Russian traditions of cooperation – Kopa and Veche Law

Because of today’s alarmingly tragic social situation, Russian people are looking for ways of physical self-preservation; and revival of their cultural and spiritual identity. We need innovative ideas, ideals, heroes, customs and holidays including a new model of fair organization of our society that will not in any way be like the current crowd-elitism enforced by the West. It can be easily seen that the much-valued democracy of the Western type is far from public government and is actually a technology for deceiving common people. During elections of government bodies, we had observed a properly directed performance, a theatre scene, a gorgeous showing off that is immoral and rotten to the core. The present “democratic” election is merely a purchase and sale; vain promises, a selfish and unapologetic imitation of concern for people.

Let us refrain from recalling all the troubles, problems and injustices that the Russian faced in the XXI century; we know these very well. No wonder it goes this way, as for many centuries we have been living under the Roman and Byzantine laws originating in the centres of slavery, with their anti-humanism and contempt for a working person, instead of following our ancestral law.

We are asking a question: is there an alternative to a popular Roman law that had been widely used by the European states for many centuries? Answer; Yes, there is.

It is a public Russian Kopa and Veche law, a direct power of people, or public self-government that had existed for thousands of years in the Russian lands; and was kept in the Ancient Rus until the ХVII century. The Kopa law is a complex of public lawful customs and traditions that embody the principles of communality, mutual help and support among compatriots.

Unfortunately, the official written accounts provide little information about this ancient Russian law. Thousands of documents and books that contained information on this law were destroyed by zealous Christianizers of the Ancient Rus who sought the loss of the initial social orders among the Russian people. Thousand years ago, a foreign slavish ideology was imposed on our ancestors and still is today. Nevertheless, the preserved written sources (Russian-Byzantine agreements of the X (ten) century; notes of the Arabian traveller Ibn Rustah and the Arabian writer al-Marvasi; works of Byzantine authors Lev Deacon and Constantine Porphyrogenitus; West-European chronicles, tractates and annals, etc.) provide us with opportunities to reconstruct the lawful life of our ancestors – although lacunar –  as well as to restore the image and way of life of the original Russian world.

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Chronicles of Cossack communities, which also followed the public Kopa law, can also help us in researching the domestic lawful topic.

Kopa (kupa) is a public meeting of the best representatives of clans and families – s’hodatays (representatives, those who represented distinct community to the outer world), householders who took decisions on prominent issues for the Russian community. In Serbian language, a public meeting is called “skup” even now, and the supreme legislative body of Serbia is “Narodna Skuptshtina”. One does not have to be a philologist or linguist to understand how close is the meaning of cognate words “skopische”, “kopit”, “kopna”, “sovokupnost” (an aggregate meaning here is “united”).

The other name of the kopa, “gromada”, has been preserved, until now, in the Ukrainian language and means “society”, “state”.

Only the settled householders, s’hodatays/representatives, who had property, land areas, family and households could participate in these meetings. They were also called “kopa judges”, “muzheve” (men), “community men”, while a term “panove-muzhove” was used in the Malorossiya. People from three settlements of the neighbouring community (one or two) were also invited to the kopa. They were called “storonniye”, “sugranichnye” or “okolichniye” (a general meaning here is “neighbour people”). The elders were present as well; they could not vote but their opinion and advices were appreciated. Women, generally, were admitted to a folk meeting only by request, to provide witness evidences.

S’hodatays gathered in the centre of one of the villages in the community, or in a “dubrava”/oak forest – a sacred grove in the open air. In such places, there was always a natural or man-made hill, and a river or a lake. The places of community meetings were called “kopische” or “kopovische”. People were called for a meeting by starting a fire or ringing a bell (gong).

At the kopa meeting, various social issues were discussed: land, forest, agricultural, building, trade, criminal, domestic, household and other. Community meeting was responsible for searching, judging and punishing criminals; and returned the stolen property to the offended. Sincere public remorse of the violator and remission by the offender were appreciated. The last will of the violator was accounted, and fatally wounded ones were forgiven. S’hodatays tried to reconcile the disputants. Disputes among the community people were solved in all fairness.

