The Russian judicial reform of 1864: its origins and development, 1825-1864

Stephen Wilson McIntire, Binghamton University--SUNY


The Russian Judicial Reform of 1864 has been hailed as one of Alexander II's “Great Reforms.” For it, along with the emancipation of the serfs, the creation of the zemstvos and, somewhat later, the military reforms, he inherited the appellation “Tsar-Liberator.” Most historians have regarded him as an enlightened and liberal monarch who intentionally set out to change fundamentally the constitutional foundations of the Russian Empire. In contrast, these same historians have consistently viewed his father and predecessor, Nicholas I, as a reactionary opponent of all change. Once freed from Nicholas’ tyrannical rule, the Russian people were then able to bask in a new era of freedom and progress.

These stereotyped images differ considerably from the truth. Alexander II did not originate the reform of the Russian judicial system. Contrary to the assertions of many historians, the Judicial Reform of 1864 was not a direct consequence of emancipation. Attempts to reform the judicial system were initiated throughout the reign of Nicholas I. Initially responding to the criticisms made by the Decembrists, whose abortive revolt profoundly affected him, Nicholas invited and encouraged a number of proposals to reform the judicial system. Within a short time, Dmitrii N. Bludov became the chief architect of many of these proposals. He and many of his contemporaries, including Nicholas, clearly perceived that the courts were both inefficient and unjust.


Although the primary purpose of this study is to illustrate the origins and development of the Judicial Reform of 1864, it is also intended to point out the need for further research. Until a number of documents have been carefully examined, it will remain impossible to know the details of the many proposals made by Bludov and it will remain impossible to understand fully the events surrounding the final composition of the reform statutes. The most important of these documents are the archives of the Second Section, which contain the drafts, texts and memoranda and explanatory notes concerning Bludov’s proposals. Another very important source of information is the Materials on the Reform of the Russian Judicial System. This printed, but not published, seventy-four volume set contains all the memoranda, correspondence and draft legislative proposals made during the period 1861-1864. Because these documents are located in the Central State Historical Archives in Leningrad (TsGIAL) and are consequently inaccessible to this writer, it has been necessary to rely on published primary and secondary works, some of which contain fragments of these important documents.

Despite these limitations, it has been possible to demonstrate that the process of reforming the Russian judicial system was begun long before the reign of Alexander II. It has also been possible to make clearer the important role played by Dmitrii Bludov in this process.