Imperial Russia The Case of the Dead Cheese Master

The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part I: The Body

On the morning of August 8, 1799, the peasant Pavel Spiridonov found a dead body on the road near his village. And he found not only “a dead male unknown body,” but close to it a saddled chestnut horse. What had happened, and who was this man?

Spiridonov was the local sotskii or “hundreder,” a peasant constable or guard, and he immediately turned to the zemskii sud, the district-level land court, for help. The district doctor and a district police officer by the name of Krivoshein were called in to consult. The police officer reported that they found no signs of violence on the body. The doctor gave more information about the state of the corpse: the man suffered from gangrene (антонов огонь) caused by “frequent consumption of spirits.” The doctor also reported that the death had been “sudden,” a fact that suggested that this chronic (over-)consumption of alcohol likely caused the man’s death. The exact mechanism of that death was still unclear. Was the man riding while drunk, and as a result fell off the horse, killing himself in the process? Or had he had some sort of attack caused by the gangrene or the drink, died, and then toppled off the horse’s back?

The horse wasn’t talking, but at least these reports suggested that there had been no foul play in the man’s death. As a result, the only task left was to identify the body. This, however, was no simple matter. Spiridonov, as the village constable, would have recognized any local man. This man was no local, nor was he recognized by anyone in the area.

The only thing that was immediately apparent was that “this unknown man was probably of moderate means (из людей посредственных).” The proof of this was his clothing: “a dark green flannel overcoat, a coat and waistcoat of coffee-colored cloth, white linen trousers and a fine cloth shirt.” No other personal items were found on the body.

This kind of detailed description of clothing was a normal part of identifying dead bodies. Once local newspapers (Gubernskie vedomosti) were established in many provinces at the end of the 1830s, they often featured notices of “found dead bodies” in need of identification. Descriptions of the bodies focused on where they had been found, and to a certain extent on their physical description—their facial features, height, and hair color. But perhaps because those physical descriptions were often made difficult due to decomposition, the notices most of all focused on the clothing and possessions of the dead bodies.

The report from the land court is unclear on how exactly identification was eventually made. Presumably the clothing helped, as did the fact that the man was only recently dead (though death in August was not ideal for identification purposes). Whatever the process was, it took some time. The body was discovered on August 8, and a first report was sent to the governor’s office on August 10. Only on August 22 did the head of the court, Kruze, present a report identifying the body: he was indeed no local, but instead a master cheese-maker named Tengli (or Tingeli or Tinguely), by birth Swiss, and before his death working for the palace administration of Gatchina, one of the many imperial residences outside St. Petersburg.

This identification solved the problem facing the lower court. But who this man was, how he got to be there, and what he left behind, remained questions for those who dealt with the aftermath of his death, still to be uncovered.

(RGIA f. 491, op. 1, d. 365, ll. 39-39ob)

Imperial Russia

On beards

Beard types, from
Beard types, from infographics/1236527

With a post title like that, you might not be surprised to hear that I am lecturing on Peter the Great tomorrow. I always wondered a bit how his beard tax worked in practice, and I was a bit thrilled to see an example of it at work in a file when I was doing research on my book on soslovie.

On first glance the file (RGADA f. 742, op. 1, d. 493) is a straightforward one: in July 1749 the Kursk merchant Nikifor Prokofiev Rastorguev petitioned the Kursk magistracy, asking to be released from his status as a merchant in order to enter a monastery. He promised in his petition that his son would take over his business (and his taxes and duties). The case went smoothly; in February 1750, the Kursk town starosta reported that the town society agreed to free him, and the magistracy finalized its positive decision in May.

This was all normal. What wasn’t normal was an incident report from the Kursk governor’s chancellery regarding Nikifor Prokofiev’s unlawful facial hair.

In January 1750–after Nikifor Prokofiev had petitioned, but before his petition had been granted–he was spotted by a local official “at the bazaar in a beard and in unlawful dress.” Called before the chancellery, Nikifor Prokofiev did indeed turn out have “beard and whiskers unshorn and unshaved” and to be dressed in “a fur, a caftan, a Russian shirt and with no tie.” This was counter to the laws then in force, which stated that anyone unshorn and dressed in Russian clothing was suspected of Old Belief and thus liable to prosecution.

Nikifor Prokofiev had an explanation for his dress: he was getting ready for his entrance into the monastery, and was not and Old Believer. The beard (and dress) was premature, but not as unlawful as it could be.

There’s no more follow up on this incident in this file; the letter from the Governor’s chancellery seems only to have spurred the Magistracy to follow up on the original petition. I was still glad to see it, though, because it gave a new angle to this initial moment. The beard tax always provokes a bit of laughter–the idea of a beard tax token (look! you can buy your own beard-tax token replica bottle opener!) seems so particularly silly. But realizing that even decades after its initial institution, a guy could get hauled in for questioning because of it (even if with no ill effect this time) made it seem a bit less silly and a bit more serious.

