How an article came to be

At the risk of seeming shamelessly self-promoting, here I am blogging about the article that I just had published in the Journal of Modern History, in part because I think the story of how I came to the topic and how I carried out research on it might be worthy of discussion.

I started doing archival work on my current larger project—which looks at how individual Russians changed their official social status, their soslovie, in the eighteenth and nineteenth (and, actually, early twentieth) centuries—in 2007.  Because at that time the Russian State Historical Archive (RGIA) was still closed due to its move, I started out in Moscow, working with eighteenth-century legal documents at the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts (RGADA), and with documents of local soslovie societies at the Central Historical Archive of Moscow (TsIAM).

I found vast amounts of material. The records of the Moscow Magistracy alone (TsIAM f. 32), which was for much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century the local administrative office that finalized decisions about soslovie registration, for example, contain thousands of files of individuals petitioning to enter the ranks of the Moscow meshchanstvo (the lower town status), particularly in the 1810s.  Most of them were freed serfs, which I totally expected.  More than half of them were women, which I totally did not expect.  And some of them were a category I’d never heard of: in Russian, выходцы из заграницы, which translates roughly to immigrants from abroad.

I really didn’t know who these people were—it seemed a redundant thing to call actual immigrants, plus there were other files that were labeled petitions from “the Englishman” or “the Prussian,” so I knew that actual immigrants from foreign country were usually labeled in that way.  So, I ordered a couple of the files to find out who these particular immigrants were.

Much to my surprise, they turned out to be not foreigners, but Russian subjects who had run away from their places of origin (almost always from serfdom), had fled abroad, and who were now seeking to be repatriated.  Even more surprising, they all referenced an Imperial Manifesto from 1814, under the auspices of which they were being allowed to change their social status, by registering as members of the Moscow meshchanstvo.

This, I thought, was interesting.  And so I ordered as many of these files as I could while I was in Moscow to try to figure out what was going on.

First, I just looked at the life stories of these men (or at least at as much of their stories as was evident from the files). They were all men, and that’s the first important thing about them, given the large number of women who were otherwise petitioning to enter the Moscow meshchanstvo at this time. Virtually all of them were runaway serfs, and most of them were either from Moscow province or from a neighboring province.  About half of the men described their reason for flight as having something to do with the military—either for fear of being drafted, or to get out of the army after being drafted.

All of this was interesting, and surprising in some ways, but not in others.  The unsurprising parts were that serfs would want to run away, and that people fled military service.  The surprising parts were first, that they were allowed to come back, and yet were not being returned to their owners; and second, that they came back at all.  And so the next stage of my research looked into the mechanism by which they were allowed to return to Russia—this I worked on when back in North America, using published legal sources (mostly, the Polnoe sobranie zakonov about which I’ve already written on this blog).

The specific laws that allowed this turned out to be an imperial Manifesto released on August 30, 1814, and a second one that clarified several of its points.  The manifesto was one of several released on that day, all given by the Emperor Alexander I to commemorate Russia’s victories in the Napoleonic wars by giving various “privileges and mercies” to the Russian population to thank them for their efforts. The relevant part of the manifesto was:

“to any kind or calling of military people, peasants, and other inhabitants, who have absented themselves from the country, their home, or their military detachment without permission, We give pardon, if those living inside Russia return by one year from this date, and from foreign lands within two years.” (PSZ vol. 32, no. 25671 (30 August 1814))

Furthermore, those who were returning from foreign lands would receive “complete freedom to choose their way of life.” (PSZ vol. 32, no. 25677 (30 August 1814))

This explained how these men were coming back into the country without being returned to their owners. But as I worked more, I realized that I’d come across similar fugitives in other archives, sometimes from earlier times. I still wanted more information, though, so I started looking through the PSZ to find earlier legislation on fugitive serfs and possible amnesties.  I found that starting as early as the reign of Empress Anna (r. 1730-1740) occasional amnesties had been granted to fugitives, acting as lures to encourage runaways to return, opposed to the normal, punitive efforts to return them by force.  It wasn’t until the reign of Catherine II (of course!) that the idea of granting not just amnesty for the crime of running away, but more significant freedom upon a fugitive’s return to the country developed. She released a number of manifestos granting this kind of amnesty, and Alexander’s 1814 Manifesto followed several similar ones from earlier in his reign.

