Common Good Imperial Russia

The Uses of Soslovie in Imperial Russia

It is a pleasure to comment on Alison Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being. Her careful examination of the mechanics of changing estates through painstaking research on individual cases demonstrates her central point—that estate mattered. It mattered enough to many Russians that they were willing to endure lengthy engagement with local estate administrations and at times costly bribes to move from one category to another. Alison combines archival work on particular people with memoir literature to show how changing estate status made possible ways of imagining themselves and their futures. Beyond Alison’s work in the capitals, she has worked in a half dozen regional archives to show that estate status had a powerful geographical/spatial dimension as well as a social hierarchical one. The chronological sweep of her study matches its geographical breadth. Her work addresses urban estate institutions from the eighteenth century to their demise after 1917, which makes her argument about the larger importance of estate all the more sweeping.

Her rich material opens up an array of new perspectives on the subject matter. I will address only two here. Alison is right to draw our attention to Catherine II’s ukase in 1782 requiring free people “to choose a way of life” that was “best for the common good and their own well-being.” Imperial laws emphasized the need for all the empress’s subjects to register with a taxpaying society in order to start fulfilling the duties associated with that new status.(p. 86) As Alison notes, the compulsory nature of the choice rested in tension with the supposed freedom to choose one’s status. Nonetheless, the emphasis on the need to register indicated the increased importance of estate status in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It also indicated a new emphasis on articulating state authority at the level of the individual. The collective still mattered, but increasingly in the nineteenth century, state officials relied upon the active engagement of individual subjects with imperial authority.

I think Josh is right to highlight the changing functions of soslovie evident in Alison’s work. Earlier, the needs of the estate collective had mattered most. Alison’s material stresses the importance of ensuring that members registered and remained in the estate so they could help the estate fulfill its obligations to central authorities to provide taxes and recruits. In the late nineteenth century, the services owed by societies to their members “became a major focus of concern.” (p. 156) With the end of the poll tax in 1887 and the introduction of universal male military service obligations, local societies became more often providers of services to members than enforcers of obligations. This does much to suggest a reason why estate retained importance to many people, though perhaps not to everyone equally. Earlier, when people had to register in order to fulfill tax and military obligations, or, presumably, face punishment, estate institutions mattered to everyone, or at least all males, in a profound way. In the empire’s last decades, those who most needed support likely took estate registration very seriously. On the other hand, those who had sufficient resources or who expected to move frequently might well not have bothered with estate registration. In the empire’s last decades, then, soslovie might have mattered more to some but less to others.

Of course, the task of any concise volume that addresses such a large and complex topic is to raise questions as well as to answer them. Alison’s book does this well too. For one, what is at stake in identifying estates as social phenomena? I agree with Alex that estate was not simply created by statute. Nonetheless, might we historians be too quick to investigate estate as a social phenomenon rather than a political one? I do not mean to say that we must consider estate either political or social, rather that the emphasis on the social might obscure estate’s powerful political dimension.

Perhaps soslovie are best viewed as political institutions with secondary social characteristics. Whatever hopes Catherine II had for transforming imperial society, estate institutions were used primarily to specify one’s relationship with the state and particularly with respect to fiscal and military obligations. State officials used soslovie to identify and reward those who most helped the officials to collect taxes, fight the tsar’s wars, and serve the state. For most, estate shaped how and where one paid taxes and whether and how males discharged military obligations. In any case, as Lindsey states, many may well have opted out of the estate system. Attempting to identify and tap all the human resources of the empire was a continuing challenge for state officials.

Seeing soslovie as juridical categories also helps us understand a phenomenon upon which Smith only touches: the question of nationality or ethnicity. I realize one can only cover so much ground in one concise monograph. Nonethless, it seems to me worth thinking about how non-Russian groups fit into this system. At the very least, as Alison notes (p. 74), “the question of social structure was particularly unclear on the borders (or former borders) of the empire.” Was soslovie a means to integrate non-native Russians into the empire, or to keep them at a distance? In many border regions, the institutions of central Russia existed side by side with locally distinctive institutions and statuses such as inorodets. Since some in the eastern borderlands paid tribute (iasak) rather than the poll tax, and often had no military service obligation at all, the role of estate societies in these regions would necessarily be different. Moreover, estate status characteristic of the eastern borderlands, such as inorodets or Bashkir, seemed aimed less at gaining individual compliance with imperial fiscal and military demands than at conferring power and honor to elites imperial officials sought to attract to the empire, and at making non-Russian groups governable.

My comments have gone longer than I had planned. For this I blame Alison for writing such an important and thought-provoking book.


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