kievan-Galician Ukraine-Rus’. (New York, 1981)

Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, A History of Russia,   4th ed. (London,1984).

Vernadsky, trans. Medieval Russian Laws. (Records of Civilization V. 41). (New York, 1947)