Common Good Imperial Russia

Common Good

I’m honored to have been invited to contribute to this conversation about Alison Smith’s new book For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being. This is, unless I’m forgetting something, my first-ever blog post, which makes the occasion doubly exciting!

If you have followed Alison’s posts on this blog about the dead cheese master of Gatchina, you have an idea of how she approaches history. Her overarching project is to understand how social identity worked in Russia, especially before the Great Reforms. Social identities, she argues, were constructed through a process of negotiation that included individuals, their local communities, and the state. She looks for evidence of this process primarily in the intermediate, mostly urban layers of society, because here (a) people moved actively between social statuses and (b) extensive documentation survives in the form of administrative records and ego-documents. Alison draws on massive archival research for her evidence, and as with the cheese master, she has an eye for the intriguing individual story that sheds light on wider social processes.

If you haven’t yet read For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia, here is a quick overview. The book covers the entire imperial period—although, owing to the limitations of the sources, the 19th and early 20th centuries are better represented than the 18th—and it skillfully weaves together evidence from legal statutes, statistical data, memoirs, and individual stories from archives in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and a number of other towns. The first chapter looks at what belonging to a soslovie (estate) actually meant in everyday life: a system of legal obligations, opportunities for social advancement, membership to a local community, and a place in the empire’s larger status hierarchy. Chapter Two examines the laws and institutions that created the soslovie system in the 18th century. The next four chapters examine mobility between sosloviia; the relationship between individuals and their local soslovie societies; the persistence of the soslovie system after the Great Reforms; and the evolution of the system of collective responsibility. Lastly, the final chapter presents a series of biographical sketches of individuals who changed their soslovie membership.

Rather than further summarize the book, let me speak briefly about two things I really liked about it.

First, how it evokes the complex, multifaceted quality of soslovie. We often approach the soslovie system as a legal instrument for executing the government’s plans for social engineering. The implication is that all sosloviia were in some essential way the same—created by statute, endowed with specific rights and duties, and so on—and that their defining feature was their place in the larger policy vision of the regime. Alternatively, we sometimes think of them as forerunners of social classes.

Personally, I think both approaches fall short. In my own undergraduate classes, I describe soslovie as akin to race and ethnicity in the United States. Like soslovie, our system in the US is a creation simultaneously of the state and of society. It keeps evolving but never disappears from our social system. It is defined by an elusive mix of law, economics, culture, membership in local communities, and feelings of personal identity. We speak of its component units as though they were variants of the same thing (each is a “race” or “ethnicity”), when in fact they represent profoundly dissimilar sorts of social formations.

Alison’s book doesn’t, as I recall, suggest such a comparison with the United States, but by moving back and forth between imperial laws, local community practices, and the life choices of individuals, it gives a vivid sense that soslovie was something far more complex than merely a chain of command allowing the tsars to mobilize resources for the state. It thereby opens up major realms of social experience in imperial Russia that are often short-changed in the historical literature.

A second theme that impressed me in the book was the emphasis on the importance of the local level. To leave one soslovie and join another, it wasn’t enough to meet the requirements spelled out in imperial legislation; you also had to satisfy the relevant local soslovie societies. Those societies’ officials of course had their own angle, and they had great power to promote or obstruct your case. Under Nicholas I, a Moscow townsman (meshchanin) named Aleksandr Miliukov tried to leave the townspeople’s society so he could further his schooling. Quoting from his memoirs, Smith describes how he sat in the city duma’s “‘remarkably dirty’” waiting room alongside “dozens of petitioners” who “worried in silence”; at last a “‘thick-set bureaucrat appeared’” and told people to “‘come again tomorrow! Try again in a month!’” (p. 96). It is well known, of course, that promotion to certain privileged social statuses—say, honored citizen (pochetnyi grazhdanin)—entailed liberation from the authority of local soslovie societies, but it takes stories like Miliukov’s suddenly give you an almost visceral, physical sense of what that could mean in everyday reality.

These are just a few thoughts about this excellent book. There is much more to be said, and I look forward to the conversation over the coming days.


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.