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The Society and Government of Russia in the 18th Century


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Park, Yon Soo
Term Paper, AP European History Class, November 2007



Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Society
II.1 Social Policy
II.1.a Peter I.
II.1.aa Service Obligation
II.1.ab Table of Ranks
II.1.ac Single Inheritance of Real Estate
II.1.b Catherine II.
II.1.ba Charter of the Nobility
II.1.bb Charter of the Towns
II.2 Social Identities
II.2.a Peasantry
II.2.aa Serfs
II.2.ab Free Peasants
II.2.ac Townspeople
II.2.b The Nobility
II.2.c Cossacks
II.3 Rise on the Social Ladder
III. Government
III.1 Central Government
III.2 Local Government
IV. Conclusion
V. Notes
VI. Bibliography



I. Introduction
            Though the topic is society and government of 18th century Russia, for the convenience of both the writer and the reader, this paper will also deal with a little bit of late 17th century because the reign of Peter the Great started in 1689, and Peter I's reign is a major factor that cannot be omitted. Until the reign of Peter the Great, "from the perspective of most Europeans it [Russia] remained a curious, rather primitive nation of fur-capped barbarians." (1). In the 17th century, the infrastructure of what Peter would come to establish was built through law codes such as Ulozhenie (2), exploration eastward following the Cossack path, etc. Though the reign of Peter I is indeed significant in the 18th century of Russia, during this time period, Russia was also modernized and shaped by female rulers (czarinas).
            Through studying different aspects of Russia in the 18th century, one can learn a lot such as the steps toward becoming westernized and modernized. One comes to realize that Rome indeed wasn't built in a day and that it took numerous endeavors in various fields that shaped Russia. Also, the fact that the policies weren't always made based on well thought out theories but rather on impulsive attempt to improve the status quo can be inferred. Though this paper only deals with two aspect of Russia (society and government), it will be sufficient to help the reader get a grasp of what went on during that time period.


II. Society

II.1 Social Policy
            In theory, the rulers during this eighteenth-century believed that social policy should be planned out based on principles not experience. However those principles didn't concern much individual needs. Because the members of the Russian bureaucracy were often drawn from the military (which became very organized during the Petrine state), social policy were derived more from the respect for uniformity and militarism

II.1a Peter I. (also known as Peter the Great)

II.1aa Service Obligation
            Human resources were just as important as, if not more important than, material resources. With slavery withering away, Peter I needed a social policy that would provide him the human resources that would increase Russia's productive capacity. Peter I came up with the plan to make it obligatory, if not compulsory, for all members of different estates to do their duty to serve the state according to his ability and lifestyle. The service obligation, not only lands, was hereditary. Nobles were expected to either serve in the army or in the civil bureaucracy, and the commoners were expected to pay taxes. However, exemption of such obligation was given by the Charters to the Nobility which Catherine the Great made during her reign.

II.1ab Table if Ranks
            Under the administration of Peter the Great, merit was theoretically the major criterion for promotion. With the policy of promotion based on accomplishments, social mobility improved, and the way to nobility became open to anyone, no matter how modest the background is, as long as he was competent. He did not believe in inheriting an office position, so he decreed that every ruler should appoint his successor including himself. He created the Table of Ranks (1722), which divided ranks of both civil and military offices into 14 classes each, and theoretically, everyone had to start from the bottom and gain their way to the top through accomplishments. However, the merits and requirements for certain services included education and other things that are only within the reach of the privileged class. Therefore, in reality, the high positions weren't very open. This table was used until the late 19th century.

II.1ac Single Inheritance of Real Estate
            Though Peter I did not mind men from bottom class working their way up to nobility, he actually wanted and expected most of the major official to come from the gentry (3). In order to take full advantage of the service of nobility and to avoid the impoverishment of noble families, Peter introduced single inheritance of real estate (1714). This policy made the nobles to allow only one of their sons to inherit their property instead of splintering the land so that all the sons may inherit a portion at least. This kept nobles from falling into poverty that may be cause by the insufficient amount of profit gained from the small estate (resulting from the division of the original estate) that cannot afford the lifestyle of a noble. Also, through this policy, Peter indirectly forced the rest of the sons who didn't get the inheritance to perform service to the state and wholly devote themselves to the civil duties in order to live. This restriction on inheritance was abolished after the death of Peter I, but even without such measures, the gentry privided the majority of the officers.