Decisions of the kopa meeting were respected by all members of the community and were executed in full obedience. Violations of the Kopa law were quite rare. Whenever this happened, it was accounted as an emergency event. Anyone who faced a violation of community customs had to supress it. Otherwise, such a person was considered a contributor to a crime and was punished under the law. Every Russian person treated the opinion of the kopa as the higher spiritual and moral guide.

A significant difference of the kopa from other meetings, conferences and conventions that were held in the coming centuries, was a principle of Unanimity. The decisions taken here pleased all who were present. The Russian people could come to an agreement. This makes us think that the Russian were spiritually rich and highly moral. The decision was not taken by the majority of votes, as happened in later times.

The meeting imposed a joint responsibility, i.e. the whole community was responsible for faults of its members; as well as guaranteed safety of life and property of its members and guests. Due to the Kopa law, the Russian communities had a high birth rate and the population quickly recovered after wars and epidemics and patriotic warriors were brought up. Settlements and surroundings were kept pure ecologically, and forests were protected and revived.

During a rampant and emotional discussion of issues at the kopa meeting, the best qualities of the Russian came out: sincerity, honesty, unselfishness, frankness, braveness and magnanimity. Meetings took a form of public confession; people’s souls became free from greed, envy and other individual taints. Public interests ranked higher than personal ones; the law of fairness ruled. Acts of community people were strictly observed. For many Russians, the kopa meeting was a school of life and moral education.

People elected a ten-leader (desyatsky) from ten households and a hundred-leader (sotnik) for one in hundred households. The communities themselves were called “sotnya” (hundred).

In Novgorod, the words “sotnya” and “sto” (hundred) were established in town communities long ago. Rural communities, on the contrary, were generally called “pogost”. In other places (Vladimirskaya and Volynskaya lands), the term “sotnya” (hundred) denoted a rural, not town community.

Ten-leaders and hundred-leaders controlled the ecology of villages, dealt with household and land issues, provided public order in the streets, fair trade in the markets; and provided fire safety. A hundred-leader obtained the power to render decisions on material and physical punishments for violators, solved the issues of construction of public premises, and permitted living of foreigners and captives.

To protect their lands from enemies, Russians elected commanders (knyaz) from solid generations of warriors (electivity of commanders existed until VIII-IX centuries, and was preserved in the next centuries only under the Veche orders). The commander (knyaz) selected himself a druzhina (squad) from the bravest and strongest men. The kopa allocated ten percent (desyatina) of the income of householders for their maintenance, construction of boundary posts and defence lines. If military-defence objects were to be built in the quickest time, this was made voluntarily and together by all men of the community. In times of war, all the male population of the community able to bear weapons became warriors.

In the system of the Ancient Russian self-organization, all public posts were elected (usually for a short term). If a person elected by people failed to fulfil or improperly fulfilled his obligations, he was immediately un-elected and punished materially. Thus, society always remained healthy and mobile, and was safe from unfair, irresponsible, lazy or incompetent social leaders.

For many centuries, Russian public law had been transferred through generations of our ancestors in oral form. Public legal norms began to be recorded only when feudalism came to Russian lands.

Some researchers call the legal code of Russians “The Russian Pokon” (Law). This code had been used by the Rus since the V – VI centuries and was mentioned in agreements with Romeya (Byzantine Empire) of 911 and 944. In ancient times, it was called “Ustroyeniye otne I dedne” (The Code of Ancestors). In the epoch of Common-Russian solidarity the words “sud (court), “zakon” (law), “pravo” (right), “pravda” (truth), “vina” (guilt), “kazn” (execution) appeared in the Ancient Russian language. “The Russian Law (Pokon)” came to the Middle Podneprovye in the IХ century together with Balts and Carpathian Russes and became widely used by the population of the Kyiv Land. This was a lawful framework of the Russian communities that lived in the territory from Baltics to the Black Sea. In the Middle Podneprovye, norms of this legislation worked more in favour of the Rusichi (Rusich – original nation lived on the Russian land, where Russian is a person of any nation who wants or follows the lifestyle of Rusichi) than the Russian (e.g., the Russian people were deprived of the right for blood revenge). Many Russian tribes (during the time of knyaz Igor), “each under its own law” acted according to their own rules. “The Russian Law (Pokon)” did not include freedom as an abstract notion or an absolute moral value. Only freedom of a certain person or a group of people was considered. To “Know one’s place” was the main principle of the Ancient Russian ancestral law. In considering disputes, this legal system did not account the material status of the disputants; all people were equal before the Law.

