Common Good Imperial Russia

Common Good: Collectives

I intended to post a second response in the conversation a while ago, but thoughts about cheese and then a trip intervened. I’ve been thinking about the commentary here a lot, though, and in particular about another aspect of the shift from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. I got distracted by thinking about the process of writing and revising last time, so this is in some ways a more serious response to the questions about the eighteenth century and the ways it is distinct from the nineteenth century.

First, I think Lindsay is right, that the Catherinian charters are meant in part to give incentives to take up a formal status that more or less accurately reflected socio-economic activity rather than live in a murky in-between. Now that I think about it, the fact that the charters to the nobility and to the towns (and the one for the state peasants that was never enacted) are so very similar in format plays into this more than I perhaps originally thought. Comparing the two charters really brings out their essential similarity—the nobility is comprised of six different parts (“true nobility,” military nobility, eighth-rank nobility, foreign nobles, those with distinguished titles, those of “ancient high-born noble lines”) and the townspeople are also divided into six parts (those who owned real estate in the town; merchants, artisans, foreign or out-of-town guests, notable citizens, meshchane). They both get record books (rodoslovnye knigi or obyvatelskie knigi) with similar lists of documents that can be presented in order to get listed in those books. The charter to the state peasants would have been very similar. In a way, it’s like a version of universal rule of law—everyone (except, of course, serfs) governed by essentially the same kinds of laws of status, even if the specifics of what applied to any one person might be different.

If we think about it like that, then the 1780s become a major dividing line (which isn’t that surprising in a history of soslovie). But also, then Alexander I’s reign becomes particularly important, in somewhat conflicting ways. It’s in his reign that there’s a more specific statement that mercantile activities are honorable—merchants get increased recognition. That recognition, though, presumably also made meshchanin status a bit less honorable in comparison. And it’s during his reign that the forced registry of the unregistered starts to dilute meshchanin societies.

That brings me to John’s question, about the relationship between individual status and collective identity. It’s true that I didn’t much grapple with this question in my book. I think the closest I came is in the idea of soslovie as belonging, as a question of fitting into a status. But of course, because I focused on people who changed their status, that most of all meant seeing that concept through the eyes of those who didn’t feel a sense of collective identity with their place and status of origin. Granted, the fact that they felt this way implies that there was a collective identity into which they didn’t fit, but what it exactly was is less certain.

At least when it comes to towns, I suspect that this is another big shift that happens as the nineteenth century began. I’m sort of not surprised that the violence John describes occurred in the 1760s-90s, and I wonder if its frequency died off towards the end of that period? It makes a certain amount of sense that in a period of people acting beyond the scope of their status, as Lindsay describes, the defense of collective rights would trigger violence. Hmmm. Now I’m wondering if Catherine’s demand that everyone choose a soslovie “for the common good and their own well being” was actually a response to urban collective violence. By making sure everyone had a place, the rationale for violence could in principle be less. If everyone knows who and what they are, there’s less need to fight about it. (Maybe?)

I remember having a conversation with David Ransel about this project when I was first starting it. He told me that when he was working on his book on Tolchënov, he realized that communal institutions (some of which Tolchënov served on) took their role as guardians of the commune seriously—that they really did discuss issues like letting people in to the commune or society. I certainly still saw aspects of that throughout the nineteenth century, but the fact that so many people ended up registered just because they had to be registered may well have served to dilute the power of those communal ties. That’s certainly what local authorities continually complain about—that being forced to take in (even if only on paper) all sorts of people was damaging their communities. And yet, now I find myself wondering if the eighteenth century really was all that distinct. Was there an element of estate-based violence in, say, nineteenth-century cholera riots? Was the concern over hooliganism at the end of the imperial era simply estate-based violence under a different name?

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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