This was all interesting, but I still didn’t quite have anything to say about this other than “isn’t this sort of cool?”  When I went back to Russia in 2009, it was to use the newly reopened RGIA, and I hoped that I’d be able to find a bit more information about all of this. I also found myself with an unexpected opportunity to do a bit more research in a couple of other possible relevant archives.  While I was in St. Petersburg, I realized that I had planned my travels poorly, and was scheduled to be in Russia for 10 days more than my visa allowed (this was pure foolishness on my part). And so I decided to go to Riga and Vilnius for two weeks, to see what I could find in some of the border regions of the former Russian Empire, the spaces through which these returning fugitives passed on their way back into the country.

Thanks to work in these three archives, I found out that these amnesties created a huge administrative problem for local authorities. For one, the amnesties always said they applied only to those who were already out of the country when the amnesty was given; authorities ended up for the most part only being able to accept that it was not impossible for that to have been true, rather than having actual evidence of it. But even more, local authorities were not necessarily all that pleased to have tens or even hundreds, of returning fugitives show up in their towns. After all, they had proved their untrustworthiness by running away in the first place! So these fugitives brought up tensions between the central state’s desire to fix people into place so it could collect taxes from them, and local authorities’ desires to keep out the untrustworthy.

When I first submitted it, this is where the article stood: it started with the laws, it looked at the administration, and ended with looking at the individuals themselves (and it turned out I found more of them in the Latvian archive).  And I liked it pretty well.

I had actually tried to find some larger context in which to place this story, and looked for anything I could about amnesties for fugitive serfs or slaves in other context, but didn’t find much.  During the submission process at the JMH, though, its reviewers gave me a great idea, to cast the net wider, and think about this in terms of emigration and immigration. And reading into the history of European thought about emigration helped come up with a real broader context, and a real answer to one of the questions I posed earlier—not just the mechanism by which these fugitives were returning, but why Catherine or Alexander would have granted this sort of amnesty.  As I see it, it was for a fairly simple reason: they wanted Russia’s population to increase, not decrease.

Finally, with that, I had an article that had a real why, and a real context.

Now, of course, I have things I wish I’d been able to do!  For one, the question of why these guys came back is still the most puzzling one.  I have some guesses in the article (some were married, for example), but it’s still unclear. And then there are the things one finds out after page proofs are already finished.  I was at the Berks a few weeks ago, and mentioned this article to a French historian.  Her comment: “oh, Diderot suggested that.”  I went straight from there to St. Petersburg (where I’m writing this post) and haven’t had a chance to follow up on that yet. Apparently I should have talked to more French historians—though I think it’s unlikely that that fact would radically alter my conclusions.  Still, though, it’s always a bit frustrating when you think something’s finished and it turns out to have stories still hidden within.

About Alison Smith

Associate Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History
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One Response to How an article came to be

  1. Lucy says:

    That was fascinating–honestly, I think I could fall in love with trivia for its own sake, because it’s like getting a few more pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.

    Talking about why these men returned…. I can think of a couple of possibilities. For one, unless they settled in areas with sizeable Russian enclaves, they had probably encountered isolation and loneliness. An amnesty that meant they could not only go home but be free would settle all their problems at once–supposedly. Second, they had entered on a voluntary self-exile, but there does seem to be a strong theme in Russian culture that being exiled is only about two steps better than being dead. You’re cut off, you’ve been sent to the outside. So the pull to go back could be very strong, even if they were living in an otherwise supportive or prosperous environment. And of course, as you suggested, they may have had families back home.

    (I too am familiar with the wish-I’d-found-that-earlier bug, as I think most historians/historical writers are. He’s an itchy little pest.)

    Thanks for a fun post!

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