Gradually, the “Russian Law” and Russian Law merged in such a way that they entered the “Russian Truth” (Russkaya Pravda), which protected the interests  not the people but of the newly appeared boyar, and then landlord (pomeschik) and noble (dvoryane) clans. After Christianization of Russian lands, many provisions of the “Pokon” were discarded and forgotten.

Our ancestors treated seriously and respectfully their community law. This is proved by their oaths – Rusichi swore to gods and on weapons, which differs from the Russian who never swore on weapons. They gave with their right hand a cut shred of hair(as a symbol that they swore with their head. Sometimes hair was replaced with a bunch of grass, to bring Mother Earth, the provider of life and power, as a witness. Sometimes a plug of sod was put on a head or the ground was kissed. The symbolic meaning was that gods look after people.

Legislative innovations, which were brought in the Russian lands from other territories, hardly accustomed among our ancestors, because only the ancestral law (otsove, dedovo) was appreciated and valued.

By protecting life of the Russians, their dignity, lands, health and property, the law then was quite stern to violators. The guilty people were charged with big penalties. For example, for beating a fellow man with a blunt side of a sword or a household item, an offender had to pay 1.5 kilograms of silver to the victim. “Russian Law” included two severe but fair types of punishment, confiscation of property and execution.

Any existing blood revenge was regulated by the lex talionis where punishment was proportional to the damage brought by crime. After a judicial proceeding, the right for blood revenge was granted to relatives of the victim. Fratricide in the ancient public law was not excused. [It becomes clear why the Kyiv knyaz Vladimir, who killed his blood-brother Yaropolk, changed the religion of Svarozhichi for his own benefit together with specific legal acts – Meanwhile, there were  other reasons of personal nature for his actions]. In ХI-ХII centuries in Kyiv “bratina” became popular, which is a workshop community of the Russian craftsmen. A “bratina” had its own house for meetings and elective bodies of self-government that were headed by publicly elected heads (starosta). The members of the “bratina” were all armed and consolidated with strict discipline. They often and successfully challenged the pressure of boyars/landlords and feudal lords. The latter had to deal with working people who restrained their selfish appetites. Such bratinas existed in Vladimir and other Russian towns as well.

At the turn of VIII-IX centuries in the Russian lands, the consolidation of territories for the Union of Lands began. The Union had a pre-state form of government. The most famous and reputable among tribal unions was the Ilmensky Union (Soyuz sloven Ilmenskih). In the 60s of the IX century, a tribal confederation was established, which obtained a quality of state formation – the Novgorodskaya Rus, the Ryurik’s Empire (derzhava).

Forced Christianization of Russians resulted in loss of the Russian-Aryan lawful culture and furthermore destroyed the outlook established over thousands of years. In times of the Conversion of Rus into foreign religion, feudal wars between Russian lords became common and fierce which in turn lead to the destruction of Russian unity.

Despite a harsh and forced Christianization of Russians, which brought foreign laws and customs to the Rus, the public Kopa law stubbornly remained in almost every Russian land. However, foreign Pospolitoye (Polish) and Magdeburg (German) laws began to intrude into these lands more and more aggressively. The new orders taken from the West were beneficial for rich citizens, feudal lords, boyars, and later rich landlords (pomeschik). These very people were the first avid pursuers of the kopa as a speaker of public interests. Multiple occurring feudal lords (knyaz) opposed rural kopas as well as town kopas. Certain towns too independent and rebellious were destroyed by feudal lords by sword and fire, but these towns rose again because of their growing population and development of crafts. Greatly, because of the Kopa law, they were filled with new life power. Feudal lords were inheritably gaining power and struggling with public kopa for several centuries.

