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.

Current events in the Putin Era Historiography Imperial Russia Post-Soviet Russia Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

The Amnesties of Tsar Vladimir

It seems obvious that President Vladimir Putin has chosen to issue the recent amnesties of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Maria Alokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and probably the Greenpeace 30 as a way to generate good will on the eve of his great personal project, the Sochi Olympics, into which he has invested enormous amounts of money and effort. With the amnesties (and his successful intervention in the Syrian civil war on 9/11 of this year), Mr. Putin is almost certainly hoping to create good will to offset the harsh criticism and threats of boycott he has received in conjunction with the Olympics. Yet this amnesty has a long history in Imperial Russia, one well worth examining.

Current events in the Putin Era Films Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Russia in World History Russian History in Popular Culture Russian Orthodoxy Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

Mikhalkov as monarchist and Slavophile – his 2010 Manifesto “Right and Truth” (Право и Правда)

In October 2010 influential filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov published an extensive “Manifesto of Enlightened Conservatism” which was published as “Right and Truth” in (Read in Russian here.)

The defense of serfdom attributed to Mikhalkov, which I posted yesterday, may well be a fake, but his conservative views are well-known and worth reading. A shorter overview (and critique) of his Manifesto was published in Vedomosti and translated in The Moscow Times. I am taking the liberty of copying that article in full (below) as it might be interesting for our students in Russian history classes. Lest they (students) think the debates and views of Russian conservatism are archaic, they can see them returning in the extremely conservative new laws on homosexuality, on diversity within the Russian Orthodox Church (the rules on “insulting believers” are very broadly construed), and in the takeover of the Russian Academy of Sciences (long a bastion of independent thinking).

Current events in the Putin Era Films Historiography Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Russian History in Popular Culture Teaching Russian History Uncategorized

Filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov Praises the “Wisdom of Serfdom”

According to a website called “Tsenzor.Net” filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov told a group of journalists that he is preparing to make a film praising serfdom as “the wisdom of the nation.” His comments show a romanticization of history that is pretty hard to believe:

After all, what was serfdom? [he told the journalists]. Serfdom was patriotism, secured on paper. A person was tied to his mother-earth not only by a feeling of duty, but also on paper [in documents]. Serfdom is the wisdom of the people. It is 400 years of our history. And now, when people suggest we should erase 400 years of our history, I say to them, “Brothers, do you think our ancestors were idiots?”

“I am very happy that Putin is now reviving our historical memory,” said the director. “The law on registration [propiska] is exactly what our people are missing, what was torn out by the roots.”

Historiography Imperial Russia

Contemplating Odors in Russian History

Back when I was an undergrad, my advisor said something that has remained with me since: if you want to know what’s current in Russian historiography, just look at what the rest of the field was working on twenty years ago.  I think it was a comment about how work on Russia’s women’s history had just begun, having followed the birth of the field in the seventies by at least a decade. 

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 Russia in World History

Russia and the Alaskan Tobacco “Mystery”

As I’ve been working on the history of Russia’s experience with tobacco, I encountered a surprising development – the domestic production of tobacco in Alaska.  Anyone who’s spent time working on Russian Alaska could not help to notice the colonists’ continuing concerns about food and agriculture.  However, southern Alaska was an agriculturally fertile region, particularly among the Tlingit (on and near Sitka Island) and the nearby Haida.  (I’ve been assuming they just didn’t produce the food the Russians wanted, but I could be wrong).  Among their products was a type of tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalis).  The mysterious part of the equation is that no one grows N. quadrivalis anymore, and it was native to the southwestern U.S.  No one has come up with an explanation about its migration, much less its extermination.


What do we know?  The local indigenous groups grew this type of tobacco, and seemed to have consumed it as “chew” – but a particular recipe of tobacco leaf and lime.  Though the Russian American Company (RAC) seemed to have been successful in replacing domestic production with imported tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), the mystery for me is why the local population replaced local varieties for an expensive imported variety.  Robert Fortuine suggests that it was because the imported version was stronger, but the evidence in only anecdotal, and the mechanism by which indigenous Alaskans acquired it was rather exploitative, to say the least.

