Common Good Imperial Russia

Sosloviia in Individual and Collective Lives

Before reading Alison K. Smith’s new book, I had two broad visions of sosloviia in Imperial Russian life, one a dream, the other a nightmare. Both centered on its meaning for collective, rather than individual, life.

On the one hand, Aleksandr Bakunin’s ode “Osuga”–an eccentric and ideological monument of his growing conservatism in the 1820s—presents sosloviia as the key to Russia’s version of freedom, a world in which Romanov protection and paternal justice give “to every estate its own way of life” (sosloviiu kazhdomu svoi byt). He contrasted this diverse and secure world of estate-based community with the fractured society and liberty of Revolutionary France, where authorities knew no traditional limits and people hanged separately. In my more recent work on coachmen, meanwhile, I have come to know estates primarily through scenes of communal violence, specifically actions in the 1760s-1790s when, in response to the controversies on trade Alison describes, towns rose up to cast the residents of Russia’s relay suburbs (the iamskie slobody) out of their marketplaces and indeed out of the new urban life altogether. In Rzhev, for example, local merchants led a riot that eventually involved hundreds of town people and razed the iamskaia sloboda and its agricultural fields in a matter of days. According to another grievance that passed through the Relay Chancellery and thence into the Senate, coachmen were hunted men in Kazan’s central town square, in the early 1760s: beaten, harassed, jailed and bankrupted for trying to occupy spaces reserved for other kinds of people.

There’s a lot of life between dreams and nightmares, and thanks to Alison’s wonderful and insightful research, I think I have a much better and individualized sense of what sosloviia might mean in an ordinary, individual life, across a long span of time. By following the paper trails that began when people said, “I, a member of this estate, want to become a member of that estate,” Alison reconstructs a world in which, as she powerfully puts it, individual membership in an estate was “nothing until it was everything.” (205) In the Empire’s Muscovite core, it seems, one might live a long life while wearing one’s ascribed estate status relatively lightly, covering it up with attributes signaling occupation, wealth, culture, religion (among other forms of identification). The “estate” of Russia’s obligated coachmen liked to sing while they drove, we are told; as it happens, I have found, so did people who wanted other people to think they were obligated coachmen. (It’s a long story.)

Alison opens her book with a discussion of the various meanings estate might have in people’s lives, ranging from the most constrictive (obligation and hierarchy) to the most empowering (opportunity and belonging). And the great pleasure of reading the case files she has assembled—documenting petitions to change estate—is to see when and in what concrete circumstances the wires are tripped, and nothing becomes something or even everything, across these dimensions. In addition to showing the lived reality of estate in individual life, these cases also suggest just how powerfully individuating estate ascription could be, through its sudden, decisive influence on some critical path. Despite governments’ constant attempts to create some sort of uniform code governing estates as collectives—as Alison shows convincingly—the government’s need to mobilize exceptions (on both an individual and mass scale) made the result less a matter of law than of location, location, location.

Ivan Zhiriaev was a townsman destined to become a soldier, until he petitioned to be a merchant, and then he wasn’t; Ivan Vasiliev’s home village was never going to let him skip recruitment, until the College of Economy decided that his large family, full of possible future soldiers, could be given a break, so okay. (100)  In these and other cases, it seems, estate did not so much highlight one’s membership in a community as underscore the degree to which one person within a group differed from others via shifts in circumstance or position.

Still, as I round out my first impressions of the book and look forward to the conversation, I find myself coming back to the question of estate as site of collective identity and collective action as one for further discussion. Was the idea of estate based collectives just an ideological dream—as in the conservative fantasy of “Osuga”–or perhaps a momentary, murderous accident, as in the street fighting along estate lines we can see in court cases of the second half of the 18th century? With a mass of sources resting on individual petitions, as I’ve said, Smith’s book gives us a wonderful sense of the meaning of “soslovie in individual lives.” Outside of their institutional expression in the lists of obligations and rights maintained by local scribes and provincial offices, however, did estates as collectives have a byt? Did they have a communal identity and solidarity that differed from—though undoubtedly combining with—the occupational, cultural, religious and other forms of group belonging (and distinction) we know Imperial Russian possessed?

PS: I wrote this ‘blind’ before reading the other posts, figuring one of our jobs here is to post first reactions.  But I look forward to our discussion!  And I like everyone else am very grateful to Alison for her sterling and inspirational work, which captures the intangible things of which life–in this case, estate life–is made so well.

By John Randolph

John Randolph is Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois.

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