Through time, citizens who got accustomed to Western legal innovations, stopped attending the kopa. To such cities were automatically joined surrounding (okolichny) villages, where tyranny of feudal lords began to rise. The serfdom law (a monstrous invention of the Russian feudal system and its patrons, the Romanoff tsars) promoted the transition of the kopa to a rural court, where one representative (s’hodatay) was assigned for each village. In fact, s’hodatays could no longer resist the pressure of selfish landlords who, more and more shameless even had the right to mutilate their peasants. Murders also occurred.

Priests and rural officers always took the side of feudal lords. Therefore, s’hodatays could no longer prove their rights and influence meeting decisions. Often, feudal lords simply took their peasants away from the kopa, and in the ХVII century they openly prohibited serfs (enslaved peasants) to attend kopa meetings.

Neither could they attended kopa meetings themselves. Everything began to be made in such a way that public power and self-organization in the Rus would cease.

The public law was oppressed not only by multiple feudal lords, but also by the Orthodox Church, which over years became richer and more aggressive to sustain control – coercive methods still in effective today. The new European laws brought benefit only to several rich people mostly rogues, embezzlers and scoundrels who flourished on the backs, the efforts of working men.

Nevertheless, the kopa still stood out. It was hard to destroy it. Enthusiasm of Russians remained quite high for many centuries. Ancient act books certify that in 1602 the Kopa law was still alive and functioning in certain Russian territories. Criminal cases were discussed directly at the place of crime, e.g. in a grove, near the river or under a mountain. Often, a victim independently searched for a violator, collected evidences and public witnesses. Such a pre-trial investigation was called “obysk” (search). If an applicant could not find his offender, he requested a kopa meeting. A complaint of an applicant was listened attentively in silence without interruption. An applicant could request a kopa meeting three times.

When time came to solve land issues, s’hodatays gathered on the disputed land. If a feudal lord brought damage to someone, he was asked for a kopa meeting to have a talk. A feudal lord was asked for a kopa meeting three times; if he failed to arrive the third time, the kopa performed investigation and took the decision independently. A verdict of a public court was called “vypalyazok”, “usskazanye”, “znaidenye Kopa”, sometimes “vysskazanye Kopa”. In later acts, the term “kopa decree” was used. If an applicant came to a peace agreement with an offender, the latter was forgiven. For a long time, strong Russian cities like Pskov and Novgorod had been called free exactly because they adhered to the ancient Russian law and preserved the Aryan legal culture.

The Kopa law became a basis of the Veche law that had been used in the Rus in the beginning of the Middle Ages. (In terms of the Ancient Russian language, “veche” means “meeting”, “council”). Chronicles mention veche in Yuzhny Belgorod (997), Veliky Novgorod (1016), and Kyiv (1068). However, veche meetings of citizens were held earlier. The Russian and Soviet Historian I. Y. Froyanov believed that at the end of the first (1) to the beginning of the second (II) millennium A.D., the veche was the supreme governing body in all Russian lands and not only in the Novgorod republic. Representatives of nobility (feudal lords, boyars, church hierarchy) managed these huge meetings, but did not have enough power to undermine decisions of public concern nor be able to subject people to their will.

At a veche, a full range of issues were discussed, for instance, making peace and declaring war, disposing feudal assets, financial and land resources. Contracts with feudal lords were concluded; actions of lords, local heads and other officers were regulated; sovereigns, posadniks, and thousand-leaders of cities and neighbour settlements were elected and repositioned. A veche also defined obligations of peasants, solved land issues, set the rules for trade and privileges, controlled judicial terms and terms of execution of verdicts.

A veche was a mechanism for flattening social contradictions for our ancestors. However, social non-uniformity of the Ancient Russian society, which had become established over centuries, made public meetings more and more subordinate to the boyar aristocracy. As early as in XII—XIII centuries, not only in the Novgorod republic but also in other Russian lands, the territorial nobility had significantly subjected veche meetings to its will.

Sometimes knuckle fights happened at city veche meetings (as opposed to a rural kopa, where such things never happened). It happened when one of the boyar groupings needed to promote a decision they favoured – their side of it.