Gender and Sexuality Imperial Russia Medieval Russia Teaching Russian History

Policing Sexuality in Medieval Russia

The Center for Medieval Studies has a very visible presence at Fordham University where I teach. In the history department alone, medievalist faculty and graduate students maintain a healthy and vibrant intellectual life. Although I am a historian of modern Russia—most of my work has focused on the 19th and 20th centuries—I have found myself drawn into broader historical debates relevant to Medievalists that may be unfamiliar to modernists. Recently I’ve been preparing a lecture for a pedagogical series run by the Medieval Studies Program on “Teaching Medieval Russia.” I was motivated to do this partly out of curiosity to excavate some of my training in graduate school (where one of my fields was medieval Russia) but also to prepare myself to teach such a course next year. As I got deeper into preparing for both the lecture and the course, I found myself faced with two pedagogical challenges. First, what strategies can historians of modern Russia who are less comfortable with premodern times use to effectively cover medieval Russia? And second, how can teaching about medieval Russia benefit from the concerns of medievalists writ large? There’s no way to do justice to both of these topics in a short blog post, but I thought I would look at one particular facet of social history that may serve to highlight some of the challenges—gender and sexuality.

Early on I realized that there was a seeming disconnect between the concerns of the majority of Medievalists (loosely defined as those who focus on the remnants of the Roman Empire in the West) and those who study the vibrant Greek and Slavic cultures connected to the eastern Byzantine Empire. At the same time, historians who tend to look at social issues (such as gender and sexuality) ask similar questions and draw upon analogous records, especially those pertaining to canon law (patristics, legislation from ecumenical councils, penitentials, etc.). As a starting point, there was no better source to highlight both these contrasts and commonalities than Eve Levin’s classic 1989 tome Sex and Society in the World of Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700. Levin’s work is ambitious in scope and scale, deploying types of sources that most medieval historian of gender or of (Western) canon law would find familiar, even though the specific contexts of such sources may be entirely foreign.

Current events in the Putin Era Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Russian Orthodoxy Teaching Russian History

Pussy Riot Arrest and Byzantine Church-State Relations Today


Five members of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot have been arrested for a “punk prayer” at the Church of the Savior in Moscow. Two are being held until late April with threats of sentences up to seven years. The civilian authorities and Putin in particular have declared that their actions are “disgusting.” But some in the church are arguing that this is a church matter and all should be welcome in the church. For a Russian historian the arrest of these women on church property looks like a return to the Byzantine era when church and state were not separated. The civilian authorities make noises about the offenses to the church, but their real concern – and fear – is political protest. Will freedom of speech now be completely eroded?

Father Iakov Krotov from the linked article at

Imperial Russia Nostalgia and Memory Russia in World History Uncategorized

How “Russian” is Kauai’s Fort Elizabeth?

In the early years of the Russian American Company, there was an odd incident that led to establishment of three “Russian” forts on the island of Kauai.  The reasons for that are somewhat complicated (and the study of several interesting books [1. Most recently, Peter R. Mills, Hawai’i’s Russian Adventure: A New Look at Old History, (Honolulu, 2002)]), but the physical evidence of the venture is the Hawaiian state park at the site of the “Russian” Fort Elizabeth.  When I first arrived at the site as a tourist, my first thought was that this was not “Russian” at all.

Russian American Company flag
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.)

Digital Russian History Imperial Russia Russia in World History Uncategorized

Imagining the Petersburg-Moscow Road in the Late 18th Century

How do you imagine what a road was, historically?  Quite often, histories of transport describe histories of surfaces: the evolution of building techniques, say, from wooden planks to macadamized stone to modern asphalt or concrete.

Novgorod Province, Postal Map (1808)

Alternatively, roads are presented as transportation networks or ‘scapes’: that is, as a series of junctures (like the famous Moscow Metro Map) that permit traffic to flow from stop to stop to stop. Yet however important construction- or traffic-based approaches are, one thing they don’t capture is the way that human community is arranged in support of roads, and why. What are the social ‘moorings’ that sustain roads: that service their surfaces and also their travelers, and thereby make transportation along their elaborately constructed landscapes possible at all?

I’ve been trying to visualize an answer to this question, for one of Russia’s most famous roads: the Petersburg-Moscow corridor, in the late 18th century.  In what follows, I sketch some initial results; I’d be happy for your thoughts on it.

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.)

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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.

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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.

Imperial Russia Uncategorized World War I

Russians in East Prussia, 1914, pt. 2

I’ve gotten several interesting responses to the first post on atrocities: on this site, in private communication, and on the listserve of the International Society for First World War Studies.  Many of those comments have related to the issue of rape in wartime.  One knowledgeable respondent offered the suggestion that the officers (esp. Gen. Gurko) would not have known that the straggling soldiers had been raping the locals.  Rape, he argues, was a capital crime in the Russian army and was “unlikely to be shrugged off at this early stage.” Another respondent found this interesting and asked whether the Russian army was unusual in its attention to crimes against women and whether anyone was ever punished for it.  A response, with a couple more translations, may help to develop this question further.