Russian Citizenship

Russian Citizenship — A View from the Empire (and Canada)

Thanks to Josh for inviting me to take part in this blog conversation, and to Eric for allowing us to read and discuss his book. It’s a pleasure to write about a book in a way that’s less formal and more conversational than a book review. In particular, I found myself thinking about Eric’s book on a personal, as well as on an academic level, something that’s hard to talk about in more formal settings.  But here I can note that this topic holds particular resonance for me, in part because my Lithuanian great-grandmother was one of the emigrants from late Imperial Russia whose life was affected by the policies he describes, and also because I myself, as an American living and working in Canada, have thought much more about citizenship, borders, and the act of naturalization in recent years.

Imperial Russia

Comedy to tragedy

In 1860, a freed serf recently become a meshchanka in Riazan’ named Nastas’ia Pavlova had to deal with some extra paperwork to get her children properly registered according to the laws.  She had three children, born in 1854, 1856, and 1858, but when Pavlova became a member of the meshchanin society in 1859, they did not because of a peculiarity of timing: they had been born after Pavlova’s manumission, and thus there was no clear paperwork that said who or what they were. After another round of investigation and paper shuffling, the Riazan’ Provincial Treasury (Kazennaia palata) formalized the entire family’s registration as members of the Riazan’ meshchanin society in an ukase sent to the Riazan’ Town Duma.  And in that ukase, it asked that Pavlova pay 90 kopeks in fees for the paper involved in her case.

And that led to one of the most amazing outbursts of bureaucratic weirdness I have yet seen in the archives.

Imperial Russia

Northern spaces

Last year around this time, one of my colleagues was asked to be a special commenter on a showing of a documentary on campus.  The film, Passage, focuses on a 19th century failed search for the Northwest Passage (the Franklin expedition) and its aftermath, which played out in the British admiralty, and in the press.  The film focuses on one aspect of this: the question of whether the crew of the British ship turned to cannibalism before succumbing to the elements (which was the story told by Inuit informants to the HBC [Hudson’s Bay Company] explorer John Rae), or whether no true Englishman would do such a thing, and they were actually eaten by the Inuit (which was the story Charles Dickens pushed in a rather awful piece of “journalism”).  The film is rather firmly on the first side, and builds its argument in odd and ingenious ways.

As we talked about the film, we realized that there would be a lot to talk about by looking at a different kind of oceanic history:  by looking at Arctic world history.  And so, this year, we’re co-teaching a course called “True North: Circumpolar Histories.”  (The syllabus is here, should anyone be interested.)

Imperial Russia

Most unexpected appearance of an anarchist EVER

Here’s a quick link to the blog of a former colleague of mine, Sarah Young.  In this one, she’s discovered what has to be the strangest appearance of an anarchist, ever, in the pages of a magazine aimed at British boys, talking about games.

(It is, incidentally, useful if you want illustrations for games you may have come across in nineteenth century literature.)

(And it does remind me of an interview I once heard in which someone, I think one of the directors of the Harry Potter movies, commented that really, all children are anarchists.  So perhaps it’s less unexpected than one might imagine.)

Imperial Russia Uncategorized

Completeness or lack thereof

I’m thrilled to see John’s post, because he brings up a point that I’ve been thinking about a lot, too–the incompleteness of the supposedly complete.

I also came to think about it through the 18th century, and through RGADA (the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts). In my case, I was looking at files about people changing their legal social status (their soslovie, to use a word that was not then quite regularly in use), which meant presenting their cases to local Magistracies located in various provincial towns.  The Magistracies examined the documents presented by individuals, looked through the various ukazes they found relevant, and came to a decision.

And a bunch of those ukazes the Magistracies treated as laws did not end up in the Complete Collection.

Digital Russian History Nostalgia and Memory World War II

TASS Posters

On a recent trip to Chicago, I spent several hours wandering around a current exhibit at the Art Institute: “Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad.”

It was, in a word, fascinating.

The story behind the collection is that during the Second World War, TASS had a group of artists, both visual artists and writers, who produced nearly daily monumental posters.  If you think you know Soviet poster art from the war, these will still surprise you.  The images were put up in the windows of the TASS building, and some were used more widely.  In 1997, the Art Institute discovered a bunch of these posters hidden in a closet, and this exhibit grew out of it.

There are far too many images to talk about in a quick blog post–but you can look through them all at the museum’s website.  As the resident historian of things before the twentieth century, I’ll just post one image.