Yet these fights were not merely a street fight; these were regulated by certain rules of judicial fighting. In ХII-XIII centuries, Novgorod people behaved so fiercely that feudal lords declined going to them. In the ХIV century, veche moods in Novgorod began to calm down – quieter. As time passed, a veche became a messenger of boyar’s will that was executed as people’s will, a kind of compromise between the so-called elite and ordinary people.

The Veche government remained in Novgorod until the mid-ХV century. This truly great city was one of the last headquarters of self-government and public power in already feudal Russia. After Muscovite tsars seized Veliky Novgorod and Pskov, veche orders started to disappear from these lands. The weaker and less organized Russian towns surrendered to the Pospolitoye or Magdeburg legal norms much earlier.

The meaning of the community law in the Rus diminished along with the development of feudalism. When tsar regime provided feudal lords with absolute power and unlimited rights, public legal traditions finally lost influence and ultimately their power of governance. Nevertheless, elements of the Kopa law was preserved among Cossacks for a certain time. Best of all, the public law showed itself in Zaporozhskaya Secha. Cossacks were the ones who brought through centuries “zvychai pravanashego kopnago” (customs of our Kopa law).

As early as in the beginning of the ХХ century, the word “volost” had been used in Russia. It appeared in the Rus in the Х century and is closely related to the Kopa law. A volost was formed by rural communities that were ruled by the kopa. At a volost kopa, there were elected: administration, head (starosta), court, secretary, petitioners (hodatays on social affairs going to a capital city).

The responsibilities of the administration included keeping books, where decisions of meetings, deals, and trade and labour agreements were recorded.

A head (starshina) presided at meetings. Responsibilities included the keeping of archive documents (decrees, diplomas, receipts, etc.); the bringing of any peasant to court; announcing decrees of the kopa on criminal cases. A head strictly observed the following of public laws, being an intermediary between householders and a feudal lord; before whom he spoke in the interests of people. To settle conflicts between a lord and community people, a head explained feudal requirements and decisions to disputants.

A head was responsible for his affairs before a hundred-leader (sotsky), a hundred-leader before a ten-leader (desyatsky), a ten-leader before householders. Each of the public ‘elects’, if they lost the people’s trust, could at any time be recalled and re-elected. Still, this happened quite rarely, as public trust in the said times was greatly valued.

When Ryurik came to Novgorod, knyaz power in the Rus began to be transferred to heirs. The Russian-Aryan elective government system began to lose its significance. A knyaz (later a tsar) now was not the most reputable (strongest, bravest, etc.) representative of people, but any untalented, disabled and even mentally defected heir of the governing dynasty. Governing structures began to alienate from public interests (which is seen today).

By the ХVII century, we had an already established monarchy without any mention of public rights and interests. A new upsurge and revival of public power, yet now transformed, occurred in the Soviet times. However, in the end of the ХХ century, not without help of the mentioned West, we had also lost the Soviet Union.

We are not running to extremes and idealizing the Kopa and Veche public organization in the Rus. Of course, our ancestor had their problems and hardships. However, the Rusichi and Russian people never faced such a hard-boiled mayhem and anti-humanism, that rule in our society today. We believe that their society was organized in a much more rationale, fair and moral way than ours. Communality (in the ХХ century, collectivism) is a great idea. By losing it we, the successors of the Russians, are losing ourselves, our identity, our spiritual culture, our moral fibre and our unique soul. The sooner we realize it, the more chances we have that the New Rus in the XXI century will not only survive, but will also upgrade to the level of the leading global superpowers. Sure, enough today we will not be able (and this is not necessary) to bring laws of the Kopa and Veche codes in all their complexity to the modern society. However, we can and we should take the best from the depth of centuries, from a fair and honest system of a direct public power.

Any man of sense will agree that the current parasitic system of fooling people should be changed. Actually, how to come about is another question. Now the only thing we know is that Russian people need to bring back direct public power. Self-organization is our rescue and not pressure of governing power from above but its independent formation from below. Only this way can we provide a decent living for our fellow citizens in the ХХI century.

The times of the Russian civilization, no matter what it may be called, are still ahead. Today, Russian people should come out of this condition of thousand-year Bible slavery and serving the West.


Original article