II.1b Catherine II. (also known as Catherine the Great)
            Though most of the societal policies made during the reign of Peter the Great were practiced and developed by his successors, no one actually achieved stability in such regulatory system. Catherine the Great adopted her own policy that was both stable and regular. The two charters explained below definitely contributed to the accomplishing of her goal, but it still lacks much, considering the fact that the social class of serfs and clergy were excluded and the fact that a category named 'people of various ranks' existed (4).

II.1ba Charter of the Nobility
            This Charter clearly shows how Catherine II favored the nobility. As it is written in the subsection II.1.aa, the charter exempted the nobles from compulsory service and corporal punishment. The nobles' power over their serfs increased and other privileges such as the right to start industries and purchase land were granted through this charter. The members of corporations of nobility, which were given a legal status by the charter, had regular electoral meetings that instigated social interaction and provided the infrastructure for what would later become the civil society.

II.1bb Charter of the Towns
            The Charter to the Towns defined the rights of the urban class. It deals with the establishment of craft guilds and three branches of self-government. This charter contributed greatly to the draft of the charter of the state peasantry which tries to define the rights of the peasants. Though it was never promulgated, this charter, with the other two charters, helped Catherine form a stable hierarchy with carefully outlined and clearly defined social estates.

II.2 Social Identities

II.2a Peasants

II.2aa Serfs
            Serfs were a branch of peasants whose service was to be performed under one particular lord forever. (5) Serfs were excluded from the Table of Ranks and were denied employment of any sort starting from 1727. In 1732, lords were granted the right to transfer, trade, and do almost anything with their serfs. Serfdom became increasingly popular and ubiquitous during the reign of Catherine II. She got the nobility to get more actively involved in economic activity which increased the demand for serf labor and resulted in a more inhumane exploitation of them. During her reign, serfs were stripped of so many rights and protections that the state provided that there were practically no regulations against their mistreatment, except the one that prohibits the lords from killing them. These cruel circumstances triggered peasant rebellions, such as the one led by Cossack, which brought awareness and stimulated reform.

II.2ab Free Peasants
            Under the rule of Catherine II, vast lands were gained in the south (such as Crimea, Jedisan, Tauria which were gained from the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774), but they were left thinly populated and unused. In order to utilize these lands, Catherine II brought in settlers from foreign lands, especially from Germany and from the Christian community on Balkans, to settle and farm on the lands. (6) These free peasants were granted the freedom to use their own language, practice their own religion, and live according to their own traditions.

II.2ac Townspeople
            Muscovite households were usually composed of nuclear family. However, Russia now has multiple-family households. The period that brought about such change is the years between 1675 and 1725. If this period indeed was the critical one that changed the trend, such household size was probably an economical adaptation to the collective tax obligations. In 1679, tax collecting method changed from charging by land to charging by households. Therefore by having large households, productivity increased and the probability of being able to pay the tax also increased. However, small households felt insecure because of the less hand for labor resulted in comparatively small production which often was not enough to pay the tax. Such fiscal pressure led to planned, compulsory marriage with a complete disregard of an individual's will and desire.

II.2b Nobility
            Under Peter I's reign, the muscovite nobility (boyars) had to struggle to cling to their power because of the Table of Ranks and service obligations. However, those men prospered under Catherine the Great who was "though free of prejudice and of a philosophical turn of mind, she had a great inclination to respect families of ancient descent" (7). Because Catherine rose to the throne through the nobility support, she understood she needed their support to stay in power. This thought drove her to create policies that favored the nobility like the Charter to the Nobility.

