Imperial Russia

Comedy to tragedy

In 1860, a freed serf recently become a meshchanka in Riazan’ named Nastas’ia Pavlova had to deal with some extra paperwork to get her children properly registered according to the laws.  She had three children, born in 1854, 1856, and 1858, but when Pavlova became a member of the meshchanin society in 1859, they did not because of a peculiarity of timing: they had been born after Pavlova’s manumission, and thus there was no clear paperwork that said who or what they were. After another round of investigation and paper shuffling, the Riazan’ Provincial Treasury (Kazennaia palata) formalized the entire family’s registration as members of the Riazan’ meshchanin society in an ukase sent to the Riazan’ Town Duma.  And in that ukase, it asked that Pavlova pay 90 kopeks in fees for the paper involved in her case.

And that led to one of the most amazing outbursts of bureaucratic weirdness I have yet seen in the archives.

Pavlova claimed to be unable to pay the 90 kopeks.  The Riazan’ authorities believed her (she was, after all, a single mother of three young children), and was willing to declare the case closed.  But in response, the Provincial Treasury clung to the rules.  The Digest of the Laws, it noted, declared in no uncertain terms that if any person claimed to be unable to pay official fees, then there had to be an official inquiry.  Therefore, it directed the Riazan’ Town Authorities to “conduct an inquiry in all Riazan’ province to find property or capital belonging to Pavlova, and if none turns up, then report on this to the Provincial Administration for proper confirmation to this Treasury of the impossibility of collecting these fees.”

The Riazan’ Town Duma did just this. It advertised in the Riazan’ Provincial News seeking information about any property Pavlova might have.  And, to collect an uncollectible 90 kopeks, it sent form letters to every town police administration and regional lower court in the province. The letters asked whether Pavlova owned property anywhere.  And they asked that any property turned up, the regional authorities take 90 kopeks from it and forward it to the Treasury.

The archival file is then filled with more than 50 pages of responses, of second letters sent out to those who failed to respond immediately, and of additional responses.  None had any record of any property.

And finally, the Duma reported to the Provincial Administration that, indeed, Pavlova had no property, and asked that it inform the Provincial Treasury.

Perhaps I am reading into the file my own distaste for busywork, but I couldn’t help but interpret this as an expression of the Riazan’ town clerks being deeply annoyed at the Treasury’s demand–they’d met the woman, after all, and presumably had a basis for believing her to be impoverished–and thus not just fulfilling the search, but (if such a word was yet in vogue) overfulfilling it. It’s as if they thought “you want us to do this?  Fine.  We’ll spend far more than 90 kopeks in time and paper, and make offices throughout the province do that, too.  That’ll show you!”  In the end, the pages and pages of responses, all saying the same obvious thing, read as unintentional comedy.

But then, as sometimes happens in archival documents, I find, there is a twist, and what seemed at first like something of a comedy is transformed into an everyday tragedy.

The file ends with another petition.  This one, from 1862, came from Nastas’ia’s sister, Akulina.  Akulina repeats the history of Nastas’ia’s registration, and the ages and registration of her children.  And then, in the last sentence, she reports Nastas’ia’s death earlier that year.  And she asks that her nephews and niece be officially considered part of her own family “so that they are not without guardianship.”

This request seems to have been immediately and quietly fulfilled within the town.

(Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Riazanskoi oblasti [State Archive of Riazan’ Region] f. 49, op. 1, d. 553, ll. 1, 5, 8, 67-8, 69)

By 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)

One reply on “Comedy to tragedy”

How very sad, that ending.

I’m also reminded, for some reason, of the millions of people currently involved in similar, Kafkaesque procedures, relating to their mortgages. I wonder if there’s a Greek myth out there about the man or woman who–distrustful–endlessly demands proof of identity until, in the end, everyone involved dies? Sort of like Tantalus and the grapes, only involving two people. If not, perhaps we should make one up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.