Russia Private Law
As regards private law, as well as public law, it is first of all necessary to point out the lack of unity and uniformity of sources. The variety of rules, often opposing, winds in force on the boundless Russian territory is a consequence of the social and political structure of the old Russian state, governed by a hierarchy of social classes, which were called “states”. Clergy, nobility and bourgeoisie were the officially recognized “states”; but the economic and social base of the country was made up of the masses of peasants, freed from servitude in 1861.
Each social class had its own legal status, particular rights, provided for and governed by a special “code of laws on states” (Book IX of Svod zakonov). In each “governorship” (the main administrative district) there was the “noble tutelage”, that is a corporate institution for the nobility, presided over by the marshal of the nobility. Each important city had its own special organ for the administration of the “protection of the bourgeois”. The “protection of the peasants” was exercised according to the norms of customary law. The attempt to create a complete and harmonious complex of civil laws only dates back to modern times: the works were begun under Alexander III, and continued by Nicholas II, who, however, with his alternatives of liberalism and reaction, could not give life to that new right that the most enlightened spirits of Russia claimed.
The family has remained, through the centuries, “patriarchal” in its constitution. The power of the “father” is absolute over all members of the dvor, as is that of the prince or tsar over the people. The spirit of submission is commanded, for the people, by a law that emanates from God. Against the authority of the “head” family members can resort to small rural jurisdictions (tribunals of volost ′).
With regard to marriage, the introduction of Christianity made religious blessing considered an essential condition for its validity. In modern times, the Svod granted the Orthodox Church special jurisdiction, and the exclusive right to give legal form to unions – respecting certain obligations. Marriage conferred upon the woman the rights and privileges inherent in her husband’s status, rank and title. Divorce was allowed, and could only be pronounced by the ecclesiastical courts.
No rights were recognized by civil laws to natural children – and the only legitimacy was that authorized by an imperial decision. The peasants remained faithful to their customs which, in this matter, knew very few restrictions. Later, however, the juridical position of the natural children improved: the laws of 1891 and 1902 came to impose on the parents the obligation of the maintenance and education of the natural children, even if adulterous. The Svod did not declare any incapacity of the woman. It sanctioned an absolute separation of interests between husband and wife. Likewise, the parents had nothing on their children’s personal assets other than administrative obligations, without any right of usufruct.
The Russian law of succession has not at any time received a development commensurate with its importance. In the most ancient times there was an inability to dispose of one’s possessions, inherent to the personal state; in more recent times every person capable of common law could dispose of his possessions both in life and for after death. Russian law did not know about the institution of reserved heirs. The patrimony could also be fully linked to a foreigner. In case of death intestate, a portion of the assets was attributed to the property of the surviving spouse, the rest of the children: in the absence of children happening collateral, without any limitation due to the degree of kinship. Male sex enjoyed some preferences.
Real estate property, after the agrarian reform of 1861, was governed by two different systems of legal rules. The rules for furniture and buildings that are not part of the “agrarian fund” were contained in the Svod, in vol. X. Instead, the “peasants’ lands” (ie those lands that were granted to peasants after their emancipation) were subject to the provisions of the “Regulations on the state of peasants”, also included in Svod, vol. IX. The “Regulations” established a real estate regime essentially different from the ordinary law regime. The importance of this special legislation stems from the fact that it applied to about half of the total area of Russian lands.
The norms of common law, although insufficiently elaborated, were based on individual property, and in this sense they did not differ much from the principles of civil law accepted in other countries. Jurisprudence largely made up for the deficiencies of the written law. The real estate regime of the peasants was based instead on the concept of the agrarian community. Ownership of the lands, which the ancient servants had received from the barinyand from the state, at the time of the great agrarian reform of the emperor Alexander II it belonged to the “rural communities”. The peasants who were members of the communities had only one right of enjoyment over the common lands. The “agrarian fund” was inalienable. This state of affairs was partially modified by Stolypin (1906-10), in his attempt to introduce the concepts of private property in the Russian countryside.