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History of the Senate

    The Senate had been one of the Russian Empire’s supreme state bodies of power from the times of Peter the Great to the 1917 October Revolution.

   The Senate was established on February 22, 1711 by a Decree of Peter I in order to manage the state during Tsar’s frequent absences, which were required by the Northern War. It was composed of 10 people, who included both representatives of old boyar families and of the new nobility.

    Initially the Senate's seat was in Moscow, but in 1714 it had been relocated to St. Petersburg. The powers of the Senate expanded extremely rapidly. It was required to ensure consistent implementation of the law, to oversee execution of justice, finances, trade and military affairs. Subsequently the Senate was entrusted with questions of central and local government. The Senate was given a power of final decision over judicial cases. Later the Senate started to oversee the work of its constituent colleges. 1722 saw the institution of the offices of prosecutor-general, maitre des requetes (a reporter of addresses to the Tsar) and king-of-arms (composer of coats-of-arms and genealogic tables) within the Senate.

   The Senate established a comprehensive order of resolution of its cases. Its  instruction stated that materials shall not be accepted, unless there was a decision on them by lower and intermediate instances.

    During the reign of Peter the Great the Senate was a supreme representative body, entrusted by the Emperor with legislative, administrative and judicial powers as well as supreme controlling functions. All civil administration was not only de jure subordinated to the Senate, but de facto as well. The title of “Governing” fit the Senate's purpose.

    During the reigns of Catherine I, Peter II and Anna Ioannova the Senate was stripped of the majority of its powers, being restricted first by the Supreme Privy Council and later by the Cabinet of Ministers.

    Empress Elizabeth restored the governing status of the Senate. It resumed issuing laws and was empowered to conduct supreme oversight over activities of all institutions.

     In 1742 the Senate deemed males and females under 17 juveniles and exempted them in cases of grave crimes from torture and capital punishment. Two years later the Senate forbade the execution of death sentences without prior certification by itself. In 1751 and 1753 the Senate had ordered suspension of death penalty in Russia.

     Empress Catherine II had a suspicious vision of the Senate as for her it resembled the Boyar Duma. Thus, it was gradually stripped of its principal powers. Not only was the Senate deprived of its political influence, its internal administration was also restricted.

    In 1763 Catherine II reformed senatorial paperwork. The Senate was divided into departments, each of those was assigned a particular sphere of activity: internal and political affairs of the state, judicial matters, issues of the governorates, questions of military and admiralty colleges.

    Tsar Alexander I was influenced by ideas of Peter the Great and contemplated restoration of the Senate’s rights. However the emperor’s entourage was of the opinion that Russia will undergo drastic transformations and thus it would be prudent to confine Senate to judicial matters. These discussions resulted in a new decree on institution of the Senate of 1802. Pursuant to this decree, the ministers were placed under Senate supervision, however its practical participation in activities of the government remained weak.

    During the great reforms of Alexander II the Senate strengthened itself as the supreme supervisory body, which oversaw all judicial and administrative institutions of the Empire. Two cassation departments were established alongside with a supreme political court, a special ‘peasant’ department and a court to judge crimes and misdemeanors, committed by members of the judiciary.

   The number of the Senate’s departments varied during 19-20th centuries. However all cases were subject to a single unified procedure. The chancery prepared a report on the case, collected all the required references, data and documents, made up a note, which stated brief facts of a case as well as a text of a final judgment on a particular case.
    Private cases were decided by a vote of two thirds of the senators present. Cases, involving crimes committed by officials of the administration and crimes against state were decided by a majority vote.

    Competence of the Senate was limited to those cases and instances, which were stipulated by a clear and precise law. In case when law was not precise, the Senate possessed legislative initiative. This procedure was of great importance in those periods, when Russian legislation was developed and enriched itself through case-law, i.e. through landmark decisions on selected cases, which later assumed the status of a general rule. The situation persisted during the reigns of reigns of Peter I, Elizabeth and Catherine II. Subsequent development of the legislation was influenced by general issues and supreme interests of the state, rather than by case-law.

    In 1802 the Senate was given the right to petition the sovereign for cancellation of an objectionable law or for it to be specifically construed if the law in question lacked clarity or was of contradictory nature. However this right was curtailed after the very first attempt of the Senate to exercise it.
    When the Senate advised Alexander I that his new decree, which concerned the terms of service for non-commissioned officers, violated the decree on freedoms of nobility, the sovereign reacted with displeasure. In his next decree, the Emperor dismissed the Senate’s objections as ill founded and construed the application of the Senate’s right to issue further objections to include only laws already in force, excluding newly issued ones from its jurisdiction. 
    After a number of changes in internal organization, which occurred during 1800s, the Senate’s role in administrative matters began to decline. Executive bodies of the state were now headed by ministers.
    Nominally the Senate remained the supreme judicial and administrative body of the Empire, with no authority above it, except for that of the Emperor. However in fact by the end of the 19th century the Senate had transformed from the organ of actual administration into a judicial body and simultaneously an institution, which oversaw legality, as originally envisaged by Catherine II.
    In the wake of 1917 October revolt, Senate had been abolished by one of the first decrees of the Council of People's Commissars.

© Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, 2008-2022