II.2c Cossacks
            Cossacks are referred to the "semi-independent Tartar groups, which formed in the Dnepr region" and to "peasants who had fled from serfdom in Poland, Lithuania, and Muscovy to the Dnepr and Don regions, where they established free, self-governing military communities". (8) In the early 16th century, the Polish kings organized them into military units as part of their defense measure, but when their independence was threatened by the Polish domination, they signed a treaty that respected their autonomy with Russia in the middle of the 17th century. From then, like the Poles, Russians began to use the Cossacks as their defensive guards and also as advance guards expanding the territory of Russia. Russians demanded military services and obligations, such as giving them the right to intervened in Cossacks' negotiations with the Poles and Turks, and in return, the Cossacks enjoyed more autonomy than they did under the Poles. As Russia's domination over Cossacks increased, they felt their privileges threatened and revolted (One of the most famous rebellions being Pugachev's Rebellion). These revolts resulted in their loss of autonomy and elicited more demands and interference from Russia. By the end of the 18th century, 20 years in the army became mandatory for Cossacks and their hetman had to be appointed by the central government. (9)

II.3 Rise on the Social Ladder
            The major social ideal was stability and hierarchy, but such ideal conflicted with the increase in social mobility, which was brought on by realizing that rewarding merit is much more efficient. Therefore the government showed it didn't desire such mobility while remaining willing to accommodate it if someone desires it and works very hard for it. The charters of 1785 specifically allowed some controlled progression of social mobility.
            There were about three ways to move socially upwards: the church, the military, and the state employment. The mobility within the church was often uncalled for. Peter I drafted them into the poll-tax population and Anna sent them off to serve in the army. Catherine II allowed some clerics to choose their status, such as townsmen, merchants, bureaucracy, etc. This last one wasn't so bad since it didn't enserf anyone or draft anyone into the army. As for the military, except during war, when the demand for people to fill up the positions increases allowing rapid promotion, people were supposed to be promoted by their competence and merit, but promotion was more commonly determined by seniority and preference in reality. Last, but not least, state employment provided the most secure and promising path for advancement in ranks.
            Peter I did bring men of modest background up to high office positions, but most of the times, it was done by his personal intervention rather than a fair judgment of competence. He preferred nobles over non-nobles for the high positions, but when competent candidates became too few, he finally let commoners work those positions through the Table of Ranks. Therefore, social mobility did exist, but it was usually within the social class rather than between the classes.
            There were other ways to improve one's status such as Ivanovo, joining the posad community, geographical mobility, etc. (10)

III. Government

III.1 Central Government

            In 1711, Peter the Great created the Senate as his substitute in case he was away. The chief role of the Senate was to look over and guide the governments of eight provinces, which were divided for the efficiency of tax collection and levy of troops. However such relationship wasn't always smooth, so Peter wholly restructured the central government.
            Peter I created colleges, government departments, to distribute the various tasks of the government. Each college was constituted of a board of men who checked on each other. With the establishment of colleges, the Senate assumed additional roles. It coordinated and checked the works of the colleges, acted as the supreme court, and drafted legislation. The office of Procurator of the Senate was also created to check the senators by presiding over their meetings and signing every decree.
            During the reign of the Empress Catherine I, Senate lost power, and Supreme Privy Council, a body of six favorites led by Catherine, became influential. The Supreme Privy Council was at first retained for a while because it was part of the condition Empress Anna had to accept in order to have the throne. Though it seems like such council was a step toward a constitutional government, it actually was just a scheme to keep the influence of the council and the noble families dominating it. Most of the gentry wanted autocracy rather than the "self-perpetuating oligarchy". (11) With the pressure from the officials pushing Anna to reject the conditions, she tore them up, thereby disbanding the Supreme Privy Council. To replace the council, a cabinet was set up chiefly to keep the tax going to the federal treasury.
            When Elizabeth acceded, she restored the Senate. She dissolved the Cabinet that Anna established and instead, installed "Her Majesty's Chancery" to deal with the court functions. Also, Empress Elizabeth formed A Special Conference at the Imperial Court, which was created to coordinate the Russian attack on Prussia, but it was later abolished and replaced with a personal council by Peter III. It is easy to see how Russia impulsively destroyed and created administrative groups based on the situation and necessity of the moment. Stability and continuity were needed, and Catherine the Great is the Empress took the first steps necessary to achieve that.
            Catherine II gathered a national commission of elected delegates to think and debate about the new law code. Also she wrote a Nakaz, a set of instructions that dealt with principles which the enlightened state should abide by in various aspects of administration. Though she was pragmatic in making policies, such endeavors show that she based, or at least attempted to base, her administration on principles and common values. Catherine II didn't make fundamental changes in the central government. She abolished most of the colleges and transferred the duties to the Senate and to the procurator. They were only minor alterations.

