Archives Common Good Imperial Russia

Common Good: The Eighteenth Century

First, let me thank Josh for organizing this conversation, and Alex, Lindsey, Charles, and John for taking time at summer’s end to take part in it. You are all very kind, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to think about what’s in my book by seeing it interpreted from your various points of view. I have a number of things I’d like to develop more out of this set of comments, and rather than put them all in one long post, I’ll spread them out a bit.

I’ll start by thinking about chronology, or rather, of the problem of the eighteenth century. Alex and Lindsey are both totally right when they note that I cover the eighteenth century differently than the nineteenth century—that, for example, the first and particularly the last chapters, the chapters in which I try to think more broadly about the meaning of soslovie, are very much weighted toward the nineteenth century (and the last chapter toward the last half of the nineteenth century). They’re also very nice in putting this off on a problem of the sources, rather than on how I wrote the book.

To an extent, I’ll blame the sources too. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of sources on the eighteenth century—thinking back, I probably spent as much time reading eighteenth century materials as nineteenth century materials. It’s more that they’re qualitatively different sorts of files. The bulk of the archival materials I used for the eighteenth century were magistracy files now located at RGADA. Once I got over the shock of the handwriting, I loved working with these—they showed real differences in practices from place to place, and yet generally followed rules that became very understandable. But because they generally followed rules, they were also better on certain subjects (mostly, the role of local authorities) than on others (individual lives). Although I also looked at archives of the Main Magistracy, which dealt with tricky situations, I never found files there that were as rich as some of the ones I came across at RGIA for the nineteenth century, when the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Finance got into sometimes lengthy correspondence laying out their different approaches (and often quite a bit about the individuals involved, as well) to individual difficult cases. As a result, even the lengthy sections dealing with the laws of the eighteenth century (and Lindsey, I’m happy to read that you, too, found the laws confusing—even now, and even though I’m as certain I can be that I got them all, I’ll probably always have a little nagging doubt that I missed something) don’t have, and I suppose couldn’t have had, as nuanced a vision of the imperial actors in the story.

In addition, though, I found it hard to think of the eighteenth century as its own discrete period—not that that’s unique to me. It’s not surprising, I think, that I found Catherine the Great’s reign, and particularly her Charters of the 1780s as an important turning point rather than 1800 itself. But it’s actually just right this moment, as I sit here and think about this, that I realize that the way I wrote the book makes those Charters not the culmination of the eighteenth century but instead the start of the nineteenth century. And as I think about it even more, I remember that it’s not even how I wrote the book, exactly. In the penultimate draft of the entire manuscript, Chapter 2 was longer, and ended with the Charter to the Towns—in that version, the entire eighteenth century story built to that point. But in the last major revisions of the manuscript, I moved that section to the beginning of the following chapter, in part, if I remember correctly, because I knew it also delved back into other late eighteenth century things to tell the story of the “freedom to choose a way of life” (a story that ended in the early nineteenth century). I thought that by combining those sections, I would if anything give greater emphasis to the eighteenth century, even if the line between it and the early nineteenth century became blurred. Now, though, I realize that it had the opposite effect, and instead made it part of the story of the nineteenth century. I’m fascinated to realize that such a relatively small organizational change makes for such a different experience of reading.

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)

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