Final Public Oral Exam: Patrick Monson

Imperializing Pluralism: Legal Reform, Language Rights, and Shifting Pluralities in Imperial Russia's Baltic Provinces, 1860–1917
Thursday, May 2, 2024, 1:00 pm3:00 pm


Event Description


Ekaterina Pravilova, adviser
Natasha Wheatley
Rosina Lozano
Bradley Woodworth, University of New Haven


This dissertation examines tensions between legal pluralism and homogenization raised by Imperial Russia’s 1864 progressive judicial reform. German elites, who held a monopoly over a distinctive Baltic legal system, attempted to draft reform legislation. Some central officials perceived certain elements of the local legal system as more advanced than those of the empire. Yet Baltic elite control over the judiciary contradicted a core reform principle: that all social groups were to be equal before the law. They proposed decentralizing and democratizing the legal system by opening up the courts to other social groups and local languages. Such a policy would have resulted in more accurate justice and a more localized, inclusive form of plurality.

The opposite view, however, won out. The final, centralizing reform of 1889 imposed Russian as the exclusive language of oral proceedings. While officials expressed some geopolitical concerns, they primarily touted greater impartiality and the protection of rights as their primary motives. This warranted full merger with the empire, even at the expense of linguistic rights and accuracy. This signaled the state’s transition from a composite empire— consisting of pluralistic, differentiated legal orders—to a more unitary state and legal order.

Local law, however, remained in force. The Baltics’ legally pluralistic position thus shifted from one of elite-based autonomy to a unique form of state-centric pluralism in which the imperial state not only influenced, but completely hegemonized, or “imperialized,” Baltic legal particularity.

I argue that the new Russian-speaking judges drew on rigorous training in Roman law to interpret the Romano-Germanic Baltic civil law with remarkable competence. Their meticulous attention to evidence generally culminated in equitable treatment of Baltic litigants. Yet frequent mistranslation resulted in inaccurate rulings, challenging the premise of linguistically homogenizing states as more capable arbiters. Despite these challenges, as well as the lack of translations of law codes, many Estonians and Latvians managed to obtain justice by invoking evidence, expert knowledge, and tenets of local law. The growing presence of local bilingual jurists meant that Baltic particularity was becoming both more imperially integrated and more localized at the same time.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Lee Horinko Reed
Scholarly Series
Dissertation Defense