The Lawful Empire: Legal Change and Cultural Diversity in Late Imperial Russia

By Stefan B. Kirmse

“The Lawful Empire” combines an analysis of law and legal practice with a discussion of autocratic rule over a multicultural empire. It is as much about new legal institutions and their implications for an emerging rule of law in late tsarist Russia as it is about equality and cultural diversity. It examines the introduction and local use of the court system created by the Judicial Reform of 1864, its gradual expansion across the Eurasian landmass over the following three decades, and its importance for Russian imperial rule. Focusing on two regions that stood out for their ethnic and religious diversity, it follows the spread of the new legal institutions into the open steppe of southern Russia, especially Crimea, and into the fields and forests of the Middle Volga region around the ancient Tatar capital of Kazan. As these former frontier zones were home to large Tatar populations, this book is also about the integration of Muslims.

Stefan B. Kirmse. The Lawful Empire: Legal Change and Cultural Diversity in Late Tsarist Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

The book addresses a number of interrelated questions. First, it is concerned with the changing imperial imagination. How did formerly alien territories change over time in the minds of regional and central elites? How did the images of the people inhabiting these lands evolve? Second, by looking at the legal system, the book addresses the role and perception of state institutions in culturally diverse regions. It examines the ways in which these institutions were seen and appropriated locally. How did Muslim Tatars and other minorities participate in the state judiciary? Third, it explores the forms and channels of communication between individuals, rural communities, and local, regional, and central authorities. How did people communicate approval or resentment? The book highlights different forms of state-society interaction, from cooperation and accommodation to indifference, boycott, and resistance. Finally, the descriptions of everyday life in Tatar communities that emerge from court files and other archival materials help to paint detailed portraits of the towns and villages along the Volga River and the Black Sea coast. The same sources also reveal much about inter-religious life at the local level, offering new perspectives on Christian-Muslim relations.

An Innovative Perspective: A Bottom-Up Regional Approach

Focusing on the voices of local administrators, small-town jurists, and ordinary town and village dwellers (Russian, Tatar, and others), this book offers a bottom-up approach to the study of law and empire. It chooses a regional perspective with an emphasis on cultural diversity. Rather than base the analysis on laws passed from the center, and the memoirs of elites in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the book is concerned with the way in which justice was implemented and perceived at the local level. How did people make sense of the state legal system in Crimea and Kazan, two regions that constitute what we might call “intermediate terrains”, that is, former frontier zones that, by the mid-nineteenth century, were largely treated as part of the imperial core? With this regional focus, the book delivers a unique contribution to both studies of law in imperial Russia and studies of the empire’s evolving frontier.

Challenging Common Assumptions: The Case for Accommodation

The study of law and empire in Russia is full of entrenched assumptions. Making a case for late tsarist Russia as a “lawful empire”, this book challenges standard accounts, which portray Russian imperial rule as particularly conservative and as repressive toward ethnic and religious diversity. It also casts doubt on assumptions about Russia’s Muslims, who are often presented as hostile or at best indifferent toward state institutions and their Christian neighbors. While violence did occur, pragmatic accommodation usually won out: the reformed legal system empowered Muslims and others and accommodated their concerns wherever possible. At the same time, the population – Christian, Muslim, or other – accommodated each other’s interests, along with state demands, as much as it could. And yet, the story told in this book is not a success story. It is complex. It is not only full of pragmatism but also full of people who reject compromise; it shows a remarkable modernizing zeal, and a local bureaucracy caught between a chronic lack of resources and the determination to get things done nevertheless; and it shows state-society interaction replete with tension, negotiation, and frustrated hopes.

A Lawful Empire: Legality, Diversity, and Equality

The addition of an imperial dimension to the analysis of legal change and practice not only offers new insights into the motivations for reform but also helps to highlight the coexistence of different ideas of what society should look like and how it should be run. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire’s new class of jurists came to see ethnicity and religion as more and more irrelevant. Ideas of universality and citizen-building gradually replaced the notion of a confessionally-clustered society, which had dominated before. The book shows that ethnic and religious minorities were integrated into the new legal order as much as possible. After the judicial reform, equality before the law, understood as equal access to and equal treatment in the legal system, became a fact of life for unprecedented numbers of people. Many of them, including many Muslim Tatars, came to use the new courts and thus had crucial aspects of their lives – crime, land, and property disputes – regulated by these courts.

That said, society remained divided by estates each endowed with specific rights and obligations. Equal access to courts did not mean equal rights. Large parts of the population, especially the peasantry, continued to be socially segregated (regardless of ethnicity or religion). The post-reform judiciary could not do anything about rights that had never been conferred; what it could do was defend the rights that had been granted with new vigilance. Late tsarist Russia thus developed into a “lawful empire” insofar as its new court system was based on transparent procedures, independently-minded legal professionals, and a sober dispensation of justice based on evidence. The post-reform courts turned into remarkable centers of legality (zakonnost’). As the final chapter of the book documents, by the late 1870s, even the governor of Kazan could be dismissed for subjecting rebellious Muslims to corporal punishment, put under house arrest, and scheduled for trial by jury.

