Completeness or lack thereof

I’m thrilled to see John’s post, because he brings up a point that I’ve been thinking about a lot, too–the incompleteness of the supposedly complete.

I also came to think about it through the 18th century, and through RGADA (the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts). In my case, I was looking at files about people changing their legal social status (their soslovie, to use a word that was not then quite regularly in use), which meant presenting their cases to local Magistracies located in various provincial towns.  The Magistracies examined the documents presented by individuals, looked through the various ukazes they found relevant, and came to a decision.

And a bunch of those ukazes the Magistracies treated as laws did not end up in the Complete Collection.

I also found this fascinating, and wondered a bit about it.  John points out Speransky’s own stance in favor of the permanent, or of that which could be considered legal rather than purely administrative.  Speransky even noted in the introduction to the first collection that his commission had excluded “all particular, all personal, all temporary and incidental matters.” 1

To me, it doesn’t negate the importance of the PSZ, of course, nor does it really affect my impression of Speransky.  But it does make me far more wary of accounts that are based solely on the laws (something I’ve certainly done myself). It makes me boggle a bit at a statement by Kliuchevksy early in his famous lectures on sosloviia.  As far as he was concerned, laws were the only sources capable of allowing a modern reader to understand the history of sosloviia.  Any other sources were, he claimed, merely “fruits of individual consciousness,” not of the larger social world.  2  And yet, as John’s example shows, the law has been so codified as to obscure that larger truth.

I also, on a more pragmatic note, wonder about differences between the first, historical, Collection and the later contemporaneous (simultaneous? not sure which is the better word) Collections–and Svody, too.

  1. “Predislovie,” PSZ vol. 1, xx.
  2. V. O. Kliuchevskii, Istoriia soslovii v Rossii, in Sochineniia v deviati tomakh, vol. 6 (Moscow: Mysl’, 1989), 244-5.

About Alison Smith

Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History; Author of For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014)
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5 Responses to Completeness or lack thereof

  1. John Randolph says:

    Thanks, Alison, I’m glad I’m not crazy to have noticed this. It also seems to apply to lawsuits adjudicated at the level of the Post Chancellery itself: that is, in between the provinces and the Senate. Actually, for the post riders, the Magistraty are turning out to be one of the big enemies: in as much as the status of post riders as members of the posad is in question, and the Magistraty represent the obliged town people. Thus in all of these cases about commercial rights I’ve seen in the 1760s, it’s always the same story: post riders claim to have traded for generations, until one fine day somewhere in the early 1760s, representatives from the Magistraty come to say: you don’t bear our obligations, you don’t have our rights, sell your shops to us or we’ll have them destroyed. I haven’t quite figured out what it is about the 1760s that triggers this, but if it isn’t an archival illusion (still a possibility) I think it’s the general discussions going on about how to order trade and to regularize the governance of the provinces, the stuff that leads to the Legislative Commission and also the Commission on Commerce. I think the Magistraty get wind of that and say, now’s our time.

    Another thing or two about Speranskii: In the Istoricheskoe obozrenie, his essay about his editorial principles, he does admit that often it’s necessary to include decrees that don’t match the standard of general/permanent/principled, because the statutes in question set precedents that were frequently cited. And of course the Collection contains a lot of random seeming stuff. At some point I seem to recall even seeing an author who tried to estimate what percentage of Imperial decrees ended up in the Collection, and if memory serves me right it was rather high. Astonishingly high, when you think about how hard that have been. [1. If anyone has this reference or some sort of such estimate, I’d be grateful for them – I can’t remember where I saw this.]

    That said, decrees as percentage of total, while useful to know, still wouldn’t tell the whole story, since it wouldn’t tell us about whose laws didn’t make the cut. And even if we had estimates of the latter — which of course would be very useful — there’s always the case that the one thing that’s crucial to somebody gets left out, because it seems too personal, temporary, or trivial (to later editors).

    In the end, it seems the basic unity of administrative, executive and legislative functions makes the whole idea of a “complete collection” very complex. Almost any imperial action could be law, it seems — and then how could you collect or publish that? It’s almost like the problem of the 1:1 map, rather than the problem of how to edit the complete Dostoevskii.

    It will be great to hear about your work in this venue — I suspect that our projects have a lot of common issues between them.

    • Alison says:

      This is so interesting, John! First, I feel like I see a spike of cases of people firming up their status in the early 1760s, too–and my theory is that it has a lot to do with the third revision. The action of cleaning up the books certainly affected individuals and societies in terms of having them register properly, and I can also see it having the effect of making societies guard their privilege more carefully.

      As far as what makes it in to the PSZ, there’s also the factor that apparently Nicholas didn’t open all state archives and files to Speransky et al (see here: Marc Raeff, “Preface,” Catherine II’s Charters of 1785 to the Nobility and the Towns,, trans. and edited by David Griffiths and George E. Munro (Bakersfield: Charles Schlacks, Jr., Publisher, 1991), xii.)

      Then there were a number of books in the early 1800s in which individual authors tried to recover all the laws (or a lot of the laws) pertaining to various subject. I looked at one of them: P. Khavskii, Sobranie zakonov o kuptsakh, meshchanakh, posadskikh i tsekhovykh, ili Gorodovoe Polozhenie so vkliucheniem zakonov predshestvuiushchikh i posleduiushchikh s 1766 po 1823 god (SPb, 1823). I sat there in the Publichka using a usb modem to search through the PSZ online as I looked through the book, to see what wasn’t in one or the other. Somewhat to my surprise, the things missing in the PSZ were mostly ukazes from Alexander’s reign (and I should note that they may be there, hidden under a different date–I had that problem, too, that things were reported oddly).

  2. Lucy says:

    I’d be interested to hear more on the 1760s aspect, John, if you run across anything. I can think of a few things going on at the time all over Europe, but not what would have affected Russia in particular.

    It would be interesting to know if there are exact dates to these cases: do they start in a trickle and then cluster? Does one court case lead to a dozen copycats? It might be an interesting question of whether this was a broader social/economic/political development, or whether it burst out as a kind of legal fad.

    Allison, that statement by Kliuchevsky would boggle me too. I’m not sure what he thought the larger world was made up of, or what the individual consciousness reflected, if not the larger social world!

  3. Lucy says:

    Oops, I mean Alison. Sorry for the misspelling.

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