Fritz meets his ancestors
Radlov and Mikhailkov, "Meeting with an Ancestor," from

It’s a variation on the conflation of historical battles with the Second World War. Here, though, “Fritz” (the Nazi everyman who’s featured in a lot of the posters) is meeting one of the knights–his Germanic ancestor!–defeated by Alexander Nevsky at the Battle on the Ice.  I’ve always loved the ways that history gets used in Soviet posters, and this is really one of the more unusual ones, in part because it’s tied in with comedy, particularly in the verse that goes along with it (which you can see at the site in the caption, above).

Actually, that’s one of the most interesting things about this exhibit.  While certainly many of the posters have that high emotional content–we will avenge!–of many of the more famous posters, there’s also a LOT of comic art and writing–and a lot of making fun of Hitler and the Nazis. It puts a very different spin (to me, at least) on the Soviet reaction to and interpretation of the war.


How an article came to be

At the risk of seeming shamelessly self-promoting, here I am blogging about the article that I just had published in the Journal of Modern History, in part because I think the story of how I came to the topic and how I carried out research on it might be worthy of discussion.

I started doing archival work on my current larger project—which looks at how individual Russians changed their official social status, their soslovie, in the eighteenth and nineteenth (and, actually, early twentieth) centuries—in 2007.  Because at that time the Russian State Historical Archive (RGIA) was still closed due to its move, I started out in Moscow, working with eighteenth-century legal documents at the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts (RGADA), and with documents of local soslovie societies at the Central Historical Archive of Moscow (TsIAM).

I found vast amounts of material. The records of the Moscow Magistracy alone (TsIAM f. 32), which was for much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century the local administrative office that finalized decisions about soslovie registration, for example, contain thousands of files of individuals petitioning to enter the ranks of the Moscow meshchanstvo (the lower town status), particularly in the 1810s.  Most of them were freed serfs, which I totally expected.  More than half of them were women, which I totally did not expect.  And some of them were a category I’d never heard of: in Russian, выходцы из заграницы, which translates roughly to immigrants from abroad.

Imperial Russia

Radicals or graft, revisited

So, the Senate returned to this question of what was going on in the Archive of Old Business (and elsewhere) a year and a half later (PSZ I, vol. 31, no. 24258 (June 13, 1810)).

The initial investigation called for in the fallout of the decision I last posted about showed that A LOT of soul-tax-payers were being brought into the bureaucracy illegally; it was a particular problem in the Archive, but also in Kiev province (the decree just mentions the province, not any one particular office there, so it was perhaps rampant?).

As far as the Senate was concerned, this was a problem for two reasons.  First, “the greater part of these people chose this kind of civil service only in order to be taken out of the class of tax payers,” which meant losses to state coffers.  And second, the discoveries of these practices had made every bureaucracy’s complaint that it needed to hire more people “doubtful.”

The answer was more fact-finding. The decree included two draft forms to be filled out, giving counts of state servitors, their social origin, and their current occupation (or absence).

(For the non-Russian readers, a rough translation.  The first few lines ask for the numbers of nobles and officer’s children; bureaucrats and “other free people, not among the tax-payers”; townspeople, artisans, state peasants, and freed serfs, “confirmed by the Senate”; and the same “not yet confirmed.”  The second set of lines ask for those currently actually working, those who have been on leave for more than a month; those under 15 years of age; and the number of those from the tax-paying population who have been let go in the past three years.)

So, when I go to RGIA next month, if I manage to order everything I need to order on my actual research project (ha), perhaps I’ll look to see if these forms actually got filled out and sent in.

Imperial Russia

Radicals in the archives? (Or probably just graft.)

When you start reading through the Polnoe sobranie zakonov (Complete Collection of the Laws) on various subjects, you see ukase after ukase saying virtually the same thing (and often quoting the earlier laws). This is, it seems, necessary for making the autocratic project (if that’s not too grand a term for it) work, particularly before the PSZ and, even more, the Svod zakonov (Digest of the Laws) put the various laws out there into a coherent form. It’s even remarked on by rulers themselves in some of their ukases.  Richard Wortman, in his Development of a Russian Legal Consciousness, quotes Empress Elizabeth on this subject.  She tasked her Senate to pay more attention to the institutions of law in the Empire because her word was not getting out to most people (and blamed “widespread internal enemies” for corrupting her message).

I recently came across one of these repetitive laws. It (PSZ I, vol. 30, no. 23,381 (December 3, 1808)) draws on another ukase from several years earlier, and states that merchants, meshchane (petty townspeople), and others from the soul-tax-paying population (basically, peasants, freed serfs, and artisans) were not allowed to enter state service (i.e., the state bureaucracy, which could lead to place on the Table of Ranks, and eventually noble status) without permission from the Senate.

That’s already interesting, not just because of the law and the limits it placed on the ideal of mobility through the Table of Ranks, but also because the earlier ukase, apparently from July 30, 1798, isn’t in the PSZ.

