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  • Along the Routes of JusticeJudicial Circuit Riding in Western Siberia during the Late Imperial Period
  • Evgenii A. Krestiannikov
    Translated by Elaine MacKinnon (bio)

In the 1860s, Russians gained unprecedented freedoms, which were guaranteed by the establishment of an independent judiciary with the capacity to check the tyranny of the autocracy. But, upon challenging the authoritarian regime, the new system of justice quickly found itself in conflict with the government, spurring tsarist lawmakers to make corrections that weakened it.1 In the provinces, judicial reform moved more slowly and underwent further distortions, often due to peculiar local circumstances, and increasingly the natural geographic features of Russia’s vast empire influenced the organization of the new judicial system. It took three decades and the law of 13 May [End Page 315] 1896 for the judicial reform of Alexander II to be carried out in the largest region of the empire, Siberia.2 Even then, the associated system of justice had a unique structure that scholars are only now beginning to study intensively.3 However, historians are still not specifically interested in the many problems that afflicted the courts in this region, including the regimen of judicial circuit riding.

Although the official trips made by judges and magistrates may seem of minor importance, what little attention they have received thus far illuminates key factors in the functioning of Russian justice.4 Generally, however, the focus has been primarily on the central regions with only slight consideration given to the country as a whole. With some well-known exceptions, the regimen of judicial travel can be considered a vigorous response to formidable challenges or as a sometimes extreme means to resolve certain problems and achieve better results. Studying it deepens our understanding of the stability and effectiveness of a system consisting of widely diverse components; because it stands on the front line of the structure’s confrontation with complicated or uncommon conditions, it tests its durability and is thus a reliable marker for diagnosing complex systems, especially when they are under stress.

Tsarist Russia on the eve of World War I was indeed an arena of growing contradictions that spurred polarization, intensified internal conflict, and [End Page 316] revolutionized the situation.5 Society was deeply divided, and the country’s political and bureaucratic structure was fragile and overstretched, unlikely to endure for long even in a time of peace.6 It is true that recent studies of the Russian justice system do not emphasize political tension, but on the contrary talk about the harmony of state and society as evidenced in the successful functioning of the volost´ courts or the normalization of dialogue between lawyers and the government after the First Russian Revolution of 1905–7.7 However, these works encompass only certain dimensions of judicial relations and offer a simplified view of the circumstances without considering the diverse situation of justice in the country. On the periphery, however, in the “other Russia,” which in the period under review was the Asian Trans-Ural region, the judicial system and court procedures were severely tested by extreme conditions.8 In this light, the itinerant judicial circuits—involving movement across time and space and a constant risk of encountering unexpected situations—examined through the lens of Siberia with its harsh conditions and expansive landscape provide a more appropriate indicator of the conduct of both the judiciary itself and of the entire state organism.

Tsarism during the late imperial period sought to integrate Siberia into the all-Russian order and focused above all on establishing mechanisms of control that had already been tested at the center. Traditions of colonialism, however, impeded the success of such measures. The autocracy, once it determined the balance between the cost and benefits derived from its outlying regions, clearly skimped on the regions that were the farthest away.9 Consequently, modern scholars contend that the periphery received less than it provided and, moreover, “received not what the populace wanted but what Petersburg and Moscow offered.”10 Very few of Siberians’ needs were satisfied [End Page 317] unless they also served the interests of the government or of Russian entrepreneurs.11 The metropole’s habit of “saving” the best for itself slowed...


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pp. 315-344
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