Soslovie and the City in the Eighteenth Century

Many thanks to Josh for organizing such great panel and inviting me to participate, and also to Alison for writing such an insightful and engaging book. Her study of soslovie provides much food for thought, and I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s comments over the coming days.

It would take far too much space to enumerate all the things I liked about Alison’s approach to soslovie, and thankfully Alexander Martin has helped me by so concisely summarizing the book and its many merits. In particular, I’d also like to add that I am grateful for the reassurance that “confusion” really is the right response to the mess of laws and practices related to soslovie and cities in the eighteenth century. During the early stages of my dissertation research, I spent a great deal of effort trying to make sense of the conflicting regulations surrounding the phenomenon of trading peasants. I can now definitively put to rest any lingering worries that I had overlooked the magical law (if only!) that would have reconciled the contradictory strains of legislation and made everything clear on the matter.

Along those lines, while reading the chapters on the eighteenth century I found myself pondering the challenges historians face when undertaking a study that spans the entire imperial period. As Alex noted in his post, source limitations inevitably shape the narrative one can construct for this century. Alison skillfully handles this challenge by focusing on legislative developments related to soslovie and the complexities of how magistrates interpreted these laws in practice. But laconic sources mean that these chapters lack the rich insight into how individuals and communities negotiated the various meanings of soslovie that appear in subsequent chapters on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The source limitations are unfortunate, because it seems to me that a fundamental question underpinning this study is not just the evolving meaning of soslovie in the eighteenth century, but also how soslovie came to have any meaning at all. As Alison reminds us at various points throughout the text, the eighteenth century was a period when new social categories emerged yet older, pre-Petrine ones persisted. How and why did soslovie come to subsume these other categories, and what compelled individuals to opt in and choose to “fit” themselves within this new system?

This may be a relatively moot point for groups like the nobility or serfs whose status coincided more neatly with soslovie prescriptions, but it’s quite a different story for the jumble of urban residents that legislation struggled to corral and categorize throughout the eighteenth century. My experience digging through the Moscow Police Chancellery archives for this period made it clear to me just how easily individuals could—and did—lead prosperous lives that openly defied soslovie regulations, and also the tangible benefits one gained by transgressing category boundaries and opting not to fit within the system. These benefits ranged from the financial, such as avoiding taxes and other fees registered merchants had to pay, to the social. Serfs in Moscow could turn to an owner or, in the case of non-serf peasants, a chancellery to advocate on their behalf in moments of conflict, and very often with successful results. From this perspective, it always struck me as remarkable, not inevitable, that so many individuals opted to forsake these advantages by joining the merchant or townsmen ranks by the end of the eighteenth century.

Following this train of thought, I wonder what insights might be gained by considering how the eighteenth century may have been a period where rulers aimed not simply to categorize, but to co-opt subjects so they would adopt this new social framework. For example, I think Catherine’s legislation can be seen not simply as an effort to organize and reshape urban society, but also to raise the status of merchants and townsmen in order to entice her errant urban subjects to register in categories that better corresponded to their socioeconomic status.

Similarly, this perspective might allow for a study of how broader social changes throughout the eighteenth century connect to the evolution of soslovie. For example, land disputes adjudicated by the Moscow Police in the 1770s and 1780s show that individuals who engaged in commercial activity, including peasants, were more likely to view the Moscow Police or documents produced by the General Survey as a source of authority in times of conflict. In contrast, other segments of society like the city’s iamshchiki (which John knows more about than I do!) continued to articulate an older conception of the city where neighborhood elders served as the primary source of authority and where communal precedent, not state records or regulations, provided the ultimate standard for right and wrong. Perhaps viewing the decision to change soslovie as part of a larger process whereby urban residents came to increasingly accept the conception of authority, society, and the city Catherine promoted could shed new light on what compelled individuals to change their official status.

These are complicated questions, but I’ve always enjoyed the space this blog provides for more informal and forthright conversations about history, exemplified by Alison’s recent posts on the dead cheese master. I’d love to invite Alison and others to wade into the waters of speculation with me and hear their thoughts on the eighteenth century and the murky beginnings of soslovie.

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