Even more interesting, though, is why the law had to be restated.

Apparently, the Moscow State Archive of Old Business (Государственный в Москве старых дел Архив, in this version, though I’ve also seen it as Московский Государственный Архив Старых Дел) , which was part of the bureaucracy, had been ignoring the earlier ukase and allowing members of the soul-tax-paying population to enter its service.

Even more, they were letting  A LOT of people do this.  According to the text of the 1808 ukase, in the last four years the Archive had hired 273 people from this restricted group. That’s a huge number; according to an archival guide from later in the nineteenth century, the Archive by (somewhat later) law only had the following staff: a Counselor, two Assessors, a Secretary, an Archivist, and 11 chancellery servitors.

The 1808 ukase goes on to describe just what was going on with all these new hires:

“and this quantity of people, without any need to accept them, were then let go by that same Archive, to move on to other jobs or to retirement in a very short time, such that the greater part of them, having not served even two months, let alone a year, received the lowest chancellery rank.”

In other words, the archive was serving as a conduit, letting these men get their foot in the door to future upward mobility through state service.

The archive’s administration tried to say they had the right to do this according to a Manifesto from 1775 and the Charter to the Towns, but the Senate, in this 1808 decision, strongly disagreed. The Archival workers suspected of flouting the law faced criminal prosecution, and were furthermore to be interrogated in the hopes of finding other administrative offices that freely disregarded the law. Furthermore, any of those 273 illegally hired bureaucrats who had not yet received a rank on the Table of Ranks were to be sent back to their status of origin (those who had rank could stay, but had to be sure to pay the soul tax in their old status until the next revision of the tax rolls).

And here’s where we come to the problem.  I’ve looked around to see if I can find out much more about this archive.  There are bits and pieces, like the archival guide on google books, or a description of it at the Mosarkhiv site (since part of its contents ended up in the Central Historical Archive of Moscow–TsIAM), but nothing that I can at this point find about its personnel. So the question is, what was going on here?  Was this a case of radicals in the archives, people who wanted to give, say, freed household serfs a leg up in the world? Or was it just graft, and this archive became known as a place one could negotiate for a position? Or was it something totally different that I haven’t thought up?

Perhaps, to be continued, if I can find more information…


Digital Russian History Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory

Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1909

Although I’d hoped to post something more substantive for my second post, instead, here’s a drive-by link to two photo albums that include some amazing images of Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1909.

To me, they bring home how much some of the streetscapes of these cities haven’t really changed in a century–and then how much some of them have.

My favorite image is this one, showing an early public health measure: free boiling water to fight the spread of cholera. The cucumber seller is a close second.

(Incidentally, I first saw these at, an interesting blog that often links to wonderful image sources–including, today, images from the blockade of Leningrad.)

Imperial Russia

Catherine on Memory and Forgetting

Hi, all–I’m the newest blogger here. In principle, I’m supposed to add in more Imperial-era coverage.  And, well, in practice, that is what I’m doing. I thought I’d start with something I’ve recently come across in passing that keeps making me think, but about which I have no particular conclusions.  Perfect for a blog?

Specifically, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Polnoe sobranie zakonov, a process made much more pleasant because of the utterly fantastic fact that the Russian National Library has scanned the whole thing and put it up online.  Even when I’m looking for something specific, though, I find myself randomly reading other laws in large part because they tell me things I didn’t know.  I learn that Peter the Great made a law to restrict the sale of wax candles for use in churches to the churches themselves, and forbade the practice of random other people selling such candles on the street outside churches.[1. PSZ vol. 6, no. 3746 (February 28, 1721)] Or I learn that Anna was so upset to hear that people were being trampled by people galloping through the streets of St. Petersburg (on horses, of course) that she banned galloping in the city–and furthermore announced that anyone caught galloping would be punished by being beaten with the cat-o-nine-tails “mercilessly.”[2. PSZ vol. 10, no. 7170 (February 6, 1737)]

Statue of Catherine the Great, St. PetersburgAnd then there’s Catherine the Great. Now, obviously, she was a woman who liked laws, what with her famous “legislomania” and all that. But she also had a thing for commemorating major events (military victories, putting up the Bronze Horseman [yes, really]) by releasing Manifestos to All Her People, granting them all sorts of things.

One in particular shows up in a number of discussions of her reign.  On March 17, 1775, in honor of making peace with the Ottoman Empire, she released a Manifesto giving “mercies to various sosloviia” in recognition of God’s mercy in granting her and her state victory, peace, and the respect of other nations.[3. PSZ vol. 20, no. 14275 (March 17, 1775)] She wondered (she wrote) how best to honor that divine intervention, and decided that according to the Lord’s words, He preferred mercy to sacrifice, and so mercy she would give.