Hi, all–I’m the newest blogger here. In principle, I’m supposed to add in more Imperial-era coverage. And, well, in practice, that is what I’m doing. I thought I’d start with something I’ve recently come across in passing that keeps making me think, but about which I have no particular conclusions. Perfect for a blog?
Specifically, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Polnoe sobranie zakonov, a process made much more pleasant because of the utterly fantastic fact that the Russian National Library has scanned the whole thing and put it up online. Even when I’m looking for something specific, though, I find myself randomly reading other laws in large part because they tell me things I didn’t know. I learn that Peter the Great made a law to restrict the sale of wax candles for use in churches to the churches themselves, and forbade the practice of random other people selling such candles on the street outside churches.[1. PSZ vol. 6, no. 3746 (February 28, 1721)] Or I learn that Anna was so upset to hear that people were being trampled by people galloping through the streets of St. Petersburg (on horses, of course) that she banned galloping in the city–and furthermore announced that anyone caught galloping would be punished by being beaten with the cat-o-nine-tails “mercilessly.”[2. PSZ vol. 10, no. 7170 (February 6, 1737)]
And then there’s Catherine the Great. Now, obviously, she was a woman who liked laws, what with her famous “legislomania” and all that. But she also had a thing for commemorating major events (military victories, putting up the Bronze Horseman [yes, really]) by releasing Manifestos to All Her People, granting them all sorts of things.
One in particular shows up in a number of discussions of her reign. On March 17, 1775, in honor of making peace with the Ottoman Empire, she released a Manifesto giving “mercies to various sosloviia” in recognition of God’s mercy in granting her and her state victory, peace, and the respect of other nations.[3. PSZ vol. 20, no. 14275 (March 17, 1775)] She wondered (she wrote) how best to honor that divine intervention, and decided that according to the Lord’s words, He preferred mercy to sacrifice, and so mercy she would give.
Forty seven “mercies” then follow, and it’s their variety that has made them the subject of quite a bit of writing here and there. A whole series of them involve repealing or reducing specific taxes. And this is the first place that Catherine clearly distinguishes between merchants and meshchane, and as a result the Manifesto is often seen as a major precursor to her Charter to the Towns a decade later.[4. John T. Alexander, Catherine the Great: Life and Legend (New York, 1989), 191; Isabel de Madariaga, Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (New Haven, 1981), 269, 281] These are important bits of legislation, almost hidden in the midst of this larger statement. The last of them are what I went to the law to examine. But while doing that, I noticed this.
“To all those towns, hamlets, villages, places, and to the people who live in them and who reside outside them, and in a word: to all those who took part in the bunt, the disturbance, the agitation, the disorder in 1773 and 1774, for the most part due to blindness, to stupidity, to ignorance or to superstition, [we give] Our Most Merciful general and particular pardon, consigning all that has happened to eternal oblivion and deep silence, and we forbid future claims or investigations into these matters.”
Perhaps it’s because of some of the news running around recently that touch on history and memory, and even more on willful forgetting. (And apologies if I’ve missed follow up on these issues that make them look different.) Whatever the reason, I find this statement to be very powerful–even very disturbing.
It’s just such a blatant example of historical memory–or, really, of historical forgetting–being used for essentially political purposes. Even the name Pugachev is wiped out of this version of history: there was just “disturbance, agitation, disorder.” There weren’t real, conscious participants, but only the stupid, the blind, the ignorant. It simply wasn’t.
This also makes me think of Pushkin, and his efforts to research not just the Pugachev rebellion, but Pugachev the person. And, more, of his conclusions: the novel The Captain’s Daughter, and his history, which he presented to Nicholas I with a conclusion not at all like Catherine’s forgetting: “All the common people were on the side of Pugachev. The clergy sympathized with him–not only the priests and monks, but even the archimandrites and archbishops… If we analyze the measures taken by Pugachev and his companions, we must admit that the rebels chose the most reliable and effective means of achieving their goals. The government’s actions, by contrast, were weak, slow, and ill-advised.” [5. Paul Debreczeny, The Other Pushkin: A Study of Alexander Pushkin’s Prose Fiction (Stanford, 1983), 247] Even here, of course, there is a kind of forgetting. Nicholas didn’t want the history to be titled a History of Pugachev, and insisted that it be a History of the Pugachev Uprising. [6. Weirdly, google books seems to have the second volume, but not the first, although the second, which is all sources, is maybe the more interesting one for the historian.] The participants are removed from history, and only the abstract events remain.