This line of argument contributes to both contemporary debates and more recent academic writing: the late imperial legal system accommodated diversity, often by making it invisible and irrelevant. This insight challenges not only the stereotype of imperial Russia as a police state but also the virtual obsession of academics and imperial observers with cultural difference (and the Muslim “Other”). For most jurists, there was no “Muslim threat”. At the same time, a debate on the role of Muslims became virulent in government circles, in the press, and elsewhere in the empire’s emerging public sphere: Can they ever be fully integrated? How fanatical are they? Such questions sound oddly familiar to twenty-first century readers. This fascination with cultural difference makes it vital to look at examples of relative equality and similarity.

A Contribution to Key Legal Debates: Particularism vs Universalism

The question of legal pluralism is fiercely debated across different academic fields, including history, anthropology, and international relations. How do different legal systems gain legitimacy, how do they interact and compete? What is more desirable: greater legal autonomy or greater unity? While legal unification was long assumed to be a beneficial, natural process (a side product of “modernization”), increasingly, it has also been seen as a dangerous force, a homogenizing steamroller. Anthropologists, in particular, have discussed alternatives to “state law” and formal jurisprudence at great length. In the case of late imperial Russia, scholars are now highlighting a continuing, even growing, legal particularism along social and religious lines. Studies of customary law and sharīʻa courts have blossomed. For some scholars, legal unification was little more than a liberal pipedream, an unfulfilled concern for Russia’s reform-minded elites. Yet, my book suggests that the case is not so clear-cut. The role of the state courts steadily expanded, leading to the emergence of a hesitatingly unified legal space in which ethnic and religious distinctions faded into the background. A focus on “intermediate terrains”, such as Crimea and Kazan, is useful for discussing the tension between legal unification and the promotion of difference. In these spaces, the tensions were far more visible than in the empire’s traditional heartlands and more distant peripheries such as Central Asia and large parts of the Caucasus.

Lessons from Crimea and Kazan: Spatial and Sectoral Differentiation

The addition of a legal dimension to the discussion of imperial rule in Crimea and Kazan underlines the ambivalence of such rule: the drive for greater inclusiveness among jurists, paired with continued structural discrimination, reluctant local administrators, and poor resources. It also stresses spatial and temporal differences. The inclusive approach pursued in these two regions (which showed convergence amidst remarkable idiosyncrasies) provides a contrast to continued segregation along much of the empire’s Western border, most of Siberia, Central Asia, and parts of the Caucasus. This discussion helps to shift the literature’s current focus from an emphasis on failed integration to ambivalence and differentiation. Repression and discrimination against Muslims remained part of imperial rule in many spheres of life. Greater equality in the judicial sector, for example, coexisted with greater constraints in the education and socio-political sectors. At the same time, Muslims were not all treated the same: in the empire’s deeply territorialized form of rule, their status and life options depended greatly on where they lived. Some became more integrated than others. But, in the end, it was a question of governance and financial resources, rather than cultural politics.

A New Perspective on Muslims

While the integration of Muslims has become one of the most hotly debated issues in Russian history, the focus in this debate is very much on cultural difference as a problem, and on state repression versus local subversion. What is more, the story is almost invariably told from the perspective of elites, be they Russian statesmen or Tatar intellectuals. “The Lawful Empire” offers a different approach. While looking at changing legislation and communication between the center and local authorities in Crimea and Kazan, it engages with people’s lived realities on the ground. The point is that the vast majority of Tatars in the Russian Empire were not merchants or religious scholars; they were poor peasants. Indeed, while Muslims feature prominently in this book, they are not discussed, first and foremost, as religious personas. Far from it, Muslims had their lives shaped by the fact that they were farmers, day laborers, and lower-level bureaucrats, rich and poor, delinquent and law-abiding, religiously observant and indifferent, and that they belonged to different ethnicities, genders, and age groups. This books tries to do justice to this diversity by exploring everyday life and the legal sphere as an interactive space in which jurists, police, and ordinary litigants experienced and actively shaped state policy.


Stefan B. Kirmse. The Lawful Empire: Legal Change and Cultural Diversity in Late Tsarist Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


Stefan B. Kirmse is a Senior Research Fellow and research coordinator at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, a Senior Lecturer of Modern History at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Principal Investigator at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies. He is the author of Youth and Globalization in Central Asia (Campus, 2013) and the editor of Youth in the Former Soviet South (Routledge, 2011) and One Law for All? Western Models and Local Practices in (post-) Imperial Contexts (2012). In the academic year 2012/2013, Stefan was a Fellow of Rechtskulturen, a former research program of the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin.


Citation: Stefan B. Kirmse, The Lawful Empire: Legal Change and Cultural Diversity in Late Imperial Russia, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.04.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23618.


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