London: T. Jefferys, at the Corner of St. Martin’s Lane, Charing-Cross, 1768. Quarto, measuring 11 x 8.25 inches: xxiii,  3-258. Contemporary three-quarter calf, raised bands ruled in gilt, traces of gilt decoration to spine compartments, marbled paper boards, no spine label, text block uncut. Woodcut initials and headpieces throughout text. Private library label (“Case D / Shelf 6”) and cropped armorial bookplate to front pastedown, early owner signature to title page. Boards rubbed; expert reinforcement to joints and corners; light occasional foxing, heavier to first and last pages.
First English translation of Catherine the Great’s Nakaz, her instructions to the commission she convened in 1767 to reform the Russian legal system. A student of the philosophes, Catherine was inspired by the principles of Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau, as well as the writings of the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria. She was eager to promote herself as a voice of enlightened reason, and Russia as a modern European nation. Although she considered the absolute power of the tsar the only practical means of governing such a vast empire, her Nakaz represented a striking break with Russia’s feudal past: “the Equality of the Citizens consists in this; that they should all be subject to the same Laws.” Catherine called for a transparent, universally applied legal code: “The Laws ought to be written in the common vernacular Tongue; and the Code, which contains all the Laws, ought to be esteemed as a Book of the utmost Use, which should be purchased at as small a Price as the Catechism.” She argued that “it is better to prevent Crimes, than to punish them,” condemning the use of torture and the death penalty. The hundreds of commissioners Catherine appointed, representing a range of regional and class interests, fell into partisan squabbling soon enough, and the 1768 war with the Turks provided an excuse to suspend the reform project. But the Nakaz, widely translated and debated across Europe, and banned by Louis XV in France, placed Russia in a new light internationally. Predating the American and French revolutions, Catherine’s early attempt to articulate a modern legal system “established an ideal and a measure for future legal reform in Russia,” and remains a compelling document of the Enlightenment (Wortman, 59). Voltaire described the Nakaz as “the finest monument of the age.” A wide-margined, near-fine example of a scarce book, in a contemporary binding.