III.2 Local Government

            Though Peter the Great also tried to develop the local government, it wasn't very successful because the military obligation of noblemen caused the deficit of qualified people to work in the local administrative offices. However, with the support from Catherine II's Charter to the Nobility, freeing the nobility from the obligations, Catherine further developed the administrative system of local government.
            Each province was divided into districts. A governor, appointed by the crown, was responsible for the administration of his province, and he answered to the Senate. However, finance, police, and social welfare were assigned to provincial boards, which answered to the procurator. All these officials were appointed. The purpose of this system wasn't for the sake of self-governance but for the improved way for implementing the sovereigní»s orders into the local region.
            Gentry of each region had the privilege of sending representative delegates to a district or a provincial assembly which regularly meets every 3 years. At the meeting, they came up with the consensus concerning the local needs and elected a martial of nobility who were to plead their needs to the governors or other officials. This structure later evolved and became the foundation for the zemstvos. (12)

IV. Conclusion
            The 18th century marked the start of a freer and more tolerant society. Though most social policies were enacted not for the sake of reformation itself, but more for the amelioration of the status quo, the result was the establishment of infrastructure for modernization. Despite the egregious exploitation of serfs and the immense privileges presented to the nobility, this period was still significant and progressive in the sense that the stringent limit on social mobility became comparatively loose and the idea of Cinderella plausible. Likewise, the reform of government didn't at the start have the intention to create a radical administration that would respect and take care of each individual's needs. The original goal was to make an efficient government that would ease the process of tax-collection and recruitment so that the government would become more centralized and powerful. However as the new governmental system developed further and further, it began to turn into what would later evolve into a modernized, efficient government.


V. Notes

(1)      Ziegler 1999 p.42
(2)      ibid. p.40
(3)      Wren 1994 p.154
(4)      Dixon 1999 p.83
(5)      ibid. p.85
(6)      Ganse 2004 "Russo-Ottoman War of 1768-1774"
(7)      Dixon 1999 p.93
(8)      Britannica Vol.3 p.663
(9)      ibid.
(10)      Dixon 1999 p.102
(11)      Wren 1994 p.171
(12)      Britannica Vol.26 p.980


VI. Bibliography

Note : Websites listed below were visited in October and early November 2007.
1.      Article Catherine I, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol.2, Chicago, 1998
2.      Article Catherine II, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol.2, Chicago, 1998
3.      Article Cossacks, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol.3, Chicago, 1998
4.      Article Cossacks, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cossack#Russian_Cossacks
5.      Dixon, Simon, The Modernisation of Russia 1676-1825, Cambridge, 1999
6.      Ganse, Alexander. "Russia's Society under Catherine the Great." World History at KMLA. 8 May 2007. 24 Oct. 2007 http://www.zum.de/whkmla/region/russia/cathsoc.html.
7.      Ganse, Alexander. "Russo-Ottoman War of 1768-1774." World History at KMLA. 30 August 2004. Nov.2007 http://www.zum.de/whkmla/military/18cen/russturk176874.html.
8.      Raymond, Boris et al., Historical Dictionary of Russia, Lanham : Scarecrow, 1998.
9.      Article Russia, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Macropaedia, Vol.26, Chicago, 1998
10.      Wren, Melvin et al., The Course of Russian History, Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 5th edition, 1994
11.      Ziegler, Charles, The History of Russia, Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999


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