Hubertus F. Jahn, Armes Russland: Bettler Und Notleidende in der Russischen Geschichte Vom Mittelalter Bis in Die Gegenwart (Russia's Poor: Beggars and the Needy in Russian History from the Middle Ages to the Present)

By Wirtschafter, Elise Kimerling | Kritika, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Hubertus F. Jahn, Armes Russland: Bettler Und Notleidende in der Russischen Geschichte Vom Mittelalter Bis in Die Gegenwart (Russia's Poor: Beggars and the Needy in Russian History from the Middle Ages to the Present)


Wirtschafter, Elise Kimerling, Kritika


Hubertus F. Jahn, Armes Russland: Bettler und Notleidende in der russischen Geschichte vom Mittelalter bis in die Gegenwart (Russia's Poor: Beggars and the Needy in Russian History from the Middle Ages to the Present). 250 pp., illus., tables. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schoningh, 2010. ISBN-13 9783506769299. 34.90 [euro].

Natal'ia Vadimovna Kozlova, Liudi driakhlye, bol'nye, ubogie v Moskve XVIII veka (The Infirm, the Sick, and the Poor in 18th-Century Moscow). 359 pp., illus., tables. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2010. ISBN-13 978-5824315011.

Social history grounded in archival and statistical sources has fallen on hard times in recent decades, yet the genre remains the most effective approach to understanding the history of the "lower classes" of society--in this case, the poor, sick, destitute, and disabled who were unable to support themselves through agricultural, artisanal, factory, commercial, or domestic labor. The books reviewed here make valiant use of the methods of social history to paint a sympathetic picture of the most downtrodden and arguably the most silent groups in Russian society beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing to the present.

The book by N. V. Kozlova, which covers the Moscow poor in the 18th century, is due to its relatively narrow focus the more detailed and richly documented of the two studies. Kozlova has produced a fine example of the modern Russian monograph, which has revived and flourished since the collapse of the Soviet Union. (1) Free of communist ideological constraints and deeply embedded in archival sources, monographs such as this now provide the kind of detailed nuts and bolts information that scholars outside Russia need to do their job of "translating" Russian history for their own publics and language groups. Equally important, in contrast to the uncertainties and difficulty of verification experienced during the Soviet period, the present-day reader can feel infinitely more confident about the quality and reliability of the research on which he or she hopes to rely. Perhaps for the first time in recorded history, scholars inside and outside Russia are working together for the progress of knowledge about Russia.

Kozlova's book begins with an examination of government policy and the forms of poor relief available in Russia from roughly the second half of the 17th century on. Although there is evidence of government involvement in poor relief already in the reign of Tsar Ivan IV (1533-84), there is little information about any measures taken. Regardless, moreover, of whether assistance came from the prince, the church, or private persons, it aimed to fulfill Christian teachings about love of the poor. Beginning in the reign of Fedor Alekseevich (1676-82), and with greater intensity under Tsar Peter I (1682/89-1725), the government not only participated in organizing assistance for the poor but also set about trying to eliminate poverty, or at least remove the sight of beggars from the city streets. Peter I actually went so far as to forbid begging and the direct giving of alms, though as always with the Tsar Reformer, his main concern was to purge the poor of any ablebodied men who might be capable of serving in the army, farming the land, or laboring in factories and mines.

Kozlova rarely connects her data to broad questions of state building and social organization (for example, the development of soslovie arrangements), but her legal and archival materials show that official efforts to bind the Russian population for purposes of taxation and conscription--efforts that dated back to the Ulozhenie of 1649--were closely related to regulation of the poor, especially the government's desire to eliminate vagrancy by distinguishing individuals who were truly needy and deserving of help from those whose labor could be utilized. The instrumental rationality of government policy did not undermine long-standing traditions of Christian charity and love, but it did add another dimension to the history of poor relief in imperial Russia. …

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